Inequality or Invisibility?

My wife and I spent this past Saturday morning volunteering for a college service project where we read stories to elementary school children in downtown Los Angeles. We have done this several times before and it is always a rewarding experience, but this time our interaction felt especially poignant. I guess it’s the ceaselessly unpleasant political dialogue all around us, or maybe hearing one too many times why a tax cut for the wealthy is at the forefront of our national agenda.

The children, all under the age of eight, who listened to us read books to them aren’t a lot different from the children around us every day. They are curious. They know the stories of the Three Little Pigs, Goldilocks, and Cinderella. They laugh when you use funny voices to bring characters to life. They tell you they like to run at recess, play soccer, play video games, and learn about animals. Their eyes are bright. They draw pictures with the sun in the sky and use glue stick to make puffy clouds out of yarn. They are polite and thank you for visiting without being prompted. They are as authentic and hopeful as any children you will meet at this age.

Their teachers tell you how they are different. If you have blond hair they might ask to touch it because they don’t interact much with people who don’t have dark hair and have a hard time understanding why. Although most of them were born in Los Angeles, they have never been to the beach. Most of them never travel farther than a few blocks from where they were born. Many of their parents work two minimum-wage jobs and are gone from early morning to late evening six or seven days a week. Their families may encompass six people living in a one-bedroom apartment. Their closets are built out as bunk beds.

Almost all of them receive lunch provided by the school. Only 10% will graduate from high school. Of those who do, a smaller fraction will attend college, and an even smaller fraction will graduate from college. They are likely to stay in the same neighborhood where they went to elementary school forever.

I’ve been actively involved in our community throughout my adult life, so none of this comes as a surprise. I guess it just hit me hard this weekend that almost no one is talking about this injustice on the national level. Tax cuts aren’t going to help these kids, because their parents don’t make enough money where tax calculations matter. Sustained corporate profits aren’t going to help these kids, because their families are already working as many hours in a day as they can, and still they remain at poverty level.

Not a year ago, the crisis of economic inequality was part of our national dialogue. We acknowledged as a nation that the wider the gap grew between rich and poor, the less stable our economy would become. If we don’t make it a priority to give people a chance to succeed, how can we expect them to enter a shrinking middle class where even the most basic employment opportunities above minimum wage require advanced skills and training? Now instead of addressing the problem, we ignore it completely and let the disease advance out of sight.

Inequality.

Invisibility.

Unsustainability.

Impossibility.

Calamity.

That is the path we are on if the idea of leveling the playing field takes second place, third place, or no place in the order of our priorities. I like our capitalist economy. I am a beneficiary of all the good that can come of innovation, investment, hard work, and a little luck. Everyone deserves a chance at the same prosperity. Not a handout, a chance to pursue opportunity.

There is no fairness in a community where 90% of adults will live their lives without a high school diploma. Unless we create tools to break the cycle of poverty and make it a priority to provide economic justice where very little exists, we are on an unnaturally disastrous path to undermining the whole of our nation’s prosperity.

Don’t believe me? Please spend the morning in a neighborhood like we did last weekend. If that doesn’t change your mind, then we’ve already turned the corner on the beginning of the end.

Wake up, America. Our current obsession with tax cuts and rolling back regulations lacks imagination and empathy. Too many of us forgive our President his atrocious behavior because we see a bucket of bucks coming our way if only Congress will get onboard with his program. Where is the talk of growing inequality that threatens to undermine the foundation of our shared prosperity? What do you think happens when the vast majority of a population polarizes and abandons hope? Where is the allocation of resources that proves we are a nation that cares about fairness for all, not just for ourselves?

Programs like Reading to Kids, which organized our event and does so every month for volunteers in Los Angeles, is a great start at bridge building between communities and inspiring human connections. I have written before about the Learning Lab at Hathaway-Sycamores, which helps at-risk teens prepare for college and secure funding where possible. These organizations, while relatively modest in numbers, prove what is possible if we care enough to make those who are otherwise invisible a necessity in our priorities.

For transformative impact to occur at scale, our dialogue must dramatically improve. We need to talk consistently about inequality as an unacceptable condition that hinders our well-being. We need to allocate substantial resources where we know they will make a measurable difference in the lives of others. That’s more important than a tax cut. Way more important.

We need to lead by example. We need to be a kind, caring, helpful, generous people. The neighbors you don’t know matter, both for their well-being and your own. When we turn our backs on those who are trying but struggling, we take away hope. When we take away hope, we aren’t just part of the problem, we are the problem.

Volunteer to meet some kids this weekend who don’t live in your neighborhood. Count the years until they are adults and try to envision what their lives will be. Then decide if we are having the right dialogue about our nation’s future.

3 Paths to Adulthood

Transitional Independent Living Program

I’d like you to think for a moment about the last homeless person you happened to encounter. Ask yourself: What was his or her story? Do you know?

Now I’d like you to think about the last 18 to 21 year-old you met in any walk of life — from a middle class or wealthy family, any high school grad will do. Ask yourself: Was this young adult ready to go out into the world completely on his or her own? Do you know?

Now consider that every year our foster care system emancipates thousands of 18 year-olds, presenting them with the rights and responsibilities of full independent adulthood. They are on their own to go to college, get a job, find an apartment, obtain credit, feed themselves, clothe themselves, seek medical care and insurance, all of the things that you and I learned to do over a period of time that likely transcended our 18th birthdays.

What do you think the chances are that a young adult released from the foster care system can sign a lease without credit, get a job without references, obtain medical insurance without an address, or attend college without a bank account? If you answered “not very good,” you’re starting to get the picture.

What happens if that 18 to 21 year-old goes out into the world without any support system of any kind? Imagine the worst because that’s what happens. Nowhere to live, no legal income, no reason to worry about the future because all that matters is surviving the present — will hungry, cold, isolated people do desperate and horrible things if the only thing that matters is surviving the present and no one cares if they make it through the day? You bet they will. You and I would, too.

Now I would like you to look at the faces in the picture at the top of this page. These are some of the participants and staff in the current cohort of the Transitional Independent Living Program (TILP) at Hathaway-Sycamores Child and Family Services. Yeah, that sometime city slicker in the cowboy hat on the right is yours truly hosting the 8th Annual Celebrating Children Gala we recently held at the Autry Museum of the American West. We raised about $200,000 to support this program. The rest of the smiling faces are young adults who will not be homeless and the staff who guide them to independence. With our love and assistance, these wonderful people will further their education, get their first apartment, find employment, and build a foundation that will keep them independent for a lifetime.

Need some further convincing? Watch the video below. You will see specifically how “3 Paths to Adulthood” helped three exemplary individuals navigate from negativity to optimism. Their stories are the narratives of three strong people who didn’t become homeless and never will. Their stories are unfolding like yours and mine. They are making their way through life on their own. They have dreams, they have families, and they have hope. They stand on their feet with pride and humility. They shake your hand and look you in the eye as a peer. One just bought a home!

They make me smile and they make me cry. If only we could help more people like them, we wouldn’t see nearly as many homeless people on the street. We could play a role in their lives and alter each story for the better. Their stories will always be their own, but we would be a small part of them and they would never forget us. We would never forget them.

We have a choice: Help bridge the gap between age 18 and 21 where government assistance is not available, or let these young adults tackle the immense difficulties of our world on their own and fail as any of us would. It’s not hard to understand why our TILP is vital and in the community’s interest. It makes economic sense. It makes human sense. It takes a story with an otherwise cruel outcome and turns it into a happy ending for everyone involved.

It doesn’t happen without a lot of hard work and commitment, but it happens. That’s why we held this year’s Celebrating Children to bolster this mission and attack homelessness through proactive guidance and direction. It’s much less expensive than getting someone off the street, and much more sustainable for an entire lifetime. It works. Watch the video! I promise you it works.

If you’d like to join in supporting our work please visit Hathaway-Sycamores.org.

And the next time you see a homeless person, take a moment and ask for his or her story. You might be surprised to learn they didn’t have to be on the street. Most of the time, they simply couldn’t find another path. We’ll help them as well, but let’s start by keeping them off the street. We know how to do that. Really, we do.

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This article originally appeared on The Good Men Project.

Legacies Matter

We’ve just finished producing a new short video for the Hathaway-Sycamores Child & Family Services Legacy Society. I’d like to share it with you and then I’ll briefly tell you why. You can view it here:

I write from time to time about the work we do at Hathaway-Sycamores and the 7000 lives we touch each year in the greater Los Angeles area. The work we do with families in communities throughout southern California is complex, demanding, dynamic, and unending. Our program staff offers selfless expertise in residential treatment, foster care, adoption, transitional independent living, mental health counseling, and educational enrichment readying youth to lead forever productive lives.

I have been involved with this vibrant organization for more than 15 years, and my volunteer work in supporting children’s services has paralleled my business and creative work all the way back to my school years. There’s a reason. This work matters. This work is important. The impact we have on bringing hope to young lives is as vital a part of my life as anything else I do.

If you find yourself with the opportunity to make lives better — lives they may not have had the kindness, nurturing, or healthy upbringing many of us take for granted — then you may at some point feel the way I do. We have a precious, brief amount of time to spend wandering the earth. What we choose to do in the course of our journey ultimately becomes our legacy.

A legacy is not something we can entirely control, because people will remember us in different ways for different reasons regardless of what we accomplish or how we go about accomplishing it. The part of our legacy that we can control revolves around the wishes of others we choose to help realize while we have the opportunity, and the carrying out of our own wishes after we are gone.

HS LegacyTo say that it all boils down to money is only the tiniest part of the picture. Money is a commodity. It only has value if we ascribe value to it. We can gain it, lose it, make it work harder through better decision-making, waste it on the frivolous, or share it with those who matter to us. We can save it or spend it, invest it or stockpile it, struggle when we are without it, or earn the ability to direct its impact. I think when we care enough about those who have less than we do, our lives begin to matter more, if only in the briefest of moments. Intentions are important. Good works that arise from positive intentions can outlast those brief moments for generations, possibly forever when the proceeds of our gifts compound and carry forward our intentions way beyond the scope we could ever imagine.

We have that chance in life, to leave a legacy. That’s why I committed to help in building the Hathaway-Sycamores Legacy Society, and why I produced this video. I want you to feel what I feel about the pure joy of giving, of having an impact on the world that outlasts our own days, and turning ideas into actions that improve the lives of those around us whether we know the recipients or not. You many not have a fortune to give, but that doesn’t matter at all. Give what you can, do what you can, and you can leave a legacy that is yours alone. Your reward will be beyond anything my words can describe. It will be pure, authentic, and real. It will be yours.

Every single one of us will leave a legacy of some kind or other. What’s yours? What do you want it to be? What are you doing right now to make that happen? Time escapes us every day, but our legacy is forever. You can’t craft it in its entirety, but you can shape it to be a reflection of the values you cherish.

I’d love to see you join us this year at Celebrating Children. I’d love to see you join our Legacy Society. Most of all I’d like you to think about what your legacy will be, and how you can have an impact on the lives of those in need well beyond the years it took you to get where you are.

It’s not an easy choice. It’s not an easy subject. Nothing that really matters is ever easy. You matter. Your intentions matter. Your actions matter.

Every legacy matters.

An Idea Changes a Neighborhood

HS FRC

Last fall I wrote about the fundraising event I chaired to raise money for the Hathaway-Sycamores Learning Lab. Today I am pleased to share with you a short video celebrating the dedication of this site, which you can watch here.

If you listen carefully to the story told by Henry Matson, you’ll hear not only how a simple yet visionary afterschool program is changing the lives of countless at-risk youth, but how it has transformed an entire Los Angeles county neighborhood.

Just a decade ago, our Family Resource Center in Highland Park was a much-loved landmark, but a bit of an island on a street ripe for reinvention. That transformation has now occurred. The doors of our beautiful, historic building are wide open to the community. The building has been restored to its full glory, and our Learning Lab is filled with eager minds.

Anytime you get the idea in your head that an individual can’t make a difference, I invite you to visit our Learning Lab. Look at the joy in the students’ faces. Look at the spectrum of college logos on their t-shirts. Listen to them talking about the futures they are pursuing.

They are engaged in the mission of learning. They are engaged in the mission of personal change. They aren’t waiting for the future to come to them. They aren’t letting circumstance take its toll. They are inventing their own future through math, science, language arts, and learning to work in teams.

They inspire each other and they will inspire you. They inspire me, and nothing gives me greater pleasure than to welcome your participation in our work.

Young people on our community who never thought they had the chance are going to college, many on full scholarships they win competitively on their own merits!

Paulette and Henry Matson anchored this campaign because it mattered to them. They made a choice to make a difference, and that difference is now more than an idea. It is a place, a comfort zone, a tangible path to endless possibility. Those aren’t just words. Those are a conduit to bright futures that begin with a spark, the access to a mentor, the bright light of a teacher. Once we help ignite that spark, the kids take it the rest of the way. They are virtually unstoppable.

A small amount of caring always matters. A small amount of money can go a long way.

Education opens minds and changes lives.

Come see just how powerful a living dream can be. Join us this year at Celebrating Children. One night could change your life. Then you can help change a neighborhood.

It all begins with an idea and a commitment.

We can do this. We are doing this!