Bridging the Opportunity Divide

SXSW: How Benevolent Gives a Voice to People Who Aren’t Usually Heard

March 14, 2014
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SXSW: How Benevolent Gives a Voice to People Who Aren’t Usually Heard
A woman talks about the impact of Benevolent.net. YouTube
The website has a unique idea for fighting poverty in America.

While others talked about cloud robotics, tried on wearable technology, or watched a 3-D printer spit out custom-made Oreos, Megan Kashner focused her SXSW Interactive session on video interviews with low-income Americans and the lessons that we can learn from listening to people in need.

Kashner, a clinical social worker, is the founder of Benevolent.net, a website that helps low-income people raise funds for things they need. “We at Benevolent are not the only people talking about listening, and not just listening, but following the lead of low-income Americans,” she said of the motivation behind her panel “Listening to People in Need: Lessons for America.”

On Benevolent, people tell their stories and describe what stands in the way of their success. The platform also aims to provide a simple way for those who want to help “to step into the stories of those who are trying to reach their goals” by donating to individuals whose videos and needs are featured.

Here is what we learned from the video interviews with John, Tasha, Kris, Melissa, and Danielle:

Lesson #1: “Getting and keeping a job is expensive.” The costs of uniforms and tools needed for certain jobs are costly and can be a barrier for low income Americans needing work to improve their situation.

Lesson #2: “Transportation is a huge issue.” Sometimes public transportation is the only option — given the cost of buying and maintaining a car. But it can prevent someone with good intentions and a great work ethic from making it to work or class on time.

Lesson #3: “Being employed is not enough.” Finding work is only half the battle, as low wages and high costs of living mean that many people who are working long hours still need food stamps, subsidized energy and childcare, and housing assistance to provide for their families.

Lesson #4: “Kids need more than a roof over their heads.” Housing instability can hold kids back from getting the most out of their education. And beyond a safe place to life, kids also need a parent who can pick them up if they stay after school for activities, who can help them with homework, and who can pack them a school lunch.

Lesson #5: “We need to change the rules.” By listening to the stories of low-income Americans and learning from them, we can fix the systemic problems that lead to poverty.

As Kashner wrote in a Huffington Post piece, where she previewed the five lessons she discussed at SXSW, “How would we re-structure supports and employment practices to make it possible for low-income Americans to set their goals, get help overcoming hurdles, and know that people believed in them? Let’s start that conversation and stop the vitriol that has marked recent conversations about poverty and progress.”

Through these stories — both in the session and on the site — Benevolent is able to simplify an issue as complex as how to pull an individual out of poverty. How does the site do it? By breaking it down in human terms. The story of John, who needed steel-toed boots and precision instruments for his job as a machinist, brought a human face to the American issue of, as Kashner put it, “people needing to spend money they don’t have to take a job they desperately need.” The video featuring Tasha, who was able to escape domestic violence only by moving to a shelter two hours away from where her kids went to school, brought life to this statistic: Low- to moderate-income households spend 42 percent of their total annual income on transportation.

The last lesson built off of a video of Danielle, who looked to Benevolent donors when she needed money for a security deposit in order to live in a safer place with her son. Danielle, who cuts railroad tracks for a living, quoted Robert Reich on how being poor is the hardest job in America. “And I gotta tell you as a poor person, as a working poor person, it definitely is,” she said.

When NationSwell asked what is working when it comes to changing the rules, and who beyond Benevolent is listening to the stories low-income Americans, Kashner mentioned the Family Independence Initiative, which weaves together these experiences with hard data to challenge the stereotypes holding low-income families back, and LIFT, an organization that connects trained advocates and community members to help low-income Americans get ahead.

“They are pioneering some really interesting ways to listen to and shape their policy positions and their programmatic approach based on what their clients are telling them,” Kashner said of the LIFT team.

“The people who are doing the real work everyday to help and walk alongside low-income families as they try and reach their goals are small, local organizations,” she added — saying the solutions lie not with one organization but with the numerous school counselors, social workers, pastors, and others who listen to these stories and use them to change the rules.

Watch one of the videos from the session above then let us know what you think about some of the questions Kashner posed: What would our nation be like if we listened to what low-income Americans had to say? How might that change our approach as a country, as policymakers, as employers, as voters, and as community members?

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