To Connect is to Care.
Nietzche summed up our universal experience when he wrote, “invisible threads are the strongest ties”. That which we do not see, but we feel.
It was only in my independence as a young adult that I began to truly value interdependence. It was another few years before I put its power into practice and only now, do I realise the importance of connection in tackling our biggest challenges. This is the story of how I learnt ‘to connect’.
Like many young Australians, I had ‘island syndrome’, I HAD to get off the island! So the week I finished high school, I left on a 10 month solo adventure to explore our world.
Along the journey, I was staying with a beautiful family in Pune, India. During our time together they held my hand when I wanted to close my eyes to the many confronting scenes. This meant my eyes were wide open to the beauty and wisdom in this ancient land. Open, to see that in the extreme contrasts, was oneness. This was epitomised one afternoon when we visited the successful factory of a family friend and then, the slum that had emerged around it.
The rooftops were made of sheet metal and there was no sanitation in sight. I soon realised though, that this wasn’t a ‘slum’ — it was more like a village accidently misplaced in a big city. The doors were all wide-open with shoes neatly lined up outside. Women sat together laughing and washing as kids played with a freedom that few urban children in the West can enjoy. A local lady offered to guide us and led us through twisting lanes to her home. We could barely fit inside but she offered us all that she could. In a single glance I could see all of her worldly possessions, arranged perfectly with a clear sense of pride and gratitude.
We walked outside and a little girl emerged around a corner. In a pristine school uniform with her hair braided perfectly, she appeared better dressed than the girls of my Brisbane private school, myself certainly included. With this comparison, my observations stacked up and it started to dawn on me that the people here would likely live lives far richer, and more content than those I’ve grown up with. Those, who ‘materially’, had everything.
The source of this communities wealth lay in their shared mindset. As I wandered through this community, observing and feeling it, there were four aspects of this mindset that really stood out to me;
- Focusing on what they DO have instead of what they do not.
- Providing each other with support and security.
- Understanding and respecting the privilege of education.
- Their ability and willingness to CONNECT, in the truest sense.
What is connection?
“The energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.” — Brene Brown
My face obviously strained as I confronted such a core belief, that those in my community were the ‘haves’ and here should have been the ‘have nots’. My guide gave a simple, warm smile and I felt deep admiration for this community. I felt my priorities shift and a lightness as the burden of my biases slid from my shoulders.
I don’t wish to romanticise poverty or to suggest that what I found is a common to all ‘slums’. The family-owned factory we first visited had felt responsible for the emergence of this community and provided ongoing support through a health clinic, primary school and employment opportunities. My final lesson that day;
Authentic impact starts with taking responsibility to empower the members of your community.
So what about my community?
I eventually returned home to start university and in my comfortable life, studying by the sea, memories of that day slowly faded. I volunteered for some great programs but it was just a few hours a week engaging my time, but not my mind. Then, during my final year of university, I stumbled upon a gap affecting my immediate community.
- On one side of the gap — Students just like me, bursting with skills but lacking in confidence and desperate for work experience. In the context of rising youth unemployment both locally and globally, this issue was increasingly painful and prominent.
- One the other side — Community organisations with essential but under-resourced projects. Working towards community benefit and fundamental causes but with an apparent inability to engage skilled young volunteers.
These groups had SO much to offer each other, they just needed to be - Connected.
So in July 2013 I started on a journey to create an online platform to do exactly that, where community organisations post projects they need help with and students apply as “Impact Interns”. Paying tribute to my time in India, I called it Milaana.
‘Milaana’ is a Hindi word which means “to connect”, “to help people to meet”.
By April 2014 we had launched and commercialised our crowd-funded platform and a community of like-minded people had rallied around the idea, to breathe love and vitality into it.
Our own team of rolling student heroes (volunteers and interns) epitomised the Milaana philosophy of #dowelldogood. This is the idea that you can do WELL (both personally and professionally) whilst also doing GOOD for your community. By working to create best practice in how we supported our own team, we could then advise other organisations accordingly.
It has been almost exactly two years since Milaana was founded and we have learnt and achieved so much. We’ve connected, we’ve grown across two states and we’ve made a lasting impact — not just through our services but through our mindset and the community that we have created.
In my own life though, I was losing perspective. I was getting caught up in the hype of rapid growth and stepping into the identity of the ‘social entrepreneur’. Trying to shield my volunteer team from the ugly but important grunt work, I relentlessly pushed my personal limits to keep our progress at an ‘acceptably high’ rate. The organisations ups and downs were indistinguishable from my own sense of worth. We qualified our Impact as “Successfully completed placements” but this was more an aspiration than something actively actioned upon .The pressure externally and even more so, from myself, led to obsessing on how maximise the quantity rather than quality of our ‘Impact Placement’ opportunities and experiences.
The viability of our model (a subscription fee for organisations) relied on achieving high volume in order to be financially sustainable and to support a full-time team. With no capital injections on the horizon, we were running purely on passion. Approaching two years, this was taking a visible toll. By focusing more on the image of growth than first creating deep, localised impact and the best possible service, I was jeopardizing Milaana’s integrity. It’s a common catch-22, you need money to grow/improve, but you need to show growth to get money, especially as social enterprise in Australia. The ultimate frustation was that the reach of our solution, which could serve and benefit communities all around the world, was being constrained by my limited resources.
Then a simple phrase put everything back into perspective.
“No one’s gonna remember me. But they’ll feel my impact, and that’s good enough for me” — Scott Braun
This struck me at my core and reminded me that it is not about the brand or the perception, it is about real connection and lasting impact. This gave me the kick in the arse that I needed to make some big decisions and bring my life back into alignment.
For Milaana, this means open sourcing our idea, code and processes so anyone can start their own platform of connection in their community. This removes our limited resources as the main obstacle to the ideas success and spread. It is also being true to our roots. Milaana only exists thanks to a generous community who literally crowdfunded the platform and worked hard to give it life. It is therefore only fair that ownership of what has been created is put back into the hands of the community. What happens next is just the next chapter of the social experiment that is Milaana.
For me, it means shedding an identity that is no longer serving me and rediscovering the essence of ‘Hollie’. Her quirks, her love of painting, her spirituality and all that gets lost when the stubbornness and grit of ‘Gordon’ takes the lead to ‘get SH*# done’. It means putting my role with Milaana into perspective as ‘just the beginning’ of how I can connect and create impact. It also means moving across the world, to Brazil, for love. Challenging myself in a completely different way and learning to connect and contribute to a new community.
At the end of the day, the organisational and personal brands we create are hollow and won’t persist if we do not fully value human connection and foster it authentically through our impact.
Especially if you are working for social change.
If we want to make a lasting impact, helping others to connect with their community is the most powerful thing that we can do. Why?
When we connect — we care.
When we care — we act.
And it is only through our actions,
that we can make the changes that are needed.
I’m so grateful to all who have made the Milaana experience possible and have allowed me to learn so much along the way. With Milaana, we were all given the chance to give the world a taste of what we can achieve and what is possible when young people connect. If the many people I have connected with continue to inspire, serve and lead — the future is bright!
On the 17th of July, exactly 2 years since it was founded Milaana was transformed into an open-source resource — www.milaanaopen.org . If you would like to actively follow or join in Milaana’s open-source journey, you can subscribe to our blog to be kept up to date. Please reach out directly if your interested in starting your own community of connection.
This article is based on a talk I gave for the Vibewire — FASTBREAK series on “An event that changed your life” at the Sydney Powerhouse on the 31st of May 2015. Delving back into my time in India allowed me to make better sense of Milaana’s crazy wonderful journey and to see its ‘operational end’ as just a little kink in the ‘invisible thread’ that grows stronger with time.
If you enjoyed this article, here is the organisational perspective of “Why Milaana ended and what will live on”. A reflection on the 4 factors that led to the closure of Milaana and how we ensured the longevity of what lives on.