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How a Detroit man's 21-mile walk to and from work became a national cause

  1. In just two days, a GoFundMe campaign has raised over $200,000 to help James Robertson, a Detroit man who walks 21 miles a day round trip to work, pay for a car.
  2. Robertson's story originally attracted attention thanks to a profile by the Detroit Free Press, which reported that the 56-year-old factory worker walked about 8 miles to work and 13 miles back each day, getting only about two hours of sleep between arriving home from work and departing again.
  3. Wayne State University student Evan Leedy said he initially aimed to raise only $5,000 with the GoFundMe campaign he set up when he read Robertson's story, but the money donated by thousands of people who pitched in has exceeded his expectations.
  4. Robertson said he's been unable to afford a new car since his broke down ten years ago. He's now shopping for a vehicle and insurance.
  5. This inspiring story of one man's resilience and the overwhelming generosity of strangers demonstrates the way individual narratives can go viral even while the underlying issues are ignored.

Robertson's commute

Bus service doesn't cover much of Robertson's route to and from work. Here's how he makes it every day.

(Detroit Free Press)

Robertson and the creator of the fundraising campaign met

Robertson's meeting with the creator of the GoFundMe campaign was featured Monday on CBS News. Watch the video here:

Crowdfunding campaigns and generosity

With so many Americans living in poverty and plenty of other people working but barely making it, it's safe to say Robertson's situation is not entirely unique.

The overwhelming generosity in response to his dilemma illustrates the way putting a sympathetic face on a social issue can humanize it and motivate people to act, when it might not have occurred to them to donate, for example, to an organization that aim the help the working poor in general.

Sarah Goodyear of The Atlantic's City Lab pointed out that while Robert's resilience is impressive, there are issues behind his commute that don't elicit anywhere near the interest his personal story has:

Just think about it for a moment: strangers are falling over themselves to help subsidize a personal vehicle for one individual (although insurance, gas, and maintenance are obviously on him going forward), but voters in dozens of suburban communities in the Detroit area have voted to "opt out" of the region's public transportation system. In so doing they have shut down job opportunities for thousands of area residents who are eager for employment, and denied employers access to untapped sources of labor.

She's right. Crowdfunding campaigns seem to be able to mobilize support for people, when discussions of the social and political realities that provide the backdrops for their stories don't have quite the same viral appeal.

Another example: The issues faced by teachers and students in poor neighborhoods are nothing new, but an ongoing IndieGoGo campaign launched after the blog Humans of New York featured Brooklyn sixth grader Vidal Chastanet's moving praise of his principal at Mott Bridges Academy has raised over a million dollars to send students from the school on college visits and provide scholarships to them.

Further Reading

It's easy to see why this man's grueling commute went viral

8 photos that show how cars seized city streets from pedestrians

Evidence that giving poor people money is a great cure for poverty

Basic income: the word's simplest plan to end poverty, explained