Equity is the lens through which we get the clearest picture of how to combat injustice. This requires empathizing with those experiencing an injustice, setting aside our own thoughts on the matter and living with their perspective. My volunteer experience with A Wider Circle on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2018 was a great reminder of this process.
I was assigned to measure and sort business suits that had been donated to the Bethesda-based charity’s workforce development program. To my surprise, two hours into my group’s four-hour shift, we hadn’t done a single thing. As it turns out, this was intentional.
Instead of getting right to work, a volunteer coordinator spent the first half of our shift getting to know my group and teaching us about the organization. A Wider Circle uses a holistic approach to ending poverty. Its CEO, Mark Bergel, sleeps on the floor or a couch every night to try to understand one of the greatest needs of his clients: a lack of mattresses. We toured the donation processing facility, where only high-quality furniture is accepted. At A Wider Circle, if they wouldn’t gift a donation to a family member, they won’t give it to their clients. We also learned that each person looking for a job gets five business suits free of charge because no one should have to wear the same work clothes twice in one week.
You may think a two-hour orientation was a waste of time. After all, we were there to serve—not be served. However, it created the space for us to try to have a deeper understanding and compassion for the organization’s clients. While sorting and measuring each business suit, I imagined the person receiving it, and whether or not the quality was something I would be proud to wear.
Equity is impossible to accomplish without empathy. In 1994, congress established MLK Day as a national day of service to honor Martin Luther King Jr.’s fight for eradicating racist policies that plagued people of color in the United States. MLK was a champion of equity, and a master at empathizing with others to understand and vocalize their needs.
Try this the next time you volunteer
There’s a simple exercise in empathy you can do with others or by yourself. Imagine that a volunteer is coming into your home to cook you a meal. What would be going through your head. Would you be nervous? How would you like the volunteer to treat you? How would they know what kind of food you like to eat?