(LIFT is a national anti-poverty non-profit devoted to empowering families to break the cycle of poverty. This summer I was a Community Advocate in the Washington, DC branch. Pseudonyms are used in this essay).
Approaching the door to our office inside the Perry School Community Services Center for my first day with official meetings, I hoped the fickle room would decide to be freezing today in order to make up for my nervous energy. My prayers were answered when I was hit by a blast of cold air as I looked at the collage of pictures surrounding the word “LIFT” at the entrance of the office. Despite having three days of training, I felt as if I was about to be thrown into the deep end when meeting with our real Members for the first time. At LIFT-DC, we (Community Advocates) meet one-on-one with individuals experiencing poverty (our Members) in meetings where we partner with our Members to work on their individual goals. I was intimidated by acting as an Advocate since our many Members’ goals can range from complex topics like health insurance and building credit to critical basic needs like adequate food and shelter. However, my feelings of uncertainty and distress quickly subsided once I got to meet the diverse individuals I would have the pleasure of working with for the next eight weeks. In the office, we had a saying: “Members are the experts of their own lives.” This reinforced the model that our meetings were Member-driven and that each person that walked through our door would be treated with dignity and respect. LIFT’s drive to tailor its efforts to each Member’s individual needs contributes to what, I think, makes their formula successful.
My very first meeting was with a tall, soft-spoken man named Mr. Douglass. Although he was often quiet, it was the best feeling to see him light up when he talked about his passion for singing in a choir, or to hear him chuckle occasionally as he told me more about his life while we worked side by side on job applications. In addition to his 40 years of security experience, Mr. Douglass brought to the table his calming presence and his never-ending desire to learn. Since computer skills are often required in today’s job market (with online applications and responding to potential employers via email), Mr. Douglass was faithfully taking computer classes conducted at LIFT-DC by some of my coworkers to hone his technology skills. I was fortunate enough to work with Mr. Douglass every week. From him and many other Members, I learned about the importance of continuing education, and was surprised to realize the key role that technological proficiency plays in current society. Certainly, I had not previously considered that steady computer access, reliable Internet, and the knowledge required to operate these systems are, in fact, now a necessary resource.
My second appointment was with the effervescent Mr. Miles. Mr. Miles was definitely the bubbliest Member I worked with at LIFT-DC. I was constantly amazed by his seemingly endless energy, as he was always extremely eager to be actively making progress on his employment goal. Over the next weeks, Mr. Miles and I completed several job applications in our meetings. In between these weekly meetings, Mr. Miles would come in to use our public computer to follow-up on interviews and emails from potential employers. By the end of my eight weeks at LIFT, Mr. Miles had received an offer for full-time employment with benefits as a custodian at a prominent government building! It was inspiring to watch his employment goal come to fruition. From Mr. Miles, I learned that persistence, an upbeat attitude, and follow-through are just as necessary as a well-groomed résumé in order to succeed in today’s job market. More importantly, he exemplified the strong initiative demonstrated by our Members, debunking ill-conceived stereotypes often applied to persons experiencing poverty.
During the week, I had either two or four Member meetings slots (each meeting is around 70 minutes) on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. On the days I had only two meeting slots, I worked on my long-term project, compiling a profile of the parents that came to LIFT for our services. On Wednesday, the office was closed for staff meetings, but the other college intern and myself were sent on “field trips” on these days. These trips were meant to give us a better understanding of the DC community, varying from a historic walking tour of U Street with Duke Ellington’s childhood home, to a community arts center in Anacostia, to a lecture inside the courtroom of the Supreme Court of the Unites Sates, to a shift in a local soup kitchen, and to Frederick Douglass’s home in his late life. Our advisors certainly achieved their goal, as the trips took us to different corners of DC and showed us life outside the typical tourist track. However, my daily commute to work was just as instructive, illustrating residential segregation as I took the metro and gentrification as I walked from the station nearest to the office.
The eight weeks I spent at LIFT-DC came at a delicate time, as the overall organization’s mission shifted to focusing on serving families. My coworkers and I helped Members who were not parents or guardians of young children through a transition out of LIFT, facilitating their shift to working with another organization that offered appointments that provided similar support to LIFT’s services. It was an emotional time in the office, as Advocates and Members had to say goodbye after working together for months or even years in some cases. Heartfelt stories from our Members at a farewell party left few dry eyes in the room. In my time there, I witnessed the impact LIFT had on the lives of Members and the lives of LIFTers too. But even LIFT continues to remodel itself as it strives towards more effective strategies to help empower families to escape the cycle of poverty. Overall, I came away with even more questions to struggle with than I had before, but I also experienced the value that comes with addressing each person’s humanity and individuality.