POV: Inside the LIFTopolis Fines Department

By LIFT on July 27, 2015

Categories: First Person Perspective, Real Stories

The Fines Department in LIFTopolis saw little action Tuesday morning at the Renaissance Hotel, where high school students from around the country gathered for Bank of America’s Student Leaders Summit. Either the students did nothing disruptive enough to get fined by the LIFTopolis sheriff, or they were in no rush to pay off their fines. By the raucous that I could see, and that every corner of the hotel could probably hear going on in LIFTopolis’s City Hall, I think the latter is more likely.

At the end of the third 12-minute day of the LIFTopolis simulation, a protest broke out outside City Hall, where students, matched with new identities and goals modeled after our members, could get the verifications they needed to apply for public benefits and other social services. Lines had been growing longer and longer from one 12-minute day to the next, frustrations were rising, and at the end of Day 3 a crowd gathered outside City Hall’s doors: “We will not move! We will not move!” The sheriff tried to control them, to push them back, but they stood rooted in their anger and frustration with the maze of social services they, in their new identities, were forced to navigate.

Things weren’t always so chaotic in LIFTopolis; we’d seen calmer days.

The first 12-minute day started, the mayor blew the whistle for the first time, and four students walked calmly into City Hall to ask for verification of homelessness. Sorry, City Hall doesn’t do that. Oh, where should I go? Try the Housing Department. Okay, thank you. Day 1 brought disappointment, perhaps, but politeness enough to maintain the calm.

By the end of the first day, signs of frustration started to show. A student walked in to City Hall to ask if he could sleep inside. The LIFTopolis mayor (a Bank of America staff member topped in a tall red, white, and blue hat) told him he could not. “This is a public facility, isn’t it? People sleep in my city hall all the time!”

The second day, the line in City Hall started to stretch out the door. The students were cooperative and friendly: they asked each other for directions, sought advice, gladly offered one another help. But by the end of the day, as the line stretched and slowed, anyone in front of you in line started looking like an obstacle keeping you from achieving your prescribed goals. Students’ frustrations rose: “Just get out of line! Keep it going! People are waiting here!” So the yelling started.

By the end of the third day, the yelling voices had gathered outside City Hall’s doors, and the students staged a protest. When the whistle blew to signal the start of Day 4, students stormed City Hall, running through the doors, charging at the LIFT and Bank of America staff, trying to be first to get a social security card, or a driver’s license, or proof of citizenship, or whatever little pink or orange or green index card they needed to take the next step towards achieving their goals.

The new day did not alleviate the frustrations pent up overnight, and as the fourth 12-minute day drew to a close, some started to lose hope. As a student approached the Fines Department, I felt hopeful that the LIFTopolis population was moving in a more honest, lawful direction (and felt hopeful I’d finally get in on the action!). However, as the student reached into his folder, he pulled out the two halves of a ticket he’d torn down the middle: “Hello. I am not going to pay my fine. Can I go to jail?” My Fines Department colleague went to get the sheriff. The student awaited his arrest and watched others finally reaching the front of the line, getting the little brightly colored index cards they needed, completing this tedious first step, and taking further steps towards achieving their goals. “Actually, can I pay my fine?” He paid his fine (LIFTopolis did have lawful citizens after all!) and jogged out of the room to run the maze as much as he could before the blow of the final whistle.

After four hard 12-minute days and three long 4-minute nights in LIFTopolis, the students dropped their adopted identities and gathered, along with LIFT and Bank of America staff, to talk about their experiences in the simulated maze of social services. At a table with eleven students, I heard the same feelings keep coming up: disappointment, confusion, and frustration. One student shared, “I felt like I was in a circle.” How could we make LIFTopolis a less disappointing, confusing, and frustrating place?

The students brainstormed ways to improve the experiences of LIFTopolis citizens. Students wanted to centralize information, to map out the system and make that map easily accessible. Students wanted to introduce financial literacy classes into high schools or middle schools. For the first half of my table’s conversation, the students did not stray from one, central focus: face-to-face support. What if there were people (and “no grumpy people,” one student made sure to specify) that could help you navigate the maze?

As they experienced disappointment, confusion, and frustration, the students did not lose sight of this want for personal support. Early in Day 3 of the simulation, minutes (which in LIFTopolis time is, like, hours) before the protest erupted, as my Fines Department colleague and I sat brooding behind our desk, open sign flashing forward, starting to get bored of this unlawful city where citizens never visited us to pay their fines, a student looked towards us on his way to City Hall:

“Ma’am, you should be a little happier about your life.”

“Do you have a fine?”

“No, but you should be happier.”

This student felt how much hope and resilience a place like LIFTopolis demanded of him in his new identity. He wanted services that reflected those positive energies back at him. I hope he knew that we were only ‘acting’.

This post was written by Claire Benoit, an intern at LIFT’s national office.