When Galas Cost us Everything (or Change the Story)
We smiled and waved as she walked out of the room, now a mother of three with one on the way, together with her husband, staying until the last song played. She had a smile on her face that was what I think beautiful and good should be defined as. Nearly ten years ago, she and her family exited security at Syracuse airport to an anxious and excited group of us who had spent the previous three days furnishing and decorating an apartment for our arriving Rwandan family. I will never forget those moments of matching names to faces, guiding them into our cars for the short ride home.
The days to come were filled with shopping excursions for the bare necessities, navigating paperwork, watching videos captured in their years as asylum seekers in Mozambique and more. Multiple days a week I would sit around the table with their family, unable to understand nearly any of the conversation, but feeling more at home than I had in years. One of the younger girls would come with a bowl and pitcher, pouring water over my hands to wash them, and the older girls placing steaming hot plates of fufu, ugali, cabbage, rice, meat and more on the table.
These were the sisters that taught me how to eat with my hands (with much laughter involved on their part). These were the ones who brought me day after day into the heart of Syracuse's Northside. These were the ones whose hospitality welcomed me into this neighborhood, this calling and ultimately birthed Hopeprint.
Several years ago, we had put on one of our first galas with our Rwandan sisters performing a cultural song. They were amazing and probably the most memorable aspect of the evening, but when they were done, there was not a single spot at tables for them. Every seat had been filled by paying guests. Another moment on this life story I will never forget was the moment my team mate came to get me. I was about to get up and give my Executive Director speech, and she said, "This is too important." I went downstairs to find my sisters enraged at their exclusion. Rather than finding themselves honored guests (which they ought to have been) at this event, there was not a seat for them, as tickets were unreasonably expensive for their budgets, and we we hadn't accounted for that. As I took the stage, all I could think was, "We have put on an amazing event and have failed."
It was the smack in the face I needed, and every year since, their faces and this conviction consumes me. You do not, under any circumstances, get to a unified neighborhood rich in culture and connectedness if you do not practice equity. (Equity: Giving the most to those who need the most or could stand to gain the most.)
Last night, nearly eighty of our children worked for weeks to share a performance with our community. "I am brave, I am bruised, this is who I'm meant to be, this is me. Look out 'cause here I come, and I'm marching on to the beat I drum..." There with dozens of other children were my Rwandan sister's babies. At the tables throughout the room, there were our Somali, Iraqi, Bhutanese and other friends. On the dance floor that finished off the night, there were our Nepali and East African sisters teaching their traditional dances to the Italians, Irish, Pakistani and others. As I watched African Americans whose ancestors were brought as slaves dancing alongside of those who have comes as refugees, wow. My Rwandan sister leaned over to a friend and said, "This night is beautiful in every way. I don't want to leave."
This morning as I woke, I received a text from a Somali Muslim friend, who joined us amidst the key week of the start of Ramadan for his culture and religion: "...The inclusion of your gala was extraordinary and I don't think any gala I ever go to in the future would ever match how included I felt..."
I have the back end information on how much money it costs us financially to be equitable. We could have gleaned at least twice as much profit off of our gala if we weren't. But we would have failed. Because if we are to truly believe that we all will flourish when we are a unified neighborhood rich in culture and connectedness, then equity and inclusion are not an option. Period.
Friends, we cannot discover a world where we love and embrace one another as humanity when we focus on the financial bottom line and our own maximization. We can fill rooms with people whose wallets are thick, and money can flow, but we have missed the whole point. It is far to tempting to give into the idea that maximizing money towards our poverty alleviation efforts via events that cater to the resourced is allowable in the book of the not-for-profit world. After all, isn't it ultimately going towards good things?
I humbly submit that no dollar is worth placing the heart of our missions on a shelf. No check is worth the price of exclusion. To divorce that which raises funding for our passions from the passions themselves is... we can fill in that blank.
And where does the money go once we raise it? How have the streets changed? How have banking accounts changed? How have living conditions changed? Have the monies invested in paychecks translated into community impact? Why or why not?
If I hadn't had sisters bold enough to give voice to their sadness over the inequitable situation I had facilitated, I may have stayed blind. I am forever grateful they were comfortable enough to show me their anger. They changed me. Forever.
As the beautiful tapestry of our community fill the room, my deaf now-citizen friend, alongside of the leader of our local poverty alleviation initiative focused on people of color, seated beside of the mayor and his wife, and a successful business man... wow. I believe that every dollar spent to practice dignity of all is worth it. I see it in our eyes. We have been beckoned to a different life to invite in a new story.
Does your part of the story include giving to foster equity in our communities? Empowering moms with young children to have washing machines in their homes? Starting small member-owned businesses working towards a living wage for families? Creating spaces of love and belonging that facilitate movement towards realizing their personal potential? We can be equitable, celebrate our shared community, embrace one another intentionally and get the resources we need to get to the vision. In fact, if the resources come without the rest, they are at great risk of being a waste. So will you participate with your resources? Every dollar makes a difference, and all the more, every human being matters.