Libby Birky: Dignity, Community and a Side of Veggies at TEDxMileHigh (Full Transcript)

Hi everybody. I want to tell you a little bit about growing up in my house. My dad used to take us out to dinner when we were little – on the rare occasion that we got to go out to dinner – he’d play this joke on us, at dinner. At the end of the meal, he’d act like he forgot his wallet, and he would tell us we had to go back in the kitchen and do the dishes, and I think this is what laid the path for my life.

This is Marlene. Over the past couple of years, Marlene has learned that life isn’t fair. Marlene is an educated woman. She is three credits away from a Master’s degree, and she’s had to sleep in her car from time to time. Marlene has so much to give to people, and yet what she struggles with is that people make assumptions about her. She never thought she’d struggle to find a safe place to eat, or a safe space to sleep, or what she was going to eat. She never thought she’d worry about what to do with a squash that she got at a food bank, and she’d cook it in her stove at home, if her stove worked. She lives in an efficiency apartment and hasn’t been able to pay rent for the last three months, so she can’t really complain about the stove not working.

Marlene is an interesting woman, who is trying to get her life together. She has struggled from time to time, but what Marlene thinks is the most frustrating about her situation is that people make so many assumptions about her. They assume she’s lazy, uneducated, or an addict of some sort or another. What Marlene really needs is dignity.

This is Aaron. Aaron eats at SAME Café almost every day. He comes in full of life, sober, most days. Some days he’s drunk as a skunk or high as a kite, depending on his drug of choice for the day. Aaron is homeless. He sleeps in an abandoned home on the West side of town, or in the park.

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He’d keep a job if he wasn’t so addicted to alcohol and drugs. To be honest, if I had to sleep in a park, I might drink too. What’s so interesting about Aaron is that he’s one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met. Name a book, he’s read it. Aaron says the most frustrating thing about his situation is he’s invisible.

Most of us walk by him and avert our eyes or ignore him and act like he’s not there, or lie to him when he asks for spare change. Aaron needs community.

Taryn remembers dinner in her house growing up as a symphony of sound and activity, a festival of joy, memories, and laughter. Taryn gets really sad when she encounters someone who is hungry. She thinks not everybody has had the opportunity to have the memories around the dinner table that she has.

Taryn believes that those with less are angels cast to earth to test the more fortunate. Taryn strives to give to the less fortunate with dignity. For Taryn, it’s all about the food.

About 10 years ago, my husband and I started talking about this idea. What if people really could work for their food instead of paying for it? And so we started talking to people at shelters that we were volunteering at, and we found out that they weren’t eating there.

They were choosing convenience foods, fast food, because it was cheap and quick, and sometimes tastier than what they were getting at shelters. But what we found was they really desired something more. So we thought about opening a place where they could access healthy food cheaply and quickly, so we came up with the idea of SAME Café. We invested $30,000 of our own money from our savings accounts and our IRAs, and we thought, you know what? People experiencing poverty don’t have access to healthy food. We have to change it.

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So there’s one menu where everyone orders from. There’s one dining room where everyone sits together. There’s one donation box where everyone leaves a donation that they feel is fair. Those who can’t leave a donation are encouraged to work in exchange for their food. What I’ve learned so much about being at SAME Café is that people are people no matter their struggles in life.

Serving folks like Marlene, Aaron, and Taryn has really taught me to see people eye-to-eye, meet them face-to-face and really listen. I’ve learned that’s how you build community. Before volunteering at SAME Café, Jane was a “write a check to your favorite cause” kind of person. She saw injustice and fought with her check book. Then she read an article about SAME Café and decided to come check it out.

Jane, Susan, and Norma have have been volunteering at SAME Café for three and a half years. Jane says the most fascinating part about being at SAME Café is being in on the ground floor and working to see change happen. Jane still writes a check to her favorite causes, but she knows that through her own experience, it takes people working together to build community. I’ve even changed the way I think about the term “giving back.” Participating at SAME Café has done that for me.

People asked, “Why did you start SAME Café?” and I would say, “Well, I wanted to give something back to my community.” But what I didn’t realize was that saying “giving back to my community” implied that I was separate from it. I was not a part of it, it wasn’t an organic “we”, a lifting, supportive, encouraging, doing it together kind of environment. The term “giving back” meant that I could be separated from it. On the other hand, building community was all about being a part of something, getting in on the ground floor and working to see something succeed.

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