Back when I was pregnant with my oldest son, I wound up without a place to live. The counselor at the crisis pregnancy center which was helping me navigate this time reluctantly referred me to a homeless shelter/half-way house for single moms as a last resort. She didn’t come right out and say it, but my sense was that she was none too impressed with the way the program there was run.
And she was right. In the year and a half that I lived there, not one of the women who went through the program was able to move from the shelter into independent living. They were all either kicked out or ended up moving into another unstable setting to get away. When I asked the social worker who we met with regularly, she could only think of one former resident who had moved on to independent living after her time there. And that was because she had scored a section 8 voucher. Given that the stated goal of the program was to move single moms from homelessness to independent living, this was kind of a big deal.
A few months after I moved in, the leadership of the program announced that they were re-hauling the program and the house rules women had to abide by. They asked us to write down any suggestions we had for how to make the program more effective and our lives better. Me being me, I wrote a very long, thoughtful list of changes that I thought would help, complete with explanations.
Several months later, the board of the organization put out the new rules. Of all the suggestions I and other women in the program had made, just one was adopted; we would now be allowed to have Christmas trees. Not only were none of our suggestions adopted, but the new rules actually moved in the opposite direction of what we had said would be helpful to us.
After the new rules were implemented, women cycled in and out of the program faster than before. I was eventually kicked out for taking on a second job without discussing it with the social worker. My now-husband arranged for me and our son to sleep on a his friend’s pull-out sofa for a few months while I tried to find someplace safe that would rent someone under the age of 25 with bad credit. I had never met the woman before I showed up with my bags and kid.
The people who ran the program, when asked about their lack of success in reaching their stated goal, would sigh and say it just shows how hard it is to work with people who wind up in trouble. Frankly, if your program is unable to help a compliant, college educated young woman from an upper-middle class background, who doesn’t party, has worked continually since age 10 and has never been in trouble with the law to get on her feet, it’s safe to say that your program doesn’t work.
The reason I’m sharing this story is to illustrate why it is we as a society cannot solve the problems we face. The problem with this program was the same problem that nearly all programs meant to help those in need have. It was designed and run by successful people according to their experiences and assumptions about how the world works. And that’s why that program didn’t work and why most government social programs don’t work and even why so many schools don’t work.
We have this tendency to think that if we want something fixed, we should listen to people who are successful. It makes a certain sense. If you’ve succeeded, then you know how to succeed and can share the answers with others who would like to succeed.
However, before I became a homeless, single mom or got involved with the man from a bad family who is now my husband, I came from a family of 2%ers. My dad and his three siblings all have masters degrees. His dad was trained at Harvard by the Army during WWII and went on to be president of a company. Two of my mom’s siblings are multi-millionaires. So, I was born, bred and raised among successful people.
I’ve seen people at both the top and at the bottom, up close and personal. And I have a secret for you; if you want answers for how to help people who are struggling and failing, don’t ask successful people. Ask the people who are struggling and failing.
The answers which successful people have for how to overcome adversity are the same answers that everyone has. They don’t have anything unique to offer in that respect. They also don’t have any real understanding of the problems people face.
In fact, I can say from experience, when you are successful it’s hard to grasp that there really are problems. It’s hard to understand why what made you successful won’t work for everyone else. From the vantage point of the sort of person who makes rules, starts programs and runs things, the problem must be with the people – they just aren’t willing to do it right.
People on the bottom have answers that people on the top don’t. They know why people aren’t doing it right. They know what the obstacles to doing it right are. They know the obstacles people face even when they are doing it right. They know what people need in order to overcome those obstacles. In fact, if you look at the few social programs which are working, nearly all of them are run by people from the bottom.
Of course, we humans aren’t in the habit of listening to people at the bottom. They are losers, failures, suspect. What do they know about how to suceed? If they were so smart, they wouldn’t be in a position of needing help, right?
The governing board of the shelter I was at didn’t listen to any of the opinions of the women living there in good part because they didn’t trust us. They were like multi-millionaire lawmakers who are reluctant to build a safety net, lest people lose the drive to support themselves. They thought our goal was to avoid being responsible and disciplined and saw it as their job to force responsibility and discipline on us. They couldn’t imagine that we might understand our problems better than they did. They were sucessful people with families and homes. We had failed at life before we had even started. Clearly, they knew better than we did.
This is a common problem; even when people at the bottom can make their concerns and ideas heard, we don’t trust them enough to listen. We look for any excuse to ignore, discount and disagree. We refuse to consider that perhaps the people at the bottom are able to see things that people at the top don’t. We refuse to believe that the world is so hostile or the odds so stacked. And frankly, we often refuse to listen to people at the bottom because the problems they point to seem too large and intractible to be solved.
The thing is that while successful people rarely understand what the problems are, successful people often have skill sets, networks and experience that people at the bottom don’t have. And those things can be incredibly valuable. Someone at the bottom often knows just what needs to be done to help people, but lacks the skills, networks and experience to make that happen. So it’s not that successful people don’t have anything to offer.
We all know that Jesus said that his followers were to serve those in need and to consider the last to be first and the first to be last. Usually, we see this as a call to alleviate suffering, show compassion and grow in love. Which is certainly true. But I also think that these teachings are a bit of a trail of crumbs he left for us as well. That he knew the answers to the problems we face would be found among the least and not the greatest. Besides, Jesus said that what we do for the least of these, we are also doing for him. Might Jesus who says if we love him, we will listen to his words, also expect us to listen to, learn from and take seriously what the least have to say? It is very much how his upside down Kingdom works, no?