‘How Can I Help?’ versus ‘What Will it Take?’

There is a difference between having a food pantry and feeding hungry families.

There is a difference between opening a clinic and bringing health to sick people.

There is a difference between creating a curriculum and getting students educated.

One is about covering a base; the other is about making health happen.

Our leadership team saw this difference first-hand last week as we hosted Grace Rivera-Oven, director of the Upcounty Food Consolidation Hub, at our monthly meeting.  As she recounted the story of the founding of the Hub and its rapid growth through the early months of the pandemic, it became clear that she was asking different questions than we would ask.  When we are thinking about how to give back to their community, we typically ask: how can I help?  “How can I help my neighbor?”  “How can I help with a meal?”  “How can I lend a helping hand?”  In stark contrast, Grace has been asking: what will it take?  “What will it take to feed . . . everyone?”  “What will it take to make sure no family is going hungry anywhere near me?”  “What will it take to make sure they physically survive this pandemic?”

Here was a woman who was not interested in making things better; rather, she was interested in making things right. It starts with digging down below the rhetoric to the ground level of reality.  When we do, we discover some ugly truths: 80% of social services in this area come from South of Shady Grove Road.  $18 million of SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program a.k.a. food stamps) in Montgomery County go unused because the potential recipients can’t wade through all the paperwork to get it.  Latinos are dying at a rate 80% higher than other ethnic groups.  “How can I help?” thinking says “let’s get it down to 70%.”  “What will it take” thinking says “that needs to be 0%.”  “How can I help?” thinking says “the paperwork is there for a reason.”  “What will it take” thinking says “what good is paperwork if funds aren’t getting to their intended recipient?”  “How can I help?” thinking says “we should plan for social services in the upcounty next year.”  “What will it take” thinking says “let’s start providing them here NOW!”

Before you rebut with the value of good planning, and good paperwork, and accountable funding, let me suggest that the difference is not how fast one moves, or how messy one is willing to get, but rather one of ownership.  That is to say, are these “my” people, or someone else’s?  Grace said that when taking a box of groceries or produce to a door, she advises her workers, “whoever opens it, pretend they are your mother – how would you treat them?”

I am changing my perspective.  I am going to move from “How can I help?” to “What will it take?”  It’s a subtle change but the finish line is in a different place.  How do I know?  Well, the Upcounty Hub used to serve 23 families a week.  Now it serves over 1,200 a week.  I know one thing: it didn’t get there by asking “How can I help?”

If you want to change your question, email me at ngordon0522@gmail.com.

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