AF Fellows: Everday Barriers

Each year as part of their training in New York, the new class of Acumen Fund fellows is sent out into the city armed only with a $6 metro card, a $5 bill, and their IDs. Their mission is to experience the challenges of obtaining basic services with these meager, minimal resources; in the course of the day, they stand in soup kitchens, visit shelters, and attempt access to medical care. Over the next week, we will be sharing their experiences on our blog. The first comes from Yehia Houry.

After training, Yehia will spend the year working with 1298, the first reliable emergency medical response service in Mumbai and other major cities in India. He has experience as a financial analyst, focused on access to financing for the poor. Yehia holds a Masters in International Affairs from Columbia University.

Waiting in line outside a soup kitchen in some forgotten corner of New York, I look around the courtyard. I am new to this scene and to be honest, I am not really sure how I   ended up here.

The overwhelmingly male crowd is waiting for the doors to open, killing time chatting with their neighbors in line. Some are restless; others are drunk, while some look relaxed, or high. They all look tired.

I notice a curious pattern of activity developing. Every couple of minutes someone walks over to a guy sitting on a ledge, smoking a cigarette. They talk to him for a moment and then receive what looks like a small green ball wrapped in plastic film. I guess I shouldn’t be shocked that drug trafficking would be a pretty common thing here.

Now it is time to eat. Everyone stands up, silently filing through the doors, down the stairs to the basement. There is neither pushing nor fighting; everyone patiently waits for their turn.

“What’s for lunch?” I hear someone shout.

As I sit down, I notice that the meal the man sitting on my right is eating differs from my own. I was pretty hungry, so I just took everything that was being offered. “Why are our dishes different?” I ask.

“I just don’t feel like eating meat today, this is the vegetarian option” he responds, surprising me.

Shortly thereafter, I overhear a conversation between the two guys sitting across from me. “Are you going for seconds? I hear they have enough for us to go back and get some more.”

“No second round for me today, last time I came here I was so full I had to throw out half of it.” This exchange too surprises me.

As I continue eating my plentiful meal, I turn to the man sitting next to me, trying to strike up a conversation, and ask, “Hey, do you know where I can spend the night tonight?”

He stares back at me with a look of disgust and says, not without obvious pride, “I don’t go to shelters, I have my own place.” Again, this surprises me.

Suddenly, the neighbor to my right turns to me and says “Hey amigo, do you want some of this?” I look over to see that he is offering me a bit of the green substance being traded in the courtyard. As I open my mouth to politely refuse, I look down, startled, realizing that what I was staring at – the green ball that earlier I imagined was some kind of drug - is simply hot chili pepper.

Out of the blue, something dawns on me: the reason that I am having a meal punctuated with so many surprises, really many of them minor epiphanies, was because my prejudices were so strong going into the experience

I found myself surprised by peoples’ reactions to my prodding questions, by the thoughtful discussions they carried on with one another – even by their personal bearing – because I had not expected to find dignity in a site as austere as some forgotten soup kitchen, in a far corner of an imposing and massive city.

But of course what I learned at the kitchen is just how tenacious, pervasive, and unexpected dignity can be.

That is, there is dignity that inheres, I learned, in being selective about your meal, wherever you eat it and even if it is given to you for free. There is dignity in refusing to waste food, even if you are often hungry. There is an essential dignity of living in your own home, even if supplying your own lunch is still not possible. And, finally, there is dignity in bringing and sharing your favorite flavorings so that you and your friends can enjoy the meal as you would at your own home.

I just never expected to find such dignity in such a place. How wrong I was.


Reflections on the India Fellows Seminar

Each year, the India Fellows Program brings together up to 20 emerging leaders from different regions, sectors, and socio-economic backgrounds in India. During the fellowship year, Fellows remain in their jobs and meet every 6-8 weeks throughout the year for 4 seminars and 2 collaborative projects, each about a week long. As the India Fellows Associate, Jacqui is responsible for supporting all aspects of the program recruitment, logistics, marketing and strategic planning. Below, Jacqui reflects on the first seminar, Foundations of Leadership. You can read more about the fellowship program here[Read More]

Adaptive Leadership in Action: Addressing Cultural Norms & Giving Women a Voice

In the fall of 2013, +Acumen launched the course Adaptive Leadership: Mobilizing for Change in partnership with the Cambridge Leadership Associates. This course is for anyone who wants to become more effective at leading their organization through change. Below, one of the course participants shared her story about how this course impacted her work and ability to affect change. [Read More]

Making Sense of Social Impact in Action: The Value of Educating Our Youth

At Acumen, one of the most common questions we get is how we measure social impact. Our newest +Acumen course – Making Sense of Social Impact: Acumen’s Building Blocks for Impact Analysis. – will provide an entry point for how to think about impact and we’ll share frameworks that help us define what to measure and why. Makoto Matsuura, founder of cobon a not-for-profit focused on youth education in Jakarta, Indonesia and Osaka, Japan, took a pilot version of this course and shared his reflections with us. [Read More]

Good news for philanthropists in the U.K. and Europe

We are excited to announce that Acumen now holds a CAF Charitable Trust in the United Kingdom. CAF, the Charities Aid Foundation, is a registered U.K. charity. By donating to Acumen through CAF, you can use Gift Aid if the amount of Income Tax and/or Capital Gains Tax you’ve paid for the tax year in which you make your donation is at least equal to the amount of basic rate tax  [the charity or Community Amateur Sports Clubs (CASCs) and any other charities or CASCs] you donate to will reclaim on your gift. CAF will reclaim 25% Gift Aid from HM Revenue & Customs and pass this through to Acumen.  The donor can claim higher rate tax relief (for more information, please refer to CAF’s online resource, What Is Gift Aid?). [Read More]

d.light Leaders Named 2014 Social Entrepreneurs of the Year

We are thrilled for our portfolio company d.light and Donn Tice, Chairman and CEO, along with cofounders Ned Tozun, President, and Sam Goldman, Chief Customer Officer, for being named Social Entrepreneurs of the year 2014 by the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship. d.light is a for-profit social enterprise that manufactures and distributes solar lighting and power products with primary markets in the developing world, today announced that d.light, along with 37 other individuals and organizations in the 2014 class, will be fully integrated into the events and initiatives of the World Economic Forum. [Read More]