As humans, our own life experiences naturally influence our perception of others. We often think we have an understanding of someone else’s situation when in reality, we know very little about the circumstances of our friends, neighbors and community members.

To move closer to true understanding, we must make a conscious effort to seize opportunities that can help us gain new perspectives.

With this in mind, I have made a personal commitment to grow my understanding and build empathy through conversations, observations and immersion.

For example, as Thanksgiving approaches, I am more aware than ever of the role food plays in my everyday life. Recently, I wanted to see if I could subsist on a $5 a day food budget. Nationally, this is commonly known as the SNAP Challenge, which you can read about here. Notable politicians, including our own Congressman Sander Levin, have challenged themselves to walk a mile in others’ shoes by participating in similar efforts.

There have been both negative and positive responses to The Challenge. For me though, there is no controversy. It is an imperfect simulation, but it’s a positive step toward meaningful conversations. This is the true value of the exercise, and as I thought about it more, I decided to film my experience and share it with United Way leaders and volunteers.

The video below depicts a single day. I know my abbreviated experiment in no way compares with the stressors and barriers that 1 in 6 people in our community regularly face in just trying to put food on the table for their families. My intent was to build my own context around our work in ending childhood hunger. Sometimes, we need to step outside of our routines.

You’ve probably noted that my experiment was far from perfect. It’s been pointed out that an avocado would be too expensive to purchase in the first place, regardless that I had only eaten a quarter of it. What surprised me most, however, was the positive reaction I received when telling people what I was doing. The experience was seen as admirable somehow, and yet, the people who live this reality every day are often stigmatized and met with contempt by those of us who don’t. 

In sharing the experience, I’m pleased to say that the video inspired our Campaign Cabinet and many of our partner companies to take their own version of The Challenge. While it’s true that our own worldview may be limited by our personal experiences, with a little bit of effort, we can take steps toward reaching a better understanding of one another. I invite you to take The Challenge with us. Feel free to share photos or videos of your experience via Twitter at @mjjbrennan with the hashtag: #UWSEMFoodFor5.

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