In this episode of Partnering Leadership, Dr. Mark Bergel, Co-founder of Shared Humanity Project, talks about his incredible life experiences and shares his profound love for humanity and how it molded his character to be the kind of leader he is now along with his vision to eradicate poverty.
Also mentioned in this episode:
Jurg Siegenthaler, Prof Emeritus Sociology at American University
David Bohm, Author Wholeness and the Implicate Order
Frederick Taylor, Author Scientific Management
Peter Senge, Author, The Fifth Discipline
Leo Buscaglia, Author, Living, Loving and Learning
Dr. Katherin Phillips, Co-Founder, Shared Humanity Project
Robert Karch, Professor Health Studies at American University
Richard Feynman, American theoretical physicist
Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra
Dancing Wu Li Master by Gary Zukav
The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge
Connect with Mark Bergel:
Connect with Mahan Tavakoli:
More information and resources available at the Partnering Leadership Podcast website:
Welcome to Partnering Leadership. I'm really excited as you're coming along with me on this journey of learning and growth. As we have conversations every single Tuesday with magnificent Changemakers from the greater Washington D.C. DmV region, people whose inspiring stories of impact we can learn from and every single Thursday with brilliant Thought Leaders whose lessons in leadership can add even more value to our own journeys of meaning and impact.
Now this week, I am thrilled to be having a conversation with a true visionary. And his vision is to eradicate poverty. He started A Wider Circle back in 2001, has had a significant impact with that but he is not about to stop now. He has just launched the Shared Humanity Project because he wants to eradicate poverty across the U.S. and beyond.
He’s a visionary that has won numerous awards from being Washingtonian of the year to recognized as CNN hero of the year. But for him, it's not a matter of winning awards, it's a matter of truly having an impact and eradicating poverty. So listen to him, learn from him, be inspired and hopefully you will also be inspired to join him in his cause.
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Now, here is my conversation with Mark Bergel.
Mark Bergel, my friend. Welcome to the Partnering Leadership Podcast.
Thank you Mahan, great to be with you.
I am so excited Mark because I know what you have been able to accomplish in this region in helping on your vision of eradicating poverty and what you're planning on doing on a national level. Sharing that with our audience so they become inspired with your story and hopefully getting people excited to support you on this journey.
So first off though Mark, I would love to know a little bit about whereabouts you grew up and how your upbringing impacted the kind of leader you've become?
Sure, I grew up in a small town called Latham, New York which is just outside of Albany, New York and it's very typical 1970s suburb. I thought it was the whole world, only to realize later that it was a typical 1970 suburb. But my influences really were my family. My grandfather, my mother's side, was this beautiful human being who would do anything for anybody, was always the smartest one in the room and never had to act like it. So it was very easy to find a moral compass.
My father also, would say often, you do what's right, no matter what, do what's right. Even to the point of saying, don't do what I do, do what I say. So I had those two parallel thoughts. Because I was in sports, I think it was a bit of a male dominated kind of modeling in my life.
My grandmother and my mother were both incredible people. Kind and supportive unconditionally. A whack in the head if I needed it back then, you could get that.
But I had a moral compass with my grandfather that influenced me. And so I always knew I wanted to do what was right and I saw a lot of stuff around me that wasn't right. I became a little different, especially inside than people with whom I was interacting every day. I think that's the influence of my life, I became more of a loner because of those thoughts about what's the right thing to do here and what should my daily habits be? Should I smoke? Should I drink? Should I swear? All of those typical things from the 1970s and 80s upbringing.
But they became, should I commit to helping others? Should I think about myself last? What would really be the most important thing I could do? What action could I take that would help the most people? Those are the thoughts that became a part of my consciousness even if it wasn't evident to those around me.
That's very interesting Mark. So while you were young, let's rewind back to high school age as we know a lot of kids are very self-centered at that age or at least I was, you were starting to be focused on how you would serve others.
Well, it was in my mind. I was as self-absorbed as anyone and I moved high schools from my junior to my senior year. So, what that did is it increased my sense of being a loner because when you move before your senior year to high school even though I was on the track team and I had a lot of good friends in the new school, I was still more of a loner than I would have been had I stayed in New York. And I regretted that and had self-pity parties but it was probably good for me in terms of keeping me out of trouble on the one hand because by the time you hit senior year in high school where you grew up you get in trouble if you're not really disciplined.
But it did allow me that time to be more introspective being by myself a lot. And that's what helped. But I was still very self-absorbed I would say. I'm trying to think back to those years and what did I do to help people and the answer is very little but I was getting a moral compass that was pretty strong.
I was very prayerful as well. Every once in a while, my dad would send something to me or say something. Like when I was in college he would send in at home. He would say, that was about prayer and it was very different than anything else we ever discussed which tended to be about sports. But when he would mention something about prayer, it really fed my soul because I became prayerful very early in my life, non-religious but very prayerful. And that was the biggest determinant of my actions.
So I would pray every night and I would struggle to bring my values and beliefs of the prayers into my daily actions. But even that was instructive for me even seeing that dichotomy was instructive.
And recognizing that struggle in ourselves is one way of improving our own actions.
Yeah right on. I think that's right and to this day, you pray and you can finish praying and a minute later you can be back to an action, like wait a second, that is counter to what I just was thinking about and praying about.
I think one of the benefits for me was I kind of adopted this non-religious approach to prayer. I'm still influenced I'm sure by the judeo-christian character of our country, but what it allowed me to do is as I grew, I was able to just very easily consider and integrate the kind of habits or thoughts of other religious traditions and spiritual traditions.
So then Mark, you find yourself for your Masters and PhD coming down to D.C. to study at American University and your dissertation, your Phd dissertation was on the shift from mechanical to holistic thinking. What is that all about?
Ah, it's beautiful, it really was. I’m glad we kind of skipped over college. College was good. I did some introspection, I did some stupid things. But when I got to Washington D.C. in my Master's program, it was the first time I was on my own and my schedule was my own and I wasn't living in a fraternity house and I really didn't think there would be a theme of being on my own but I was on my own a lot. And a lot of my views took shape in those years and I was lucky to have an advisor for my Master's program, the founder of the Master's program American University, a man named Bob Karch, an extremely charismatic entrepreneurial, just a great leader who to this day, I count as probably my biggest influence.
And so his charisma and his courage and toughness, influenced my thinking quite a bit and it really complimented my father's influence on me to make me feel a little more confident that I could maybe talk in public and say something that might have value or my thoughts might actually have value.
So those two individuals had that kind of an influence and all the while in the background my grandfather's morality and ethics really shaping my actions.
So I get through the master's program and I start to think holistically like maybe, my sore neck shouldn't be treated with a muscle relaxer, but thinking about how I sleep to how do I sit and stand. In other words, I started thinking about everything becoming more holistic made a lot of sense.
And then I get into this doctoral program in sociology because I was working for the university, you could get your degree at that time for free if you were a full-time employee at the university. It's a nice job with the university through that individual who was my master's program advisor and my advisor in my doctoral program was a man named Jurg Siegenthaler. A real true sociologist, I mean true blue researcher theorist and for some reason he tolerated my I would say, less than academic approach to academics. And I was very interested in what was happening around 1990 which was a significant movement toward alternative medicine, meditation, yoga, acupuncture were all kind of blowing up in the D.C. region. And I found that interesting and it made me again think about this holistic perspective and I started to look at books from the 80’s and 90’s like the Tao of Physics, the Dancing Wu Li Masters written by people who were scientists but really enjoyed the philosophy of it and I started to to glom to that and physicists like David Bohm, who was a physicist in every way, brilliant man but heavily, heavy on philosophy.
And so I started to read his work and there was a real coming together of some popular literature and some technical literature and you had to be careful not to mix the popular literature and make you think that what they said was the actual scientific basis. But it was a bit hard to tell sometimes. It gets muddied, right? And pseudoscience and hardcore science were being talked about in the same paragraph in all these books. And so I had to be kind of careful about that. But I brought that all to my advisor and said I want to write about this shift in society that seems to be happening certainly in health you can see it, there were seven acupuncturists in Maryland in 1975 and 500 in 1995 so things were happening and I want to write about that and he said yes and I said really? Really? You're going to let me do that? So he let me do that.
I wrote 1200 pages on this shift because you could trace this shift to business, Frederick Taylor business approach where you separate marketing and accounting and personnel and everybody's in their own different silo to Peter Senge work , the Fifth Discipline, which is the Fifth Discipline is holistic thinking.
So that was really exciting for me because I didn't realize that if I just spent time with this, I could grow intellectually to the point of understanding it and then teaching it. So that's what I did and again, I did nothing else but work and work on this dissertation so no other parts of my life were active.
My apartment was stacks of books and stacks of articles everywhere, you could use it for chairs. There were just stacks everywhere and I would renew the books from the libraries like every three months when you had to, I would take an hour and a half and call in all the renewals so I could keep these books.
I’m not a great reader, I’m not as intellectual as my brother. For example, I didn't get that gene but I certainly had a passion and when you have a passion, it doesn't matter what else you have, you'll make it happen. I think that's a bad steal from a song, but anyway and that song may have been from the 1980’s. I hope I didn't do that. I hope I didn't just quote Flashdance but I think I did. That’s okay you know, we are who we are.
But anyway, again I had this growing passion and I was excited because it was helping me grow intellectually and I had not focused on that. I focused a lot on athletics in high school and college and then of course the requisite social focus but this was all about intellectual growth for me and I was really excited about it.
And sometimes my advisor would ask me a question and I didn't understand the question so luckily he would get a phone call and I would go look up in a dictionary what he was actually saying, go look at his bookcase to see who he was referring to. So all those things happened. He was extremely patient and to this day he's a good friend.
They let me write this large dissertation. Like I said, I wrote 1200 pages and he said you got to cut that in half because no one's going to read it and so I did and it was a focus on holistic thinking like I've said from like classical physics to quantum physics and from classical biology to systems biology and in every discipline. But in the health field, it was really evident. We had an office of alternative medicine that was born in the early 90’s as a result of all this and it shaped my thinking.
And so it led to my life now. Because when you think holistically, you have phrases like that you're only as strong as your weakest link, the chain is only as strong as this weakest link. And another phrase that's like that is, a society is only as healthy as the least healthy among us. And so I had no choice as a believer in the holistic perspective but to go and think about the least healthy among us and that was the path.
And in the year 2001, I went to the university and said I want to teach about this and luckily that department led by that man said, alright, develop a course and we'll let you do it. I'm sorry it seems like a long-winded answer. I should let you ask a question.
No, no, that is fantastic Mark because that set in motion obviously you starting to teach at American University but at that same time that 2001 is when you became passionate even more so and founded A Wider Circle. How did that come about?
Yeah, that's a perfect question for where I was in that story. So I went to the University. I said, I want to teach a class about health and the power of connection, and that power is critical.
For example, we as individuals are not healthy if we can run fast or lift a lot of weight. We are healthy if we're in touch with our emotional side and we can manage our emotions. But we can express them if we can engage socially and if we're intellectually active and physically active then we're healthy.
When we're whole and work the dimensions that comprise our being are all in motion together, that's health and that's also wholeness and as a society. The social organism is also healthy when there's connection, so the more connection the healthier and so that was my premise and I went to the University. I went to teach that and I think that the essence of that connection by the way is love. Love is the essence. When we love other people, I don't mean romantically, I mean altruistically. When we love people altruistically, then we're healthy as a society. The more of that kind of love, that's connection.
So I went to teach a class called love and health or love and connection. They said you can teach that but you can't call it love. You keep love out of the title and we'll be fine. So I was bummed out about that because Leo Buscaglia was able to pull that off because he was obviously much more advanced. But I don't know if you've ever read Leo Buscaglia but what a teacher and writer he was. You talk about passion. You particularly, I think would love him and so perhaps you have read Leo Buscaglia.
Anyway, so I got my response which is teach it but don't call it love. So I called the class health and social connection. And in that class I said to the students, look, what we're going to do is we're going to talk about x, y and z and during the semester you need to volunteer as well. Eight hours during the semester. But you can't just clean a river, that's important, but you have to connect with people. You have to look them in the eye, which is a very spiritual connection, you look them in the eye and spend time with them so you recognize that the reason that they need your help and that you can help is random, it's birth. It's what Warren Buffett calls the ovarian lottery. You got lucky and so you're not in poverty and they probably didn't and so they might be.
And so the students looked at me like I had horns and then I said, this is going to be twenty percent of your grade and they said, we are excited to do this. This sounds great. You know, once the grade became a part of it they were ready.
They're right incentives.
Oh yes. And I recognized that they weren't volunteering but I didn't care about that. I wanted them to engage and connect.
And so luckily, I had a friend who was also teaching a course at American University and he ran a non-profit food distribution program like pantry out of his basement. Part of his religious perspective. And so he said to me one weekend, Hey Mark, I gotta go out of town. Can you help out with the food distribution? I said I'd love to Peter, but I just can’t. I got plans and I think I was like playing basketball with friends or something but I just wanted my weekend. And I said but if you need help again you know, let me know I'd be happy to help which I didn't mean. But he came to me two weeks later and said, hey Mark I need help again this weekend, you said you'd be ready. Like a blessing I mean, I always felt like he was also dropping my life for unbelievable reasons but then luckily it clicked. I was like, oh okay. So I can not be a hypocrite. That makes a lot of sense. I won't be a hypocrite. I will help. And so I helped him that weekend. I went to his home, I picked up 10 sacks of food and delivered it to 10 different families and that changed my life.
Going into these homes and seeing people who not only didn't have enough food but they didn't have beds, dressers, couches, tables, chairs and they didn’t have any of this stuff and they were as beautiful and loving as could be. I mean, I speak in that kind of language. I mean sometimes they were just, hey, how's it going Mark, yeah let's chat for a while.
But in some of the homes, the people, it felt like I was with family. I mean they were so welcoming. And this kind of veils of trying to say who are we, and look at me, there's my car, there's the school I went to, there's a college my kids are going to...All those things that we use to define us are nonsense and it's just our humanity. And that's what I felt in these apartments. It was just this pure humanity and it brought me back to a time early early in my life when my family was in kind of a maybe lower middle income or something like that, but not middle income or upper income. And there was a great sense of community in that neighborhood and I loved that about the neighborhood.
My fondest memories and my greatest happiness came when there was great community. Great connection. The neighborhood was all doing some neighborhood races or whatever it was, that was the most fun. So that's how I felt being in these apartments. And I would walk outside from them and sometimes we would hug really emotionally though we just had met and I recognized I was bringing food and they really needed it. But there was still a deeper connection going on.
And so one home I went to, I'll just tell you this quick story. I went to this home and there was a woman and her granddaughter and the granddaughter hid behind the woman as is often the case with kids. At least that's my experience. When they see me they tend to hide behind their parents. So she hides behind her grandmother and her grandmother and I connect well. I put the food in the cupboard because she asked me to. And she says, oh, that's really kind. And so we talk. And I learned that she needs everything, so I say, you know what ma'am I'm going to come back next week. When I stop and get done delivering food and I'll bring in these other things. You need some feminine hygiene products and some other personal care items that this pantry didn't have. So, I tell her that and she said, that's really great. Thank you so much, and meanwhile this granddaughter is desperately trying to not be seen hiding behind her grandmother. So I leave the apartment and I walk out. I'm walking down the sidewalk and all of a sudden the door swings open in this apartment to the outside and the granddaughter screams, thank you very much and she runs back in.
And something about that moment whether the grandmother told her to do it or whatever just lifted me off the ground and I felt like the rest of my walk to my car, I was several feet off the ground in fact. And that and a couple other deliveries that day made me just pull over to the side of the road and say that's it, I got to think about changing everything.
And you did do that with founding of Wider Circle. But initially, you wanted to move out of your living room and get a warehouse. Even your board of directors was telling you, no Mark, you're crazy, don't do it.
That's a good story. That's you know, we're several years in now in the organization and we've been working out in my apartment. I'd say growing it slowly. Some people thought we grew it quickly but in my mind, a month of having poverty when you could end it is going slowly.
At a point in 2007 now Mahan, where I just thought we were starting to grow and we needed to get a new model that allowed for greater capacity of service. So, I said to the board I'd like to move everything to a warehouse, put the office and the furniture storage all together. Put us all together, I think we could be much more effective, we could grow. And they said we don't have enough money for two years worth of lease payment which is kind of what you need. And I said trust me. If we do this we'll get that. People will come to us.
I had seen field of dreams, I believe by that time, and so I said if we build this thing, people will support us. We just have to believe that and we have to grow. The issue mandates our big picture thinking. I think we had six people on the board and five of them were like, I don't think so. And I said, will you let me do it though and they said all right we'll let you do it. The one who felt pretty positively about, she sent me a card I remember that night that said leap and a net shall appear and I really love that card. That's what we did and the net appeared in spaces. We had all kinds of people coming. The number of volunteers per year went from 500 to 1,000 to now 30,000 because we had the space to host them and we could be there every day.
Those kinds of decisions I feel like I made those decisions often and the board stopped fighting me after a while and just accepted it much in the same way my parents are lovely but they thought this was a terrible idea for me to do because I was giving up family. I wasn't going to pursue a wife and kids. I made a vow of service by the way in that day in 2001 and that did not look to them like it would lead to grandchildren so they were not behind this decision.
They liked that I had these values but nobody in my close circle thought it was a good idea and that's what I face today too. Nobody felt like leaving A Wider Circle to start the Shared Humanity Project was a good idea for me but I know that this issue mandates that we do what's right spiritually, philosophically and for the greatest number of people, not what's right for us as individuals.That's a selfish perspective I just don't want to have.
Mark, one of the traits of very successful leaders is their ability to visualize a future that other people might not be able to see but be able to rally enough of those people to come along with them to that future. Now, I know your vision and you've said it repeatedly to me that you want to eradicate poverty. You must have said that so many times where people have looked at you and said you must be crazy.
Yes. The number of people who said that behind my back far outnumber the number of people who said that to my face but there was enough of both. But you know, you can't care about that. We have the resources to end poverty. We certainly have the creativity.
I mean just Mahan, think about all of the amazing abilities one person to have like maybe you know this person is just the greatest lawyer and thinker and speaker that you could ever imagine and somebody else is this incredible architect who can visualize a building like no one and then there's this incredible carpenter. Almost every human being has these abilities. Can you imagine if we put those together instead of screaming at each other and trying to tear down somebody who disagrees with us? Can you imagine if instead, we understood that our view captures a part of the whole and somebody who disagrees with us probably captures another part of that whole?
So instead of ripping at each other, what if we just say, wow you got the complimentary thought on that, let's put our thoughts together. That is just a piece of the potential we have. But we're all wrong in what we look at as our limitations. I mean there are some qualitative limitations. You can't become a tree tomorrow but that's about it. The things that we can do as a species are so far beyond what we're doing right now that it's embarrassing.
Now I'm not going to stick on the embarrassing piece because that seems negative. I’m going to stick on the positive which is to say again, think of all these amazing abilities we know every person to have. What if we combine those, what if we look for the synergy in all this instead of the differences in all this because I'll go back to that point when I have an idea about something.
I mentioned, David Bohm, he was great for teaching us this but that thought is an abstraction. We abstract a piece of the hole. The hole is still there. What we know about it is we shouldn't use that word but we believe about it, if we combine that with what other people believe, that's very different, that's powerful. But we look at it the complete opposite. It's dangerous when people disagree with us. We have to avoid them or beat them. We don’t. We have to join them. We have to figure out why is it that we didn't see what they saw and why is it they didn't see what we saw and then how do we together get closer to the hole.
And that's why with that passion, after having started and having had such a great impact with A Wider Circle. 300,000 plus people in this region impacted, 200,000 plus people having volunteered and having served through A Wider Circle. You have launched the Shared Humanity Project, co-founded it to help eradicate poverty on a national level. Tell us a little bit more about that Mark.
Well, I don't want to go any more years or decades of doing this work without seeing true outcomes. There's a bit of a non-profit industrial complex just like there is in every industry where you start an organization with a mission but then you want to keep the organization going and that is off focus.
You start an organization with a mission. All eyes on the mission whatever it takes. And for me, I think I can have a greater impact now looking at how we're truly going to eradicate poverty nationally. A Wider Circle is going to do incredible work in the nation's capital region.
It already every day furnishing 10 to 15 homes during the pandemic is phenomenal. We have leadership in place at A Wider Circle to carry on that great work and I'm excited for that. They have a great board and I'll always stay connected as an advisor. But the Shared Humanity Project is where I feel like I need to go because it's embarrassing to look at what little we've accomplished since the war on poverty was declared in 1964.
Some people will say, Mark you're just glazing over the fact that we've kept so many other people out of poverty. We have all these great safety net services and I would say that is true, many people have not fallen into poverty because of the war on poverty. Many people have been helped by safety net services but it is just a small small part of what we are capable of doing. I need to bring that national focus. I need to care about what happens in Minneapolis and in Houston and in Central Appalachia and in the four corners of the southwest where Arizona and New Mexico come together up top.
We need to look at that because there are people who generationally, the minute they're born, they're subject to a life of deprivation, scarcity and vulnerability and that is not okay. I'm not ready to go another year without real progress in this effort to end poverty. If I thought I had few friends before, I'm gonna have even fewer now I guess because I'll have to talk like this because our actions need to be greater. They need to have more commitment to them, certainly more creativity but that's what's possible.
And I would just say Mahan, that when we get to a place, you talked about a vision, so what does a country look like that has no poverty. Well it looks like a safer country, it looks like a place where people can actually start to think about the potential they have as human beings. Like you are one of the most dynamic people I have ever met. What you do with leadership in greater Washington by the way, which is how we know each other, as the board chair, you came in at a time that had been a significant growth year or two under Pinky Mayfield's leadership and I thought I feel sorry for the person who comes in after Pinky because she's really done some great work. You brought this incredible energy, this new and different energy that is just built on everything that Pinky did. You're so dynamic and so committed. That's the energy we need.
In complimenting you I kind of lost track what I'm saying about the country but let me just say that your energy is the type of energy I see out there that reflects commitment.
I truly appreciate that Mark, coming from one of the most visionary leaders I've seen.
Now, with the Shared Humanity Project you are bringing your holistic systems approach. You mentioned Peter Senge and I love Peter Senge's thinking. You're bringing a holistic systems thinking approach to helping eradicate poverty on a national level.
Where are you going to focus that effort, how are you going to proceed with Shared Humanity Project?
Great! Thanks for asking. We have three areas of focus with the new organization. The first is economic justice. l’ll come back to that in a second. The second is education and outreach and that will be some of the stuff I was talking about with how do we really exist.
I could get pretty woo-woo with you right now and talk about energy and auras and chakras and interconnectedness and quantum physics and the holographic theory and chaos. All of those things, again, there are people who have taken those and misinterpreted them and then there are people who have not interpreted them broadly enough. But they all speak to an existence that is well beyond the five foot eight inch shell of me or however we kind of define ourselves we are much much more than that. And together and the connection that's not visible is far greater than the connection that is visible.
But that is what I'll try to articulate in ways that are pragmatic. So what if we have auras or chakras? Who cares? What does that mean? So what if we have energy coming out of our fingertips or the palms of our hands? What do you do with that? That's part of the education and outreach. What does that have to do with poverty? I'll get to that a sec.
And then the third part of the Shared Humanity Project will be that any organizations that need some of the experience that Katherin and I, by the way, Katherin Phillips is my partner in the Shared Humanity Project and we have complementary decades of experience so she's been a researcher and a policy enthusiast. In other words, she really studies that stuff well and I've been on the ground serving and I've done a little policy and she's done some on the ground so there might be organizations that want to start up or that need strategic planning, we'll help them and maybe earn revenue kind of way.
But back to the first is economic justice and how it relates to who we are as human beings. I look at Mazda's hierarchy of needs as a really good model. Before we can self-actualize which is I think self-actualization is probably part of your thought process from time to time as you look to be the best you can be, to put in other terms. But we really lose so much when we don't allow a human being who's born into poverty to realize their potential.
I can't imagine the talent that has gone by the wayside because people haven't been able to escape the stress of poverty or the scarcity or desperation of poverty so we've probably lost phenomenal lawyers and doctors and writers and artists and athletes and musicians because they were in poverty and they weren't able to think about what they could do in life. Nobody was there telling you can do whatever you want to do. That was the great lesson that Bob Karch gave me when I graduated from his master's program. You can do whatever you want to do. I say that but I really mean it with you and I said okay then I'll believe it.
But if you're living in a household where you don't have lunch or dinner or it's dangerous to step outside, because when you live in poverty and everybody's kind of got this scarcity, that can breed a lot of behaviors that are survival mode behaviors and that's not great. And any of us would be in that situation, any of us would turn to survival level actions if we were living in scarcity. Trust me, we know that biologically, psychologically, emotionally that's what would happen. We would get wired for that and it's very hard to pull out of that.
We need to be able to create communities and neighborhoods or support existing communities and neighborhoods so that people don't live in scarcity and don't have that desperation or that survival mentality. Because if you live in survival mentality, it stunts your psychological and actual physical growth and it inhibits the activity of the brain that allows you to strategically plan.
So this stuff is insidious. Poverty is insidious and it strikes you in every way in ways we don't typically consider but if we address those, if we kind of take the very simple steps to prioritize those who are in the greatest vulnerability then I think what that means is everyone that has a chance to say, “Okay what's possible for me?”
That is a brilliant vision of the future. I hear the term a lot of times people say, if anyone can do it you can do it however I amended in this case is if anyone can do it, we can do it with that vision Mark because I know you are rallying the community, the broader society to believe that vision is possible and for us to work together to achieve that vision.
I'm glad you said that and paused because what we'll do with our economic justice plan is we'll launch this national plan to end poverty. We're going to launch it early in 2021 and it is an interactive plan. It's website-based but it's a tool that everybody can go into and there's a lot of learning that you can experience. There's some teaching tools and timelines of poverty programs and descriptions of poverty programs but the main tool on the website is this action guide where you can click on who you are. Are you a business or are you an individual, are you a faith community? You can pick how you want to engage. Click on that, select how you want to engage and then you can click the second click on what area of poverty do you want to affect? Do you want to help with child care transportation, safety, health employment, education? There's nine of them and with those two clicks after you click, it gives you a menu of four to five things you can do right away.
Whatever sector you choose, let's just say you choose business and you say I want to know what my business can do. Because there's nine areas and about five options within each. It gets 45 to 50 different things you can do right away to engage poverty. So you can pick one a week, you could pick one of the days a little harder, you could pick one a month but you and your group or you and your family can engage right away in solving this problem because we've been too heavily reliant on others specifically government in some cases to solve poverty and all the discussions and debates about poverty tend to skew over towards what government should do.
Forget that. Government can play a role, no question. It's one of the ten sectors by the way but it's one of the ten. When we look to government to solve our problems, we absolve ourselves of responsibility. And so we can't absolve ourselves with responsibility.
In every sector whether it's our temple, our church, our civic association, a rotary, a kiwanis, our company, whatever it is. The responsibility for ending poverty is in the mirror and there's no question about that and that's what this plan helps you do. But it helps you do it in a way that's positive instead of maybe it sounds like I'm getting a little harsh and preachy here and I don't mean to.
Yes, not at all. And it is shared ownership. I think it's a powerful tool, we’ll link into it in the show notes and I would encourage people to engage and find out how they can have an impact in areas that interest them specifically so it is our ownership and as you said government is one of the ten but there is a lot more that can be done by all of us.
Yes, sharedhumanityproject.org or nationalpovertyplan.org, either of those sites will take you to the plan. Two steps if you go to shared humanity project first. But you'll be able to see how you can engage right away and I think that's one of the things that I thought over the years because you know it comes back to this notion that you nicely brought up about my background in holistic thinking and thinking about the interconnectedness of life. I always felt like poverty was everyone's problem. If one person's living in poverty that's us. That's why I think so passionately about this because when I see a woman at the corner asking for anything I think that's my mom I mean that's definitely my mom and if I don't think that's my mom, I'm living a small life.
And that young man who's involved in any type of activity that's going to hurt his life or a young woman who's involved in something that's tough growing up because poverty and that's the main reason, that's me or that's my kid.
And so I have to act with that urgency. To your point earlier about do people laugh or say you're crazy, I say what would you do if it were your child in poverty? Let's say your child lived today at the corner of x and y where there's violent activity and only poverty in sight. What would you do if your child lived there? You would change things. You might say, well I'll get my kid out of there but that's also selfish because somebody's got to be there. So we got to change the there.
There cannot be a bad neighborhood and that's how I think we've had things flipped on their head. We've thought, “Oh yes, that's a bad neighborhood. You should stay out of there. Don't go over there, it's a bad neighborhood.” The answer is not that. The answer is go there and help that neighborhood to transform and that's what we all have to do. We have to make sure there aren't quote-unquote bad neighborhoods because I can tell you the people who live there have more potential than anybody I know because they have to.
They've had to be so industrious to just keep going day after day. Those abilities and talents they have are oh my gosh. If we can give them opportunities and we can create communities and or put resources to support people in those communities, what we're going to see happen is a tremendous leap forward for humanity.
Tremendously because we've been operating, letting all those folks and their talents, I don't wanna say, those talents have gone to waste and we've let those people live in these unacceptable conditions and they've been tolerant and I don't know why. We've got to get together with them.We've got to be supportive, get behind them and make sure that communities transform now and where we have generational poverty and scarcity, we have to put opportunity.
And Mark, for anyone that questions the potential for us to do that, I would ask him to think about any of even the business successes of the past decade, things that leaders have been able to accomplish due with technology and otherwise that we once thought were not possible.
As we think to ourselves that maybe this is not possible, everything, every advancement we have had at certain point people thought that is crazy it's never going to happen.
So I urge people to view this challenge the same way business leaders have viewed other challenges in bringing forward new technologies and moving society forward.
Now, Mark, you've done fabulous things with respect to helping advance the cause in this region. Now on a national level, you're a leader meant for having even greater impact.
What sources of leadership insight resources do you find yourself typically reading for yourself to re-energize Mark and you find yourself recommending to others as they want to become more impactful leaders?
That's a good question. I keep it simple. I look to the things I know were true. So I know Gandhi's life was true and what he did was phenomenal and the way he did it was selfless and then King was influenced by that quite a bit and preached a lot of the same thoughts.
So those two individuals did things that were so significant and at the level of ending poverty they kind of created those types of movements that were of that level and I go back and read them all the time. That way I don't get sidetracked because there's a lot of stuff on the internet now. You could read the latest great TED Talk and they're pretty good. I get them but I don't know. I think that they're a little showier than I want to be.
I really love the substance of what Gandhi did and the substance of what King did and the sacrifice they made and King especially, was criticized a lot and people talk about this part of his life or that part of his life. So I don't mistake anything but for the message of what they accomplished.
You know, we are not perfect beings but I know we have the facts on how those two men did unbelievable things in their lives and I think that's what kind of poverty eradication takes that kind of commitment.
So I look to them and I look to some of the great scientists. I look at Richard Feynman who many people kind of belittled in some ways but was unbelievably brilliant and I look at David Bohm. Those are two scientists whose work I all the time reading. I read David Bohm all the time and it's the same thing I'm reading every time. I'm like oh yes, let me go apply that. Oh yes I said I was going to apply that last week, let me apply that tomorrow.
So I also am happy there's a great model, fall down eight times, stand up nine which I get. I often wonder if it should be, fall down eight times stand up eight because shouldn't you just stand up every time you fall down but I understand that they want to say get up more than you fall down. But I kind of do that because I make so many mistakes that I need to keep making sure that I don't give up.
Yes and I am sure you are not going to give up Mark and this is the first of what will be many conversations as we not only track your progress we rally the community and a broader community in supporting your vision of eradicating poverty.
Thank you so much Mark for joining the conversation on Partnering Leadership.
It was my pleasure, Mahan. I'll talk to you anytime.
Founder, President and CEO of A Wider Circle
Mark is the only individual ever inducted into both the Montgomery County Human Rights Hall of Fame and the
Montgomery County Business Hall of Fame. Mark’s efforts have also led to his selection as a Washingtonian of the Year and as one of People Magazine’s “All-Stars Among Us,” recognizing individuals who have made incredible contributions in their communities. He has also received the Cyrus A. Ansary Medal, the Dr. Augustus White III Award for Civic Engagement and Service, the Roscoe R. Nix Distinguished Community Leadership Award, a CNN Hero Award, and many other awards and recognitions.
Under Mark’s leadership, A Wider Circle grew every single year since its founding. The organization has served more than 300,000 children and adults, was described by the Washington Post as “the quintessential grassroots movement,” and was three times named as “one of the best” by the Catalogue for Philanthropy.
After 19 years at the helm of A Wider Circle, Mark co-founded The Shared Humanity Project to focus on poverty eradication on a national level. A cornerstone of the new entity is The National Plan to End Poverty, a plan that focuses on how every American can engage in the eradication of poverty.