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A 12-step experiment designed to open our hearts, eyes, and minds. Learn more
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Step 01
Can I Help You? 

Can we gain any empathy or perspective by talking to strangers with different situations? We asked New Yorkers one very simple question: “How can we help you?”


Step 01: Can I Help You? 

Part 1: "Why?" Is a Bigger Question

When I do help people, I tend to only really help out for my own benefit, to advance my own life in some way or just to feel better about myself.

Before we begin, let’s get one thing out of the way: I'm privileged. I'm white, I'm male, and I'm heterosexual. I'm too old not to understand that by now. I’m privileged even though I grew up with no money, where a family vacation meant going down the street to Grandma’s house. I'm privileged even though I grew up in a poor, all-black neighborhood on the border of East Cleveland until I was 13. I’m privileged even though I never had my biological father around as a kid. I'm privileged because my country made my road to success a lot smoother than it was for my non-white, non-male friends. Sure, I've come a long way because of unyielding hard work and determination, but it's also due to these undeniable privileges. 

I’m also not going to act like this experiment will undeniably, fundamentally change who Jessie and I am, or that it will make any difference to anyone else. Like all things worth pursuing, and like our past experiments, Jessie and I started 12 Kinds of Kindness with one question: “Why?” Why are we so self-centered? Why do we have pre-conceived opinions about people? Why are we kind to some and not others? Why aren't we kinder to ourselves? And finally, can we do anything about this? This is all an exploration — a study, of sorts. 

So with that said, what does it mean to help someone? When I walk past a person who’s asking for money, a few questions run through my mind: Should I help another human being who’s in need? If I do, am I helping out of altruism or self-guilt? Is altruism even real? Maybe it's about clearing your conscience? But my skepticism about whether or not they actually need help is a constant. 

Seeing someone homeless on the streets is common for we New Yorkers, yet I always have the same narrative in my head: Do they deserve my help? What will I get in return? Are they going to use money on drugs or alcohol? My dear friend Aaron never gives money, and instead buys them a meal at the nearest café or fast food joint. I admire his courage and goodwill, because frankly, I never do shit.
While helping someone I don’t know can feel uncertain or even a bit uncomfortable, I'm still bewildered by how often I look the other way.  I barter with myself, thinking, “I’m too tired, but someone else will help them, so it's cool.” And when I do help people, I tend to only really help out for my own benefit, to advance my own life in some way or just to feel better about myself. If we're honest with ourselves, is there always some ulterior motive or ego-stroking reward present when we help others? I tend to think there is. Is our own selfishness a valid enough reason to help others?
For this step, with all of the above in mind, Jess and I went out for 8 hours straight and asked random New Yorkers a simple question: “How can we help you?” We wanted to find out firsthand how people would react to our offer. We also wanted to see what it would mean to us, two admittedly self-centered New Yorkers, to suddenly put ourselves in a position of service. We usually ignore everyone around us; now we were challenging ourselves to engage with dozens of strangers in one day. It felt amazing to actually take time to talk to people. 

How Can I Help You?

We asked the people of NYC one simple question.
This first step made me realize that everyone has an interesting story to tell. Everyone is someone. The biggest thing we learned was just how much people want to talk to you. People want to explain their situation, and have someone listen; they want to be heard and understood.

I carried a large piece of furniture for someone. We gave a homeless person money. We even gave one person a lift to the airport that night. The whole thing just made realize how we’re usually too caught up in our own little worlds, always in a rush, never pausing to observe and take in the life around us. People need help everywhere, but how do we genuinely do anything about that? That overwhelming thought paralyzes me even further. We listened to so many people tell us about how unhappy they are, about how they can't get ahead, about how they don't feel in control of their lives. When I was younger, I remember thinking, “I don’t want to grow up and be a nobody.”

But that’s utter bullshit, because we’re all on a journey. We’re all the heroes of our own lives. Many have their dreams deflated and derailed because of external circumstances, like my mother’s unexpected pregnancy, or one of my best friends' substance abuse. Or maybe someone important to them, such as a family member or a teacher they once had, told them that they’d never amount to anything. It makes me think of the Ian Maclaren quote, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle..” 

Part 2: How Can We Help You?

I often felt embarrassed, hesitant to bring a girlfriend home, and totally humiliated when my mother picked me up at school in her rusty, loud Chrysler LeBaron.

This step also reminded me about what Google did for the homeless community a few years ago. In February 2008, Google made an announcement that had the potential to help hundreds of homeless people in San Francisco get back on their feet. Every homeless person in the city would be offered a life-long phone number and voicemail, should they choose to accept it. Google partnered with the city of San Francisco to provide the service to homeless individuals and to shelters, so they could distribute the numbers to their clients. It worked so well (there were thousands of signups), they did it twice. 

The project worked by allowing a homeless person to call in to listen to his or her voice messages from any phone. Having their own phone number enabled these individuals to reconnect with their loved ones, make doctor’s appointments, and fill out a job applications (which typically ask for a call-back number), all at no cost to them. The users were able to leave personal greetings, and the phone numbers were theirs forever. That way, there’s no humiliation attached, nothing that hints at their homelessness; it works like any other voicemail inbox, perhaps improving their chances of finding work and improving their morale.

Recent comments

Vanessa Smith
Mar 20, 2016 20:03

Your "Ian Maclaren quote" is actually a Socrates (or, rather, Plato as Socrates) quote.

Sylvia Boyd
Jan 21, 2016 21:05

I've been following this project for a couple days now and I am absolutely obsessed. Each step has given me a lot of food for thought and forced me to reflect on what kindness means to me, and how I can be a kinder person to the world as well as towards myself. Both your and Jessie's stories about being an apathetic bystander really resonate with me. Found myself agreeing and relating to it in every way - as a New Yorker it's so easy to brush others off, make a million excuses for why I won't help. This step left such an impression on me - since reading this I legitimately can't stop thinking about the way I treat people in need around me. I work in the Herald Square area, where there are homeless people on just about every corner. Do I ever do anything? Not really. Today I decided to change that. I saw a pregnant woman sitting on the ground and asked her what she needed. I figured instead of assuming I know what's best for her and buying her food, I would let tell me what she needed most. She told me she needed a coat that would actually zip up (hers was broken). That's all she asked for. So I set off on a journey that wound up taking me 2 hours - way longer than my lunch break allows for. I didn't care today - work has been so slow, and helping someone in need is a better use of my time than surfing Facebook. I went to about 5 stores looking for the perfect coat because most were out of stock or way overpriced. I finally found the right one at UNIQLO (in case anyone wants to follow suit I highly recommend this for affordable, warm, quality winter coats) but when I returned, she wasn't there. My heart sank until I realized she had just gone inside a Starbucks, turns out a man had offered her some kindness by buying her a coffee. She came out and I gave her the coat with some gloves and a scarf, plus the gift receipt in case it didn't fit. She was so grateful. I'm not going to post what I did on social media or tell my friends. I'm not going to Mother Theresa myself or make a spectacle out of it. The only place I'm sharing it is here, because I want you both to know that what you're doing IS making a difference. You forced me out of my apathy, and as a result, made someones life a little bit better. So thank you for that.


With the Google project in mind, Jessie and I hung up signs around the city that read “How can we help you?,” with an email address and voicemail below. I was anxious to find out if people would write us, and to my surprise, we got TONS of messages. And while we called everyone back, it got pretty difficult after a while. 
When I visit my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, I often think about my childhood, stereotypes, our role in society, and why we become who we are. Until the age of 13, I grew up in a black neighborhood with a Jewish step-father and a Catholic mother. Money was nil for the family; while we weren’t necessarily struggling to eat dinner every night, we certainly did not take luxurious family vacations, eat out at restaurants a lot, or buy new back-to-school clothes. I was often embarrassed by home life, and always hesitated to bring a girlfriend home. I felt totally humiliated when my mother picked me up at school in her rusty, loud Chrysler LeBaron. It’s hilarious to me now, because it's all based on chance. Some of these kids who grow up in more privileged positions think they’re better than others for no doing of their own. They literally won the lottery, just by being born. You can’t pick and choose who your parents are.

I kept thinking about a saying an old boss used to say to me all the time: "Never put your hands in your pockets, it's a sign of laziness." This whole day made me see my apathy more and more clearly. I know that I can do more. I know I can be better. I know I can try harder. But I never do. 

I was talking to my friend Alicia about 12 Kinds of Kindness, and this step about helping people. She’s a social justice lawyer, and I was interested to hear what this all meant to someone in her line of work. I spent eight hours documenting responses, but she spends 10 hours every single day helping people! She had some very interesting things to say. I’d like to share them with you here:

I know that I can do more. I know I can be better. I know I can try harder. But I never do.

I came home later that evening and listened to a slew of messages we had continued to rack up from the signs we posted. I couldn't believe it. Real people were asking us for help — for jobs, for bail money, for advice, for a ride to the airport, or just simply to chat. 

Some of what I heard was heartbreaking, and I that made me feel kind of horrible about the signs. I didn't want to lead people on. I didn't want to pretend to be some savior. We called everyone back and tried to help as much as we could. I got one guy who needed help in touch with a carpenter I knew. We met a woman who had recently lost her job and bought her dinner in Queens. And yes, we gave that one guy a ride to the airport. 

Below are a few examples of the messages we received, and I hope that listening to them can, at the very least, remind you that you're not alone — everyone needs a little help sometimes.

Part 3: Make Your Own Step

We'd love for you to participate in this 12-step journey with us. Step one is all about starting more conversations with people outside your social circles and finding out what people need help with. So go out and talk to people. Listen to people. Offer to help. Comment below or tag #12kindsofkindness on social media and let us know your stories. We'd love to hear them!

Feel free to use the artwork / quotes above to share your story on social, you can download them all on the 12 Kinds of Kindness Tumblr.

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