Break Away Blog | Read + Act Weekly

In Times of Change, Embrace Each Other

The last couple of weeks brought our staff together in personal reflection and group conversation surrounding both the history, and the future of our country: Former President Barack Obama’s Farewell Address sparked conversation around the difficult, yet urgent, need for dialogue; Martin Luther King Jr. Day reminded us of the notion of Beloved Community - a society grounded in justice; and the Women’s March on Washington compelled us to be in solidarity with the hundreds of thousands of people who rallied and marched to defend the rights of marginalized identities.

Just as the 2017 namesake pays homage to the 1963 March on Washington, so too does their commitment to nonviolent resistance - reminding us that the concept of embracing others through an ethic of love isn’t anything new. In his essay, An Experiment in Love, Dr. King powerfully explains that nonviolence should never be mistaken for passivity. Rather, nonviolence is an active decision to center the principles of love and community. This recognition assures us that in the current state of our democracy, utter divisiveness and hateful rhetoric will only push us further apart, and prevent us from building a more inclusive and yes, “perfect union.”

Our vision of a society of active citizens falls parallel with MLK’s hope for Beloved Community - it acknowledges that while we have differences in beliefs, values, and action, we must practice patience, understanding, forgiveness - ultimately, uniting as one thriving and vibrant community. This vision includes - and demands - involvement from every single member of society.  

Watching Obama’s Farewell Address reminded us of acts of genuine community building that are often easy to dismiss:  

“For too many of us, it's become safer to retreat into our own bubbles - whether in our neighborhoods or on college campuses, or places of worship, or especially our social media feeds - surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions… And increasingly, we become so secure in our bubbles that we start accepting only information, whether it's true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that is out there.”

For us to achieve the Beloved Community, we need to consider the lives of others (all others), and not just folks who look or think like we do. It’s a tiresome role, but our history of civil rights and the teachings of nonviolence has illuminated a particular truth: we need to be the ones to take the first step toward reconciliation and avoid condemnation.

In times of uncertainty, we must challenge ourselves not to cling deeper into the safety of own echo chambers, but rather, find commonalities with those who don’t share our identity. We must hold tight to the words of our former President: democracy requires “a basic sense of solidarity - the idea that for all our outward differences, we’re all in this together; that we rise or fall as one.”

Nonviolence is an active choice. It implores us to resist without savage actions or words. As we enter a time of transition, let us stay true to our values, challenge what is unjust, and embrace each other.

The Pledge to Yes

I moved to Pittsburgh not knowing a single person. It was exciting and frightening, a mid-twenties plunge and break from the rhythm of my post-college life with Break Away in Atlanta. Tense, and then smiling as I unpacked books, I thought of Joan Didion, who asked as she navigated her own plunges: “has anyone ever been so young?” Yes, they have, sitting on the porch after unpacking, wondering if a new city would ever feel like home.

Resolved to meet people and build community, I made a pledge to say “yes” to everything in my first six months in Pittsburgh. Any invitation, any event, any request, any opportunity (within reason), “yes.” No excuses or breaks. This was hard and tiring. And like any pledge, I had moments of waffling. Did I really want to go to any of the two dozen networking events and hear about X disruptive startup? No. Was that adult male bocce ball league how I wanted to spend Thursday nights? Not always. Was I excited about the neighborhood Chinese take-out potluck? Yes, actually – that was the highlight of the fall.

Unaware of Shonda Rhimes and modern copyright law, I started calling this my “year of yes” (I was drawn to the alliteration, despite the pledge only being six months long). Each day I had to fold up my introvert tendencies and recommit to say yes to “saying yes.” But by the time the pledge ended and I started giving myself permission to say “no, thank you” to things, I had built a number of strong relationships, with different types of people - usually through the events or moments I had said “yes” to. These relationships were crucial to figuring out the city, and to shaping my expressed civic life in Pittsburgh.

Now, I know this approach to rapid community building is a bit drastic - I don’t think the only path to community life in a new place is to give over your life to stray invitations. But, hopefully, it’s a reminder of the power of being actively open to new experiences and relationships. A year and a half later, I’m still grateful that I got up off my porch and didn’t look back.

Community life continues to be, for me, much more than a box you check off. It’s a continual -  sometimes daily - recommitment to saying yes to one another. To this messy, often beautiful social compact. Which is needed now more than ever. That said, it’s okay to sometimes stay in. Unless there’s a Chinese take-out potluck.

Active Citizenship is Action… Even If It’s Cold Outside

Finals are over, and we’re preparing for a few days of rest and recuperation before the start of the spring semester. Before you slip on your wool socks and cozy up to rewatch every episode of Parks and Recreation (we would never judge you for that, by the way), we’re here to remind you that active citizenship means constant effort - regardless of the season.

Consider these holiday-inspired acts of active citizenship of as you unwind from your busy fall semester:

  • Don’t shy away from talking politics with folks whose opinions differ from your own. While it may be easier to sweep disagreements under the rug - there’s truth to the notion that “we are all still each other’s only hope” and hard conversations can often be productive.  
  • Donate or send thank you notes to local organizations or nonprofits.
  • Consider supporting underrepresented identities by reading some not-assigned-in-a-syllabus novels.
  • Shovel your sidewalks this winter (and make sure they're wide wide enough for a wheelchair to pass).
  • Be conscious about the music you’re consuming, and support artists who push back against harmful rhetoric in the dominant narrative.
  • Buy all of this year’s holiday presents from local vendors, individual artists, or donate in honor of those on your list.

We wish you a holiday season filled with care and love. We’ll see you in 2017 - we're excited to witness the wonder and strength you all will bring to the Movement in the year to come.

Fundraising: It’s Not About the Money

Don’t get us wrong, as a scrappy non-profit committed to the Universal Principle of Thrift, we’ll always take your money and put it to good use. This #GivingTuesday, we embarked on the age-old (circa 2012) tradition of reaching out to our friends, family, alumni, and every dignitary we know seeking support for the work we’re passionate about.

Fundraising is challenging. Across the board, almost everyone struggles with this. We don’t have a blanket answer for success, but based on one of our latest favorite reads, we can summarize a few tips:

    1. Invite people in. Fundraising isn’t purely about getting money. It’s about inviting folks to be a part of your work. Asking for money is difficult, but the truth is, people should have the option to say yes or no. If you don’t ask, you take decision-making power away. Not asking due to an assumption of their financial situation becomes an act of injustice. That being said, if folks aren’t in a place to financially support, give them an alternative option: ask them to support you on social media, attend an event, or even a simple response letting you know how they’re doing.
    2. Fundraise together. On Tuesday, our office was filled with sporadic cheers, declarations of love, and reminiscing on fond memories as we saw your names materializing on our screens. Our Executive Director, three Programs Directors, our Board of Directors, and even former staff were in on the asks, interactions, and we can honestly admit it… the fun.
    3. Foster authentic relationships. Having the sense that you are part of a strong community is an incredible feeling. Thousands of wonderful people have crossed Break Away’s path, and we hold on to those relationships - not because they could be a potential source of money, but because we genuinely love and value the mutual sense of togetherness we’ve found in them.
    4. Don’t be afraid to try new tactics. If emailing friends, families, and dignitaries doesn’t seem like it’s working, try threatening one of your staff’s hair. Maybe you don’t have wonderful hair to threaten, but the point is to always seek room for development and improvement. Practice patience, prioritize persistence, and stay committed.   

In all, we are astounded and humbled by the incredible turnout we had this #GivingTuesday. With your support, we raised over $8,800 in less than 12 hours to invest in the work of fostering active citizenship. In January 2016, Break Away started moving forward a new three-year strategic plan and we’re in hot pursuit of actualizing our goals. In the next two years, we’ll be making moves to:

  • Support lifelong active citizenship by offering mini-grants to alternative break alumni who are cultivating small groups of citizens in join and lead efforts locally to address community identified needs
  • Commit to cultivating inclusive student leadership by offering scholarships for individuals to attend the Alternative Break Citizenship schools from schools where there isn’t the institutional or financial support to otherwise do so
  • Grow the national network by providing membership benefits to tribal colleges and universities and institutions committed to serving first generation students - supporting the development of alternative break programs in under resourced or emerging service-learning centers

We have big dreams and we are fervently working to achieve our vision of a society of active citizens. To those of you who gave some of your hard-earned dollars to support Break Away in 2016, you’re not a donor, a money-giver, or a philanthropist - you are a decision-maker for what this Movement is and will become. You are invested and committed to thriving communities. For that, we are with you and we thank you.