02/28/2013 12:39 pm ET Updated Apr 30, 2013

What Brooklyn's HOPE Program Taught Me -- Claire Silberman

I've been involved with the HOPE Program in Brooklyn for about 15 years. Its slogan is that it teaches students to "find, get and keep a job." But the women and men who enroll in the HOPE Program expect so much more than that. They participate in HOPE because they want to be economically self-sufficient, to create a good life for themselves and their families. HOPE students are clever, pragmatic, diverse, realistic, interesting, and, above all, dedicated. They're determined to overcome barriers that many of us will never face, such as an inadequate education; underdeveloped life skills; former substance abuse; and dead-end jobs that don't pay a living wage, or include such basic benefits as paid sick leave, or have regular schedules, or offer job security, or allow them to build up any type of savings. Because HOPE takes a holistic approach, students also learn about their legal rights and responsibilities, how to prepare for the GED exam or college studies, and how to navigate business and government policies that may affect them.

On the other hand, many of us who've done all the "right" things with our lives- such as with schools and jobs -- have internalized all kinds of assumptions about people who haven't climbed the ladder alongside us--the unemployed, the underemployed and the working poor. And negative views about this population are often reinforced by the media, politicians, and others. So, several years ago, when my friend Roberta asked whether I wanted to be a HOPE Program mentor, I accepted eagerly--after all, I had so much great advice to give unemployed folks who undoubtedly just hadn't made the right life choices.

Little did I know that I would end up learning as much the HOPE Program and from my mentees as I was able to teach them, in turn, about writing resumes, interview skills, or understanding what to expect from a job.

First, the HOPE Program showed me that the biases and assumptions I arrived with were just that-- conclusions based on a very incomplete picture about the way the world works for people who are economically disadvantaged. They generally aren't poor because they made a conscious decision to refuse "personal responsibility." My mentee Raymond wanted to complete his college education and then work with veterans' support groups -- he took total responsibility for mistakes he had made as a teenager and decided as an adult to take advantage of educational opportunities that he still had, all while dealing with a permanent disability in one leg that prevented him from seeking many jobs requiring manual labor. Similarly, my mentee Renee well understood that she would never be able to provide for her daughter without learning 21st century life and job skills, but that breaking what some have termed the "culture of dependency" required help. The HOPE Program works with people like Raymond and Renee, who aren't "born into" self-sufficiency and can't achieve it through intuition or without any type of hand-up, in a way that says "you aren't on your own." The longer I volunteered with HOPE, the more I understood that there isn't a direct correlation between net worth and human potential.

Equally important to me, though, my HOPE experiences demonstrated, more clearly than the numerous academic studies or news articles about the impacts of poverty and the lives of the working poor could do, that the poor and working poor need more than the direct services that organizations like the HOPE Program provide. It's just not enough to expect not-for-profits or government programs to "give a fish" or "teach someone to fish" if we don't strive to make sure that the fish are plentiful enough in the first place. That means advocating for policies like living wages and paid sick leave, to make economic self-sufficiency a truly achievable goal. It means creating a more balanced tax code, so that tax rates, deductions and credits are more fairly distributed not only among income brackets but also among different types of income. It means ensuring that all workers receive basic respect in the workplace. It means being willing to see the world through a different socio-economic lens, to question assumptions and gut reactions, to ask questions, and to resist the type of "If it isn't a problem for me it isn't a problem" thinking that disregards the reality of poverty. (For an interactive exercise, check out Playspent, which shows the very difficult decisions that someone with very limited resources has to make. It's an eye-opener.) I've been involved with organizations that work on these issues ever since.

Sure, daytime television is full of shows featuring people who have made very irresponsible choices (and who don't have the stature to be excused for them or to pay the costs). We, as a society, have every right not to "coddle" people who need support, but we also have the responsibility to invest in our human capital, both directly and systemically. Thanks to the HOPE Program, thousands of people have been enabled and empowered to take economic control of their lives. It's up to the rest of us to provide the financial, volunteer, and advocacy support that will ensure HOPE does so for years to come.