Meet Kevin F. Adler (Empower '18)

Blog

Kevin F. Adler has always asked the tough questions: “How can I be my own best friend?”, “How might I use technology to make the world a better place for the homeless?”, “How can I be the type of leader that I want to be?” Learn more about Kevin, the questions that drive him, his journey of self-discovery and what he’s learned so far.

REALITY: Describe what you do and how you are trying to make an impact.

Kevin: I’m the Founder and CEO of a nonprofit called Miracle Messages. We help people who are experiencing homelessness reconnect to their family, and turn, with their respective community. We have now reunited about 205 people. The average amount of time disconnected is about 20 years and it takes us less than a month to reconnect thanks to our network of about 1200 digital detectives. Our work helps to address the digital literacy, bureaucratic and emotional barrier issues that keep people separated. My uncle had been homeless for about 30 years, and after he passed away, I started having conversations with my dad about my uncle and the impact he had on us and the world. I started wondering “How might the technology that we use to tell our stories help people like my Uncle Mark tell theirs?”

REALITY: What was the most meaningful moment from your REALITY journey?

Kevin: One central moment for me was the last night in the Negev Desert where we engaged in an ancient Jewish spiritual practice called hitbodedut. We walked around alone, talking aloud to God for ten minutes. My time was incredibly self-critical and I returned to the group exhausted and thinking I had failed at the activity only to find that most people in the group were crying, having had a similarly intense experience. When I returned home to San Francisco and saw a homeless person on the street talking to himself—something that I had associated with mental illness for such a long time—I began to wonder, what if he’s simply saying something that needs to be said and nobody else is listening? That shook me, and made me think about a larger sense of solidarity that I have with people experiencing homeless; I probably wouldn’t have thought about that connection otherwise. It’s an experience I’m incredibly grateful for and continues to reverberate in my life, giving me a heightened sense of empathy and self-awareness. It even led me to a commitment that I made this year to learn how to be my own best friend. It’s so much easier for me to go and nurture others, but I wanted to explore what it looks like to do that for yourself. That experience in the desert really set the stage for this year’s commitment that I know will reverberate for the rest of my life.

REALITY: Can you tell us about a moment that has inspired your leadership qualities?

Kevin: My colleague Jessica started at Miracle Messages as a volunteer and then became a program manager and then continued to move up in the organization. But I often found that people would dismiss her and see her as my assistant or my secretary. There was lots of latent sexism and presumptions that she faced that I was unaware of until she brought it to my attention. The culmination was during some media coverage of a project that she was responsible for, and they didn’t interview her. Instead, she just sat there waiting for me to arrive. She was very open about how that made her feel, and on the spot, we decided that she would be made Executive Director and my title would change to Founder and CEO. The core lesson was that we had built enough trust and respect for each other that she confided in me in that moment, and I listened. It’s so easy to think that we all have to get it right all of the time, and if you’re not saying and doing the right things, you’re just a part of the problem and not the solution. I don’t believe in that. We need to have conversations and build relationships and respect, and because of those relationships, we’ll be able to find solutions to tough problems together.

It is difficult for me to think of what type of leader I am based solely on the leaders who have come before me. I think we spend way too much time trying to emulate others who are flawed humans just like us. So at this moment in my life, I’m spending a lot more time exploring my own unique leadership style, and how it is I choose to act in order to speak from a place of strength and compassion.

REALITY: How have you stayed connected to Israel since your journey?

Kevin: Israel is a wonderful and complicated place, and I appreciate that REALITY acknowledged this. We didn’t simply stay on the tour bus pointing at things. We met with community leaders and activists on all sides. Coming to Israel in a group made up of people who are not only very curious about Judaism, the country of Israel and its role in the world as a player for peace, but also the hypocrisies and concerns around government and people living in disputed territories, all felt very connected to my story. It made me feel like it was the homecoming trip that I had wanted to have many years earlier.

REALITY: Since REALITY, how do you “do” Shabbat? Share a short story.

Kevin: I grew up in a small town with a small family and we saw neighbors, classmates and friends as an extended part of my family. Maybe we’d say a prayer at the beginning of the meal and express gratitude, but it was mostly about connection, breaking bread and enjoying each others company for hours. Shabbat is a return to that. If the world was filled with a lot more Shabbat and a lot less posturing and speaking at each other, we’d all have a much more effective vehicle for getting to know one another. And that’s why doing dinner with our neighbors experiencing homeless can be such an effective avenue for building empathy.

In practice, I host my monthly Fireside Potluck series, on topics like success, failure, intimacy, love, loss and shame. We've had nearly 40 events over 6 years, with over 800 attendees. Every brings a dish, and contributes a thought, perspective, or story. Like shabbat, the beauty of these events are in the diversity and commitment to each other and a better world that makes for a sum greater than its parts.
 

The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation is proud to empower emerging leaders to explore their values, identity and new ways to strengthen their communities. We believe that as we work together to repair the world, it is important to share our diverse experiences and perspectives along the way. We encourage the expression of personal thoughts and reflections here on the Schusterman blog. Each post reflects solely the opinion of its author and does not necessarily represent the views of the Foundation, its partner organizations or all program participants.