Contributed by Lauren A. Curry
In philanthropy, sad stories are the coin of the realm. They create awareness, inflame passions, awaken responsibilities, and pull people together. They demand action and draw money. They are the human (or animal or environmental …) face on the problem statements at the heart of each of our missions.
They can also sometimes distract from the business at hand. The desperateness of the story can obscure mediocrity in a response, and doing something get in the way of doing something effective.
One of Rich’s mantras is “we leave our hearts at the door” any time we walk into the boardroom. We are careful to respect and learn from stories, but base our decisions on a rubric grounded in strong leadership, fiscal responsibility, effective interventions, and meaningful outcomes. It’s how we exercise due diligence in the expenditure of our resources.
That said, I’ve spent some time recently reading, watching, and thinking about sad stories.
The first real gut-wrencher was in a great New Yorker postmortem on Mark Zuckerberg’s failed $100M investment to reform the Newark School System. Students in one school were prompted to write a poem using the word “hope”. They responded in the context of surviving the violence and poverty that claims so many lives around them. One student wrote:
My mother has hope that I won’t fall victim to the streets.
I hope that hope finds me.
Next up for me was a screening of the Sundance-winning documentary Rich Hill last month. It’s a beautiful and awful portrayal of three boys growing up poor in Missouri. It gets at complicated themes of mental health, juvenile justice, incarcerated parents, unstable housing, and temporary employment. It’s real power for me, though, is where it lingers on the steady, quiet love binding families together. And again, where we hear young voices with few prospects talking about hope:
I praise god. I worship him. I pray every night. Nothing’s came, but that ain’t gonna stop me. This is what goes through my mind. God has to be busy with everyone else. Eventually he will come into my life. I hope it happens. It’s gonna break my heart if it don’t.
Finally I went to an event that bridged my work with my personal efforts helping run a local food shelf. We watched A Place at the Table, a high-powered documentary on food insecurity in the US featuring celebrities, politicians, and a handful of average Americans struggling to make ends meet.
The film tells lots of tough stories. There’s a young girl with big dreams whose empty stomach keeps her from concentrating at school. There’s a veteran police officer who relies on a local food pantry to get his family through the month. And there’s a young mother trying to meet her children’s needs through unemployment and low-wage jobs. When that young mother gets her turn at the microphone at a DC press conference, her comments are pointed:
If we switched lives for a week could you handle the stress? If we switched salaries for a month will you be able to live and still keep your pride? Are you aware of my hope and my determination? Are you aware of my dreams and my struggle? Are you aware of my ambition and motivation? Are you aware that I exist? My name is Barbara Izquierdo and I do exist.
Hope. There’s that word again.
These sad stories inspire all the things they are supposed to inspire – donations, legislative action, and renewed commitment to change. In me, they inspire hope.
I will continue to push hard at work for the effective and efficient solutions. I will do that in part by leaving my heart at the door. In my own community I will keep my shoulder to the wheel, building local resources and looking out for neighbors. I will work.
There’s much to be done. And hope is a very good thing.
Lauren A. Curry has been the Executive Director of the Richard E. and Deborah L. Tarrant Foundation since 2005.