"The Peace Corps and Haiti taught me, I hope, how to enter a community that is not my own with humility and an open mind."
Giving a Lift: David Garfunkel
After hiking the Appalachian Trail and a stint in the Peace Corps, David Garfunkel landed at Lift Jax.
Lift Jax, Jacksonville
Born and raised in Minnesota, David Garfunkel was a junior at Gustavus Adolphus College when a professor and mentor suggested he consider joining the Peace Corps. “He said, ‘Listen, it sounds like you’re interested in other cultures. You like Spanish. It seems like you want to be helpful. You should do the Peace Corps.’ And I said, ‘OK, yes, sir.’ That was really the extent of it,” Garfunkel recalls.
Upon graduating, he took a year off, hiked the Appalachian Trail and in 2007 headed to the Dominican Republic as a Peace Corps volunteer, where he met his future wife and worked for a time in community economic development, helping local residents to build an ecotourism outfit in a rural part of the country.
During his third year on the island, he moved to a larger city and was working as a volunteer coordinator when a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti on the other side of Hispaniola and leveled Port-au-Prince. Garfunkel’s house, which was nowhere near the border, survived the quake but shook for about 30 seconds.
“Things were swaying,” he recalls. Over the next week, he made up his mind that he was going to move to Haiti and do what he could to help. “I think there was a little bit at that time a sort of youthful naivete,” he says. “I was going to go and dig. I felt just very moved in that moment and compelled to try to do something to help in such a disaster.”
Instead of digging, he ended up at a microfinance company called Fonkoze in Haiti, where a former colleague from the Peace Corps had also moved and was working. He stayed there for two years, overseeing the group’s rural loan and education program. In 2012, Garfunkel and his wife moved to Boston, where she joined a non-profit and Garfunkel worked on a master’s degree in public policy at Harvard Kennedy School for Government.
“I entered that program really thinking I wanted to further my career in international work and spent a lot of time thinking about that and studying a lot of policies for international development,” Garfunkel says, but opportunities kept him stateside. After graduating, he joined a Boston-based global non-profit called FSG (a social impact advisory firm), where he worked for five years before he and his wife decided to return to Florida, where she grew up. The couple settled in Jacksonville, where Garfunkel connected with a nonprofit called Lift Jax, whose mission it is to eradicate generational poverty in the city, beginning with the historic Eastside. He joined the group as a consultant in 2019, and Lift Jax’s board named him president in May 2020.
“Our mission is one of long-term community revitalization,” Garfunkel says, and the group has embraced a strategy of “withintrification” — not gentrification — by attracting new investment to the neighborhood in a way that’s “consistent with what current residents need to stay and prosper in place.”
To accomplish that, Lift Jax follows the national Purpose Built Communities model that has proven successful in other cities, including Orlando, where a group called Lift Orlando was recognized as Florida Trend’s 2021 Floridian of the Year for its revitalization efforts. The strategy uses a holistic approach that focuses investments on mixed-income housing, cradle-to-career education, community wellness and long-term financial vitality. Residents of the Eastside community are engaged in the decision-making and key drivers of the change.
Garfunkel, 38, still considers himself “a Peace Corps worker at heart” and says the lessons he learned in his early 20s in the Dominican Republic and Haiti prepared him for the work he’s doing now in Jacksonville.
“Certainly, the Peace Corps and Haiti taught me, I hope, how to enter a community that is not my own with humility and an open mind and the posture of listening and learning from those who are actually closest to the work and then supporting them to get what they think is important to them,” he says. “We talk about this a lot; our No. 1 guiding principle with Lift Jax is to do work with the community and not do work to the community, and I’m really grateful that our supporters and our board and everybody’s really on board with that.”