What’s it like to walk in your shoes?
That genuine curiosity coupled with an openness to listen, learn, and care could be a potent antidote to our current climate of polarizing division and hatred. The constructive bonds of civil society won’t be reknit on a radio talk show or social media platform, but in our communities.
My family recently attended Tallahassee’s Longest Table dinner, an event that literally sets a table many blocks long and invites the entire community to break bread and talk. In case you weren’t sure how to strike up a conversation, the paper tablecloth was printed with prompts: “What are you excited about at this point in your life? What do you want to see in our community in 10 years?”
Unlike most social situations, in which I quickly gravitate to people I know, we intentionally sat with people we didn’t know, who weren’t from our neighborhood, who didn’t look like us. We talked about how they fared in the hurricane, where their kids were in school, and what they do for work and fun. I learned that the woman sitting across from me sang gospel music since she was a little girl. At one point she even broke into song to prove it — a moment that was as surprising as it was uplifting.
Similarly, the United Way of the Big Bend’s new strategic direction is all about shining a light on our neighbors whose walk is very different and much more challenging than some of ours. Last year, the United Way of Florida released a groundbreaking report documenting that 14.5 percent of the state’s population lives in poverty and another 29.5 percent fits the definition of working poor. Those are store clerks, home health aides, child care teachers and others who labor every day, some working two or three jobs, yet still struggle to get by. They are one car repair or one health problem away from destitution and even homelessness. That’s not just a few people. It’s 44 percent of our neighbors in the Big Bend. In fact, the zip code with the highest concentration of people living in poverty in Florida – including children – is right here in Leon County.
The stress and instability of pervasive poverty casts a long and future-warping shadow on children in our midst. Children growing up in poverty are less likely to have access to quality child care and are more likely to suffer extreme psychological stress. Those realities work against optimal brain development during the first five years of life. That means they are at much greater risk of not achieving the necessary 4th grade and 8th grade reading and math scores, which correlates to a higher high school dropout rate. That negative sequence of life events puts children at much higher risk of lifelong poverty themselves and incarceration, especially if they are children of color.
But there is something we can all do.
On Oct. 30, Women United will seek to raise nearly $100,000 for the United Way of the Big Bend through the Women’s Leadership Breakfast to help even the scales for children in our community growing up in poverty. The keynote speaker, the host of CNN’s This is Life with Lisa Ling, is an outstanding storyteller who helps her audience connect with people who have a very different walk than most of us understand. Effective storytelling boosts understanding, which leads to empathy, which leads to constructive action.
My greatest hope for the Women’s Leadership Breakfast is that women from across our community will come together around two questions: “What’s it like to walk in your shoes?” and “How can I help?”