On April 13, 2017, I gave a TEDx Talk in Columbia, Missouri on the power of empathetic giving.
In an age of increasing global connectivity and social media activism, millennials are redefining how we give. Give A Box nonprofit founder Ashley Yong shares how we and future civic-minded generations can be engaged, philanthropic citizens through empathy and giving in all areas of our lives.
I was born and raised in a suburb near Chicago. I lived a very sheltered life in my comfortable, middle-class, white suburban neighborhood. Whenever my family would take a trip into the city, we would come across homeless people on every corner. Growing up all my life I would hear things like,
“Don’t make eye contact.”
“If you give them money they’ll spend it on drugs and alcohol.”
“If they got a job and stopped sitting around all day they wouldn’t be homeless.”
I grew up learning to dehumanize people. I grew up learning to suppress empathy. But I didn’t let that ingrained bias and society’s view of homelessness stop me from taking personal responsibility of the issue.
Just two years ago, I was a 17-year-old senior in high school. Around December, everyone was getting excited for prom, shopping for dresses and booking hair appointments. Don’t get me wrong, Hollywood teen chick flicks definitely hyped up prom for me, but honestly, I couldn’t bring myself to spend hundreds of dollars on a dance.
One night I was sitting in my room procrastinating homework and on a YouTube binge. I came across a video of someone giving Thanksgiving dinners to the homeless in Los Angeles. It brought me to tears and I’m a fairly aggressive crier so it wasn’t pretty. That video was the spark. It was the push I needed to decide to ditch my prom to help the homeless.
Immediately I started making a list of things homeless people often need. I set my plan into motion of how I was going to sacrifice a night of fun for the service of others. So $200 and a few months later, my father and I drove into downtown Chicago with 20 cardboard boxes scattered on the floor of our minivan. It was one of the most exhilarating times of my life.
So what you just saw was a shortened version of the video that I posted on YouTube shortly after prom. Over the next few days, I shared it on social media and sent the video to tons of blogs and news media companies. I knew that even if your content was good, if it didn’t reach people, it couldn’t inspire people.
Before I knew it, Ashton Kutcher and Nicki Minaj posted about me. I was on news networks in Japan, Mexico and Ireland. Eventually I had raised over $6200 on GoFundMe. I was getting Facebook messages and emails from all over the world from people telling me that I inspired them and that they were going to start creating care packages for the homeless in their hometowns. I was riding this invigorating wave of virality and internet fame, but it quickly turned into something I never saw coming.
Nasty comments online poured in saying things like,
“She only did this for attention.”
“She probably just couldn’t get a prom date”
“She’s trying to pad her college applications.”
It was incredibly upsetting. After the sacrifice, time, energy and money I had put in, people could tear me down with a Facebook comment. I felt defeated.
But there was one thing that kept me going. It was a letter I received from a 5th grader with special needs. Jordan wrote, “You should keep helping people that are poor. Don’t let what people say stop you.”
So I didn’t stop. Instead, I started Give A Box: a nonprofit organization dedicated to packaging and distributing boxes of food, clothes and supplies to homeless people. To date we’ve served more than 400 homeless men, women and children across the country.
I named the organization Give A Box because it’s simple, and giving is simple. Being an active citizen in our communities is simple.
It all starts with empathy. Small acts of kindness to help others understand we care about them. Genuinely showing love to our neighbors for the sake of humanity. What does empathy look like, and how can we make tangible changes to our lives to incorporate it?
Well I was in downtown Philadelphia last month and if you’ve ever been there, you know there’s homeless people everywhere. I saw a homeless woman who looked like she couldn’t have been much older than me. She held a sign that said, “Anything helps, even a smile.”
What does it take for you to smile at a person? A second out of your day? Well you’ve got 86,400 of those every day. I know, you can spare a second.
See, I want you to understand that giving comes in many different forms. You can give your attention. You can give your time and effort. You can give your encouragement, like Jordan the 5th grader gave me. See, don’t get this wrong. Philanthropy isn’t about how much money you can donate. Philanthropy is about how much of your day, of your life, you are willing to sacrifice for another person on this earth. Are you living this life solely for yourself? Because if so I challenge you to feel fulfilled on your deathbed when the only person you’ve impacted is yourself. When you’ve only taken and you’ve never given. All the successes in my life have come from someone giving me hope or affirmation or time. You alone can change someone’s life, but you have to believe you can.
I will admit, though, giving is not easy. Putting another person before yourself is not easy. What’s easy is putting cookies into bags at the food bank, walking out and living your life as if food insecurity isn’t an issue in our community. Giving is a change in your heart and in the way you live your day to day life.
See the point of Give A Box is not to do these one time distributions with groups and then they go on with their lives and forget about homelessness. It’s not so people can check off a box on their morality list, dust their hands off and say, “My good deed of the month is done!” It’s to start the spark. Get people thinking. Get people caring when they come face to face with someone with a life so vastly different than yours that you can’t believe you just complained that the Starbucks WiFi was slow. Take it from me, I was that person.
Where does the spark come from? Mine came from a YouTube video. I created a spark of my own and inspired people all over the world through the internet. Social media is such a powerful tool for philanthropy, but for some reason, Millennials are under fire for their use of it. Honestly, I think it’s completely unfair. I would not be standing on this stage sharing this message with you right now if it weren’t for social media. So why are we criticizing people who share their acts of kindness online? They’re starting a spark. Sharing good deeds helps to inspire others to perform similar acts. It reaffirms that there are good people and hope in the world when so much of media today is flooded with politics, war and conflict.
Now, don’t get me wrong, social media has its drawbacks. Facebook has made slacktivism a very easy thing to fall into. Profile picture filters and liking pages can bring attention to causes we care about, but they absolutely cannot be the only thing that we do. Do not mistake slacktivism for empathetic giving.
In this time of online credit card donations and Twitter hashtag campaigns, it is important now more than ever that we truly understand the cause to which we are giving. That’s why in each box Give A Box donates, we include a handwritten letter from a volunteer. People often don’t know what to write. And I ask them to imagine themselves in the same situation, and write what they would need to hear to remain hopeful. That is empathy.
You have to understand that change starts from something small. It starts from an idea or a decision or a single moment. It starts with you.
I’m not asking you to make giving the biggest chunk of your time or your salary. I’m asking you to center your life on it, and start thinking of ways you can incorporate every day giving during your meals, at work, at school. Buy coffee for the next person in line. Hold the door open. Mentor someone. Smile at a stranger. Giving is so simple.
I want to close with a quote from this homeless man in Chicago. "When you feel like giving up, think of me. Think of me because even when you think you have nothing, you have something—your heart. That's something no one can take away.”