Social justice, human services, or political action?

One of the reasons I started this blog is that I really do want to help make the world a better place – hence the title “MenschWorks”. The short definition of a “mensch” according to Wikipedia is “a person of honor and integrity.” However, I really like what Urban Dictionary adds: “A mensch is a someone to admire and emulate, someone of noble character. The key to being “a real mensch” is nothing less than character, rectitude, dignity, a sense of what is right, responsible, and decorous.” These are the traits, values, and character qualities I always strive to emulate, whether as a leader at work, a parent, as a friend or as a community member. My family have been involved with issues of homelessness for decades, usually around feeding those who are food-insecure, as we’ve always wanted to practice what we preach – and frankly – to model it for others as well.

I think this is why I’ve had such a hard time reconciling my feelings about a local organization focused on providing shelter for the homeless in our area. While they do great work, and have been successful, both in creating community shelters and even an emergency winter shelter, and have been successful at garnering support from local faith-based organizations, I believe they’re walking a fine line in where they’re putting their energy and focus these days. And should it even matter how formal non-profit organizations identify?

In this case,
• Are they a social services organization?
• a human services organization?
• a social justice organization?
• a political action organization?
• a faith based organization?

It’s most likely of mix of some or even all of these. And does it really matter?

I would argue that it really does! For close to 15 years, my family and I have been volunteers with an incredible non-profit organization in Seattle called Teen Feed. As their name suggests, they feed homeless youth, primarily in the U District of Seattle, 7 days a week, 365 days a year! It really does incredible work. But of course it’s so much more! One of their tag-lines is even that “it’s more than just a meal”. Teen Feed has volunteer advocates who work with youth, on helping to connect them with services to get a hand off the streets, in addition to case workers, peer mentors and more.

I served on the board for a few years both in development as well as board chair. During that time, the organization experienced healthy growth and won some very influential grants. It was an exciting time – but scary as well. In the end, though, we found the organization had grown too fast, decisions had been made that led us in certain directions, that in all honesty, took us away from the core mission of feeding and supporting youth on the streets. The organization course corrected, and I can honestly say, in the last few months, when we have served dinner with our bi-monthly meal team (more about this later!), the energy has been the most positive we’ve seen it in years! I believe this is totally due to new leadership, both on the staff and on the board, who refocused on the core mission and vision of the organization, and boy does it show!

This is where, IMHO, the aforementioned homeless shelter organization is struggling. They have been leading the way for the siting of a permanent year-round low barrier emergency homeless shelter to serve King County, and have helped bring pressure to place it in a site that was chosen for political reasons (yet to be revealed – at least to the public) and have supported a political process that has divided a community, pitted neighbors against each other, and was fraught with political strife. All this from an organization purporting to shelter the homeless. Now that the heat has been turned up, they have seemed to back down a bit – but what an incredible missed opportunity for them!

As advocates for the homeless for years, my family and I, and the communities we are part of, could have been incredible partners in creating something that, while I’m not sure is exactly what is needed, is at least something our city has committed to supporting as a community partner. Now, with a bitter taste in our mouths, and feeling betrayed and misled by a faith based organization (sadly not the first time), I often return from meetings feeling like I need a shower! is it too late for reparation? Never! But it’s gonna take a LOT of work and earning of trust, and is frankly something I’m not even sure they care about.

But you know, this is just my opinion, for what it’s worth. I know others in my communities, neighbors and members of one of the synagogue communities of which I’m a part, who disagree with my concerns, and I believe I understand them as well. But as seems to be the energy these days – in politics in general – if you’re not with me, you’re against me! And that’s an environment and world I want no part of. AND I do believe we can change it – IF and when we’re willing to work together!

And by the way, please let me know if you got the joke, or the highlighted subliminal message in the image! = )

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