Our Beginnings

By Laura Saracho

What we’ve learned since starting GatherFor.

It’s been almost two months since we began GatherFor. During a short seven weeks, we’ve created partnerships, renamed our company, engaged with and trained volunteers, talked with people in New York who are struggling to have their basic needs met, and have had long conversations about the unique value we can add to the world and the best way we can ensure people get their needs met during this pandemic, and beyond.

Needless to say, we’ve learned a lot. And we wanted to share a few of these big discoveries with our community, partners, and peers. Why?

For one, we want to be transparent and open about our journey as a new organization, and two, we’d love for you to join the conversation and provide any insight and/or expertise with questions and discoveries we’ve surfaced.

Let’s dive in.

Learning 1: Our vision must come to us, instead of being invented by us

It’s very tempting, especially as a new organization, to write a vision before seeing it in action. That’s what a vision is anyways, right? A vivid, mental image of what we want GatherFor to be in the future based on deep aspirations and dreams. Yet, week after week, we keep returning to this idea that Charles Eisenstein writes in The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible: “It is not ours to decide what is true or possible.” It’s not ours to write a vision without long conversations with co-authors (we see the communities we work in as our co-authors) we want to do this work with. We have strong theories of what can create impact, and are modeled after a few highly impactful organizations around the world. Yet as of today, our inclination is to continue to lean into the present learning (by speaking with communities we’re hoping to work in), and letting the vision come more and more into focus as we engage ongoing dialogue with our co-authors.

Learning 2: We can’t produce the human relationships that we’d like to see emerge…

…but we can create the conditions for them to blossom. Teju, our founder, wrote beautifully about helping his dad in the garden and how this connects to our urgent wanting to connect with and help people today. He wrote that after gardening for several weeks, he is only now starting to see seeds sprouts. The last few weeks felt like they had nothing to do with the “direct payoff”; they weren’t handling plants. They were assembling raised beds, setting up drip irrigation, shoveling huge piles of dirt and mulch, and preparing a compost station. Only after all of that happened were they finally able to plant seeds and water them. And only in the last few days were they seeing sprouts.

It struck our team that ultimately, it’s the plants that are doing the work themselves. They’re growing. They’re producing veggies and fruits and flowers.

Bringing this back to our work: We can’t produce the human relationships that we’d like to see emerge. But we can create the conditions for them to blossom. And we’re doing that. Our sunlight is a powerful idea that is drawing people in, lighting the way. Our soil is a trusting relationship, from which all we hope for will grow. Our water is a learning posture — the ability to hold things loosely and adjust as we receive new input and information.

This is why we haven’t directly worked with any Neighbors in these first 7 weeks — because of the care we’ve had to use in order to create conditions of trust and growth.

Learning 3. We’re discovering the balance between helping others and letting them help themselves

When we first started GatherFor, we saw so many people stretched thin — both physically and mentally. The pandemic disproportionally affects people who are already economically and socially vulnerable, and many people we’ve encountered seemed overwhelmed by an ever-growing to-do list: How do I apply for a stimulus package? And unemployment? And healthcare? And what about childcare? Groceries? Next month’s rent?

Part of GatherFor’s mission is to support people who are navigating these challenges. Yet it’s a tricky balance between offering support, aka “I can help you buy groceries,” and also not stripping people of their independence. One community member we spoke with specifically talked about the experience of no longer being able to properly take care of her family, and how emotionally challenging that is. Another community member shared they needed human support to find a new job because they didn’t have the mental capacity to do it alone.

So our question is this: What is the balance between providing direct support to others while simultaneously empowering them to help themselves? Can both be done at once? Do we need to pick a side, or can our model be flexible enough to work both ways? For now, we’re trying to be direct with Neighbors by offering support and asking, ‘would that be of value?’ Our aim is to stay in a learning posture here and also recognize each Neighbor is different.

Learning 4: We need to truly know a neighborhood

As a place-based organization ourselves, we’re fascinated by local approaches to improving economic mobility, Opportunity Insights published a great report on Neighborhoods which discusses how social mobility varies widely both across cities and neighborhoods within the U.S. At GatherFor, this presents an opportunity to zoom into a neighborhood, deeply understand it, build trust, and learn how our model could be most impactful. Of course, this also means we need strong, authentic, and trusting neighborhood relationships while avoiding the “drop in and then drop out” dynamic of outside-of-community helpers.

The time of social distancing and COVID makes some of these relationship-building tasks challenging, but nothing we think is insurmountable.

Learning 5. Creating a model that’s equitable and empowering will be critical to our impact

Any organization that does good for others runs the risk of disempowering the oppressed. A guiding principle of GatherFor is “learn together” whereby everyone has a perspective which at once makes them an expert, but also a layperson. We all have something beautiful and valuable to offer one another.

How can we make this loud and clear at GatherFor? How do we ensure we don’t create a helper versus helpless dynamic, but rather one that is equitable and balanced? This learning is also a call for support — can anyone offer us training, resources, or other means to better educate our team on power dynamics and privilege?

If you have any ideas, responses, or thoughts about these learnings throughout our journey, comment on this post or write us at hello@gatherfor.org :)

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We help turn your neighborhood into your safety net.