I grew up in a 3 bedroom, 1 bathroom house in the suburbs with two outstanding parents, and a brother who is three years younger than I am. We weren’t a family who had extra but we had everything we needed.
When I was in 4th grade, finances got tighter than usual and my parents made the decision to send me to public school and keep my brother in private school. I don’t remember too much from my public school experience other than being pulled from class and tested for a “gifted program”. Turns out, that private school education had set me apart from other 4 graders. I intentionally failed that test. I clearly remember one of the questions I purposely answered incorrectly; which month has 28 days. I responded with March. Such a rebel.
My public school experience was short-lived. A few weeks later, I came home from school to learn I was going right back to my private school, like nothing had ever happened. A family, who asked to remain anonymous, learned of my situation and decided to pay my tuition for the remainder of the school year. I was a private school student until the day I graduated high school.
I want to be very clear; I am incredibly grateful to that family for helping me and my family. However, as an adult, I think about that situation in a much different way. I wonder why that family chose me. What made that family feel empathy toward my family? Were they paying it forward in some way? Did they want to see 4th grade, rebellious me kick up some dust? Had this family also experienced a financial hardship at some point? Why did they see me?
Two weeks ago, I attended my 4th consecutive WorkHuman conference and, as I’ve come to expect, the keynote speakers were extraordinary. The closing session was a fireside chat with the incomparable Viola Davis and Steve Pemberton, WorkHuman’s CHRO. I sat frozen in my chair, stomach in knots, lump in my throat, for an hour. Viola Davis was spellbinding and unabashedly shared her truth.
Viola’s description of growing up in abject poverty included harsh details of no food and electricity going in and out because bills weren’t paid. She dreamed of being able to just flush the toilet instead of filling a bucket of water and having to dump it in the toilet. There was an audible gasp when Viola stated she wet her bed until she was 14 because, “That’s part of what happens when you grow up with trauma.”
This is when I was struck – “For most of my life, I waited for people to just see me. When you grow up in abject poverty, you are made to feel like you are worse than nothing. You’re being ostracized constantly and there’s no one to throw you a rope.”
When a person is drowning, it’s dangerous to jump in after them – fear of drowning will cause the person to latch on and pull you down along with them. The safe way to save a drowning person is to throw them a rope but you have to actually acknowledge the person is drowning. You have to see all of them. You have to be prepared for what happens after you throw the rope. You can’t throw the rope, walk away, and hope for the best. You have to understand the drowning person’s unique needs to throw the right rope. A strong enough rope.
My family wasn’t drowning. We didn’t need a rope.
Viola’s high school counselor introduced her to a school program called Upward Bound, a federally funded, college access and preparatory program, essentially throwing her a hypothetical rope. Knowing Upward Bound could be life-changing, Viola took the opportunity to enhance her education experience. This opportunity would come with a cost that would not be easily funded. To get to school, Viola had to walk two miles and catch three buses every day. She was 14 and without a driver’s license. No one in the family had a car. “I barely had money for bus fare or food. Meanwhile, my classmates were arriving in Saabs and Peugeots with their parents and packed lunches–but I needed all those resources just to get there. I just wanted someone to see me, see my needs and see my potential and gifts to see that I’m not asking for a handout. I need help.”
We didn’t have a Saab or a Peugeot but my mom did drive an AMC Eagle and I never walked to school a day in my life. I always had a packed lunch and never wondered about my next meal.
As I said before, I am incredibly grateful to that family for helping me and my family. As an adult, I wonder what would have happened if we needed more than school tuition. Would this family have been on board for more? Would they have been just as willing to give a hand up instead of a very expensive hand out? Would I have been just as seen if I didn’t come from a white, faith-based family, assumed to have the same “morals and values” as the family who helped us?
I have been struggling to figure out how to summarize my takeaways from this time with Viola. I was so incredibly moved, I’m still trying to wrap my head around much of what I witnessed. This is what I can come up with so far and my goal is to iterate on this lesson every time I find a new opportunity to give back. Random acts of kindness have after effects that need to be considered. Giving back is not a one size fits all activity.
There is a fundamental difference between a hand-out and a hand up. It can be pretty easy to donate time and resources. That’s the hand-out. The world needs hand-outs. Hand-outs create a ripple. The hand up is what happens after the contribution is made. The hand up is seeing the ripple through so it can turn into a wave, and that wave turns into a swell. The waves and swells only happen when that ripple is cultivated, nurtured, and developed to its fullest potential. This is how we can fully understand a person’s unique needs and be confident in knowing which rope to throw.