We believe empathy and listening are the foundation of leadership and are critical to developing solutions with the poor. As part of their empathy training, the Acumen Fund Global Fellows are stripped of their wallets and cell phones, and are given only a 2-ride Metrocard and a $5 bill, and are sent out into the city to experience for one day what it means to be poor in New York. Below is one Fellow’s reflections:
I have lived with hunger before, not knowing when or from where my next meal would come. I have lived with illness before, not knowing when or from where healing would come. But at least I had a place to rest my head at night, and in times like that, for me, that was enough. I had the opportunity to see what it would feel like to take away that one comfort I treasured most, a place to call home.
Reaching the homeless shelter in the late morning, I found the doors bolted shut. I stood there and contemplated my next move. I imagined myself lugging around a small suitcase containing my earthly possessions. There was no notice on the door, but I had a fact sheet which told me the shelter would open at 4PM. May as well look for something to eat I thought to myself. Armed with my list of feeding facilities, I marched on to the closest one, feeling down but not out.
Getting to the facility I pulled on the door. Locked! I stood there, staring at the buzzer, wondering whether or not to press it. I must have looked pitiful because a street vendor came over to press the buzzer on my behalf and smiled kindly as he egged me on to speak into the intercom. A faint voice picked up on the other said. ‘I’d like to inquire about your meals’, I asked. ‘Come back at noon.’, the response. I was taken aback. I had not anticipated hitting a brick wall quite so soon. I felt the stares from the vendors selling their wares on the edge of the street but dared not raise my eyes to meet theirs. Two doors had remained shut when I needed them most. Unable to eat when my body craved nourishment, instead having to be told when I could eat. I felt like a child again, unable to make decisions for myself. With nowhere to rest and nothing to eat, feelings of despair and shame came over me. I had to move on. Still avoiding the vendors glares, I deliberately held my head high to counter the feelings I felt inside, and moved swiftly in the opposite direction. I just wanted to melt into the crowd and blend in. Looking at the throngs of people perusing through the latest fashions hanging in the stores as they bit into yummy looking treats, I wished just for a second, I could walk in their shoes.
My stomach was now grumbling and I was beginning to feel a little weak. I decided to go to the nearby hospital, I’d been suffering from a cough anyway and could use this as an excuse to camp there as I waited for the food shelter to open. Besides, I was guaranteed a place to sit and rest my legs and a bathroom which I so desperately needed now. I spent the next 4 hours in queues. A queue to give my reason for visiting. A queue to give my medical history. A queue to give my identity particulars. A queue to have my vitals taken. A queue to finally see the doctor. Armed with my prescription in hand, feeling victorious, I marched with renewed strength to the pharmacy. Another queue. My heart sank! I was hungry, and all around me people ate food they’d bought from the cafeteria in the next wing. An hour and a half later, I walked out of the hospital with my medicine packet feeling exhausted and on the verge of collapse from hunger. At least, I thought, something went right today. My body and stomach told me it was time to go home, the experiment was over. I paused to imagine where I’d go now if I truly had no home.
As we stop and think about what it would it feel like to walk in the shoes of the homeless, the hungry and the vulnerable, stop for a second and imagine how they wish they were walking in yours. At the end of the day, we all deserve the opportunity to live a life where we have the freedom to make basic choices about what we eat and when, and about where and when we lay our heads down to rest. This for me is dignity.