Creating Opportunity Moments: An Interview with Joshua Mbanusi

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Joshua Mbanusi
By David Schimke

A week before hitting the ground in Minnesota, MDC Program Manager Joshua Mbanusi took time to chat about his profession, his passions, and the importance of social supports, both institutional and individual. What follows are a few excerpts from that discussion.

David: What do you hope participants in Opportunity St. Paul take away from your presentation and the accompanying video?

Joshua: I would hope that folks would walk away with an understanding that for some of the most pressing challenges and barriers that stand in the way of people achieving economic opportunity, there are structural and systemic issues and barriers. And while those barriers require systemic solutions, at the same time there’s a role that we can play as individuals to ensure that we are moving the needle.

Sometimes when you have a conversation about structural issues that deter opportunity, it can become overwhelming, and people will have a tendency to either step back or check out. But as [author] Alice Walker says, the most significant way that people give up their power is by thinking that they don’t have any. So the question then becomes how do we leverage our individual power and influence and social capital impact some of these issues—to take a slice of it as opposed to getting overwhelmed by the big pie, if that makes sense.

What’s an example of taking a slice?

I was thinking a lot about hunger and poverty in Durham and made this commitment that, over the course of a year, I would donate five cans of food on a weekly basis to a local shelter. Five cans sounds like a small amount, but when you multiply that over the course of a year it adds up. It is, as Robert Kennedy said, all about creating little ripples of hope.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the enormity of the issues that face our communities. What advice would you have to combat the feeling that no matter what you do, it’s not enough?

To paraphrase the Talmud: Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now. Love mercy now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.

That to me is so powerful because I think that sometimes—particularly people of my generation—we have a heightened sense of moral responsibility to see the world be a better place. And while I hate the language about the “microwave generation,” I do think we want to see what the issues are quickly, and address them quickly. And that’s because of the moral urgency. Consequently, we place on our shoulders this notion that we must take on the enormity of this entire task. And I am oftentimes reminded—and I think this is true no matter how old you are—that some issues take lifetime to address. There’s a generation of suffragists that worked really hard and never saw women get the right to vote. There is a generation of farm workers who were working for better working conditions and better pay, so on and so forth, and never saw that happen. But we don’t necessarily do the work to complete it. There’s a level of humility that comes in understanding we’ve got to stay engaged, and sometimes it’s not always going to be a straight line or be the way we want it to.

What attracted your current employer, MDC?

MDC focuses on poverty alleviation across the south. They look at education, employment, economic security, and strategic philanthropy. And that multi-dimensional space was attractive to me. I also appreciated their focus on systems as opposed to policy. Now, policy is super important, of course, but you could have policy on the books and if the institutional actors that operate within that ecosystem don’t have their act together, if they don’t know how to help people access opportunity, then the policy alone isn’t enough. You have a disconnection problem if institutions aren’t talking to each other the way that they should and communicating and operating seamlessly. That’s where MDC focuses its work, and that was really attractive to me.

It’s about the people? It’s about the execution?

That’s exactly right. Institutions are made up of people, and these people have roles and responsibility of positional authority, and if we can rewire the nature of those relationships within and across institutions, if we can increase the capacity of these actors, if we can make them more aware of inequities that exist and generate an appetite and a willingness to address those issues, that can have profound consequences on a community.

And outside of these institutions the same applies, correct?

There’s something to having a politically and civically involved population that I makes a community bend towards justice. The more aware you are of the issues that matter, the more empathetic towards folks you become. I keep talking about systems, but I think even for someone who’s thinking about volunteering, you are also thinking about altering the trajectory of someone’s life, altering an institution that you’re attached to, altering, you know, a set of relationships that are hopefully beneficial for the person that you’re interacting with and also mutually beneficial and that they impact you. So you see that change happening whether it’s interpersonally or institutionally, and you believe that it can happen again. So yes, I think that it’s crucially important.

Given where we’re at politically in this country, is it harder to have these sorts of conversations than it was two years ago, or is it easier to get people fired up?

I think it depends. I really do. There are some people who have really dug into supporting their side or their point of view or their team at the expense of everything else. And that can make it really hard to have meaningful conversations. I also think in some communities the current political climate has created a sense of disbelief: Like, how could this have happened. And the positive part of that is it’s creating a dialogue to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. I think another positive byproduct has been that people are not necessarily looking towards the federal government for solutions and are looking internally and saying, ‘What can we as a community do to address these issues that we believe helped create this situation?’

During your talk you discussed ‘opportunity moments’ and how essential they are to all of us. What’s an example of such an opportunity moment that’s happened to you recently?

I was very recently invited to be on the board of a really strong academic enhancement nonprofit here in Durham. That happened in part because the program officer for the nonprofit and I used to work together in a different capacity, and she feels really strongly about my analytical skills and how I might contribute to the board. She started advocating for me. Now I don’t know how this is going to play out, but I feel like that’s going to be a really huge opportunity to sort of have an impact on a nonprofit that’s doing really incredible work in the city. So…boom…there you go.