As grantmakers, it is challenging to consistently connect in meaningful ways with the people and communities that our work is all about.
As grantmakers, it is challenging to consistently connect in meaningful ways with the people and communities that our work is all about. I spend too much of my day going to internal meetings, reading reports, and reviewing research, rather than listening to and learning directly from the lives and experiences of people who are homeless.
Philanthropy has long discussed how we can bridge this divide. In the past, we’ve used tools such as focus groups, site visits, advisory councils, and community convenings to connect us more directly to the work that our grantees undertake on a daily basis.
The explosion of social media offers us yet another way to connect directly with our communities. While the public outputs of mainstream media, corporations, and non-profits are often so carefully scripted as to perpetuate distance from their subject matter, social media brings us comparatively unedited content via YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and more. Through the power of social media, the voices, faces, and stories of people who are homeless can now be viewed by anyone with access to the internet.
Invisible People Gives Homeless Visibility
Check out, for example, the YouTube channel called InvisiblePeople.tv. Mark Horvath, known by his Twitter handle as @hardlynormal, has been traveling the U.S. since 2008 to document the stories of hundreds of Americans experiencing homelessness. You can watch as Jean talks about life in a motel with five children; as Sergei celebrates his 18th birthday during his first day on the streets in Salt Lake City; and as Cecelia talks about waiting with her children every night for two hours for a space in shelter.
These raw videos show the real faces of this crisis, and we hear their stories in their own words. When I become too mired in yet one more meeting, report, or grant proposal, I sometimes turn to InvisiblePeople.tv to remember the issues I am seeking to address, and what it is I am really trying to do. I also use Twitter as a way to connect with, and learn from, the tweeters out there who are or have been homeless. I’ve been quite surprised by the conversations I can have with someone, even when limited to only 140 characters a Tweet!
For sure, YouTube and Twitter are not the same as face-to-face encounters with people who are or have been homeless. And watching these videos in my office had less impact on me and the organization that employs me than the conversation I had to have with the security team in my building about letting a formerly homeless man come to a meeting with his dog-from whom he refused to be separated. (We had a great meeting.)
While direct, meaningful, real-time encounters with homelessness likely won’t happen every day for me, social media helps me to bring the lives and experiences of people who are homeless into my work life on a regular and continuing basis. Mark’s InvisiblePeople.tv videos have been uploaded more than 2.7 million times. That’s visibility with the potential for enormous impact. To the extent that social media has become one of the many tools that keeps me connected to my work, I find it invaluable. (Note that Funders Together does too-you can follow and “like” us on Twitter and Facebook.)
When people ask me to describe the face of homelessness, I often encourage them first to look in a mirror. Any of us, given the right circumstances or the wrong misfortune, could find ourselves homeless tomorrow. Through the power of InvisiblePeople.tv and social media, that mirror has been held up for us all.
See you on Twitter!
David Wertheimer is the Deputy Director of the Pacific Northwest Initiative at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, Washington, as well as the Board Chair of Funders Together to End Homelessness. Find him at @DavidWSeattle.