LIFTopolis: Navigating the Maze

By LIFT on September 11, 2012

Categories: Events, Our Work


By Sarah Hanson,
LIFT-Philadelphia Communications Intern & Former Summer Fellow

A vigorous buzz of excitement pulsed through the airwaves, traversed the vents and spilled into the room where I and 16 other LIFTers prepared to host the first ever Philadelphia LIFTopolis.

This was a special kind of energy – the kind generated by a multitude of determined, bright, and optimistic minds – and it was contagious. Where was this? Villanova University, the home of a prestigious service-learning program that aims to engage students in their communities through ongoing service, study, and reflection.

We came to help them kick the year off with LIFTopolis, a challenging poverty simulation in which participants take on a new identity and attempt to navigate the social service system first-hand. As a facilitator, I had a character to play as well: the LIFTopolis news anchor. Luckily we had more seasoned LIFTers in town from all over the network to play roles like the housing authority and unemployment compensation office, so I was able to spend most of my time getting to interact with the 146 students, and experience the simulation from both sides.

To a complete outsider, LIFTopolis looks like mass chaos. And for once, the outsider perspective is pretty close to reality. Our complex social service system requires an incredible amount of perseverance, and it is nearly impossible to grasp all the ins and outs without support and guidance. In LIFTopolis, students are thrown into the same challenging situations that millions of low-income Americans face daily. Through the succession of four “days” in which they attempt to resolve these situations, they learn that the system is infinitely complicated and difficult to navigate. The experience, though set up in a fun, game-like style, can be stressful and overwhelming. In addition to this discomfort, though, comes understanding and insight that is inspiring to say the least. One group of students, after the activities and a short debrief, came up with this catchy slogan as their key take-away point: “In the reality of isolation and desperation, a small kindness is motivation.”

This point really resonated with me; in particular, the word small – because sometimes this world can get way, way too big. LIFT focuses on small things: individuals, relationships, and accomplishing one goal at a time, so that eventually an enormous iceberg problem melts down to an ice sculpture, then an ice cube, and then just a puddle. Cristina Rocca, one of Villanova’s service learning students and a LIFT advocate expressed this idea in her opening speech, stating:

“I’ve come to really appreciate the little victories: a completed résumé or a promising email or vacancies for affordable housing. These small successes are the stepping stones to social justice and better communities.”

Christina really targeted the message we were trying to convey through LIFTopolis, and she wasn’t the only one. As student representatives from each group gave their final thoughts and impressions from the day, I felt my neck growing sore from nodding and my hands tingling from clapping. Assumptions were challenged, empathy was activated, knowledge was shared, and I was so glad to be a part of it.

Thanks to the people at LIFT and Villanova who worked so hard to make this event a success. And for those of you reading this at home, if LIFTopolis comes to a community near you, don’t hesitate for a second to sign up. This is an experience you don’t want to miss!