LIFTopolis: Innovation through Empathy

Last month, over 300 Bank of America Student Leaders were presented with a unique opportunity to experience what it’s like to navigate the social services system. Through a one-of-a-kind simulation, called LIFTopolis, the students stepped into the shoes of the hardworking parents and caregivers that LIFT partners with across the country every day.

Though it was LIFT’s 9th time leading Bank of America’s Student Leaders through the simulation, it was our first time hosting it virtually. With the help of Game Genius, LIFT gamified its signature event so that participants could experience the simulation from anywhere in the country.

Just like the in-person simulation, students were given background information on their specific character, including children, a budget, as well as a list of goals to complete. They then had 40 minutes to visit service providers and achieve their goals, which centered around employment, housing, and childcare. In navigating various service providers, complete with very long lines and no instruction (just like the real world!), the students quickly grew frustrated. Those acting as service providers were often rude and rarely helpful.  There was intentionally minimal coordination among the services provided as well and students would find after standing in one long line that they needed to go to another service provider before obtaining the credential provided at the first one. A few students got lucky though, and after visiting their friendly neighborhood bank (thank you Better Money Habits volunteers!), were able to get information that helped them persist and in some cases achieve their character’s goals.

Post simulation, students were asked to debrief their experience and conceive of a system that better serves our communities. In the words of Michelle Rhone-Collins, LIFT CEO and our Head Gamemaker, “We hope LIFTopolis has given you some perspective so that acquired empathy can lead the way to producing unique solutions for the challenges facing families living in poverty.”

Left to their own creativity, groups of students did just that, devising a range of solutions, some simple, some more complex, but all surprisingly relevant and insightful for the short time frame given. Simple actions included community ambassadors and training for service providers to break down silos between agencies. More complex technology-oriented solutions involved a centralized interactive database that would allow agencies to immediately find out what services (for example housing) are available in real time and online forums for sharing information about social services.

One Student Leader reflected, “I think the simulation did a good job at replicating just how difficult it is to navigate a world in which information isn’t laid out to you. I was frustrated and overwhelmed in just 40 minutes and I can’t imagine how that would feel over the course of weeks, months, and years. The experience definitely puts into perspective the struggles that real people face and it makes you think about the problems with the system.”

Students also noted what they would do differently after the simulation.  

“I’ll be more mindful for my community members in a more holistic aspect instead of singular issues,” said one student.

Another said they would “Have more empathy for those experiencing homelessness or needing social services in general. The dehumanizing aspect coupled with long lines and difficult people is very difficult. We need to increase funding to these services and also make services more aimed at helping a person rather than treating them like a number.”

And a third noted that they “will provide help and direction to my immigrant community. I will make a hub of all the important links that people might need and put that in my bio on different social media for easy access.”

And that’s what the whole simulation is about – turning empathy into action. As Caitlin Bell, SVP & ESG Program Manager explains, “At Bank of America we are committed to advancing economic opportunity. By delivering the LIFTopolis simulation to our Student Leaders, these future changemakers are able to better understand the challenges that many families face and brainstorm ideas to solve for a brighter future. Our partnership with LIFT is a direct reflection of our commitment to create sustainable change in the communities we serve.”

LIFT is thankful to Bank of America for providing us with the opportunity to engage with its Student Leaders. To read more about how Bank of America and LIFT are partnering to help families break the cycle of poverty check out our June press release.