My name is Matt Kauffmann, and I am CEF’s new Advocate Program Coordinator. My primary role is to support our Advocate program in Chapel Hill, including training Advocates and pairing them with Members. I am serving in this capacity as an Americorps VISTA sponsored by North Carolina Campus Compact in partnership with the Center for Poverty, Work and Opportunity at the UNC School of Law.
I first came to CEF as a junior transfer student to Carolina in 2010. In the first few weeks of classes, I saw a flyer in my dorm advertising a loan officer training for a student-run domestic microfinance operation. This sounded socially innovative and smart, so I went to the training. As has been well-documented on this blog, CEF was and is much more than microfinance. I spent four semesters and a summer as an advocate before graduating in 2012. Then it was off to Los Angeles to join the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. There, I worked for a large homeless services agency, first as an employment services case manager and then as the staffing coordinator for the agency’s in-house social enterprise. When presented a few months ago with the opportunity to return to CEF, my first thought was that I would love nothing more.
Because if I were to stay in the so-called helping professions, I wanted to do work that was authentically compassionate. Many organizations that seek to help people claim compassion as a value and motivating factor. But this is often not a psychological reality in those organizations. The philosopher Aristotle discussed compassion becoming “watery” in the context of a city where each citizen is asked to care for all. Care, he argued, is best exercised in small family groups and is predicated upon the fact that people belong to other people in a unique way. A father’s son is his and his only one (or at least one of a few). I cannot feel compassion for the entire city. The same goes for modern social service agencies. Unfortunately, the valiant effort of agencies to maximize their impact and the concomitant cult of efficency often leads to the watering down of compassion. I know from my time as a case manager tasked with assisting hundreds of clients each year that I could not care for each of those clients equally, much less devote the time and attention needed to effectively help each person. My efforts were watered down by the volume of my caseload. I imagine that many other helping professionals feel similarly.
But at CEF, we leverage student Advocates at Duke and UNC Chapel Hill to give the necessary time and attention to our Members. Advocates are paired with members one-on-one or two-on-one. There is a sense as an Advocate that the Member you are working with is yours and your only one, to use Aristotle’s terms. This sense inspires compassion. And importantly, in an age of ever increasing inequalities in wealth and income, CEF extends our Advocates’ compassion beyond their usual social circle. I remember accompanying one of our Members, who had a serious intellectual disability, to court in Hillsborough a couple of years ago. We sat in the courtroom for a few hours until we figured out that we weren’t actually supposed to be there. Her court date had been rescheduled and the notification had been sent to her daughter’s address. I was annoyed at the situation and embarrassed that I was complacent in wasting our time. In that moment, I realized that this inconvenience was a sort of bad thing for both of us, that this situation was out of the Member’s control, and that I was just as vulnerable to being confused and having my time wasted as she was. Moreover, I realized that for this particular Member–with all the systems she has had to navigate over the course of her life–this sort of inconvenience was a normal occurrence. This realization saddened me. It is in these moments, where we’re able to walk a little ways in our Members’ shoes, that Advocates become a little more compassionate.
With such experiences in mind, I am excited to be back and I look forward to growing with the many Members and Advocates who make up our CEF community. This year, I’ll be focusing on scaling our Advocate program to meet the increased demand for our services while maintaining our unique culture and the quality of the relationships that make us tick. In other words, I’m working to keep us from getting too “watery.”
Congratulations Matt!! I am extremely impressed with all CEF does for the community and I want to be contacted to model the Advocate/Member program in our community.