Founder and Executive Director Mark Bergel’s 2017 Community Ball Speech
Poverty feeds off of our indifference, and it grows when we look the other way. It is a thief that we let run wild, stealing potential from almost everyone in it. It steals the future blind. Poverty steals innocence and it steals lives – by the handful – every single night, in every city, suburb, and rural town across this country.
But, it has an enemy. Many, in fact, and its worst enemy is love. Not love professed, for our words and our thoughts do not make a dent in it. It is love in action that poverty cannot defeat. It is love with purpose, with commitment, with conviction; it is love without compromise and with no conditions. It is you – fully engaged and indefatigable in support of your fellow human beings. That is what will defeat poverty.
Poverty stands today as a metaphor for a lack of human connection and a lack of commitment to those in need, and you are looking at someone who has not been connected enough, not committed enough, not persistent enough, who has not loved enough, and who is with you tonight to vow that this night will signal a change. I will leave here tonight as a different person – with a renewed commitment to my fellow human beings.
Not more sympathy, for people do not need our sympathy. But with more resolve, for people do need our resolve and our belief that together we can create a reality where in two generations, people will look back and say about our nation and our nation’s capital: Once, women could not vote. Once, people with darker skin could not sit at a lunch counter and eat? Once, our nation’s capital was filled with neighborhoods where people had no possessions – no beds in which to sleep, no tables at which to eat, and these neighborhoods were so dangerous that in many parts of the capital of the United States, people could not go outside at night.
And they will see then what we can see now – that we have it all backward, stood on its head, flipped upside down. We live with assumptions about life and ourselves that do not do justice to who we really are and how we ought to live together. We have it all stood on its head. Poverty is not intractable. Our efforts are intractable. We are stuck in the mud. We embrace a reality that has no business being our reality.
We accept poverty as part of the landscape of our region and our nation. We expect it and support its existence. I recently heard a leader in this region say that there are very wealthy people in our region and there are people in poverty, and that is part of the diversity of our region – and of our country. NO! Poverty is not diversity. It has nothing to do with diversity. Diversity is beautiful, healthy. Poverty is a disease, and though it may sound cliche, the cure is you. We have to flip this right side up. Poverty is not a normal part of life. It is an absurdity – a result of living together in this country without regard for one another’s well being.
We need to make sure we embrace a different view of who we are as individuals and who we are collectively. Many people say to me – and they say it to me every week – “Mark, the needs are endless.” No, that’s backward. The needs are not endless. Our capacity to help one another is endless. There are endless solutions. We choose the limits in our lives. We choose the limits of our compassion, and we choose the limits of our accomplishments. We are limitless beings, each of us, no matter our age or station in life. We are limitless, and to not claim that is as much the tragedy of poverty as the conditions that we see in front of us.
Yes, poverty is man-made, just like Mandela said. But it is not just our actions that cause it. It is not just what we do that causes poverty. It is – for the most part – what we do not do. Because you see… doing something will change it. Doing a lot will change it a lot. Just pick one thing to do, and poverty has a greater chance of decreasing than if you do not pick one thing to do. Pick one and the person or people who benefit from that one thing you do will have a better chance of rising out of poverty than if you do not pick one. Pick two things to do – or do one thing twice a month – and bring someone else into action with you, and poverty will decrease even more.
This is not a mystery. Ending poverty is not rocket science, though it does help to know a little physics. E=mc2 is at the root of A Wider Circle. It means that in a small amount of mass there is an enormous amount of energy. The energy in just one human being is incredible. The energy in you is almost beyond imagination; you can change so many lives, create so much in our world – that is your potential. And multiplied by the number of us in just this room, well, there is so much good we can do – and so much of that is low-hanging fruit.
It may seem complicated, but it is not. We have enormous amounts of energy. That is why a mother seeing a trapped child can lift far more than she may think she can lift. It is why a surgeon can perform 70 hours straight of emergency surgery in a crisis… It is why so many can accomplish seemingly impossible things in a crisis. It is not that those things are impossible, obviously. It’s just that the rest of the time we define possible all wrong, shrink it to fit a small view of ourselves and of our lives.
We define possible all wrong. And as far as reality goes, we have that backward, as well. Physicists told us early in the 20th century that life is subjective. They started out talking about waves and particles and ended up revealing that we create our own reality here. For example, you all see me up here. You see the same being, hear the same words and yet you have very different opinions from one another. What you see – and what you think of it, this reality – is not because of me; it is because of you – what you see and what you think is because of you.
And it is the same wherever you go. What you think of others has more to do with you than with them. As the Talmud shared long ago, “We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are.” And so it goes with our entire lives. We live in our heads, choosing the reality we accept. So when someone tells me that ending poverty is not realistic, I know they are just saying that they cannot see it; they have not yet developed that vision or the ability to see that we will end it.
But we are too smart for that, too creative for that, too innovative. And we have to be too compassionate for that reality. You know, we are all so interconnected, intertwined, we exist as one, but we allow ourselves to live apart – to be separate. And we restrict our commitments and our compassion to those few nearest us. That, Einstein said, is a prison. We must break free from that prison, he said, by widening our circles of compassion. Hence our name.
We can no longer get this backwards. We are not supposed to stay out of the “bad” parts of town. We are supposed to go in there. Support our neighbors. We are supposed to respond like human beings respond to a crisis and go where the needs are greatest. We cannot let our legacy be that we saw poverty, we saw the suffering – from birth – that comes with poverty. And we did not solve it. It cannot be that we said, “It’s not realistic to think we can end poverty.” Saying that, and doing little, is no legacy for a species like ours. It is no legacy for a human being like you.
Two generations from now, people will have to look at history to see poverty in this country. That has to be our vision, our mission, our goals, and the only acceptable outcome of our efforts. So what do we have to do to write that history? We have to go to neighborhoods like Highland Dwellings, where A Wider Circle is now serving, and where residents hear gunshots every night. Where a woman came in a few months ago and said matter of factly that a bullet came through their bathroom window: “good thing,” she said, “that my son was not showering at the time. Lucky for us,” she said.
We have to be there because right now, tonight, families in that community cannot sit in their kitchens or living rooms, they tell us, because there are too many windows in those rooms – too many chances for bullets to come in. Windows are a risk factor in many homes throughout this region – and beyond – and that is unacceptable. And that is where we take up our efforts.
And as we look across this country, we can see where we have to change the history of tomorrow: In East Baltimore, where 97% of the people born there in poverty die there in poverty. We have to make sure economic mobility is a focus for all of us – to make the American dream a dream for every American.
In Central Appalachia, where 25% of the people live in poverty. We can make sure the beauty of the land is something they can enjoy, instead of having their lives be so weighed down by the absence of opportunity.
In Detroit, where every other child lives in poverty – actually it is nearly 60% of the kids in that city. You better believe we can do better than that. And fast.
In St. Louis, where 88% of the kids in public schools qualify for free and reduced meals. That stands as a stark metaphor for what happens when we disconnect from one another – when we restrict our love to those few nearest us.
In the four corners of the western United States, where Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado come together, and where the poverty is deep and crushing.
In fact, Native Americans – who make up such a large part of that region – across this country have the largest proportion in poverty of any ethnic group, more than 28%, nationally. We can and will honor our first citizens better than that. And in Chicago – a city with so much spirit – where there were more than 3,500 shootings last year. Wrap your head around that. Imagine one shooting in your neighborhood. Now imagine three – in a year. What would you do? Now imagine nine every single day. And while Chicago is large, most of those shootings happen in two parts – South and West – where poverty reigns supreme.
The young people involved in violent lifestyles there – they have tried often to tell us how to help. They agreed to go on CNN, on local news shows, to tell us, “We need resources and programs. We need investment in our communities. We want to work; we need jobs. Without all of that, we reach for guns. It’s survival.” For what are we waiting? These young men have laid it out – “please give us resources, give us programs, help us connect to jobs and opportunities.”
The history books of the future will show that this year, 2017, we finally listened. And we brought resources, programs, and job training, mentoring, and all the support that human beings need to grow into healthy adults. We made sure their homes had dignity and stability – fully furnished so mothers could see their kids come home in the summer nights, because who wants to come home to an empty apartment? We made sure their neighborhoods were not neglected; we paved a path and provided support for economic mobility.
There are so many ways to get involved with this movement. There is a solution you can offer no matter where you are today. Become a youth mentor; host drives at your workplace, school, and neighborhood for essential items; offer long-term support to a family; help us furnish homes – there are so many ways you can engage and solve this, for one individual and one family after another.
Whatever you do, let no barrier stand in the way of you doing something. Tonight is about our humanity, and whether or not we are ready to embrace our shared humanity… And to live in sync with the potential we have inside. That is a winning combination. Are you ready to see every person in poverty as your child, your sibling, or your parent? Because there can be fear in moving to that level of humanity, and we have to overcome that. We have to open up to the possibilities of our existence. Because there is joy in that.
We cannot stay small. We must bring to our lives, each of us as human beings – at this time in history – a grand vision of what is possible. In fact, let’s live as if this is our one life to get it right. Let’s see the suffering around the corner and go to it. Together. You, your family, your neighbors, your business, all of your networks – join us in this effort.
When the history of our nation is written for future generations, let’s make sure it reads that, in 2017, they began to really get it. It was the beginning of the end of poverty. It is time for us to create the history that we want to see written. This story – of the end of poverty – must be the defining story of our lives from this night forward.