This week we’re dedicating the Atlassian Blog to stories about teams coming together to change the world for the better. You’ll hear stories from Atlassian employees, partners, and customers, all reaffirming that giving back to your community is both the smart and the right thing to do. Everyone wins.
The San Francisco homeless population is one of the highest in the country, and perhaps the most visible. When I first moved here, I would walk by an encampment, or someone sleeping on the street, and my heart would bleed for them. But after walking by enough people, every single day, that sadness turned into anger, and eventually into something worse: apathy.
Four years later, the feeling of disconnection between my world and “their world” finally scared me into action. It was when I realized I stopped seeing the homeless as people, but as something else, something less. This is what made me start asking, how on earth is it possible that the most technologically advanced city in the country, maybe the world, can allow this type of poverty, sickness, drug abuse, and helplessness exist on its doorsteps? And what are we, the tech elites, doing about it?
Thus I began a long journey for answers, which led me to ECS, the largest agency working to solve homelessness in San Francisco. ECS’s passion for the people they work tirelessly to help is not only inspiring, but downright humbling. That’s also when I connected with Mallory Burke, Volunteer & Community Outreach Manager at ECS, who has devoted her entire professional career to this cause, a concept that’s embarrassingly foreign to me. When I worry about broken glass where I walk my dog, Mallory worries about the more than 6,500 people sleeping outside in the rain.
So we began talking about these issues – the disconnect between tech and non-profits, the problems San Francisco faces, where ECS needs help, and we came to one very poignant, specific conclusion: Tech companies are solving problems every day – from meeting last minute hunger needs to on-demand rides – but when it comes to problems of homelessness and mental illness in our very own communities, solutions are so very far away.
The ECS Project
My growing interest in this cause and the need to take action finally collided when I took a job at Atlassian a little over a year ago. My first day of work I learned about Foundation Leave, Pledge 1% and the many charities Atlassian’s were already working with, like Reading Partners, Room to Read, and Girls on the Run. I was given a platform and permission to start doing something about it, and I wasted no time to set up what I’ve been calling The ECS Project.
Over the last year, I’ve built a relationship with ECS and a program that encourages other Atlassian’s to help with our mission of bridging the gap between tech companies and non-profits.
Here’s what we’re doing:
Community service through regular volunteering
We’re sending volunteers to work at the Sanctuary shelter once a month serving dinner to residents. A year ago, I would have been the first to naysay this type of unskilled volunteering with something like, “It’s making things worse, feeding the problem, not making a difference in the big picture.” That was until I actually volunteered. Standing face-to-face with those that had become faceless to me, made my small Grinch-heart grow three sizes that day. The residents’ gratitude for this small gesture is what finally snapped me out of my apathetic inertia.
Other volunteers from Atlassian have said the same:
“[Volunteering at the Sanctuary] was quite shocking at first (and the chef working there told me I looked “shell-shocked”), but it was really rewarding and the residents were so thankful/grateful for the food. It felt really good to help out. I’ll sign up for more slots! It makes me want to do more for ECS!” – Emily Posner, Sr. Designer, Bitbucket
To manage this, I simply set up a page in Confluence for people to sign up for a shift. I worked out predefined dates with ECS for the year and then assigned a volunteer-leader for each one. They are in charge of making sure there’s a group of volunteers signed up and getting everyone to the spot on time. Now, the program basically runs itself and we’ve sent a steady stream of Atlassian’s to the shelter since April.
My goal is to grow this volunteering partnership even further next year by sending all Bay Area new hires to volunteer at ECS within their first month of work by incorporating it into our on-boarding experience.
Sustainability through process & program tracking
We’ve had the members of the board, directors, and employees from ECS over to Atlassian to discuss their technology needs through brainstorm sessions led by our design leaders. We identified opportunities for skill-based volunteering and from that, created a backlog of all the projects we can take on over time. We put everything on the table, from setting up a volunteer portal, to using JIRA to run internal processes, to consulting with them on change management and IT.
Our first project is with the CHEFs program. CHEFs (Conquering Homelessness through Employment in Food Services) is a culinary program for San Francisco homeless, where those that make it through the application process commit to a seven-month training. In order to graduate, students must take a professional internship in a kitchen, which often results in a full-time job. CHEFs also has a catering service that employs graduates. The catering service is growing exponentially, but is run by just one person – Chef Al. We are working Chef Al to manage all of his catering requests through JIRA Service Desk – which he was previously doing via email and post it notes. We are also using the CHEFs catering service for special events.
This program was one of 17 charities worldwide that Atlassian awarded the Difference Grant.
Community outreach through events & evangelism
Perhaps the most important part of all of this for me is to inspire and influence others in our industry. Activating the tech community to not just get involved in something, but to get involved in bettering our community. Through events, like the one we hosted at Atlassian, and evangelism through blogs like this one, my hope is to get our colleagues in the tech community thinking about using their amazing problem-solving skills on the issues that non-profits have been facing for years. What I’ve told ECS is that we’re giving them access to the most elite engineers, marketers, and business leaders in the industry, for free. Consider us your consultants, now what would you have us do?
Jeff Kositsky, the new Director of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing in San Francisco, spoke at Atlassian on Sept. 20th to members of the community about his plans for the department.
How you can get involved
We spend a lot of time in San Francisco and Silicon Valley thinking about ways to make people’s lives easier. And through that innovation, we’ve uncovered amazing opportunities – just think about life before Google Maps! But what if we aimed just 1% of that focus of looking out on what we can invent, in on what we can improve? What if we partnered with folks like those at ECS to match their decades of experience on issues like homelessness with our super powers in technology, software development, marketing, design and data sciences. What if we worked together – imagine all the good we could do.
Apathy is not an answer. Be the change you seek.