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What keeps an United Way executive going in the face of adversity

June 3, 2019

By Phyllis Martin, senior vice president of community impact and strategic investments, United Way of Northeast Florida

United Way Senior Vice President of Community Impact and Strategic Investments Phyllis Martin.
United Way Senior Vice President of Community Impact and Strategic Investments Phyllis Martin.

Andy Dusfresne said in The Shawshank Redemption, “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”

Earlier this year, I had the honor of participating in United Way’s Cocktails and Conversations event for its Atlantic Circle members.  Truth be told, I was subbing for someone – someone wiser, smarter, more accomplished. Someone who couldn’t make it that evening for reasons I cannot remember. What I do remember is that I hoped my words would be of some value to this inspiring, eager, outlandishly smart, and splendidly diverse group of emerging leaders.

Oh, these future leaders. Ready to tackle today’s complex challenges.  Smart enough (already) to seek out the wisdom of those who have come before them – who – shall we say – have more “experience” (insert a smothered coughing sound combined with a deep sigh).  Young enough to truly believe that anything and everything is possible if only…

I could tell from the energy in the room and their enthusiastic smiles they were filled with hope.

Truth be told, I didn’t really want to be at this event.  After close to 30 years of working as a professional in the not-for-profit sector thinking, talking, listening and trying to change community conditions my flame of hope had gone from bright to dim.

And why wouldn’t it have?

In today’s world, talking has smothered listening; data has replaced the faces of PEOPLE; our conscious has become numb to the magnitude of pain we would feel if we had to stare into the eyes of children who arrive at school hungry, who don’t feel safe when they go home, who struggle with identity, mental illness, and who, too often, feel so helpless and hopeless that they see no viable solution other than to take their own lives. We have become conditioned to blindly walk by our homeless, harshly judge people living in poverty, and get our hackles up when it comes to talking about really important issues like systems change. Or race. Or equity. Or inclusion.

But as the universe would have it, one of the very first questions I was asked that night was “what keeps you going when things get really challenging in your work and you want to give up?”

My response was simple, “Hope.”

What keeps me going in the face of unparalleled adversity is my constant and loyal companion, hope.

In 2016, United Way of Northeast Florida adopted a new vision statement. We envision a community of opportunity where everyone has hope and can reach their full potential.  United Way of Northeast Florida had the audacity to hope that our tens of thousands of supporters would join us in the hard work of bringing that vision to fruition for it requires each of us to think and be with one another in new ways.

It requires patience and innovation.  It requires acceptance of new technologies and new voices, new depths of collaboration, and a laser-like focus on the issues that are keeping people stuck.  It requires that our community understand the causes United Way focuses on, ensuring access to basic needs, helping students excel in and beyond the classroom, helping hardworking families become financial secure, and empowering people to live healthier lives adds up to a community of opportunity for everyone.

More than anything, it requires hope. And while hope is definitely not a strategy, it can mean the difference between hanging on and giving up.

June 4 is a day of observance called Audacity to Hope Day. The day is for all those who hope, try, and work towards things that seems impossible. It is a day for all those who are in dire straits, but hope for a new dawn ahead. We invite you to connect with us and join in our fight. My personal hope is that you will.

Join the movement

You can join Phyllis in the movement for a stronger Northeast Florida by connecting your passions to purpose at United Way. To learn how you can get involved, visit unitedwaynefl.org/get-involved.