After the orientation meeting on my first day at the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless, my head was reeling with statistics about homelessness in Rhode Island, potential projects, new names, too many acronyms, and a new favorite quote: “Take your work seriously, not yourself.”
I love this phrase because it exemplifies the belief in balancing stewardship, self care, and difficult work--a belief that permeates everything at the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless. The Coalition maintains that even if you’re doing serious work, it’s still okay--even necessary--to have fun.
The quote also helps me understand my role in projects. The Coalition works as a support system for many member agencies. The projects the Coalition takes on are serious; they deal with people’s real lives and livelihoods. The Coalition staff cannot just hear their own voices, as many of them have not experienced homelessness, but must listen to the voices of those who are and were homeless.
During this past legislative session, the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless worked tirelessly to pass a bill to establish standards for homeless shelters in Rhode Island. The idea and foundational work for this bill came from the Rhode Island Homeless Advocacy Project (RIHAP), a group of homeless and formerly homeless people who gather community concerns and advocate for themselves. The Coalition, with its extensive resources, listened to the need RIHAP presented and supported them to see this bill through.
During my first month with the Coalition, I was able to go to the Rhode Island State House to advocate for this bill. The flyers we passed out featured a picture of a dog and a child with the phrase: “Only one of these two can stay in a shelter and be protected by rigorous state living standards. It’s not the toddler.”
We lobbied Representatives and Senators. The tongue-in-cheek flyer addressed a serious problem, but didn’t take itself too seriously. Coupled with the dedicated work of our Policy Director, the rest of the staff at the Coalition, and all the members of RIHAP, it worked. At the end of the session, the bill passed through the Senate. A committee is now being established to set shelter standards.
If we at the Coalition don’t listen to our constituents, the results of our work won’t be helpful or effective. This summer I’ve learned that I must take the work I’m doing as an individual seriously, realizing my voice is only one of many that should be taken into account.
Non-profit work is complicated. It’s easy to go astray. But my summer at the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless has reminded me to stop, breathe--and really listen.