#wcw Arjanna van der Plas

Arjanna Van Der Plas

Arjanna Van Der Plas

Originally from The Netherlands, Arjanna van der Plas is a San Francisco-based life and business coach who helps women all over the world design the life they want to live, overcome mental barriers, and achieve their professional and personal goals. When she offered to do a workshop for Women Catalysts members about overcoming your inner critic, we were thrilled. (It’s happening on September 24 and you can register in the portal.) But when she mentioned, almost as an aside, that she was working with Stories Behind The Fog on a book with 100 homeless people’s stories, we had to know more.

She wrote back, “My work with Stories Behind The Fog is one of the hardest and also one of the most rewarding things I do. Here's my 12-minute TED talk about it, and here's a super short video that we created for the Linkedin Compassion Award (which we didn't win, but it's an easy way to learn more about our work in 1.5 minutes).”

How did you get involved with Stories Behind the Fog, and what does your work with that project involve?

When I moved from "socialist" Amsterdam to San Francisco so my husband could work for Google, I thought I would find a cool tech job myself too. But I was so touched by the social inequality in the city that, instead of Silicon Valley, the Tenderloin (the poorest neighborhood in the city) became my new home. I started teaching yoga and meditation at The Healing WELL and volunteered at the Curry Senior Center, serving lunch to underprivileged seniors. The conversations I had there were so touching that I started writing about the things I learned from these experiences. I shared my stories on Medium, and that's where Diya Guha, the project lead of Stories Behind The Fog, found me.

I immediately joined them in their mission to rehumanize homelessness through storytelling. We're in the process of collecting 100 stories of people who have experienced homelessness, and are publishing them on storiesbehindthefog.com. My role on the team is to do interviews together with our photographers, write the stories, and talk about our project on stage and to communities like Women Catalysts. We're also working towards publishing a beautiful coffee table book with the stories and pictures [the proceeds of which will go to organizations that help the homeless], and I'm currently working on our fundraising strategies. I'd welcome any advice from people who have experience in fundraising for a book ;)

When talking to homeless people in San Francisco, what did you learn? What surprised you?

I always ask the people I interview for Stories Behind The Fog if they have any recommendations for people like you and me who want to help the homeless, but don't have an infinite amount of time or resources to do so. The answer I get consistently is that the most important thing to do is to treat them as fellow human beings. Homeless people so often go through a day without being acknowledged. People ignore them, or even avoid them. Even a simple smile, or a good morning, can give them the strength to carry on.

Another big lesson for me is that we are missing out on so much talent by ignoring the homeless. I've interviewed teachers, artists, firefighters, and designers who became homeless and can no longer contribute to society due to their circumstances. Imagine if we could bring all that talent back! I'm not saying it is easy, but it makes me realize that helping the homeless is not just something we should do for them, but for the broader society as well.

In your opinion, what are the most effective things we can do, as individuals, to help homeless people in San Francisco?

Someone once told me that the best thing you can do is to treat the homeless people in your neighborhood as your neighbor. As an individual, you can’t save all of the people in the city, but you can connect with people who literally are your neighbors. You don't have to become best friends, just build rapport like you would with your neighbor, by wishing them a good day and asking them how they're doing. Once you get to know them, you might be able to help them out with little things every now and then.

I also want to give a shout-out to some of the amazing homeless outreach organizations that we collaborate with in San Francisco. If you're considering making a donation, I would highly recommend Downtown streets team, The Healing WELL, and North Beach Citizens. What I love about these three groups is how they create community and really treat the homeless people they work with as individuals, which I believe is key.

You are also a life and business coach, as well as an occasional yoga teacher. How do you manage all of these roles and still find time for yourself?

I do a lot of yoga and hike every weekend. Being in nature is the best way for me to quiet my mind and reconnect with myself, and my husband and toddler!

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