Episode 72: Get Committed And Take Action With Mark Bergel

RTNP 72 | Taking Action

 

If you have been listening to Relish THIS for a while, you have probably detected a theme: I’m a big fan of taking action.

In fact, I ask each of my wonderful guests at the end of each episode what action they would like for you, dear listener, to take after our discussion.

Well, my guest today, Mark Bergel, Co-Founder of the Shared Humanity Project is ALL about action.

The Shared Humanity Project enables people to select an area of interest and be presented with actions they can take in that area to help eradicate poverty. It’s an incredibly interesting approach to circumnavigate the inevitable question most nonprofits hear, “That’s a great mission, but how can I help?”

Mark and I share a foundation in Sociology so had a really fun, thoughtful conversation that touched on ways to form partnerships to expand your mission, working with INSPIRE phase opportunities to create stakeholder engagements to spread the word about your organization, effective storytelling, persona development, and much more.

I hope you enjoy this valuable discussion.

 

Action Ask:

Make a vow, get committed, and take action.

Listen to the podcast here:

Get Committed And Take Action With Mark Bergel

My guest is Mark Bergel and he is the Cofounder of The Shared Humanity Project, which is this amazing action-driven organization that is trying to solve, eliminate or eradicate poverty here in the United States. He and I had a really fun, thoughtful conversation. We have a lot of shared approaches to things as well as a background in sociology. It was fun to talk with him. One of the things I find most compelling about his organization is it’s so action-oriented.

Essentially, what Mark’s organization does is enable you to go into his system and select an area of interest. It gives you action items for actionable things you can do to help eradicate poverty. One of the things we talked a lot about or talked a little bit about at the end of our conversation was commitment and inspiring people to take a real strong, committed approach to what you’re doing.

Whether that’s to take one action here in the next three months before the end of the year or as this drops actually in the first quarter of the year or take three actions in the next week. Committing to something, sticking with that and seeing it to its end is what makes things happen and Mark’s organization is definitely helping people to do that. I would encourage you to read this episode with an open heart and embrace some of the things that Mark and his team are doing. I hope you enjoy it.

How are you doing, Mark?

I’m doing great, Stu. It’s nice to be with you.

Thank you so much for joining me on the show. I’m excited to chat with you and learn about what you guys are up to at The Shared Humanity Project. You’re based in the Baltimore area, correct?

When I started, I was in the DC area, the suburb outside of DC called Bethesda, Maryland. I’ve since moved to Florida. My parents live down here, but my partner is still in Bethesda. We’re based in Maryland. Although, in this day and age, you can work from anywhere.

If there’s anything that the last years have taught us, it’s that people don’t care where we’re working from anymore.

Also, because our scope is national, it helps to have a few different places from which we are working.

Tell us all a little bit more about the project and what you guys are up to. I know that your goal here is to end poverty and I love to learn how you’re doing that.

When people hear that, they typically think it’s idealistic. It’s pie in the sky. It’s not realistic. The truth is that it’s quite achievable if we have the will for it. The reason we don’t end poverty is not because we don’t know how or we don’t have the resources. We have plenty of resources. There’s stuff everywhere. Nobody has to go without a meal, without a bed, without access to health information or health resources. It’s a matter of will and breaking out of the conditioned approach to life that we have.

That latter point of the conditioned approach to life that we have then overlaps into what The Shared Humanity Project is all about, which is to say economic stability for everyone, and then an exploration of what is possible for us all. There are a lot of people who can’t even think about their potential because they’re so stressed out because they’re crammed into tough living conditions without basic need items all around them. We know that inhibits not only brain function but also your ability to think about what you have the potential to do, which is a real shame.

RTNP 72 | Taking Action
Taking Action: When people hear that they typically think it’s idealistic, it’s pie in the sky, it’s not realistic. The truth is that it’s quite achievable if we have the will for it.

 

There’s so much potential within us that it is a shame that we cannot maximize that fully when there is so much out there available for people. What are the ways that you’re tackling this? I know education is one of the tenets, but what are some of the other ways you guys approach this problem?

Thank you for asking that so early because we have developed this plan, called the National Plan to End Poverty. It takes into account all of the on-the-ground experiences that both Katherin and I have had. Katherin Phillips is my partner in this work. She’s a brilliant economist, but she has had some great on-the-ground experience as I have as well. We take all of that and we look at what has not worked from a local state or federal government perspective and we say, “This approach to poverty that we’ve had has been very symptom level.”

It’s almost created a nonprofit industrial complex to match the government in terms of being too bureaucratic for what it’s trying to do. In other words, we could solve these issues if we say that the people responsible for solving them are in the mirror. If you’ve got a mirror, you look in it and that’s where the answer lies. To be more specific to your question, what we’re trying to do is no matter who you are, if you run a business, if you go to a temple or a church, if you’re in a rotary club, if you run a healthcare company or if you work for a healthcare company, you can identify with that sector. You can pick any area of poverty, whether it’s education or health or basic needs, childcare or transportation.

There are ten of them that we’ve identified. We have this very simple web-based plan. You go on it, you pick your sector and by the way, an individual is a sector. If you’re a 17-year-old kid or a 45-year-old person, you could pick an individual and you pick what area you want to help in. It gives you 3, 4, 5 different ideas on what you can do. It doesn’t matter where you live.

I’ll ask you this later on in the show. I enjoy having conversations, but I also want to fuel action and for people to take some sort of action after reading this or on a daily basis, thinking about things that that one can do. One of the things that I feel is missing in the conversation is, “What do I do about this piece?” It’s refreshing to hear that you have a system for that and enable people to come up with something that they can truly act upon.

It would be tough for me to not use strong language in response because that’s what this is about. We can debate who’s to blame or who should help more and we could have an ivory tower debate. We could have a debate in a think tank, but it doesn’t matter what you say. You care about this world. It matters what you do. This is a plan that responds to that and says, “Take action.” I’m really glad you picked up on the word action, Stu, because that is what this is all about.

It’s a problem with social media. In fact, it’s a problem with a lot of the navel-gazing that goes on around the problems that we’re facing as a world. There is so much more opportunity to go get something done about it instead of sitting around and posting on social media about how bad it makes you feel. It’s a matter of getting out and doing something. How did you come up with this idea? How did you develop your system?

It doesn’t even matter what you say, what you care about this world. It matters what you do.

I’d probably spent ten years being a little frustrated that there was no more progress across the country in helping people get out of poverty. The more you study this, the more you realize there hasn’t been much progress, certainly anything of which to feel too proud of since we declared war on poverty in 1964. It’s almost cliché sometimes to cite that war on poverty and to say, “We haven’t made much progress.” “Why haven’t we,” is the question? I would say in about 2010. I started to get very frustrated that I wasn’t inspiring more change or creating more change.

I tried to work with folks around the country and I met some people who are doing fantastic work, but everybody tends to get siloed. Everybody tends to worry about whether their budget is going to be okay and that’s understandable. We almost start to judge success in the nonprofit sector on how much revenue we have each year instead of how much closer to being extinct we are because we should work ourselves out of business if our goal is to end poverty. It shouldn’t be to get bigger and bigger. It should be to get closer and closer to having to find something else to do.

I started looking around and in 2010, I said, “What does work?” I was surprised to find that not much worked and even in programs where they had success, if you drill down on the data, you could find that it was fairly selective. In other words, 200 people started the program and these ten people who finished were successful, so we should celebrate that. I used to think, “What happened to the other 190?” I think a critical eye helped me to say, “What we are missing here is full engagement.” We are almost telling businesses how they have to act, instead of saying, “Hey businesses, can you lead the way?”

RTNP 72 | Taking Action
Taking Action: We almost start to judge success in the non-profit sector on how much revenue we have each year, instead of how much closer to being extinct we are because we should work ourselves out of business if our goal is to end poverty.

 

Many business leaders I’ve met around the country are so committed to their fellow human beings. Instead of thrusting laws or regulations onto businesses, I think because so many people are in the private sector, we should look to the business community where they have to succeed or they go out of business. We could look to them to lead the way. I thought, “Faith communities are awfully inspired. Maybe they could lead the way as well.” I saw more students doing creative things to help individuals in their communities so they could lead the way. That’s how it came together. We looked at what were all the sectors, and we decided to put a lot of faith in everyone and say, “You guys could lead this.” That was behind it.

I’m excited to hear how you guys have tackled this. You’ve certainly identified three sectors that I think have a lot of power behind them and tend to have a lot of creative thinking and certainly a lot of gumption. It’s great that those three segments of the population get called out in your plan.

I can tell you, as long as we’re talking about the sectors, just so the readers know that there are ten sectors. The fitness sector, the civic associations, there’s the educational sector, the faith communities, the government sector itself, the healthcare industry, the nonprofit organizations, the philanthropic sector, the individuals and families and there are people with lived experience. This is a plan that puts people who live in or have lived in poverty front and center because they are the ones who can tell us what works and what doesn’t work.

How are you reaching out to those sectors? There’s probably some overlap in some of those, but have you identified ways to effectively get in front of all ten of those people?

If you go to NationalPovertyPlan.org, you’ll see those sectors. It’s easy to see them. Also, you’ll see the areas of poverty that we’ve identified. Before I even mention those, I’ll answer your question, which is to say, yes, we reviewed about 1,000 different programs before we put this plan online. We looked at what programs work and in what sectors are there innovative and/or proven solutions. We then started to reach out to them.

We have people from every sector who have been intimately involved in this plan and helping us decide. When we started, we first launched the plan in the summer of 2021. We had about 300 actions on there. We first loaded 1,000 on there. We took it back to 600 and then took it back to 300. Now, we are building it back up as everybody from these sectors tells us what they’re doing.

We need to look at how we can level the playing field for communities and help set them up for success.

You’re testing the actions to determine which ones should continue to be published and which ones might need a little bit of massage. Are you consistently and constantly adding new actions to the system?

Yeah. The plan is called the National Plan to End Poverty, but it could be more aptly titled the People’s Plan, if that hadn’t been co-opted by a political movement across the globe many years ago. We would call this the People’s Plan to End Poverty because so much of it is based on what people around the country are telling us because we can only be in a couple of places. We can only be in one place at once.

I want to know what works in South Dakota. How are they helping indigenous populations in South Dakota, where there’s been so much poverty? I need to hear from people in South Dakota. I can’t just read about it because we know that words can be made to look beautiful, but what’s happening on the ground? Hearing from people who live in every corner of this country is how this plan will be more impactful.

I had another gentleman on the show. One of the tactics that he deploys is to get into the places where his nonprofit is trying to help and spend a ton of time with the people there to get a better feel for what is happening. So many nonprofits and people go in with the best intentions, but they don’t have that historic knowledge to do things that are going to create a positive effect.

He embeds in those communities to find out what things would actually help instead of just sending in 50 pallets of bottled water to a place that has an abundance of clean drinkable water. He goes in and talks with the people and finds out what the things truly are that they need. It sounds like you’re doing similar work and you’re allowing that research and those conversations to happen before you prescribe a solution.

We’d certainly like to shine a light on an individual like that, somebody who is leading with dignity and respect. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to help people, but there certainly are considerations to have. I started to realize in the last few years that getting out of a neighborhood was better than going into a neighborhood. If you’re going to go into a neighborhood to create change, what are you saying? That they can’t do it themselves? What if we provided the resources and the access? Level the playing field for people and then get out of the way. Let them run their own communities.

No matter where they live, whether it’s in the rural areas of Central Appalachia or the rural areas of Northeast Arizona or inner-city areas in Philadelphia, it doesn’t matter. What matters more is that we look at how we can level the playing field for communities and help set them up for success. We know what a healthy community looks like. We know what economic success looks like. Let’s provide opportunities for people to achieve that. The input is at the beginning. I’m a big believer in equal opportunities at the beginning and then letting people create what they want to create in their lives.

That’s a fantastic way of approaching it. How do you guys identify the communities you want to bring into the program? Is there a mechanism by which you’re finding candidates for the program or is that as organic as bringing on the channels for assistance?

This is a plan that looks at the entire country. One thing we have not yet discussed is the data that we have in this plan. There is a significant amount of data. We call it the learn section. We have a learn section, an act section and an interact section. The interact section is where we hear from people who have risen out of poverty or who implemented programs. It’s a beautiful part of the plan, but the learn plan part of it is where people can go and see in-depth data on any part of the country they wish. If you want to learn about your area, maybe you live in a small community in Nebraska, but you want to learn about how many people in your community have internet access or insurance. What’s the employment status or how long does it take people to get to work?

RTNP 72 | Taking Action
Taking Action: People who are trying to rise out of poverty by working harder, lose their benefits. Therefore, hard work seems like it’s not paying off because your benefits are taken away before you can achieve economic stability or economic independence.

 

You can learn all of that from our data section. We have this very robust data section based on census bureau data but then put through our formulae to provide information that will then help you to know what is most needed in your community. Action is key, Stu, but the word that goes before action, which is a critical word in this, is “informed.”

Once people spend some time on our plan, they’ll be able to take informed action and know. To your point, you may want to make sure everybody has enough food, but if you look at the data on your community, you may find out that the bigger issue here is transportation or access to technology. Instead of focusing on food, let’s focus on technology.

You glean that information through census data. Is that where the bulk of that comes from?

It is. There’s a funny story about how Katherin and I started to work together, but the bigger picture is that you probably need a talented economist to pull this off. The first seven or eight years of me trying to figure out how to develop a plan, I didn’t have an economist with whom I was working. As soon as I got that, this started to take shape.

You need data, but you need to be able to work with the data and then you need some experience. For example, the federal poverty measure that we have in this country, as you probably know, is flawed. It’s the same line no matter where you live. If you live in Benton, Mississippi, Alfalfa County, Oklahoma or Montgomery County, Maryland, the poverty line is the same for you. That doesn’t make any sense because the cost of living is so dramatically different.

If you look at some places like major metropolitan areas, the cost of living there is much higher than in some of those places you mentioned.

Why is that important? Let’s look at SNAP. SNAP benefits are available up to about 130% of the poverty line. If you live in a place like a major metropolitan area and you’re a family of four and the poverty line as of now is $26,200 and you make $36,000 in your family of four, you are now above 130% of the poverty line. Your SNAP is gone and you are very far away. You’re probably another $35,000-plus away from being self-sufficient.

It’s called the “cliff effect.” It’s something a lot of people have heard as a phrase but what it means is that people who are trying to rise out of poverty by working harder, lose their benefits. Therefore, the hard work seems like it’s not paying off because your benefits are taken away before you can achieve economic stability or economic independence.

It’s like that childcare conundrum where people look at going back to work or paying for childcare or in having to pay for childcare and that’s not being economically viable because all of a sudden, your entire salary is wiped out through a number of different factors that come into play.

You are intimately tied to the wellbeing of others, whether or not you feel it on a conscious level.

It’s a lot like that and the good thing about this plan is we have solutions. Childcare is one of the areas of poverty that you could address. In the action guide, you pick the sectors that we talked about, but you could pick from nine different areas. Those areas are basic needs or childcare, education, employment, financial stability, health, housing, safety or transportation. You pick one of those areas. If childcare is the issue, once you pick your sector and you pick childcare, you’re going to get a menu of actions you can take.

You could use the data to say, “It looks like this is the one we need the most.” To your point, childcare is a lot like the SNAP benefits, which is to say getting a job sometimes makes it less affordable to live. This is about partnerships. One thing this plant screams is to not walk alone in this. Form partnerships. If you’re a business, form a partnership with a civic association or with an educational institution nearby.

Maybe what you could do is you could find childcare providers in those sectors for your employees. When you hire someone, if you can’t yet pay them enough to get by on their own, maybe you can reduce their costs by having childcare offerings or transportation deals because you’ve partnered with the local government. This is a plan that does emphasize the importance of collaboration.

I’ve been mentoring a company in the Boulder area with a co-working space. One of the selling points or the differentiators is that they are a co-working space for working moms where they have onsite childcare. That becomes something that enables people to either get out of the house for their own mental health but have access to onsite childcare where they know that they can spend some time working and their kids are going to be able to be watched by a professional staff member. There are people out there who are taking real action and creating a shift in how things are done so that we can hopefully enable some people to be their best selves in this space.

There’s a lot of creativity. There are many people implementing creative plans and programs and ideas. The caveat I will add is that we have to make sure that those who are the most vulnerable and in the greatest need are our greatest priority. That’s what we have to do. We’re going to use our creativity now to come up with these great ideas. Let’s start by solving the problems of those who live in economic scarcity, in poverty. That is the key to this and it makes sense.

Think about it like a family. Let’s say you’re a family and you have three kids. One kid is brilliant. The other kid is an average student. The third kid has some challenge that doesn’t allow this student to perform well in school or even to live what we might call a normal life. All the energies go to that third kid. Everybody understands it.

What we’re going to do is we’re going to make sure this child has the support necessary. That’s all we’re talking about here. Let’s make sure that those with the greatest needs are our greatest priority. We will find that people we think are needy or in need have so much talent that collectively grows dramatically once we free up their potential and talent by ensuring they don’t have to worry about hunger.

Have you done any research into the core psychological or sociological reasons behind why we, as a culture, don’t tend to take care of those most in need is as well as we could?

That may be my favorite question of all time, but I’ve never had the answer. I can tell you, I got my Doctorate in Sociology and my dissertation was on the shift from mechanical thinking to holistic thinking. A very simple example is you have neck pain and you take a pill because you want a muscle relaxer instead of saying, “How do I sleep,” or, “Is somebody looking over my shoulders when I work,” or “Am I thinking about a tense, personal situation?”

In other words, “What are the causes?” Instead, we just treat the symptoms. That’s our society. We are very symptom-oriented and we tend to see ourselves as individuals separate from other beings. It’s because we don’t see the deep interconnectedness that defines our existence. We live as if we are separate beings and that’s the problem to me, this lack of connection. That’s why poverty endures. The more that we can see that we’re all in this together, not cliché but truly in this together, then we will arrive at the solution. That’s why this plan is so inclusive.

It reminds me of two things. One is that old metaphor of building the hospital at the bottom of the river where you have bodies coming down the river and you build the hospital down there instead of just going up the river to figure out what’s causing all the people to be in this state of shape. The other one, I talk about ecosystems a lot, both in terms of marketing and in terms of just how we live together and the idea that we aren’t all part of this ecosystem.

You can take that out to whatever levels you want to. It’s overlapping. When we have one part of this system that’s not healthy, it does affect the rest of the system. We tend to ignore that when it’s outside of our own selves. If my thumb hurts, I want to fix that because it changes the way that the rest of me operates. However, when some other person is hurting within an entirely different ecosystem, but I’m part of that as an individual, people have that tendency to overlook that or think that someone else is going to fix it for them.

The charge for all of us is to think bigger and not in a clichéd way on our social media to write a nice phrase about it but to live that way. If you understand how interconnected we are, then your self-interest goes to the back because you get what you thought was your self-interest was a very small view of life, but that you are intimately tied to the wellbeing of others, whether or not you feel it on a conscious level.

To me, it’s a sad and small life to not put others way ahead of you. Gale Sayers was onto something when he said, “I am Third.” You can’t be first in this. You can’t say, “What about me first?” You will then condition yourself to worry about yourself and your entitlements first, instead of thinking about those others who may need some support.

By supporting them, your life gets more whole. That’s the way we exist. The more we do for others, the more healed or the more whole we are. The word heal and whole come from the same sacks and roots. If we want to be healthy, we have to be whole and if we want to be whole, then we have to live in this deep sense of interconnectedness with each other.

I’m hoping that the readers are taking note of all of these things because I would imagine it’s an amazing way to change one’s perspective and live a much fuller existence as we make that shift into thinking about how we all fit together in this system of interconnectedness.

RTNP 72 | Taking Action
Taking Action: We are very symptom-oriented and we tend to see ourselves as individuals separate from other beings, and because we don’t see the deep interconnectedness that defines our existence, we live as if we are separate beings.

 

I talked about having a bigger perspective and there was this wonderful astronaut who then started the Institute of Noetic Sciences. His name was Edgar Mitchell. He talked about how he was out there on Apollo 14 and he looked back at the earth from space. He saw that all these boundaries and the differences we created were nothing. We were one whole and you just needed that perspective. That’s more than a metaphor, but it certainly is a strong metaphor for recognizing that we argue about the small stuff instead of focusing on the big stuff.

How is your project funded right now? I know you have a donation capacity or a nonprofit, but how else are you funding the good work that you’re doing?

We rely on the generosity of people in every sector as any nonprofit does. Whether it’s foundations or individuals or families, we’re looking for support from all of them. That’s the irony sometimes of nonprofit work where you choose this profession is you choose to focus on nonprofit because you don’t care personally about money and then money becomes almost the most important thing because you got to pay your team.

We are keeping our expenses to a minimum. We have a person who oversees our outreach and communications who focuses on development, and she’s a wonderful professional. We have a few folks who help with that, but Katherin and I then are able to keep our eyes on the prize, which is how we are progressing with this plan. I say to your question and the point you made at the beginning of it. Every bit helps. Anybody who wants to help, we welcome it.

Do you have regular campaigns that you’re sending out for donations or are most people who get involved in the program themselves helping to kick in once they recognize the benefits of what you’re creating?

I think the word has slowly gotten out. When we ask people if they want to give us advice, sometimes they give us advice and also a donation. We’re still at the younger stage. We incorporated it in November of 2020. We participated in the end-of-year giving campaigns like Giving Tuesday and we’ll continue to do that. I’m hopeful that we can grow and raise funds to do this in a national way because national focus requires a lot of communications and sometimes you have to pay for those communications.

There are programs out there available to nonprofits to try and take advantage of some of the available resources. Google Grants would be one. If you haven’t looked into it, there’s a program and a system by which you can tap into Google’s ad space where they essentially give up to about $10,000 a month to nonprofits who qualify to basically expand their ability to reach a larger audience through the Google Grants program. That might be something that you would like to look into.

If we’re going to try to end poverty, let’s listen to people to people who have risen out of poverty.

The other thing that we talk about a lot is in this inspire phase of one’s life cycle. What we’re trying to accomplish is to enable people to stay in the fold and stay a part of your organization. Through messaging, nurture campaigns and things of that nature, we can keep in touch with those people who have engaged in the past and either attempt to escalate that engagement to get them to repeat what they’ve done in the past or take a larger action, perhaps.

For example, if they’re a one-time donor, attempt to transition them into a more regular donor or even bring their business into the mix as a business partner for you. Also, referring and tapping into the people who do feel passionately about your organization, trying to get them to spread the word and evangelize about what you’re doing to expand your reach through their networking opportunities.

Those are typically the two lowest hanging fruits that people either expect to work organically and without a lot of input or they neglected either because it’s less attractive than bringing somebody new into the fold or it feels hard or weird. The inspire phase is definitely a place that I would encourage you and your team to continue to put effort towards to get people to turn into the repeat and refer relationships that you’re building.

That’s great advice. Thank you very much, Stu. That’s very motivating for me. I appreciate it.

Word of mouth tends to be what almost everyone says is their biggest avenue for new business, which holds true in the nonprofit space. It’s a matter of how can you turn the dial on that a little bit more and put a process and a system in place by which you’re attempting to nurture that word of mouth stuff instead of expecting it to happen on its own.

You can leverage your email list to start that, even creating a three to five email series where you stay in touch with people and ask them what actions they’ve taken this month or ask them for information. Attempt to create that back and forth, which is a central component of a relationship. Have conversations that do go back and forth and are not just a one-way sounding board. It’s trying to create opportunities for people to give input and answer questions. That’s the hallmark of a great relationship, whether online or in-person. Are there any other places where you’ve had good success in bringing people into your program?

One thing that we’ve enjoyed is those who have risen out of poverty and how much they want to lead the way. Because sometimes people can be objectified no matter what their experience in life, but in poverty, we do too often a terrible job of objectifying people. They call it poverty porn. It’s a caution, but sometimes people who are helping in this and may even unknowingly engage in poverty porn are still trying to help. I don’t like to come down hard on people or even on my own self. I’m sure that my desire to help people has been overzealous sometimes and perhaps not respectful enough.

We’ve enjoyed building relationships with people who have the lived experience and who know a lot more about poverty than I’ll ever know or Katherin will ever know despite her incredible background and wisdom. Letting people who are in poverty have the voice that they deserve to have in this work, especially, has been one of the more positive parts of the work so far. Their stories are the stories that we need to listen to. You and I can talk and it’s great, but having people who have lived in poverty and risen out of it would be a conversation. If we’re going to try to end poverty, let’s listen to the people who have risen out of poverty.

That goes in line with some storytelling opportunities for you where if you can position yourself as the guide in this journey and the people who are rising out of poverty as the heroes, that can be incredibly powerful. It’s a little interesting in the nonprofit space because you have to position the donors or the people taking action as the heroes as well. One of the things that a lot of nonprofits suffer from is positioning themselves as the hero in that story and that tends to create a conflict in people’s minds because we all like to think of ourselves as the leader in the story.

As a nonprofit, you can make sure that you’re positioning both the donors and the people who are taking action in the beneficiaries as the main characters. You’re there as a supporting mechanism to that. It tends to be an effective storytelling opportunity that we see a lot of nonprofits having a little bit of a challenge wrapping their arms around.

RTNP 72 | Taking Action
Taking Action: Sometimes people can be objectified no matter what their experience in life, but in poverty, we do too often a terrible job of objectifying people. They call it poverty porn.

 

There’s also a tendency to find blame. We live in a pretty dualistic society and I that’s part of the problem to get back to an earlier discussion where if something’s good or bad, right or wrong, guilty or innocent. The issue here is that if we’re all in this truly together, we have to be as nonjudgmental as possible. We have to recognize that, let’s say, an organization comes in to try to be a hero. They’re still trying to do good. Instead of saying, “This is bad.” Just say, “Why don’t you make a right turn here or an adjustment and position yourself more as the guide.”

It’s not a terrible switch in language to reposition ourselves a little softer and allow someone else to shine in that storytelling capacity. I know that you have a lot of stories on your site. I didn’t have an opportunity to listen to many of them, but those real-life stories are compelling for people to understand the impact that can be made and the positive effect that can be generated through their actions. You’re positioning things pretty well to start, so I would encourage you to keep your foot on the gas on that.

We’ll have many more stories going forward than we have now.

What are some of the biggest hurdles that you’re facing? Is it awareness? Is it getting people to take action? Where are the challenges that you face most frequently landing?

It’s probably resources. Only a couple of us got this started, so finding like-minded individuals has always been my biggest challenge. It’s not finding people with big hearts. There are people with big hearts everywhere you look, but building a team of really selfless and egoless folks who want to make this type of commitment and recognize that this life is all about how much we love others. Can we live our lives in line with that or is it just something that we think about in our more philosophical moments or even our spiritual or religious moments. Finding a team of people who want to live it, who get that love is a verb and it’s an action verb.

What we say we care about or where we align our thoughts is not important. It matters what we do. It’s finding people who want to work with that kind of energy. I recognize that we all have family or other issues, but that’s another false choice we make, “I got to have a work-life balance, so I can’t commit more.” If your mom were in the throes of poverty or your child lived on a corner that was more dangerous than anything you can ever imagine simply because of the poverty in that corner, then you would put a greater priority on this.

It’s creating a mechanism by which people can understand that it’s their child and that’s their corner, regardless of whether or not they’re related to them or even know that person.

That goes back to your question earlier is and to this one as well. What are the obstacles? The obstacles are the way we see ourselves and the way we see life. That’s our obstacle. The lack of belief in our own selves is an obstacle. How we see ourselves in every way is surprisingly the main obstacle in ending poverty.

That’s an interesting concept to wrap one’s arms around to think about how to adjust that for people and how to make people take that leap from posting inspirational quotes on their Instagram account to taking some action. My guess is that some personality types could be identified in some fashion. I’d have to think about how you would be able to filter or get in front of this select audience group. It comes back down to persona development.

One of the things that we recommend people do for their organizations is try to understand those attributes or demographics and things of that nature that you can identify. You can have a high degree of likelihood that that type of person who shares those traits will be somebody who would take that next step and either support your organization through their action and through a donation or support what you’re doing through how they’re approaching their life.

We shouldn’t dwell on the unnecessary, we should say, “How do we solve this?”

That’s probably an exercise that’s a little interesting. I’m trying to come up with what those personality types are, but my guess is that if you sat down as a team, worked on that and looked at perhaps some of the people who’ve taken the biggest action. I’m thinking about some of the young activists who are out there, who are very active in Black Lives Matter, for example, who are living it and not just pushing out platitudes. Trying to come up with what those personality types are will help you get in front of those types of people so that you can do more good or you can help them do more good.

As I think about social awareness and/or the focus on justice, we still do let people in poverty be marginalized. We do that because we are still too selfish in our zest for our causes. We are still on what’s good for us, what I think, and why that person is wrong. That all keeps us in a small box instead of saying, “If we want to create justice, you start with those who have the least amount of equality and that’s people in poverty.”

If you go into those communities, wherever you want to go, you can find poverty in every state and every county. Sometimes it’s ugly. We’ve named a couple of parts of the country with almost unspeakable poverty. There are some parts of the Central Appalachian region that go all the way across into the Midwest and beyond. We can find people who are without the most fundamental of resources that everybody needs and we almost treat them as untouchables.

It’s very hard when you spend time really getting to know who lives where and how they live. The fact that we allow that is a painful thing to realize. However, the focus has to immediately switch to solutions and what we can do. As passionate as I may feel about some of this, it still does come down to people who aren’t going to change if we make them feel bad.

We say, “Love is not a touchy, feely thing that you can’t connect to because you’re a tough person or because you think it’s somebody else’s purview.” Love is what’s there at the beginning. When we start off in life, none of us want to see anybody else suffering. We reach out to connect with one another and we can’t lose that, but we do. We allow the conditioning of life to get in the way. In many ways, we have to peel away all of those layers that make us think we’re different from others and arrive at the end at that place where we realize that we are one, and if we live that way, we will enjoy life a heck of a lot more, all of us.

I’m trying to come up with some ideas on how to spread that message. If you can spread that message, then you have people more ready to take that action and live that selfless life where they can see that benefit and not be as concerned with the individual challenges that are going on. It’s an awareness campaign in trying to get that word out tied to that action piece. There are plenty of people out there posting every day about selfless living and purposeful living.

Fortunately, there are a lot of people who are starting to take that approach to their lives, so that makes them you’re more apt to be action takers when it comes down to that next step. It’s, “How do you get people to divest from that or encourage people to see that as an option?” Have you and your team done outreach in that regard to try and either shift attitudes or take a temperature of those attitudes to see what people are thinking?

Very much so. In fact, a lot of what we’ve discussed has been part of what we’ve done to create awareness and link awareness to action. Many of the things you’ve said are exactly what we’ve been trying to do. That’s how you build something like this. When you talked about, “How about your resources?” That’s where our resources go. Our use of funds is on how do we communicate nationally, even with social media and whatever the internet allows communicating to all corners of the country is still a very costly thing to do.

It’s challenging, for sure.

It’s worth the effort because, again, it’s not about us. When you recognize that you just do whatever it takes, this is a crisis. Poverty is an unbelievable crisis for people who live in it, whether it’s deep poverty or even the in and out of poverty life that so many families live. It’s a significant crisis and it makes life an unhappy thing to experience. That is unnecessary. We shouldn’t dwell on the unnecessary. We should say, “How do we solve this?” I believe this plan and I believe the work that Katherin and I are doing offers a lot of solutions to it.

There are a few pieces of awareness there. It sounds like you’re messaging things appropriately to try and encourage people to understand and see where there might be opportunities for them to do some things. Perhaps part of it is getting people to take action that doesn’t require a ton of sacrifice to start and escalate those actions as people get more used to and better understand what is possible.

RTNP 72 | Taking Action
Taking Action: Poverty is an unbelievable crisis for people who live in it whether it’s deep poverty or even the in and out of poverty life that so many families live.

 

“What is possible?” That’s the focus. That’s the phrase right there. That’s the name of the book that I hope to put out. When you put it like that, you realize that ending poverty is not the end of the road. That’s a way to get us to the point where we can then say, “Now that we’ve all got this economic stability, now that we’re not allowing this unnecessary suffering, what’s possible? What is possible for the individual and what is possible for the collective?”

I love that it’s the title of your book. It’s an important and forward-thinking approach to things. It’s not just the problem. It’s what can be created once we’ve gotten past the problem, which is fantastic. Are you writing your book now?

Yes.

When are you planning to have that available?

I would say that answering that question is something I’ve learned not to do. Let’s say I hope soon and I planned for that. There’s a depth to it that I want to have. I have a problem sometimes, which is that perfect is the enemy of the good. I’m trying to relax that a little bit and if I can relax that a little bit, then I would say soon.

There are a few trends that we’ve heard over the last few years. One is that people are missing the opportunity to have connections and two is that people want to be part of a solution and they want to help. That core human nature has not necessarily gone away. I know the media would have you believe that everything’s about to burn down all the time, but I like to think that people genuinely come from a position of goodness and a desire to help others. We lose track of that sometimes along the way. As a species, we have done some remarkable things. If we put our collective minds together, we can continue to do some remarkable things like ending poverty.

I couldn’t have said it any better. That’s exactly right.

How can people find out more about what you guys are up to and find out how to get more involved in The Shared Humanity Project?

SharedHumanityProject.org is our organization’s website and the National Plan website is NationalPovertyPlan.org. Either one of those two ways and you can reach us at [email protected]. Let us know any way you might want to get involved or if you know of a program that’s successful and that has had an impact, share it with us.

If you look at our site and you think, “You guys messed up here. You missed all of this great work being done in this area.” Tell us. We don’t have an ego in this, so we will continually improve the site. The more people who reach out to us, the better. If people want to make a financial donation, there’s a donate button on the website.

The reason I mentioned that is because the more feedback we get, the more people we might need on staff to help respond. That’s the only reason I bring that up. Those are the best ways and we look forward to hearing from you. Once you email the contact email, we’ll probably shoot back notes from our personal emails and start conversations with you. It’s [email protected].

Back to the action piece. There are a few action items there that people can take, but if there’s one thing that you would want people to do, one action you’d for them to take after reading this, what would that be?

Go to the website because there are 300 actions and make a vow because we can all say, “I’m going to start this tomorrow.” I’ve done that with a lot of things for a lot of years, but if you make a vow and you say, “I’m going to do one action or three actions this year. No matter what, I’m going to do those actions.” That’s the most important thing. Commit to that action and maybe take stock of what the word commit means. We, as a country, know that if there’s one word that we could learn the meaning of and implement in our lives, it’s commitment.

I have done a lot of work with a coach and that was one of the things that he wanted to hammer in. You need to create a commitment. If that’s not coming through, it means you’re committed to something else, but figure out what it is that you’re committed to, then either change that if it’s not making you happy or double down on that.

I love what you guys are doing. Having 300 actions that one can go and look at and select from, particularly with this cool system that will tailor those toward your own interests, is an amazing place to start. I’m excited to see what’s next for you, guys. Thank you so much for being on the show.

I love the conversations too. Thank you.

Me too, Mark. I’ll talk to you soon.

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About Mark Bergel

RTNP 72 | Taking ActionAfter three decades in the nonprofit sector, Dr. Mark Bergel co-founded The Shared Humanity Project in November of 2020. Mark had previously led efforts at both the university and grassroots levels, working on the staff and faculty at American University for two decades and founding and leading A Wider Circle from 2001 – 2020.

In 2018, Mark was inducted into both the Montgomery County Human Rights Hall of Fame and the Montgomery County Business Hall of Fame, the only person to hold both honors.

Mark has also been selected as Washingtonian of the Year and as one of People Magazine’s “All-Stars Among Us.” He has also received the Cyrus A. Ansary Medal, the Dr. Augustus White III Award for Civic Engagement and Service, and the Roscoe R. Nix Distinguished Community Leadership Award, among other recognitions.

Mark earned a B.A. from Northwestern University and went on to receive both Masters and Doctoral degrees from American University.