A Message of Thanks and Hope from Anna Lam
Before introducing myself, I would first like to thank you for the support you have shown your local HART group. Especially in the midst of the current pandemic, your kindness is special and goes a long way. I ask that you recognize the impact you have on the lives of our friends and neighbors who do not have a place to call home. I will ask more of you throughout this letter.
My name is Anna. Some of you may remember me, and some of you have never met me! I used to work as an Americorps VISTA with Sacramento Self-Help Housing (SSHH), the nonprofit that plays an active role in these wonderful HART groups, and with Ken Bennett, my mentor and favorite person who has dedicated his life to this impactful work. After my service term, I continued as Development Assistant and Lead Intake Coordinator. I loved my job deeply and undoubtedly grew to adore Ken and his witty humor.
I still remember my first day on the job, which also happened to be the first day of the Sacramento County Winter Shelter. We were in Moe’s Warehouse on C Street across from Friendship Park. As I hustled around, Carla stopped me in my tracks. Carla was a woman in her sixties, her wrinkles deep and happy, and her hands firmly grasping my own. I will never forget how she looked straight into my eyes, smiled with such sincerity, and said “thank you”. It left me humbled, conflicted, and determined. My job was part of a transient solution to a larger problem, and I felt that I did not deserve her gratitude - perhaps you, too, have experienced something similar... I have since been on a journey to find solutions for Carla and others who I met at the County and HART winter sanctuaries.
In the spring of 2018, I moved to the Bay Area for a job in affordable housing development. I have learned so much about the complex world of developing housing for low-income families, seniors, disabled individuals, and those without a place to call home. Financing these projects is a mathematical puzzle, construction is quite exciting, and project management requires scrupulous multitasking and collaboration. After two incredible years working with some of the most brilliant minds, I will be leaving this summer.
I’m happy to share that I’ve received the Consortium Fellowship to attend the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, for a dual degree in Master of Urban and Regional Planning and Master of Business Administration. The testing and application process for graduate school required a lot of self-discipline and self-reflection. I interviewed with a handful of schools, but I would like to share the most memorable moment throughout this process ---
I was in the middle of my interview with Christian, an alumni of the HAAS School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley. He asked me, “Why do you do what you do? Why are you so passionate about social impact?”
It was a strange question...was it not obvious? My answer boiled down to “because it matters and because I care.”
“But why do you care so much? Where does that empathy come from? I need you to dig deeper.”
I was baffled. How deep did he need me to dig? I hesitated for a long moment. Why do I care so much? The room was silent and my interviewer watched me like a hawk as I looked for the proper answer to his question. I finally gathered myself. This was going to get personal, and he wanted it to get personal.
“Okay,” I took a deep breath, “I care because I went through a lot of trauma as a child. I saw pain in myself and in the people closest to me. The pain was loud. I could not ignore it, and the only way I could make sense of it was to put myself in another’s shoes. That was the development of my empathy, and it quickly became inherent. This empathy cannot be turned off, it does not have a switch. I extend my empathy to everyone including those I do not know, and I feel their pain. Eventually, I realized that a lot of our struggles are a result of systemic issues. I am committed to social impact because I want to make people’s lives better. I make their pain go away through systemic change.”
Christian looked at me intently, taking notes when he needed to.
To my dear reader, I ask that you reflect on why you dedicate time to volunteer and serve others. Of course it’s the right thing to do, but where does that drive to help others come from? Who or what has shaped your character and your decisions? Dig deeper.
We moved on to his other questions. Eventually, we landed on “What is the biggest risk you have taken?”
This question was easier. I replied, “The biggest risk I took was when I declined my admissions to Sociology Ph.D. programs. I was engrossed in the study of society and its social inequalities. I aspired to shape minds in the classroom like the professors I looked up to. But it occured to me that professors had little time to change the social problems they educated their students about. So, I made a difficult decision. It was more important for me to understand how to solve social issues rather than study and teach them from a distance. A second risk I’m taking is occurring now - it is my decision to attend graduate school despite having a well-paying, mission-oriented job that I love and in which I have boundless room to grow. I seek to understand how to scale the impact and the good that I see in homeless services and affordable housing development. I want to address components beyond housing and create permanent, equitable, and sustainable solutions for the most distressed and under-resourced communities. In terms of a specific occupation, I don’t know where this will lead, but that’s also the beauty of taking risks...”
Ask yourself, what risks have you taken in your life that led you to where you are now? How have your decisions impacted yourself, your loved ones, and even your community?
I enjoyed my interview and have always idolized Berkeley, but I ultimately declined admissions to the program. I believe I have chosen the school that will best shape me into who I need to be - an intelligent Asian American woman who is determined to protect and create opportunity for others. You will find me in Ann Arbor for the next three years.
Before I say goodbye for now, I want to make clear that both you and I make an equal and powerful contribution to the communities that we serve. We each have our place in making a difference. The individuals and families without a home need local volunteers and organizers as much as they need affordable housing developers, philanthropic organizations, government employees who fight for equity from within the political system, and professors who inspire students to create change. Thank you for your good work.
If you’d like to say hello or share your reflections with me, I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.