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

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

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

We help turn your neighborhood into your safety net.