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Monday, August 20, 2012


Ever wonder why we post needs for furniture on the Benevolent site? If you’re anything like me, when you moved into your first apartment, you made several trips to local thrift stores to find things like upholstered chairs, recliners, padded kitchen chairs, and couches. It might not have looked like a million dollars, but it served the purpose and it made our apartments feel like home.

Maria “has been sharing a two-bedroom mobile house with her two sisters, their five children, her stepfather and her mother,” says Sizzy West, Maria’s Home Visitor.  Now this young mom has succeeded in moving herself and her daughter into their own apartment and seeks our help in getting the funds she needs to buy furniture for her first-ever living room.  We might wonder why she needs to buy it new, rather than at a thrift store.

There is one simple answer: the reality of bed bugs. No, Maria does NOT have bed bugs, but they are the reason she can’t buy upholstered furniture from a thrift store.

Chicago has been one of the nation’s top cities in bed bug infestation in the last few years – not an honor we relish. Whenever we hear news stories or read articles about how to protect ourselves from bed bugs, they inevitably contain a sentence like this one from Dateline on NBC:
Do not buy used furniture (especially bedding items or upholstered items), or at least do not bring them into your home until you, or a competent expert, have inspected them carefully for any signs of bed bugs.”

For a struggling earner, this turns the furnishing of a new apartment into a significant expense. It’s no longer a safe option for someone in a situation like Maria’s to purchase a couch from the local thrift store or to accept a contributed or hand-me-down mattress or padded chair.

Nonprofits that might once have accepted donations of furniture to help their newly-housed clients settle in have entirely stopped accepting these contributions. One news story reported: “Most agencies no longer accept donated beds or mattresses to resell or provide to clients in need.” So for Maria new furniture is not a luxury; it’s a necessity.

It would be easy for us to misunderstand someone who, like Maria, asks for help with furniture, and to quietly doubt the validity of her need without speaking up and questioning it. Things have really changed since I bought those tattered green armchairs and that well-worn brown couch back in the 1990s.

This is yet another example of the ways in which the small things can make a big difference.

- megan kashner
  founder & ceo

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Undermining Economic Segregation

A study of African- American and Caucasian households in the U.S. found that residential segregation between these two groups has decreased over the past decades. At the same time, according to a study released this summer by the Pew Research Center, segregation by income level is on the rise in the U.S.

So while we seem to be breaking through racial barriers, we’re becoming more and more economically isolated, and this has significant implications for those who are striving to rise out of low-income circumstances.

If we continued this trend towards economic isolation, we would expect to see some increasingly significant social challenges:
1)    Because neighbors help neighbors, we could see a decrease in capacity to access help in over-burdened areas.
2)    Because diversity begets empathy, we might well see an increased divide between those with and without resources, particularly among young people who grow up in increasingly economically homogenous communities.
3)    Families who experience a drastic shift in income (up or down) could experience heightened isolation and alienation from their communities.
4)    Low-income youth may increasingly lack access to and familiarity with the educational and professional norms, opportunities and possibilities prevalent in upper-income communities.
5)    Sentiments of xenophobia and class hatred might find a more fertile breeding ground on both sides of the fence.

Dire, eh? Yes, but that’s not the whole story. It’s true that we’re living more segregatedly than in previous decades, but we’re also living more connected. Some of the biggest changes to residential segregation along income lines have come in the Southwestern U.S. which posted an over 60% increase in income segregation between 1980 and 2010. Houston posted the biggest change.

In Houston, though, just this week, a woman from Chicago picketed and protested on behalf of striking Houston Janitors. She said:
"I know the fear that so many have to live with, the fear that you could lose your job for speaking up. Janitors in Houston can't risk arrest without risking their jobs too. I can, so I will."

Across the internet -- across states -- the Chicago woman connected with her community, reached out, stepped up and supported people she felt could use her help. This doesn’t change residential economic segregation, of course, but it does speak to the fact that community is no longer constrained by where we live.

Using technology and human connection, we’re creating a different kind of neighborhood, beyond geographic limits. We can build community and empathy, and extend help to neighbors across boundaries that were once impassable. Benevolent is one tool for this, driving from Chicago to Houston to support those you can relate to is another.

If we took each challenge I listed above one by one, and considered them through the lens of our new-fangled communities and networks using media, technology, and human connection, the outlook might look at least a little bit brighter.

- megan kashner, founder & ceo