There’s a yiddish proverb that goes “a man with money is smart, good looking…and he sings well too.” When you go to work for a foundation, you become, no matter your ethnicity, gender, or life circumstances, a “man with money.” That’s why it’s always good to have an experience where you remember what it’s like to be marginalized. And I had that a few weeks ago when I participated in Liftopolis, a brilliant “game” developed by LIFT.
LIFT is, in its own words:
“a growing movement to combat poverty and expand opportunity for all people in the United States. LIFT currently runs centers staffed by trained volunteers in Boston, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC, to serve low-income individuals and families.
LIFT clients and volunteers work one-on-one to find jobs, secure safe and stable housing, make ends meet through public benefits and tax credits, and obtain quality referrals for services like childcare and healthcare. Simultaneously, the LIFT experience pushes volunteers to grapple with our country’s most challenging issues related to poverty, race, inequality, and policy. Since LIFT’s founding, over 6,000 volunteers have served more than 40,000 individuals and families.”
One of the things I like about LIFT is it’s “no wrong door” policy. They serve anyone who asks, regardless of whether they qualify for public assistance, are low income enough, homeless enough or meet other criteria often imposed by social service providers (which are, in turn, often imposed on them in order to receive government funding. A LIFT volunteer serves as a kind of concierge, linking a client to organizations or services that might help. Respect for the client, viewing him or her as a person with assets and strengths, is fundamental to LIFT’s work.
Another thing I like about LIFT is the dual mission: helping people, but also helping volunteers (many of whom as college students) really understand the damage and stress of living in poverty from the inside out.
One of the ways they do this is through a training exercise based on an imaginary city called Liftopolis, that seeks to show how difficult it can be to navigate the current service system. After hearing about LIftopolis from the very able Maicharia Weir Lytle, head of its Boston office, I knew I wanted to try it. So together, we invited about 75 other funders, staff, and community leaders to a special Liftopolis session.
Liftopolis is elegantly simple: you enter a room, are handed a card that assigns you a role based on a real LIFT client (I was a 39 year-old, mentally ill person with a substance abuse problem, living on the streets – the jackpot of hard-to -serve clients), and given a goal. Mine was to get off the streets somehow. The room is set up with about a dozen folding tables labeled “City Hall,” “Department of Transitional Assistance,” “x shelter,” “Housing Authority,” etc. You are set loose to wander with your peers, spending the next two hours approaching the people seated at the tables and asking for help.
My first stop was a housing program, where the friendly woman behind the desk told me I couldn’t stay because I didn’t have proof I was homeless. I then went to a job training program where I couldn’t be served unless I could show I was in substance abuse treatment. Some of the providers tried to be helpful, but often they had incomplete information about where I should go next. Some were, just as in real life, passive, rude, and condescending. Some closed for “lunch” just as I got to the head of the line. A sheriff walked around the room, randomly stopping people and issuing chance cards that ranged from the great good fortune of landing a job to the catastrophe of jail. I tried to become a day laborer, but the guy hiring turned me down when he heard my hispanic last name.
A lot of the game was very much like real life. The problems I encountered, the attitude of providers, their narrow view of the rules, was a lot like the experiences I’ve had the few times I’ve tried to get homeless people into housing in the past. But living it, while pretend, was powerful.
Within about ten minutes, I, completely in character, realized I was trapped in an endless frustrating cycle of journeying from agency to agency. It felt impossible to get off the street. I became more an more belligerant in the face of smooth, faceless bureaucracy. Pretty soon, I was acting irrationally, distancing the people who wanted to help me even though some of them were sympathetic. I could feel my imaginary mental health problems incitingme to act out more and more. My rudeness triggered more rudeness from providers, an endless, escalating circle of disrespect. Finally, I spent some time slumped on the imaginary sidewalk, thinking “what’s the point?”
Eventually, I realized I needed papers, went to City Hall to get them, but failed because I didn’t know the right thing to ask for. I sat outside yelling for a while, and then a nice guy (playing a homeless dad with a minimum wage job) came to my rescue by telling me what to ask for, and I learned all over again that when you’re down, a social network can be everything. And then I figured out I needed to lie about my substance use, swear I’d been sober six months, in order to get a room in a rooming house.
So I went from the streets to temporary housing, learning along the way that without my job in the eyes of the world I was nobody, that friends are important, and that the line between seeing yourself as an honest person and lying and cheating to get a bed for the night is thinner, more flimsy than the cheap sheets in a shelter. Not bad for a two hour exercise.
I should mention that the service providers in this exercise were not demonized. Rather, LIftopolis brings home how trapped they are in a web of rules and practice. You leave seeing why the system behaves the way it does, and why poor people do things that might not always appear to be in their best interest.
There are lots of very rich lessons in this experience. I think every foundation executive and service provider should do something like this once in a while. Don’t you?