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Smith: What we’re called to do

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Moses Maimonides was a profoundly influential 12th century Jewish theologian. His views on tzedakah are still studied today. Tzedakah (pronounced “seh duh kuh”) is often translated from Hebrew as “charity”, but the concept is linguistically and morally better translated as “righteousness”. Charity often has the connotation of merely “being nice” to those who are experiencing poverty, whereas righteousness denotes an obligation to serve poor people in accordance with one’s faith in God.

Maimonides conceived the “Golden Ladder” – an eight-step hierarchy of tzedakah. He wrote: “We are obligated to be more scrupulous in fulfilling the commandment of (charity) than any other positive commandment, because (charity) is the sign of a righteous man.” For Maimonides, the “highest” form of charity/righteousness is preventing poverty – or helping to lift people out of poverty by providing them with more than their basic needs.

That spirit of eradicating poverty is the ethos that undergirds THRIVEfunds, which is a new, Indianapolis-based nonprofit that assists people in moving from surviving to flourishing. The organization’s mission is: “Investing in the infrastructure of America’s working families to increase opportunity and economic mobility for all.” It is exceedingly rare for people to advance economically if they exist at a subsistence level. THRIVEfunds receives contributions from donors and redistributes them to working people who need a hand up.

Gisele Garraway is the founder and CEO of THRIVEfunds. Garraway, who is a graduate of Howard University and Harvard Business School, had a very impressive corporate career before deciding to become a nonprofit executive. Immediately prior to starting THRIVEfunds, she was President & CEO of Starfish Initiative, which is a youth mentoring organization. (I was a board member at Starfish a decade before Garraway moved to Indianapolis to lead it.)

Launched just last year, THRIVEfunds primarily serves residents of the inner city. It has provided laptops, cell phones, gas cards, and other necessities that most of us take for granted. The organization will soon offer financial support for summer childcare, the cost of which is frequently a major barrier for parents who are trying to lift their families out of poverty. In executing its work, THRIVEfunds partners with nonprofits that serve low-income individuals, including St. Vincent de Paul Food Pantry, John H. Boner Neighborhood Center, Community Alliance of the Far Eastside (CAFE), and Martin University. It also works with the organization that I am proud to lead, Fathers and Families Center.

Given its mission, THRIVEfunds’ primary recipients are African American. In meeting its commitments, the organization relies on a set of donors who are diverse racially, ethnically, religiously, and socioeconomically. It actively counters the myth that one has to be a millionaire to be an effective philanthropist. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In addition to providing material needs, THRIVEfunds telegraphs a powerful message: People who are struggling are not alone. A couple years ago, noted business and community leader Marshawn Wolley conducted a major survey of African Americans in Indianapolis. Among other crucial data, the survey found that most low-income African Americans believe that “No one cares” about people like them (i.e., those who are experiencing poverty).

There is also a common believe that no help comes for “free”. A case manager from a local community organization offered the following observation on behalf of her clients: “It’s hard to conceptualize that someone would want to help (them) without having something to hold over their head. Many families expect people to want something in return, even if it’s just power.” This perception, along with the notion that “no one cares” about poor people, engenders many negative effects. Those negative effects include the dousing of hope.

During the 1988 Democratic National Convention, Rev. Jesse Jackson delivered the most powerful speech of the evening. Jackson, who is known for his frequent exhortation to “keep hope alive”, employed a constant refrain not to surrender to various social ills. He said, in part:

“Never surrender, young America. Go forward. America must never surrender to malnutrition. We can feed the hungry and clothe the naked. We must never surrender… We must never surrender to illiteracy. Invest in our children… We must never surrender to inequality. Women cannot compromise (on) ERA or comparable worth. Women are making sixty cents on the dollar to what a man makes. Women cannot buy meat cheaper. Women cannot buy bread cheaper. Women cannot buy milk cheaper. Women deserve to get paid for the work that you do. It’s right! And it’s fair!”

As much as Jackson believes in hope, he understands that hope is not a strategy. His admonishment not to surrender is a battle cry to stay in the war against discrimination and inequality. Let us maintain our hope, but let us galvanize that hope by taking decisive action.

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