On Saturday morning, I was 26 km into a 34km run when I started to get cramps in my legs. Like every Saturday in the last several months, I have run progressively further than I have ever before, and the cramps have come. Yesterday, like every week before, I thought of Gary Brown and his story, and I kept going.
I first met Gary Brown at a function to celebrate the fundraising efforts of the Big Issue’s Sydney vendor office in the 2013 city2surf fun run. Gary was already a participant in the Big Issue’s Street Soccer program in Newcastle (2 hour’s drive north of Sydney) and had decided to run as part of Team Big Issue. I was a spare-time volunteer with Big Issue who had also run in the Team, but had no knowledge of Gary. We were introduced at the function due to this shared love of running by Susan, the NSW office manager.
All I remember of the conversation is Gary sharing his story. He told me about how he had been clean from methamphetamine drugs for 6 months. He told me how he had spent 8 years of his life in jail. He told me about how he was running instead now to get his life on track. He told me about how he was sharing his story – candidly – with as many people as possible, to inspire them. He told me about how he was proud of himself.
I was agape. There must have been an awkward silence while I was letting this incredible story sink in, feeling the emotions it was stirring and working out what it meant in my own context (at that time, I was waiting to see if I still had a job as well as looking for a place to live for a move inter-state). After a few seconds, Gary lifted a crumpled piece of paper out of his pocket.
“I typed my story up for you. They said you might be able to help share it.”
You see, in 2013 I had some ambitions to work with the Big Issue to share the stories of people that were helped by the social enterprise; I flirted with that notion here on this blog when sharing the story of a vendor and his perspectives (happily, this now happens fortnightly on a local radio station’s breakfast program). So I read Gary’s story a few times over the next few days and thought about what to do. Personally, I was inspired; but I thought of the risks to Gary in sharing the fuller story of a person I had only just met, with all his glorious struggles and triumphs. It was too much, too soon. So I resolved to stay in contact with Gary, get to know him a bit more and help him where I could.
The new year brought a move interstate and a fresh start for me. I needed to form new relationships with different people within the Big Issue. I felt good to have an ongoing link to someone in my old state of NSW. Gary was staying on track, running in local events and getting fitter. To celebrate a year of being clean, Gary was going to run in his local marathon. Even better, he was raising money for a local charity. I thought the time was now right to share his story.
I started up a thread on my company’s ESN, Yammer, in an existing public group titled “See The Opportunity”. The by-line for the group is “Sharing inspiration and stories of how we can create more of what matters.” I felt Gary’s story, and what we were learning from each other, really fitted that definition. I posted the story Gary originally had handed me as well as a link to his fundraising page. Fundamentally, I wanted to fulfil Gary’s initial wish that his story be shared with lots of people.
Since then I have put updates on Gary’s progress on the thread every month. These have included what I’ve learnt from Gary and links to media articles like this one as Gary’s local fame has grown. A little bit has happened on the thread in the last 6 months, a few comments and queries, and about 20 ‘likes’. I’m not disappointed with that, as lots of people have asked me about Gary in passing conversation. This backs up my notion that the most important conversations an ESN sparks happen outside the ESN itself. The thing is, Gary’s story is quite raw. It is personal. It is outside the boundaries of normal corporate communications. It is perhaps why not many people have felt comfortable to pass comment publicly on Yammer.
The barriers between corporate, office life and the lives of people who need to surmount significant disadvantage can be huge. These barriers can mimic the burgeoning socio-economic divide between rich and poor. Happily, at a strategic level, I’m proud of where I work because we directly invest in communities that need our help. This helps leverage our internal community of 40,000 staff to get involved, and bridge the divide.
It will always take more than donations. It takes individual effort, involvement, story-sharing and sense-making too. When Gary asked me back in April if I would run a marathon with him, I agreed. This is exactly why I pounded the pavement for 3 hours on Saturday. For the last 6 months, Gary has been my running coach and mentor. In return, I have been one of the many people who has helped Gary share his story. In 3 weeks, we run a marathon together in Melbourne (Gary’s third one, my first). In the days beforehand, I’m teeing up opportunities for Gary to share his story in person to groups of not only my corporate peers, but also his Big Issue peers, some who have their own ongoing battles with addiction.
I’ve learnt a lot from Gary and his story. I’ve learnt that organisations like Samaritans and the Big Issue (who have both assisted Gary for several years) help people to turn their life around, with little or no government or corporate support. I’ve learnt that perspective is the most precious commodity in building my own resilience skills. I’ve learnt that sometimes you need to be a part of a story to tell it authentically.
Lastly, I’ve learnt the value of friendship. 2 weeks ago Gary rang and asked how I was going with training. I said I was on track for a time of about 4 hours in the marathon, and was hopeful of running all the way without stopping. Gary replied that instead of trying to beat his personal best of 3 hours 20 minutes, it was more important to him to run side by side with me to help get me over the finishing line.