Pandemic of Love with Shelly Tygielski

podcast Jun 26, 2020

When COVID-19 swept through her community, Shelly Tygielski had a simple idea: Connect people who can give directly with those in need. Within days her Pandemic of Love went viral, resulting in more than 187,000 matches and over $25.1 million in direct transactions. And as she reveals, these one-to-one acts of charity offer so much more than financial support — they re-instill our faith in each other.


Jeff: Around the idea of working closely with communities in need, and particularly going through acute periods of collective grief like in Parkland, can you talk a little bit about that experience of what it is like to work in communities that are experiencing that level of acute grief? And to what degree is meditation and other kinds of forms of I suppose wellness, modalities... Are they welcome? How do you actually administer them? What are some of the impacts of them? How do you work with the local community and other clinicians to provide consistency? How does that work?

Shelly T: Man, that's a really big question and the truth is, is that there's no one formula. I think all of us that are working in this space are very much learning how to navigate and to create standard operating procedures and share best practices across different communities. The way that it "works" in communities affected by mass shootings versus those that are experiencing the trauma literally every single day through daily gun violence, is very different. To start with in communities affected by mass shootings like in Parkland, there's obviously so many different stages to grief, but the initial one being shock and rage and just a fog. Literally an entire community that's in a fog and certainly the deeper you get into the epicenter, the more foggy it seems to be in that you lose sense of time and space and what's real and what's not real.

Shelly T: It's interesting because what happens is that you think about the news cycle that we live in, and how long a period or a news cycle actually lasts for, and it really lasts until the next thing happens in a sense. You could talk about a shooting somewhere, but then if there's a shooting a week later, that becomes the next story. What happens is that after the Parkland shooting and speaking to other communities where this has happened, whether it's in Pittsburgh or Sandy Hook or Columbine or even more recently in places like Saugus, there's thousands of people that just descend upon the community. People from the media to people that are trying to, with not necessarily the best intentions, exploit the situation for their own personal gain. And then people who really do have great intentions, but they're just not qualified to be there and offer what they're offering, but it's coming from a good place if you will.

Shelly T: What happens is that it takes a while because there's no proactive measures that are already in place, and this is starting to evolve and change obviously as mass shootings have become a more frequent occurrence in our country, but there's usually no organization or system that's in place in municipality or in a city or a county where they're like, "Okay, here's the roadmap. This is what this is supposed to look like, and this is how we're going to get every therapist, every program, every dollar that's being thrown in our community." There were so many people here that were offering really I think programs that are powerful and some that were again, just fly-by-night and really came in and wanted to be able to say, "Hey, I worked in the Parkland community."

Shelly T: It wasn't until I partnered up with an organization called Survivors Empowered, that I really started to understand what needs to be done and how it needs to be done if we're going to be effective. Survivors Empowered is an organization that was started by Sandy and Lonnie Phillips. And Sandy and Lonnie Phillips' daughter, Jessica, was murdered in the Aurora movie theater shooting. After that happened, they actually sued the NRA, and they sold all of their belongings and decided that they were going to spend their life traveling the country, and speaking about the tragedy that occurred, but also, helping other survivors of gun violence heal. Sandy is especially a very big component of trauma-informed healing modalities, and making sure that communities affected by gun violence and by mass shootings have access and knowledge immediately. Because the sooner that you can get access to certain therapies like EMDR or somatic therapies, or even have access to trauma-informed MBSR, for example, and have community in that sense, the better off you will be in the long run in terms of not hitting a wall, and experiencing really sometimes deadly consequences of PTSD.

Shelly T: What happened is that eventually as unfortunately our country started seeing more mass shootings, Sandy and Lonnie started to immediately arrive on the scene with other survivors after every mass shooting. And in a sense, their organization became the FEMA of mass shootings, where a mass shooting would happen and within 24 hours, they themselves and or they would dispatch other survivors who could talk to these new members of this club that nobody wants to be a part of but now they're members of. As I befriended Sandy and Lonnie, I really became a resource to them and this conduit, this connector, to the mindfulness world, to the meditation world, to all of these different practitioners and teachers. People like Sharon, people like Jon Kabat-Zinn, who have been my mentors, my teachers for a long time, and now I'm fortunate enough to say, co-facilitators sometimes in these situations.

Shelly T: Our work has become very much about being able to build capacity. Build capacity within these communities very early on. Provide the resources externally and then build capacity within so that there could be a sustainable program that's in place that people can count on, and that can come from survivors themselves. Empower them to also teach and heal others, and in doing so, also heal themselves. And also, it just becomes I think, a much more authentic way of gaining access to these communities. And speaking from a place of I've been there and really, really truly understanding where somebody is coming from and where they've been and where they're going. Fortunately for me, I can't sit with somebody and say, "I know what you've been through."

Shelly T: But when one of our teachers here in Parkland for example, a father that had one son that was murdered on February 14th, and one son that was injured, actually goes and flies to a place like Pittsburgh or to Santa Clarita High, and sits with a parent who just lost their son and say, "I know what you've been through and here's the good, the bad and the ugly. This is what's going to happen. You're going to see the best in people in this way, you're going to see the worst in people in this way. And this is the stuff that you really don't want to know about, but you're going to have to know about because it's going to be pretty bad. And here's a roadmap and I'm going to be your resource."

Jeff: Yeah, I suppose for some people who are of course in that club that no one wants to be in, they can find meaning in the suffering through the expression of empathy. In a very rare form of empathy in this particular regard. I want to also ask about another dimension of care, which I think is particularly pressing right now as folks are protesting, are doing a lot of moral examination, a lot of personal inventory, and around care as it pertains to those seeking social justice. Not necessarily those who have suffered acute loss, but those who are on the front lines fighting for social justice. It's long I think been the case that there is tremendous burnout rate there because it is so exhausting. Can you talk a little bit about maybe the dimensions of care there for that community and how do you implement that? And how do people who might be listening who are on those front lines, how do they administer that form of self-care?

Shelly T: Sure. Well, I think we have to start with looking at and examining the definition of self-care in general. Really the notion of self-care started actually out of the Civil Rights era and in communities of people of color because essentially for them, it was a matter of life or death in terms of not being able to seek actual care elsewhere, they had to self-administer. But what's happened is that when you look at where self-care, what it's evolved to in our times, there's been this monetization as you know of like the term, but also of just the wellness industry in general. When you Google the hashtag self-care, the term, the things that come up are mind boggling because you look at the pictures of what people post with the hashtag self-care, and you're like, "Well, wait a minute, that's not self-care, that's a new handbag." That's definitely not what I think our forefathers or people who came up with that terminology thought of when they defined it.

Shelly T: The first thing that we have to do is redefine and reclaim the definition of self-care as activists. We have to say, what is self-care? How are we defining it formally? And then what needs to happen in the formalization of that, is we need to create individually our own self-care plans. Our coping plans. And there's so many amazing templates that are available and that are out there, and that I even use when I'm teaching workshops for example, to get people to really sit down and think about not just what would define in a perfect world what their self-care plan would look like, but also what are the obstacles and challenges that would prevent them from enacting those things? If it's I don't have time because I don't have a babysitter. Or, I don't have the finances to do something like take a yoga class, or whatever it is that defines what their obstacles are. But in formalizing it and writing down the things that should be in our self-care coping plans, and in identifying the challenges, what happens next is a really important step.

Shelly T: And this is where I think the activist community and organizations are able to shift the self-care pursuit from being individualistic, to becoming communal. And in doing so, this is where it becomes I think really much more impactful and more sustainable, and realistic in its pursuit. Because the term self-care, just in saying it, the world self is in there. And the reality is that in the work that we're doing now, the work that activists that are on the front lines that they're doing today but that a lot of people have been doing for years now, if it was an individualistic pursuit, it would never work. But if it's communal, suddenly the burden, that boulder that needs to be carried up the mountain, becomes much lighter.

Shelly T: What I do when I work with different organizations and with activists is we define a self-care plan, we create a coping plans that's formalized, we share the coping plans in a formalized group. We develop and define formalized communities of care and we share these coping plans with each other. Why? For a number of reasons. First, because it creates accountability for ourselves. Secondly, it actually helps to lessen the burden and actually people can start to pick up on these challenges or obstacles that we may have and say, "Hey, you know what? Every Wednesday night, I can actually babysit for you when you go do that thing that you need to do in order to get that done." Suddenly there becomes this shared experience and the pursuit of self-care becomes communal and it becomes realistic.

Shelly T: And then what happens is that it becomes sustainable, and we recognize that we don't have to have feelings of guilt attributed to taking a pause. Because I think that's oftentimes what happens in a lot of these organizations and with activists. It's like if I'm not out there every day, there's a lot of self-judgment of I wasn't out there and therefore I'm not doing the work. I've taken a pause for myself and I'm letting people down. But if you're pursuing this in a communal setting, then all of a sudden people are having conversations of Jeff, you've been out there for the last three days, suddenly your community is looking out for you and has your back and they're saying, you don't need to come the next day because we have somebody else that's going to be on the front lines instead of you because you need to replenish and you need to fill your cup. Or you need to take care of your family, or you need to tend to yourself, so that you can show up and be whole the next day.

Shelly T: It becomes just a shared experience and I really think that we just have to eradicate this term of self-care and shift more into the conversation of communities of care instead if we're going to build this resilience.

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Jeff: But what I think is fascinating about what you did, it's almost just how simple it is in terms of being able to enable that connection. And I guess if you don't mind and I'm sure you've done it 10000 times now or 150 some odd thousand times given how many people you've enrolled, but can you just explain literally how it works? And just the mechanics of Pandemic of Love?

Shelly T: Sure. Like you said, it's a very simple, simple concept and it started around my kitchen table. My community here in South Florida was starting to bubble up with fear, and were obviously really concerned legitimately about stocking up as we were planning to shelter in home in the month of March. Many people who are hourly wage workers and who can barely make it to the end of the week or rely on tips, and they were like, "Okay, great. How are we supposed to stop up? We can't even get to the end of the week at this point."

Shelly T: Immediately, I guess I've also self-examined my default modes at this point of what my reaction and response is. And I think that it's really interesting because when I see that somebody is in need or certainly people I know and even people I don't know, the default mode or the first question that I always ask if how can I be of service? How can I fix this problem? And I think about it from a very empathic point of view. And I immediately thought, "Well, there's a lot of people in our community who can help. Who have privilege, whose life won't be affected, who can basically fill up 27 fridges and it won't even make a dent in the way that they live their lives."

Shelly T: I just created two Google Forms. I literally went to Google Forms and I created a form that said Give Help and a form that said Get Help. And there was no formal name. It wasn't called Pandemic of Love, but I just introduced these two forms using a 40-second video on my social media account to my community. And in the introduction of the forms I basically said it's really about tapping into the fact that there can be love over fear and that the COVID-19 isn't the only thing that can go viral, that a lot of positive things can go viral too like hope and like faith and like love. And love can actually not just be contagious, but it can be the cure, and we should start a pandemic of love.

Shelly T: And that's how this whole thing really started because those forms wound up within 24 hours being shared dozens of times, and hundreds of times, and then thousands of times, and eventually made it into the hands of different celebrities of people that have circles of influence. People like Kristen Bell, and Chelsea Handler, and Debra Messing, and Maria Shriver. And they shared the platform, and we wound up having to eventually build an actual website, and also, we wound up with individuals all around the globe who reached out and said, "Wait a minute. How do I now do this in my community? This is a great idea. Can I do this in St. Louis? Can I do this in Salt Lake City? How about Atlanta?"

Shelly T: Myself and a few volunteers that I recruited in the very first few days when we were matching people in our own communities, we started to train other communities on our platform and creating sheets for them. Give Help, Get Help links in these micro-communities as we call them. In the last 12 weeks, we've made 187000 matches, which means that there have been at least 374000 human connections. Because there's a person a least on each side of the equation who have transacted over $25 million in transactions. The average transaction is $150. Sometimes it's less, but sometimes it can be up to $5000 even.

Shelly T: What the transactions do is it's a direct transaction. We're not a non-profit, no money ever hits my account or over 650 volunteers' accounts. What we do as they say in Yiddish, we make Shidduch, we make matches. We basically are matchmakers professionally. We essentially take a person in need, look at their case, and then partner them up with a donor or a patron that is willing to or capable of filling that need up. And then we connect them by email or by text message and we say, "Hey, Jeff, meet John. John's a single dad with three kids and he works in the restaurant industry and has been unable to earn a living over the last several weeks. And he's indicated on his form that he needs help with his health insurance premium and a utility bill." And then, "Here's his phone number, please connect with him and here's some ways you can transact with him."

Shelly T: And basically then, you Jeff, would call John up and have a conversation with him, and learn a little bit more about him and he would learn about you. And what's happened is that aside from getting bills paid and getting relief financially speaking, people have been feeling connected, seen and heard by perfect strangers. And so many people have used the cliché phrase, you've restored my faith in humanity. That somebody who doesn't know me could care about me. Or, we've shattered also a lot of these stigmas about the other type of person. We've connected people who are Liberals with people who are very conservative. We've connected people who are of different faiths and of different backgrounds, and sexual orientations and age groups. And it's really incredible because in spite of all that, and what we think makes us all so different, we realize that there's this common humanity, and friendships have been formed and people FaceTime, and they send care packages to each other, and paintings to each other and songs to each other. It's incredible.

Shelly T: The stories that have come out of it have been absolutely amazing. That's been really I would say the intentional byproduct of it. It was always about forming human connections because I can tell you as an Israeli that was raised in a very hawkish, right-wing family in Jerusalem, who was taught from a very young age that my Palestinian brothers and sisters on the other side of now the wall, want to basically hurt me and kill me, that when you can shatter those beliefs by connecting with people... And that's really what I had to do in my own personal journey, which is another story for another day... But, just by connecting with the people that you think are so different than you, you realize they're not that different at all. And that I think is really going to be the saving grace of humanity.

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Jeff: I think Renee Brown says, "It's hard to hate up close." And I think what you've created as you describe it, it's not just a model for giving, but a model for empathy, and conversation, and connection. As it specifically pertains to giving, from the little research I've done about philanthropy and altruism, it is always more effective to give to an individual or something directly where you can actually see the impact of your generosity, and there are other organizations that do facilitate that kind of giving. But I think that this goes one step beyond that because you're actually facilitating a direct conversation, and that is as you say transcendent, and certainly helps us to understand and to recognize our common humanity in a time where that's very, very difficult. That even in public, often our acts are private.

Jeff: Social media is really just private acting in public in some ways. And that our relationship with each other has all sorts of middlemen from the media to the advertisers that are supporting that media. That's how we know each other is through depictions that we see come through our media instead of directly. It's really fascinating. I was going to ask you but you already addressed it, that you seem to be attracting people across the political spectrum or the divide. I wonder if you've thought about this at all because it's in a very interesting form of redistribution of wealth. And it's a redistribution of wealth that actually feels very honest and transparent to people and just that idea of redistribution of wealth generally or oftentimes in our society, goes to socialism, and communism, and government.

Jeff: And I wonder why this is so effective versus a government saying, "Hey, you're going to pay your taxes and we're going to redistribute the wealth and make it a more equal society." Is this a model for redistribution in a way? I wonder if you've thought about that in any way.

Shelly T: I've totally thought about it because everybody asks me, "What's your longterm plan for Pandemic of Love? Is this just going to last for the pandemic or is it going to be after it's over?" And the first thing I tell them of course is, "Hey, I'm a mindfulness teacher, so I'm only thinking about the present moment, but if I do think about the moment beyond that moment, I will tell you that my big hairy audacious goal, as Verne Harnish says, is that I would love to be able to see an institutionalization of mutual aid across communities in the world, certainly in this country. So that just like every municipality has a city hall, we should also have a formalized mutual aid community. That's institutionalized in some way and it's just a way that we as a society and as a community transact, and can give help and get help.

Shelly T: I think that the redistribution of wealth as it's done by government is we all know there's so much red tape. There's corruption. You really don't know where the money's going. I think there's a lot of skepticism because it's like once bitten, twice shy, but really in our case it's probably been like thousands of times bitten, so we're very shy at this point. There's a lot of skepticism there. But I think that when you yourself are transacting, when you buy a meal for somebody, when you're able to just make sure that a person has gas in their car, or you're able to pay for a funeral.

Shelly T: God, I can't even tell you how many funerals our donors have paid for. There's so many undocumented workers who don't qualify for state subsidies because they're undocumented. They can't prove that even though they make less than X amount of dollars in certain states, maybe that's not the case in California but certainly in places like New York and Connecticut and New Jersey area. We've had so many people that have reached out to us out of desperation to say, "My father just died of COVID-19 and we're already suffering so much, but we don't have money to reclaim his body, and give him a proper burial or cremation, and just have some dignity and honor. And we've had so many donors pay for funerals. The feeling that somebody gets when they're able to call that funeral home and pay that bill, and then have a conversation with that family and learn more about that person's father, and who they were and what they meant to them, what more could there be in terms of just feeling good about what you did and wanting to do more of that?

Jeff: Yeah, those stories need to be documented. We'll talk about that another time.

Shelly T: Yeah.

Jeff: I know you're writing a book, and I don't know where you are in that process, but I've been thinking a lot about this lately. And I wonder if you have a comment on it and if it has any relevance to why you want to write a book. It's around the importance of words and right now, I think words are so important because people are feeling so much. There's so much emotion, and words can often serve as vessels for feelings, and help us to have those conversations. I'm curious where you are in that process and why you're writing the book, and how you think about words.

Shelly T: My book is called Sit Down to Rise Up, and it's really about the inner journey, the journey to the me. And then the way that I see it, the responsibility to then, once you are in that journey and once you're healed in some way even if you have a bunch of cracks still, that you have a responsibility to continue on the journey to the we, which is a communal journey. And then, how to translate that communal journey into the journey of us, which is movement-based.

Shelly T: The reason why I wanted to write this book was because I wanted to use words to be able to provide a roadmap and an actual structure that people could hopefully use to go beyond this self-help culture that we've perpetuated and that we have, where it's just about, "Oh, I need to do the inner-work and I'm working on myself." The way I see it is well, what is the point of working on yourself if you don't actually then show up in the world and then it impacts others. If it only is affecting yourself or just your immediate circle, and you're not continuously expanding the circle, why are you really doing the work on yourself? And then questioning that.

Shelly T: For me, the timing of writing this book is really important because I think that we are in this time period where so many people are all about doing the inner-work, and certainly working on the outer part of that, as well with physical fitness and wellness in that sense as well. And I want to make that more tangible to the fabric of society that we're living in. Great, work on yourself but how does that impact the rest of the world and how you show up? And how can you formalize a structure to do it? For me, it's the key. And I feel like to be honest with you, especially having spent so much time in communities affected by grief and loss, that the best language of loss ever is actually just showing up in silence.

Shelly T: Sometimes there are no words that you could ever say that will take the hurt or the pain away. And I think I agree, say to bring up Renee Brown again as she says, "Rarely, if ever do words actually make the hurt or the pain go away or solve a problem." But just showing up and being there and being able to hold space, and look in somebody's eyes and have empathy for them, again, invoking the communal effects of things is I think more powerful than words. What I want to do is use words to really inspire people to see community, and inspire communities to create movements to help to really bring about the world that we want to be living in.

Jeff: Yeah, I agree with you 100%. This observation has absolutely no basis in data, but from my experience, the people that are continually just working on themselves without feeling any connection to the world around them are doing just that. They're just continually working on themselves.

Shelly T: Yeah, true.

Jeff: Because they actually never have a sense of true fulfillment. You've mentioned this a couple times over the course of our conversation. Not exactly this but how I interpret some of it, which is self work or self-care or meditation or yoga, some of these modalities have been I suppose hijacked in the name of personal development, and commodified therein. That we use meditation to be more productive at work so we can better feed the bottom line. All of these things that do not serve the purpose of the practice in the very, very first place, which is a sense of self-transcendence, or what you might say union. A sense of true connection. Yes, union with your higher self, perhaps with God, certainly with nature, but very, very, very much with everyone else.

Shelly T: Yeah.

Jeff: And I think to the degree that you can help people connect their own wellness with a direct straight line to the wellbeing of society, I don't know if there's any better thing that you could do. Thank you for that.

Shelly T: Thank you. Thank you.

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