Can You Hear Me Now?

The calls began early in the week and just kept coming. While it’s not unusual for me to receive an occasional call from a person who needs help, it was unusual to get so many calls in a row. And why were they calling me?

We have a designated phone number and a whole cadre of staff members who take similar calls every day. They help callers find a food pantry near where they live or refer them to a place that has the services they need.  

As I took the time to listen, to listen patiently and with intent to really hear them, I wondered how many people who answer the phone really take the time to listen anymore.  And what would make a person call a perfect stranger to tell them their story and ask for help?  Every caller was desperate for food for their family or themselves, and clearly this was a call they’d rather not have to make. There was a pride, and at the same time a sense of embarrassment, as they told me about their circumstances.

They often began with a declaration that they were not calling for themselves, but for a family member, parent or friend.  It was often hard to hear them because they were talking softly as if each word was hard to get out. They shared their background – how hard it’s been to make ends meet and that they were good people in a temporary situation. Searching for some sense of dignity, they often said they just needed a helping hand, not a hand out.

It didn’t take long to unravel the mystery of why I was receiving the calls. It turns out that through a clerical error, my direct number had been listed as a help line. It was a mistake that was a hidden gift.  

It’s clearly more challenging for people now - the desperation stronger, the options more limited. Somehow, as the stock market rises and Wall Street is making more money, things haven’t yet trickled down to the working class. This is reflected in ACFB’s distribution numbers doubling over the past four years.  All boats have not risen in this recovery; there is a growing fear that perhaps they never will.

At the same time, there is toxicity and resentment in the air about the fact that so many people need help, as if they aren’t making the same efforts as others. It’s reflected in the vehemence of talk radio, as if the poor are the enemy of what is good and right about America.  It’s reflected in the newly proposed $40 billion cut in the SNAP (food stamp) program by the House of Representatives. (That’s up from $20 million proposed in earlier versions.)

Why are things so stuck? Why can’t we change this dynamic? Why can’t we find middle ground, a way forward for decent hard-working people?

As Americans, we hold independence as one of our highest values. We see it especially with the elderly, so many of whom grew up during the war or through hard times that demanded they be self-sufficient. They were the savers, those who delayed gratification to build the middle class. And now they find themselves in need, often with nowhere to turn. It’s also felt by parents whose responsibility to feed and nurture their children is limited by low paying, dead-end jobs.  

As we look at hopeful signs in a slow recovery, we are often reminded that the high unemployment figures may be the new normal. If this is the case, why are such draconian cuts in food stamps and other assistance programs being proposed?  Why the environment of meanness?  Why now?

It’s staggering to see how the wealth gap has grown in the past 30 years. The top 1% of Americans own 40% of the nation’s wealth and take home 25% of the annual income, while 80% of Americans own only 7%. The top 1% own 50% of all the stocks, bonds and mutual funds, while the bottom 50% own only 0.5%. Essentially, half the country has little savings and investment in the stock market. So, the news that the stock market is doing well literally has no effect on nearly half of all Americans. (Source: Ariely and Norton study on wealth inequality in America)

Following these trends, one can see how we’re losing the middle class and creating a permanent “emergency” for the working poor. So, why would we cut the most basic support systems to those in dire need of help?

When I stop to think about the thousands of people in the Food Bank network who work hard to make things better for their neighbors in need, I’m struck by the community of caring that has been created over the past 34 years. But we have not yet found our voice to better address the systemic issues that allow poverty to continue in the context of such great wealth. We have not spoken in one clear voice about how to address the deeper challenges. 

Finding our voice is often harder than operating food banks and pantries. It requires that we educate ourselves beyond the usual lose/lose framework that the media and political parties continually offer us. It insists that in the busyness of life we cannot be neutral about hungry children or elders in need.

It might be that we all need to make that difficult call, to ask for help to find our voice to advocate for better answers. The call might go something like this:

I got your name from someone and they told me that you could help me find my voice.  Is that right?  
Well sure, with the right support, hard work and determination we can all find our voice.

How long will it take?  Because with all of my life demands I don’t have much time.  
It’s completely up to you. Eventually it just blends into our regular day instead of being an activity divorced from our day-to-day life.

Do I have to tell my friends and family?  I’m not sure what they will think of me. 
Well, no, you don’t have to tell them right away, but eventually it will become clear that you have this new ability and motivation to speak up.

Do I speak alone, or will there be others who speak out? 
We rarely do this work alone, and to sustain over time, we are most effective when we work in the context of community.

Will I be successful? 
It really depends on how you measure success.  Will things change quickly? Probably not. Will you feel better about yourself for having spoken up? Absolutely! We find that if we speak to our common values, things will eventually change.

Will it affect my lifestyle or cost me anything?
Yes it will, and that is the best part. When you speak your truth, something changes, and you feel richer from the experience.

Can my actions speak for me?  
Yes, they always have.

What prevents us, we may ask, from knowing and speaking to our core values?

No one will listen – that our voice is not strong or clear – that we don’t know enough to begin – that we have nothing significant to say – that we will say it wrong – that people will not receive our message well – that others will disagree – that we might look foolish – that we will be ostracized – that our efforts will not really make a difference – that we will fail. 

If you can relate to these fears, you’re not alone  But the challenge is to go ahead and speak up. Just knowing you didn’t remain silent is reward in and of itself. Even better, by using your voice, you actually could make a difference. Reward does not come without effort; isn’t that we were always taught as children?

September is Hunger Action Month. There’s no better time to find your voice and take action. Check out our “30 Ways in 30 Days” calendar to explore the areas that interest you most. If you have questions, send an email or pick up the phone. We’d love to hear from you!

Volunteer, write a blog, make a connection, test your democracy. The only thing you risk losing is your frustration and sense of powerlessness. Join the community of hope. Be engaged, educated and empowered.

-Bill Bolling,
Executive Director and Founder

This letter appears in the Fall 2013 issue of Foodsharing, our quarterly print newsletter.