What I Learned as a Privileged Person Working in Marginalized Communities

Valuable lessons for trying to be a social innovator.

by Michael Farber
Jan 11 2018, 8:30pm

Image via Facebook

This is an opinion piece by Michael Farber, co-founder of Breakout, a community that champion's changemakers across the country through a unique series of events, original content, and funding. Based in New York City, the community spans 15 cities, thousands of engaged leaders, and serves as an entry point for people looking to make an impact.

Three-and-a-half years ago, my co-founder and I took a bet in founding our company, Breakout. We wanted to see if we could build a business with a community that gave a shit about things bigger than just their professional or personal interests. We started with events to see if there was excitement from our generation’s leaders for impactful programming, and we chose cities on the rise like New Orleans, Detroit, and Baltimore not just as the canvas but a character in the conversation itself.

Today, we’ve worked and connected with thousands of young people, hosting immersive events in ten cities, are expanding our original content, and have a foundation that fuels our mission of championing change-makers. Our most recent flagship ‘Breakout’ brought 250 people from 15 different cities across four days to the city of Atlanta. Programming ranged from citywide intimate dinners in local leaders homes, a 600-person mass meditation and musical event at the Fox Theater, storytelling with civil rights legend Ambassador Andrew Young, roundtables on criminal justice reform, social entrepreneurship workshops, and a nighttime drumline to a hidden concert put on by ATL creative agency & record label LVRN.

Throughout this entire journey, the thing I am most grateful for, along with being the biggest learning curve, has been working within communities that have been marginalized. While it’s an ongoing work in progress, what I do know is I’ve learned some valuable lessons along the way.

No one wants a savior

When I first arrived in Detroit in the fall of 2014, the city was announcing the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. Tens of thousands of abandoned homes littered neighborhoods both rich and poor. Pick your social issue and Detroit had it: failing schools, high unemployment, and a former mayor sentenced to 28 years in prison for corruption. In a city that is over 80 percent African American and a legacy of feeling societally forgotten, it soon became incredibly clear to me in each meeting I went to that no one cared that I was from New York City or about what my work entailed. They wanted to know why I was doing it.

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In a place like Detroit, and many like it around the country, all too often people have made grand promises that have amounted to just that, promises. It’s not that communities don’t want to see economic growth, but they damn well want to know the “new” plans are being made in an equitable fashion with a seat at the table for the legacy community stakeholders.

When “help” doesn’t help

Chris Wilson is an individual who did 16 years on a life sentence. Today, he’s an inspiring small business owner, artist, mentor, and social justice advocate in Baltimore. When we were first developing our friendship, I was typically uncomfortable or unsure how to ask him questions about his time in jail. I wanted to learn not just about how he co-founded the prison book club or taught himself five languages, but also were conjugal visits a thing and what were the craziest things guys on the inside did for entertainment?

As our relationship grew, I realized Chris would brighten up when I asked him these more blunt and honest questions. He didn’t want to hear a sympathetic “how can I help,” he simply wanted respect and reciprocity that he could share his life experiences without someone feeling sorry for him.

Under-promise and always deliver

Back in Detroit, when I first started working there, I kept meeting individuals like urban planning professional Lauren Hood and restaurateur Jay Rayford who blew me away with their work and dedication to inclusion and equity in their city. Having been informed by operating in privileged circles in NYC, D.C., and LA where access is everywhere, I wanted to use our platform to broaden their exposure. But I initially was too bullish in the plans I was making.

In particular, I met with a non-profit I greatly admired who do a significant amount of workforce development in Detroit neighborhoods. I soon realized that our event platform had a smaller bandwidth to effectively network early-stage small business owners with our group of hyperactive millennial leaders. When I had to double back on my promise I could feel their disappointment and our relationship was not sustained. In the future, I started conversations with what success meant to them and offered up the simplest and quickest way to achieve it so we could build an initial level of trust to grow upon.

Work with allies

In building a community-based platform, it was clear from the outset that our group was white. Like really white. And it was not a good look to be doing work in areas that were the opposite no matter what our intentions were.

As we’ve grown, so has our composition and that is due in part to the friends, mentors, and allies we’ve gained. A new favorite is Leyla Martinez, a criminal justice reform advocate working on many issues including banning the box legislation. A student at Columbia, her work is inspired by a two-year sentence she served years ago. She has helped open my eyes to the less spoken issue of female incarceration and fights each day for women like her to not be judged by their past so they can have equal opportunities when rejoining society.

Be a sponge

My friend Jim St. Germain, an author and activist hailing from Crown Heights, Brooklyn, has a favorite quote that “those that are closest to the problems are closest to the solutions.” I love this line and it’s a powerful reminder for all of us to be better listeners.

In well-connected environments, I find individuals (myself included) are quick to flex their access muscles and offer up people they can connect them too. In marginalized communities -- aka places that have been historically screwed over -- coming in and chatting with someone as if their life is a business school case study is not only demeaning but also holds no weight. No amount of articles we’ve read can educate us to the experience that someone has lived. Check your ideas at the door and listen, be a sponge, and find ways to support those on the ground doing the work.

Don't be afraid to disagree

Don’t be afraid to have questions and not agree on everything. This is certainly a fine line but if you want to be respected, show some backbone, and voice your opinions. Most likely your stance will only evolve but the one thing people don’t want is a phony.