Middlesex United Way: Smallest ideas can change people's lives

MIDDLETOWN — One thought of mine changed the trajectory of my entire summer. I had been sitting on my bed for a while, exhausted from applying to internships that didn’t fully excite me. I started to think about the various individuals who I had met through my many years of education that could possibly help me find an internship of my liking.
My first thought brought me back to a memory I had near the end of my senior year of high school, when I had received a scholarship that allowed me to donate funds to a charity I supported.
Even then, it didn’t take long to pick Middlesex United Way, because I truly admired how the organization took initiative to help the vulnerable. It was important to me that I choose an organization whose core values resonated with my own.
Throughout my whole life, I had solely wanted to become a public defender in order to help protect the vulnerable. On the day of the reception, the president of Middlesex United Way, Kevin Wilhelm, accepted the donation on behalf of my scholarship.
After reminiscing in this memory, I decided to reach out to Kevin, because I knew that United Way would be the perfect place to intern — not only due to my personal history — but it would further build skills that I could use in the future when I worked in a public sector.
Since my first day at United Way, I immediately made connections to concepts that I had learned in my sociology classes at Mount Holyoke. This was crucial to me, because, in my early years of education in middle school and high school, it often felt like the ideas I was learning were so inapplicable to the real world and my current life.
I was in a meeting geared toward creating an asset map for workforce development and I knew instantly why this work was so significant. Helping individuals find resources that they may not have the knowledge of before is a key reason why asset maps are important.
In order to fully understand this, it was necessary for me to look beyond the scope of individuals that I knew in my inner communities.
There are so many individuals without internet connection or technology that can access the web, individuals who come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds who may not have the time to devote to researching resources, those who do not know how to use sites like Google, immigrant communities who do not have enough knowledge about the area that they are living in, and many more vulnerable groups.
As asset mapping continued throughout this summer, we worked on educational and economic assets as well. Working on brainstorming workforce, educational and economic assets allowed me to understand how important it is to provide vulnerable individuals with resources that they can access, especially if they do not have the cultural or social capital to otherwise find them.
This has allowed me to further emphasize with these groups of individuals, especially since we are taught of the myth of meritocracy, the idea that hard work equals success. However, this idea is only true when individuals have access to resources that can allow them to push through the structural barriers that they may encounter.
Groups in society, such as the “underserving poor,” are groups of men and women who have been previously incarcerated. They are viewed as people who do not deserve to have room for social mobility because they have committed crimes against society previously.
The stigmatization of certain groups like the “undeserving poor” often leads them to receive little to no resources to help them, which severely decreases their knowledge capital. Resources like asset maps that provide information on economic, workforce and educational assets are important because they give vulnerable populations more cultural capital and room for social mobility.
Something that I will always look back on during my time at United Way will be how incredible the workplace environment was. I am grateful to have been a part of a group of individuals who cared not only about the professional work that they did, but for each other.
For the majority of the time, I worked closely with my supervisor Kaitlin Binnington, who taught me so much about how important it is to care about those who you work with. In addition to this, she made me understand that it is equally as important to acknowledge issues going on in the world at work, and to have conversations about them.
Some of our asset mapping meetings occurred during the time of the unfortunate deaths of Black people, caused by police brutality and local domestic violence crimes.
Kaitlin and Shanay Fulton (co-lead for asset mapping) created time during our meetings to create a safe space so we could have conversations about these events. This allowed me to discover what kind of leader I wanted to be in the future. I know now that no matter where I end up, I want to create safe spaces for those who I work with to have the difficult conversations.
Lastly, the most important lesson I learned: The smallest thoughts can change your life.
Shahbano Rao is a junior at Mount Holyoke College, double majoring in political science and sociology.