Marshall Mercer never intended to become the director of a nonprofit organization. He never considered himself an advocate or an activist before being identified as such by local media. From his perspective, his experience outside of the formal social services system is part of what makes him so effective at the work he does.
For the last three years, Mercer has run Hope Brokers, in Augusta, first as an LLC now a registered 501(c)(3). The stated mission of Hope Brokers is to, “build a more diverse and prosperous community for all.” The organization works to support marginalized and struggling individuals, primarily the unhoused and people with substance use disorder, but the broad scope of the work they do defies easy summary.
Hope Brokers offers direct outreach to at-risk groups: providing clients with transportation to various appointments, distributing free doses of Narcan (the opioid overdose reversal drug) and safe injection supplies, washing sleeping bags for unhoused people, and going so far as to hosting the overflow from Augusta’s homeless shelters in Mercer’s apartment. Mercer has also hosted multiple round table listening sessions, bringing together local politicians and business leaders with members of the unhoused community to find common ground addressing the problems facing the city. Mercer considers the most important work of Hope Brokers to be what he calls, “relational organizing,” simple talking and listening to marginalized people one on one.
“We don’t go out asking if they want to get help, we just ask if they want to talk…Just to be seen,” said Mercer “Other people will walk right by them, not even look at them. Imagine if the whole world’s not even looking at you. You start to feel like you don’t exist.”
Mercer himself is a living example of the transformative power of relational organizing. Having survived an abusive childhood, failures of the health care and judicial systems, years of drug addiction, crime, and finally incarceration, Mercer found belonging and purpose in his life by working for a year with the Rock Ministries missionary group, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Returning to Maine, Mercer found peer support working with the Maine Recovery Advocacy Project and the Augusta Reentry Center. Through these groups, he developed new skills for aiding the marginalized communities in the capital area, but also encountered the limitations of working within a bureaucratic model. Hope Brokers is meant to compliment existing aid services by doing things that government funded organizations aren’t able or aren’t allowed to do.
“I don’t do silos. What I’ve seen in a lot of community organizations is that everybody’s doing the same frigging thing and trying to help the same people but they’re all doing it separately. None of them are even talking.”
The group is almost exclusively donation funded currently. Hope Brokers is pursuing grant funding to be able to hire as staff members some of the volunteers running their programs, but have been previously passed over many times. Despite the shoestring budget, Mercer’s dedication and that of his volunteers has brought lasting change to the lives of many of Augusta’s most vulnerable individuals.
“If I can fix their problem for free, while others are getting paid millions of dollars to do it, they’re going to have some explaining to do.”
Mercer is also in negotiations to lease a six-bedroom house to provide additional transitional housing in Augusta.
The open ended nature of relational organizing means that the programs Hope Brokers offers will continually be changing and evolving as community members identify new needs to be met. Readers interested in learning more, volunteering, or making a donation can contact Mercer directly through his website, hopebrokers.me.
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