(Written on a tiny phone screen again, this time while on a plane. Expect typos and funny word substitutions.)
When I started working at what is now Kindred Place, one of the first items on my to-do list was planning and executing the annual fundraising event, known at the time as the Hands of Hope auction. The event was a standard cocktail reception, silent and live auction. In the auction were all the standard (at the time) charity auction items: Trips, Botox, jewelry, lamps, and so on.
Most of the planning had been done by the time I arrived, so my first auction looked pretty much like the one that had preceded it the year before. As with all annual fundraising events, planning for the next one begins almost immediately after “thank you” letters get mailed.
Since we were writing the next chapter of a 35-year-old organization, refining the strategy and messaging, we spent some time looking in the archives, carefully sorting through what had and hadn’t worked well in the past as we prepared for the future.
One of the ideas we unearthed in the dig was the “Box of Hopes and Dreams” component of past auctions. Many years prior, artists had hand-painted wooden boxes, and in the boxes were notes from our clients — children and adults both — about their hopes and dreams.
One member of our board, who’d been around long enough to have seen many of our annual events, showed us the Box of Hopes and Dreams on his credenza and talked about how he felt every time he saw it. In that one, simple item he had a tangible reminder of how his support for our work helped make hopes and dreams come true for people he would probably never meet. It inspired him to keep working, keep helping, keep dreaming of a better future for all people.
The ability to imagine a future and better version of oneself is, according to several research studies, an asset that can contribute to moving from poverty to economic self-sufficiency. Dreams, paired with more practical things like food, housing, and safety, are fuel. Dreams feed momentum.
So we brought back the idea, in a slightly different format. Volunteers hand-painted wooden birdhouses, and the theme of that section of the auction was “Help Dreams Take Flight.” In the little round opening of each birdhouse we planned to insert a rolled-up note from a client (child or adult) about their dreams.
As the auction date drew near, we had far more birdhouses than notes. I knew it wasn’t likely or even appropriate to get a note from every client, but I was surprised by how few there were. I asked about it during our weekly staff meeting, wanting to know more about how people were approaching the conversation and asking for the notes. How had we done it in the past? What was different now?
“The children I’m working with don’t have dreams,” one therapist finally offered. “They don’t know how to dream, can’t imagine beyond the basic, practical needs of right now. That’s always been true for some people, but now it’s true for so many more.”
That’s the effect of trauma, stress, and unmet basic needs, including — and possibly most importantly — lack of loving support and human connection.
But before you go thinking that this situation describes only Other People, people you drive by at freeway intersections or see behind dumpsters at the coffee shop, let me tell you another story. It’s the same story, only different:
Earlier this year I was working with a group of highly educated, well-resourced professional people on a change management process. They were stuck, and I wasn’t making much progress. With a colleague’s help I decided to try a loosely structured Appreciative Inquiry exercise, starting by asking each member of the group to identify one cherished memory from the past that they dreamed of repeating in the future.
And then someone said: Honestly, thinking about the things I enjoyed in the past just makes me overwhelmingly sad. I don’t have any dreams for the future. I’m just trying to get by one day at a time, and that’s hard enough.
Trauma; stress; unmet needs, particularly the lack of loving support and human connection.
I’ve been thinking this week about Dreams, that long-inequitable term. Shared Dreams. Differing Dreams. Dreams deferred. Dreams denied.
My Dreams. The privilege of imagining what’s ahead for my children or me.
On one of our car rides recently, talking about colleges, my daughter said something to the effect of: You don’t believe in me.
“Of course I believe in you,” I said — quickly and with conviction. “I just don’t want you to be disappointed if what you want doesn’t happen.”
“Well,” she responded, “I will be disappointed. And I know it might not happen. But I’m going for it anyway.”
So here’s today’s incomplete thought:
Dreams aren’t solo work. They’re too risky, require too much vulnerability for anyone to dare have one without the companion belief that something — or someone — will be there to soften the fall if the dream doesn’t come true.
Maybe the question isn’t whether or what any of us dares to dream but, rather, who we can lean on, and who can lean on us, to make dreaming possible in the first place.
This is so beautiful and melancholy at the same time, Jennifer. To consider that people are so desperate they cannot dream or hope for something better. I hope we can all strive to be kinder people every day in all situations, even when we don’t feel like it or don’t have the patience. We never know what others are dealing with.
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