Starting with Belonging: Shifting GatherFor’s Model

By Teju Ravilochan

Over the last few years, I have been researching models that centered the experience of belonging for people as a transformative and overlooked part of addressing society and structural inequality. One of the models I’ve been most inspired by for years, ever since I was lucky enough to work with them while I was at Uncharted, is Thread, led by the indomitable Sarah Hemminger.

Thread’s model, operating in Baltimore matches a team of up to five adult volunteers with a freshman student performing in the bottom quintile of their class and hailing from low-income neighborhoods with no more than a 6% high school graduation rate. The odds seem stacked against these students but Thread’s offering is simple: unconditional support, 24/7, for ten years, provided by a team of people who serve as a “family” for the student. And they deliver on it. After having operated deeply with several hundred students, they’ve seen a 92% graduation rate among the students they’ve worked with. The results defy much of the traditional hypotheses around what’s needed. “If you address the issue of social isolation,” CEO Sarah Hemminger says, “everything else takes care of itself.”

“If you address the issue of social isolation, everything else takes care of itself. — Sarah Hemminger

Given her approach, I wondered if a similar approach might work for adults having to navigate the challenges of the pandemic alone, which became the first iteration of GatherFor. Although our first three individuals and over a dozen volunteers were engaged in the process, there was a peculiar awkwardness to the model. The “Neighbors” (our term for those we work with) had lost their jobs and faced food & housing insecurity, but they were reluctant to fully avail themselves of the support of their teams of 3-4 volunteers. The volunteers had committed to having their back through the journey, offering support with resumes, interview prep, researching openings, finding health insurance, navigating government bureaucracies to secure benefits, but it was a unidirectional support. We found that the sense of friendship and comradery was more interesting to the neighbors. And, they also tended to more joyfully or fully engage when they could offer advice or perspective to the volunteers who were supporting them.

As we started reflecting on the unexpected resistance to the support of our volunteers, we realized that our culture (problematically) makes it feel shameful if you aren’t able to provide for the basic needs of yourself or your family. When a group of privileged strangers (in our case, almost all identifying as White, heterosexual, and relatively unaffected economically by the pandemic) shows up to help you, it might serve as a further reminder of your failing to be self-sufficient.

Indeed, when I approached Taurean Lewis, now a GatherFor board member, because of her leadership with poverty and social injustice in Brownsville, Brooklyn to ask her if we might try the model in her community, she seemed skeptical, telling me “I don’t think this would work here.”

I reflected on her feedback and sought advice from Sonya Passi. She started FreeFrom, an incredible organization that equips survivors of domestic violence to achieve financial independence. She eloquently quipped, when I asked her about shame , “reciprocity is an antidote to shame.” When one group is the helper and another group the helpee, it can often create a shameful dynamic. But when everyone is giving and helping everyone else, that’s a community.

Reciprocity is an antidote to shame. — Sonya Passi

I also spoke to Jesús Gerena, CEO of the Family Independence Initiative, which gives direct cash assistance to poor families and provides a platform to provide support to each other. He asked me a simple question: “When you have a personal challenge in your life, where do you go for help?” I paused, recalling recent challenges around life decisions. In every case, I had gone to friends and family members seeking advice. “Did you ever consult professionals?” “No, in fact, I try not to if I can help it.” I responded, realizing where he was going. “Exactly. Most of us want to go to our friends and family, not to strangers, not to professionals. “We seek professional guidance most often when we have already talked to friends or family, or sometimes for sensitive support that we don’t want to talk to family or friends about. But, especially when you’re poor, it’s not something you often do.”

Inspired to think differently about our model, I went to Taurean with a new idea: what if we got Brownsville residents who had lost their jobs and were facing other similar challenges together in groups to support each other? She seemed intrigued, and agreed to help me rally some members of her community to start prototyping the model.

In our current model, 5-7 people living near one another, facing similar challenges, come together to support one another. They meet weekly on Zoom to share stories and strategies for addressing common needs. We provide them $500 in direct cash assistance when they start. Based on Neighbor interest and feedback we organize workshops on topics like financial independence, finding housing, and starting your own business.

The Neighbors keep showing up. And a big part of the reason is that they long to contribute. Though they are besieged by bills, housing pressures, the quest to feed their kids, and somehow entertaining and supporting their kids through school, they all look for chances to take care of others in their community. It is something that I didn’t think of, and I don’t think enough about: each of us desires the chance to contribute and deeply appreciate when we are given that chance. As one Neighbor shared, “I would do anything for this community. I went through a period of darkness and they pulled me out of it.” Another shared, “I want to feel useful. GatherFor gives me that chance.” Though the Neighbors share resources and knowledge with each other, by far the biggest value seems to be the sense of belonging. “This is a family,” said another Neighbor. “When I have nowhere else to go, I have a group of people I can turn to.”

“This is a family. When I have nowhere else to go, I have a group of people I can turn to.” — GatherFor Neighbor

Our question is what might happen if you felt that deep sense of belonging with your own neighbors, if they had your back through thick and thin? We are a humble effort thus far, but this seed of deep belonging offers us encouragement. Up against complex systems of economic injustice, a sense of fierce belonging is precisely the start we want to have. Building a pocket of possibility where this is a felt reality is our first goal.

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We help turn your neighborhood into your safety net.

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