I was recently at a social services workshop where they had us do this exercise where we had to rate someone’s wealth.
        There weren’t any other elected officials there, except Laura Bush from the Board of Education, and she was there more because of her work with the SC Department of Social Services.
This is how the exercise went:
        Imagine measuring wealth on a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 means “You’re as rich as Bill Gates”, and 1 means “You have absolutely nothing but your smile.” Teeth optional, I might add.
        Then the presenter, Terie Dreussi Smith, recited a scenario about a boy who is a senior in high school. He gets kicked out of his house, but moves into an apartment with some community college students for $150 a month. He doesn’t have a car. The college students drive him places sometimes, but mostly he rides his bike to work and school. He works 20 hours a week at McDonald’s and gets one free meal per shift. He is too proud to use the free lunch program at school, and also refuses to take advantage of the special tutoring his guidance counselor tries to arrange for him so he can get into college.
        All right. What’s his score? We had to write it down.
        I wrote down “6.”
        Then Smith asked us all to raise our hands when she called out the rating that matched the number we wrote down. She started with 10, and of course no one raised a hand because this guy obviously was not Bill Gates-rich.
        Then we got down to 9, 8, 7 …. No hands.
        Then she says “6.” Up goes my hand. It’s the only one, and I feel like a damn fool.
        Then she continues….5, 4, 3, 2, 1.
        Most of the social workers raised their hands at either 3 or 2.
        Smith announced that she had rated the guy a 3, and that most social service professionals she works with give him a 2 or 3. All the social workers in the room cheered because they had the “right” answer.
        Meanwhile, I’m feeling really, really out of touch.
        Is this what happens when you become an elected official, I wondered? All of a sudden your views get distorted and you start thinking that the part-time worker at McDonald’s has more in common with Bill         Gates than with the people of Darfur?
        I needed a reality check, I decided.
        Then Smith went on to explain that she works with prison inmates sometimes. When she does this same exercise with them, guess what rating the inmates give to the McDonald’s guy?
        Anywhere from a 6 to an 8.
        Now I feel even worse, like once you become an elected official, not only are you out of touch, you start thinking like a criminal.
        It was interesting, though, to hear what Smith said about the inmate’s perceptions. When they considered the situation the McDonald’s guy was in, they didn’t see some poor kid with no hope for the future.
        They saw someone with significant resources. Safe, stable housing. Steady employment. Regular meals. Ownership of a vehicle, albeit nonmotorized, and easy access to rides in cars. A high school education. Opportunity to go to college, because there is an adult who cares. And with no criminal record to hold him back, he had the potential to get more meaningful work as he gets older.
In sum, you can focus on what people DON’T have, like the social workers were doing, or you focus on what people DO have, which is what the prisoners (and I) were doing.
Or you can do both.
        You know the old saying, some people see the glass as half-empty, and some people see it as half-full? Well, there needs to be a corollary: Both are true, and it’s beneficial to be able to see it both ways.
        I’m sure you’re wondering what the point of all this is. All right. This workshop I attended, Bridges Out of Poverty, is part of a new community-building process called Together for Beaufort.
        The local agencies that are participating in Together for Beaufort want to make life better for area residents by 2012, but they recognize they can’t continue doing business as usual. By business as usual, I mean the old practice of each organization working with tunnel vision towards separate goals. Like sullen old cowboys at the bar, each nursing their separate half-empty drinks in silence.
        By comparison, in the Together for Beaufort process, agencies will be working cooperatively toward common goals.
        Envision each agency’s glass as being half full, and then imagine pouring them all together to make a huge pitcher of Long Island Iced Tea just in time for a 2012 Happy Hour.
        In more moderate language, the idea is that we will practice counting our collective blessings and making the best of what we have. You know, building on our strengths instead of focusing on our weaknesses. This is the synergy strategy, and it is good up to a certain point.
        But we also can’t ignore the half empty glass. The reality is that there are tremendous gaps in the resources available within our community.
        So the other part of this process will be taking a hard look at what we lack as a community, and taking steps to offer each other the financial, mental, emotional, cultural, spiritual, and physical resources we need to meet the Together for Beaufort goals.
        How do our efforts rate so far on a scale of 1-10?
        I’m going to give it a 6, but you may want to check with the social workers. And the inmates.