The Most Important Advice I Have Ever Received Was From A Homeless Man

by Sam Vaghar

The situation: You see a homeless man or woman on the street asking for change. What do you do? Maybe you see the person 100 feet ahead of you and pretend to be talking on your phone. Maybe you look past the person. In either case, you try and pretend the person doesn't exist. Here's what happens when you try something different.

As a college freshman at Brandeis University, I visited Washington DC on a frigid day in January. I was there during President Bush's inauguration. I witnessed liberals chanting slogans against President Bush and the War in Iraq.

I saw conservatives counter with celebratory cheers for President Bush's re-election, chanting "Four more years!" On a street corner, I saw people from both sides get in each others' faces, yelling past each other. In that moment, all that yelling was just noise. It seemed pointless.

I left the crowds and began walking the streets. I was tired of all the noise. I wanted to genuinely connect with someone. After 10 minutes, I came across a homeless man sitting on the sidewalk.

We sat down together on the sidewalk and shared lunch for 45 minutes. About 20 minutes into the conversation, I felt compelled to ask the man a question I had often wondered about. Rather than give in to stereotypes and assumptions, I wanted to understand the real, human answer to a simple question:

"How do you survive?"

I remember, in that moment, that the man looked away from me and towards the passerby above us as they walked by. He shared with me his honest truth:

"I'm not afraid to talk to anyone. I'm not afraid to look up at those above me and ask for help. Never be afraid to talk to anyone."

Never be afraid to talk to anyone.

Those seven words struck me. Growing up, I had always been shy. I never asked a girl out, I never called friends to hang out, and I rarely spoke up for myself. I had grown up with privilege and had nothing to complain about, but I never reached out of my comfort zone to seize opportunity.

Now, at 18 years old, this man was passing on advice no teacher or mentor ever had.

As I learned more about homelessness and poverty at home and abroad, I realized how little I knew about the world.  I read about the issues (and talked to many more people) and soon we created the organization The Millennium Campus Network, empowering my peers to tackle extreme poverty around the world through networking and grants.

In the moments that mattered, I learned to speak up. At a conference, I approached actor activist Kal Penn about our efforts, and he invited me to the White House. At 24, I met with President Obama in the Roosevelt Room to share our progress.

During that meeting, sitting right across the table from the president, I had the courage to raise my hand during his talk and get his attention. I spoke up and then shared a note with him about our work.

Four weeks later, the State Department called and asked me to travel overseas to Bosnia and Herzegovina and later Morocco to share our progress and learn the best practices for tackling pressing social crises.

Most importantly, we empowered extraordinary campus leaders across our network to use their gifts to partner with communities and increase access to water and sanitation and tap into the potential of young entrepreneurs overseas.

One person's advice inspired this movement.

He taught me more in 45 minutes than anyone had in 18 years. He explained to me that regardless of a job title or how someone dresses, we are all human. Being afraid to engage with someone based on his or her title or appearance is a missed opportunity.

And just as this advice helped me reach the White House, it should be applied in engaging one of the three billion people living in poverty on planet earth today.

If we can suspend judgment and admit how little most of us really know about poverty, we can start asking the pivotal questions needed to be real partners in addressing this crisis.

Dive Deeper:

1) Check out this powerful story by Wayne Drash.

2) Check out organizations working locally and globally like Share our Strength.

Photo credit: Shutterstock