What LIFT Taught Me About Humanity
Four years ago, I took an opportunity that changed my life.
The three months of college that I spent as a LIFT community advocate for the Perry School in 2012 taught me a lot. Not only was I able to understand concepts of empathy and resource-driven consulting that have been instrumental in my career, but my experience opened my eyes to employment barriers, the complexity of our welfare state, and the cycle of poverty.
More importantly, it taught me the power of human capability.
From working with members like Mr. Cole to secure nine calls from potential jobs in one day, seeing a member consummate her life-long goal to be a cook with a successful application to the DC Central Kitchen, and seeing our oldest members finish up their GEDs in their 50s, I saw that it was futile to question lofty goals.
This mindset joined me three years later as I started a venture called Social Rise. The focus of Social Rise is teaching those with social and financial barriers how to use application like Twitter and Linkedin in an effort to build stronger personal brands and build a stronger bridge to employment. Much of my motivation around this was inspired by the goals I saw from my members at LIFT. As I began to work with lower-income constituents in the DC area, I couldn’t deny that the lessons from LIFT put me in a position to succeed. These are perhaps the most powerful:
Potential: Contrary to a world driven by a need to analyze and make decisions based on history, not all potential is determined from the past. Potential can be cultivated and refined. It can be discovered in anyone. I learned this from members who often had no formal education but managed to support a family for years. I saw this from people who returned from prison and were beginning to approach new employment opportunities with renewed tenacity. It’s up to us to disregard the past as a barrier and learn to see potential irrespective of where individuals came from. In the words of Wayne Dyer, “See the light in others, and treat them as if that is all you see.”
Empathy: There is nothing more important than understanding before judging or settling on preconceptions. In my training as a LIFT advocate, we learned the importance of listening and responding positively to member challenges. Putting yourself in a position to say “I understand where you’re coming from,” “I can’t even begin to imagine how you feel,” or “I believe in you” was not only powerful for the members we worked with — it was powerful for us. It made me more self-aware of my listening skills and what I was able to learn about someone from even 30 seconds. This has become incredibly important throughout my career.
Rapport: There are no merits or criteria for creating rapport. From members just leaving rehabilitation to older individuals with generations of systemic struggle, I worked with dozens of individuals that I would’ve had trouble talking to if I had simply met them on the sidewalk. LIFT taught me the importance of finding common ground and caring about another person’s goals. Some of this simply came from non-task communication and discussing hobbies. Many of my members I simply connected with due to our mutual love for sports or Washington DC. Other connections came naturally the more we went out of our way to help people fill out applications and research. I learned that you don’t have to have much in common to create a beautiful and sustainable relationship with someone new.
Questions: Many of my meetings were member-led; this meant that we didn’t come prepared with suggestions or insights but with curiosity and a desire to ask questions. Questions not only protect your time by focusing on what is important to others, they protect you from having tunnel vision and making assumptions. Assumptions create illusions — questions create clarity. Everyone has a story, a goal, and an offer to the world. Asking the right questions helps us uncover these and even more beautiful possibilities.
Faith: To quote Martin Luther King Jr, “Faith is taking the first step even when you can’t see the whole staircase.” Sometimes, we had members come in who had the highest odds stacked against them. They were paralyzed by the sole amount of work or effort it would require to get somewhere new — providing a little encouragement or belief can be transformative. There were many times I had my own intense doubts and choose to believe anyway — it turned into a formidable mindset that has even helped me evaluate my own goals.
Poverty: While I had lots of preconceptions about those living in poverty, I always imagined that the first step to advancing out of poverty was about finding employment or a source of income. At LIFT , I learned about the importance of community: giving someone love, attention, and encouragement may have not changed their income situation but it was psychologically powerful — it gave them a sense of belonging and a place they could trust. I worked with people whose pessimism and lack of self-esteem was overturned in less than a week, allowing them to take the next step. Breaking the cycle of poverty is certainly bolstered by economic security, but it starts with recognition of self-worth and efficacy. I saw this everyday at LIFT.
These lessons have been influential in building trust with my non-profit, understanding humans of all income levels, and analyzing poverty on a macro-economic scale. I’m incredibly grateful for the team at LIFT that supported me and hope to continue seeing the powerful stories that come out of LIFT members every day.
Kushaan Shah is an IBM Consultant and Founder of Social Rise, a non-profit organization focused on empowering marginalized communities to learn social media and virtual marketing through workshops and advocacy for digital inclusion. He served as an Advocate for LIFT-DC in the Perry School in the Fall of 2012 and credits LIFT as a large inspiration for his current passions. Kushaan is a Massachusetts native, big sports fan and tweets at @kushaanshah.
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