STUDENT SPOTLIGHT: Liam Elkind ’21+1 on the Founding of Invisible Hands and his Personal Public Service Journey

This is my quest—to be willing to march into hell for a heavenly cause.” During the early months of the pandemic, as ambulances blared on loop in the background, as nurses and other healthcare workers left their 18-hour shifts, Broadway star Bryan Stokes Mitchell opened his apartment window in downtown New York City and sang “Impossible Dream.” It was a thank you to the city’s healthcare workers, a recognition of New York’s collective isolation, a promise that the city would band together and overcome, together. It was also a galvanizing moment for Liam Elkind ’21+1, Yale’s 2020 Newman Civic Fellow and founder of the New York City nonprofit, Invisible Hands. The public health messaging at the time that Mitchell was singing, Liam reflected, “was ‘Be a Hero. Stay Home.’ And I remember thinking to myself, ‘This doesn’t feel very heroic.’ Here I am sitting on my butt in front of a TV with nothing but time and a desire to help.’”

Liam

Liam knew that in times of crisis, New York City banded together and persevered. He remembered stories of the New Jersey sea evacuation from Manhattan after September 11th; he remembered months of firefighters unable to buy themselves groceries because people in line kept buying them for them. “When your community is in a time of need,” he said, “you stand up and you fight for them. That has always been a central tenet of my belief system: service is not a request or an option. It’s a mandate. … When I saw my community beginning to crumble once again under the weight of COVID-19, I knew I wanted to do something.” That something was Invisible Hands, a nonprofit founded in March 2020 by Liam, Simone Policano (YC ’16), and Healy Chait to deliver groceries and medicine to New York residents most at-risk if they contracted COVID-19.

invisible hands founders
Healy, Simone, and Liam (from left to right), the founders of Invisible Hands

It started as a desire to help. “I saw a post on Facebook from Simone,” Liam said, “asking if anyone knew of an organization to deliver food and medicine to elderly in need. Everyone in the comments wanted to know about the organization.” No such organization existed. “I reached out and said, ‘What if we built that organization?’ We put out a call to action on social media. We built a flyer and a website. In the first 72 hours, we had 1,300 volunteers.”

At Yale, Liam is an Ethics, Politics, and Economics (EP&E) and Global Affairs double major. He said his classes gave him a sense of the broad strokes of development, poverty, and politics that shape our current moment. “My classes showed me what the world looks like,” Liam said. But it was up to him to determine what the world should look like. And Liam soon learned that it was only through actually doing the work that he would determine his role in constructing a more ideal society.

Upon his arrival on Old Campus, Liam immediately involved himself in public service. He worked with Dwight Hall member groups Alzheimer’s Buddies, Yale Children’s Theater, and Yale Undergraduate Legal Aid Association. The latter organization, Liam said, allowed him to educate immigrants on their constitutional rights. On these experiences with Dwight Hall, Liam said, “All that work was great and really inspiring to get to see people translating what we were learning in class and applying it to community contexts. It was hearing people actually doing the work to make their communities more vibrant and more connected.”

Through his classes and civic involvement, Liam soon found his passion in the world:  ethics and politics. “I came into Yale as a prospective Theater Studies major,” Liam said. “But Trump had just been elected.” The day after the 2016 election, in Liam’s high school English class, each student shared something they were excited about for the future. One girl said she was excited to get more involved in politics. Liam said that response was inspiring because it recognized the “horror” of the moment but also the imperative. “I have viewed that as my imperative,” Liam said. “To get in the fight and start building that community power to overcome.” From this revelation, Liam joined Yale Dems. He started doing voter registration work on campus, specifically working to make the absentee ballot experience on campus more streamlined. He became Yale’s 2020 Newman Civic Fellow, participating in training that focused on civic leadership and civic education. “I also did work for political candidates and led voter registration campaigns in New York and New Jersey. That work was exciting—organizing. Getting young people prepared and excited.” Liam said this involvement—working directly with the community—was the best preparation for Invisible Hands.

In the first weeks of its launch, Invisible Hands went viral. Actress Blake Lively shared the organization’s flyer on her Instagram story. U.S. politician Bernie Sanders told his supporters to reach out to Invisible Hands. New York City’s 311 dial-in service, initially over-run itself from the outpouring of need, began directing people to Invisible Hands. “Nothing could’ve prepared me for what came next,” Liam said. “The media attention. People calling asking for help, people calling asking how to set up similar programs around the world. We got thousands of donations and didn’t know what to do with it.” The experience was humbling. From this start, Liam said, “I realized how fragile the mission was, how much of it rested on a bunch of college kids and out of work actors.”

volunteer with a cart full of food
An Invisible Hands volunteer with a cartload of food

From this initial steep curve, Liam learned a few lessons on what it means to dedicate yourself to service. The first is being okay with asking for help. As Invisible Hands worked to keep up with the onslaught of community need and the equivalent wave of financial and volunteer support, Liam asked questions. When Invisible Hands gained a pro-bono New York City legal team and partnered with an insurance company, Liam said, “I gained a lot of knowledge just by talking with them… They helped Invisible Hands incorporate and apply for 501 (c)(3) status.”

The next lesson Liam learned was to be okay to learn by doing, to be okay with not knowing what you’re doing. Starting Invisible Hands, Liam said, was like “building the bike as we were riding it… There was a lot I didn’t know. But that’s not going to stop me from doing it.”

The third lesson was being able to recognize your own success:  “if you’re already there doing the work, then you’re succeeding. … Even on [Invisible Hands’s] worst day,” Liam said, “we are making no one’s life worse. That gives me great joy.”

Perhaps the most powerful lesson Liam has learned centers around getting involved and doing your part. When asked what advice he’d give to other Yalies considering how to have impactful and meaningful civic engagement, Liam responded, “Get involved. Start somewhere. Do the work to learn about a need in your community.” He spoke of setting out to solve a discrete problem instead of taking on the whole world. By focusing on finding a solution to a single problem, he said, “that has been the time I’ve been able to serve the most people.”

Over a year has passed since Liam, Simone, and Healy founded Invisible Hands. As the world transitions to recover from the pandemic and to adapt to new COVID-19 variants, Liam reflected on what it means to move forward both in his own life and with Invisible Hands. For Invisible Hands, Liam said the nonprofit is transitioning to address food insecurity and the stigma surrounding food pantries by hand-delivering groceries to families in need. Invisible Hands, he said, is centered around solidarity instead of charity. It’s about making the organization invisible in its acts of service, about empowering thousands of volunteers to help their communities in need without asserting itself as benefactor.

Liam has learned a complementary lesson about himself:  “Before Invisible Hands, I’d make myself small to accommodate other people. … I have learned that doing that is not a service to yourself or others. It does not improve the world.”

What does improve the world, however, is seeing a problem in your community, then doing something to address it, even if you have no idea where to begin. When Liam heard Brian Stokes Mitchell singing about walking through hell for a heavenly cause, he couldn’t help but answer the call to action. “It was so inspiring to see a community rallying like that. We knew that it was only by pulling together that we would pull through.” Hearing Mitchell sing reminded Liam that “none of us were alone, that we all had each other.”  Liam’s father was one of New York City’s thousands of healthcare workers pulling together to help New York City pull through. Invisible Hands is Liam’s contribution to that same mission.

Dwight Hall is proud of the work that Liam and Invisible Hands have accomplished this past year, both because of the far-reaching impact of the organization and because of how it’s transformed Liam in the process. Liam’s dedication to promoting social change and working to serve his community embody Dwight Hall’s mission. Change Happens Here.


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