Becky Kanis is being honored as a Champion of Change for her efforts as a woman veteran.
One of the most difficult decisions I ever made was to resign my commission from the United States Army. After graduating from West Point and serving for nine years, I reached a point where I was unwilling to deceive my colleagues about my sexual orientation for another day. This was well before President Obama had been elected or signed the law ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” At the time, the Army had posters about its values hanging in almost every hallway. My own former First Sergeant was featured on an Army poster about integrity, a value that depends on facing into the truth and being honest with yourself and others. I shared that value with the military, and eventually, my commitment to integrity left me with no ethical choice but to resign— a choice I made with anger and sadness.
Eight years after I left the Army, I was asked to be the founding board chair of Knights Out, a group of LGBT West Point alumni committed to being honest about who they were and who they loved. I remember my response vividly: “only if we’re really going to do something about Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell – I don’t want to lead a social club!” Thankfully, my fellow West Point grads were serious about making change; the time had come for the military and all of us to live up to the integrity we professed to value. I still remember our first meeting, in which Lieutenant Dan Choi offered to be our public spokesperson in spite of warnings that it might cost him his commission (It eventually did). I also remember asking my dear old friend, Sue Fulton, to join our board. Sue went on to become the first openly gay woman appointed (by President Obama) to the Board of Trustees at West Point and the first LGBT person to be married in the school’s Cadet Chapel. Together, we and other advocates claimed a front row seat to the demise of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell because we were willing to face into the truth and be honest about who we were and what we believed.
After resigning my commission from the Army, I eventually found my way to Rosanne Haggerty, a brilliant pioneer who has now been my boss, mentor, and friend for over ten years. Rosanne challenged me to join her team and lead an effort to reduce street homelessness in Times Square by two-thirds in three years. Together, we faced the hard truth that existing approaches to ending homelessness weren’t working. To make a real impact, we would have to be willing to abandon age-old assumptions and start from scratch. Over four years, we built a brand new street outreach model that brought street homelessness in the area down by nearly ninety percent and forever changed the way New York City responds to homelessness.
Fast forward to 2013. Today, our original work in Times Square has become the blueprint for the 100,000 Homes Campaign, a national movement of 189 communities across the country working together to permanently house 100,000 of the most vulnerable homeless people in America by July 2014. I am privileged to direct this nationwide effort, which has already seen participating communities find permanent homes for 37,000 people, including over 13,000 veterans. My team and I have built the Campaign around a shared commitment to facing into the truth, however challenging it may feel at times. We have gathered and analyzed reams of data to help communities track their progress and improve their housing systems. We have helped volunteers survey more than 42,000 homeless Americans to figure out exactly who is sleeping on the streets in their communities – by name and photograph – and what it will take to get each of them into housing. We are resolute in our belief that complex social problems demand a sometimes frightening degree of honesty: difficult facts must be faced head on and traditional assumptions must be subjected to scrutiny and possible reinvention.
Today, despite the nearly ubiquitous rhetoric on “ending homelessness,” only 28 communities in the US are actually on track to meet the federal goal of ending chronic homelessness by 2015. Even so, I am confident that this goal remains soundly within reach. My team and I are scrambling to figure out what the most successful communities are doing that others can replicate, but meanwhile, integrity demands that we acknowledge the long distance we have to travel and work doubly hard to catalyze major change in communities across the country. As we do so, we are guided by a process that we’ve adopted from the Hendricks Institute for facing into the hard truths we may encounter: F.A.C.T., which stands for Face, Accept, Choose, and Take Action. First, Face into whatever it is that you’re not facing. What are the hard realities you’re avoiding or the difficult facts you’d rather not see? Next, Accept. What is it that you have resisted or refused to accept about these truths? Then, Choose. What are you really aiming for, and what outcome do you actually want? And finally, Take action. In light of the truths you faced in step 1, identify one small, pleasurable step you can take toward your clarified goals.
Facing into the truth is the key to social change and a regular habit of every successful problem solving effort. My wife and I believe this so passionately that we recently formed an organization called the Social Change Agency to help non-profit leaders adopt it. A better world is well within our grasp, and facing into the truth will help us get there if we are willing to do so.
Becky Kanis is the Director of the 100,000 Homes Campaign for Community Solutions and a co-founder of The Social Change Agency.