Trusting Our Future to the Next Generation

By Bill Bolling, Executive Director
Holiday 2010

I got a call recently from the mother of one of our regular volunteers. She wanted to share an interesting story. It involved her son who had just begun college at a prestigious school in the Midwest.

Shortly after arriving, he was walking across campus and struck up a conversation with another new student. As they talked, they learned they were both from Atlanta. But they soon discovered they shared more in common than they could have ever imagined. The conversation led – as it inevitably does with freshmen – to how tough the application process was. As they shared their experiences in applying and getting accepted into the freshman class, they were in for a big surprise. They had both written their application essays on how volunteering at the Atlanta Community Food Bank had been a place where something significant and meaningful had happened in their young lives. They even noted, in their respective essays, the same person at the Food Bank’s Product Rescue Center who had most influenced them.

Before that day, walking across campus, these two students had never even met.

I was recently asked to teach a class of graduate students majoring in social work. The subject of their interest was different from past classes. Could I please talk about collaborations, partnerships, and entrepreneurship? In a school for social work, no less. The class was very engaged in the discussion that unfolded, and their questions were stimulating new thought. There was excitement in the class and an urgency to know more. They were learning about a future that was yet to be realized, but their enthusiasm to engage it was contagious.

I got a call last week from a young woman who was starting school at Georgia State University. She had transferred from a school in Indiana and was starting a new program in town – to serve needy students. She was keenly aware of this need because she had been in a similar situation – facing difficulties paying tuition and making ends meet. She didn’t call to ask if I thought there was a need, or even to ask for literal support. She simply shared that she wanted me to know that she was following in her grandmother’s footsteps. She was naïve, yes, but courageous and determined. I love an entrepreneur whose philosophy is to ask forgiveness instead of permission - a woman after my own heart.

Stepping into our Future

I share these three stories about young people because we can’t have hope about our future without this kind of inspiration, enthusiasm and blind determination. But it will also take listening to input and new ideas from those who are already working in the trenches.

For the past year, through a series of surveys and facilitated discussions we have been in dialogue with the more than 700 partner agencies who receive food from us – our customers, if you will. We have been listening closely to their stories and asking probing questions. Are we serving them well? Are there things we could we do better or differently? What are they anticipating in the year ahead? What are their biggest needs? Do they continue to have strong community support and strong leadership? How do they collaborate with others? Have they considered other ways of fulfilling their missions?

I won’t go into the entire study, which we expect to complete early next year, but it’s safe to say that these community-based organizations – most often led and served by volunteers – are under tremendous pressure. Most have experienced significant increases in demand. Many have seen clients who have never had to ask a friend, family, or congregation for help before. (We estimate 20% are reaching out for the first time.) It raises the question of whether we, as a community, can sustain these efforts indefinitely. With a 33% increase in distribution to these agencies over the past fiscal year, sustainability is one of the central questions facing our organizations and our larger community.

It is becoming abundantly clear that the public response and budget cuts at every level cannot keep up with demand in an environment that is increasingly hostile; where politicians run negative ads against the institution that they intend to serve, where the public is demanding less government, fewer taxes, less oversight, more freedom, and more private sector initiatives. Of course they also want better services. It’s a confusing message, which when looked at more closely does not add up. The public continues to want more for less and believes that if we make just a few political adjustments, then our future will be bright. At least in a political season, that is what our political leaders tell us.

A New Standard of Living – Being Honest About our Future

As a country we have been living seriously beyond our means for at least the past 25 years. Borrowing to maintain a false standard of living, we have been building up debt that is now alarmingly high. We often counsel families that the consequence of such behavior leads to bankruptcy, and certainly this iswhat we have been seeing much more of at every level in the past two years.

Can a society go bankrupt? Can we be bankrupt of ideas? We seem to be locked into the same confrontational answers to complicated issues. Does there always need to be an enemy – someone or something to blame things on? Is personal responsibility important anymore? If we listen to our politicians, or what passes for the news media today, one would certainly think so.

From the perspective of the Food Bank, it is time to go beyond the political rhetoric to commit to a real plan of action. And it will take longer to realize, cost more to accomplish, and require more cooperation and compromise than anyone has been willing to admit or commit to.

Confidence in our Future

For our youth, and our young leaders, this is the reality of their future. From early career professionals to college-bound young people, there is a new motivation to do meaningful work, to make a difference. There is a frustration, and even boredom, with the same old politics. In an age of instant communication and ready access to information, the truth cannot be hidden forever. Everything is literally connected to everything else.

Each generation determines their priorities and ways of leading. For those of us called to teach or work with volunteers, it is clear that we teach most effectively by example; we often learn most deeply by our failures; we lead most effectively by being courageous in the face of negativity and cynicism, and we gain trust by being truthful and consistent.

During "our" generation’s great depression, our history is being written as we speak. How will we respond? We would do well to listen more and talk less, to encourage and invest more in our future than focus on our past, to dig deeply into our most courageous place and speak the truth.

Bill Bolling