Radical Empathy at Foodlink
Jack and I and few Stomping Ground staff recently lead some team building for an all staff retreat at Foodlink. Julia the CEO asked me to speak a little about camp and the idea of radical empathy before we played the games. I was super nervous about it. I've had the privilege of speaking in front of lots of people before, Jack and I speak at camp conferences all over the country. We have given keynotes at conferences and lead dozens of workshops for camp professionals across the US and Canada. However this room was different. Typically we take notes, make a plan, and then improv based on the room. This event seemed different.
So I wrote out a script for myself. I didn't end up reading from it because I thought that would look inauthentic. I want to share it with you now in the form of a letter to the staff.
Letter to the Foodlink Crew
Every Tuesday afternoon I have a chance to volunteer on a Curbside Market Truck. (Curbside is a program of Foodlink, a food bank in Rochester NY. This program facilitates delivering fresh fruits and veggies to places all over the city of Rochester and surrounding counties that do not have easy access to fresh, healthy produce.) I have grown to love the staff and volunteers on Curbside and the small interactions I am starting to have with the other staff I meet around the Foodlink building.
The very first time I rode on the Curbside truck was only about a month ago. We stopped at Warring Road, Harris Park and Cedarwood Towers.
I was overwhelmed with the gratitude people showed, helping each other in an out of the truck, handing bags back and forth, catching up with while they picked out peaches and broccoli heads.
Sure there was some squabbling, or impatient folks as they waited for a spot on the truck, but for the most part folks were so grateful for the fruits and veggies! At first, I was not sure what I was supposed to do, how could I be helpful? It seemed to me that besides opening up the back doors, setting up the table and handing people bags, I was just kinda standing there.
Ray like all of the other Curbside drivers is patient and goes above and beyond customer service to apply compassion to even the smallest interactions he has.
At the first stop, Waring Road, I was so moved by the folks responses to the truck. You could tell who the regulars were because the march right up and fill up their bag. The newbies were cautious and sometimes, I could tell, overwhelmed that this pop up grocery store just appears on the street like the night bus from Harry Potter.
I asked one woman if she needed me to hold her child while she shopped. She took me up on it and I got to ogle at this toddler while mom perused the truck. That’s when it clicked for me. What makes curbside market work, it is the small empathetic actions that build trust and community. Those moments when someone shares your headspace and then takes the time to connect with you on it.
At camp we talk about Radical Empathy. Radical Empathy is actively striving to better understand and share the feelings of others emotionally and cognitively. To fundamentally change our perspectives from judgmental to accepting, in an attempt to more authentically connect with ourselves and others.
Jack and I started camp 4 years ago. We feel so lucky to be able to build something from scratch together and to be able to pour all of our current thoughts and passions into it. I am constantly blown away by what a week at camp can change.
Kids come to camp with all different understandings of the world. Because summer camp has an unfair advantage of being really really fun, and away from parents and adults, we get a chance to peel back layers of expectations and rules and reimagine what more is possible.
Camp is just an idea without the kids that take part in it every summer and the parents that trust us to pull it off!
Foodlink is just an idea without all of you
That is what inspires me about the staff I have interacted with at Foodlink. I love that the team here is constantly reimagining how to get more food to the places and people in the community that need it. I am so inspired by the love and creativity that propels little ideas to have big action and big impact.
At the core of what you all do, is give radical empathy to the community, and you do it through food. You bring food to them without judgement. You find ways to feed the community by empathizing with what the community needs. Finding where and why some places do not have fresh fruits and veggies and then reimagining how to get them there.
You find root causes of hunger and start programs to elevate and therefore alleviate. You put teams of passionate nutritionists in the field to have them empathize with what cooking looks like if you don't come from a family or a community that cooks or has access to cooking equipment.
It is in the smallest moments that you have the biggest impact.
The smiles, the favors the willingness to chip in, or waive a fee. To learn folks names, to check in with them personally about their pets, their loved ones. Providing decency and sharing our humanity.
I am inspired by Foodlink and the work you all to, because when you see a problem, you attack. You wrestle with solutions until one fits. You all radically empathize with the community you serve in different ways. You don't settle or stop or get satisfied.
I love coming here on Tuesdays. I know don't see the daily grind and all of the countless hours of work that goes into making it so I can go on the food truck and make groceries accessible, but I know that all of you add up to some really radically empathetic moments. You bring together communities in parking lots and apartment complexes all over the city of Rochester.
I am beyond inspired by the work you all do. I admire you so much. Thank you.