When my organization, the Family Independence Initiative, was considering starting a project in Boston to partner with low-income families, I was told numerous stories of some of the tougher neighborhoods where unemployment is high, people do not venture out of their apartments at night, they distrust the police, they have no place to buy food and the schools are failing. To drive home the point I was told that 50 percent of the kids don’t graduate from high school. Given these terrible conditions, I wanted to know how it is that 50 percent of the kids do manage to graduate? No one knew; no one had bothered to ask.
There is such a strong stereotype about the nation’s poor — that being low-income means being broken — that no one is interested or even willing to consider and learn from the low-income families who activate their resourcefulness and know-how to solve their own problems. Why? Because policy makers, funders and advocates don’t believe families like that exist. The stereotype of poor people as incapable is so entrenched that it is impossible for most to see how low-income families are really like the rest of us, just with less money and fewer connections. And as a result, we cut ourselves off from an entire approach that can springboard mobility — investing directly in solutions generated and led by families themselves.
Learning from Families
In order for our nation to effectively break the cycle of poverty, not simply create new programs to ameliorate harsh conditions, we need to take the blinders off, to dispense with the stereotypes, and ask the low-income families who are beating the odds jut how they are doing it. Then we need to follow through to support those effective solutions.
I’ve brought up the example about kids graduating despite difficult circumstances numerous times to funders, policy, and program people. Everyone in the room always nods in agreement and then resumes crafting institutional solutions. We are missing an opportunity. If our sector would pause to learn from the families that are overcoming the odds, we would find impressive and powerful solutions involving relationships between friends and neighbors — not expensive professional interventions — that are already having an impact.
Resourceful Family-led Solutions
On May 27, 2001 the last shot was fired in a ten-year gang war between rival gangs in the Iu Mien community, refugees from Laos who now live in Richmond and Oakland, Calif. Despite failed efforts by police and youth programs to stem the problem, the impasse only shifted when parents and elders from the community stepped in and, on their own, launched informal meetings between the families and youth in contention.
Two rival youth discovered they were related to each other and other youth learned of their cultural connections. Community bonds began growing in the place of conflict and cultural pride in the place of disconnection. The parents, who shared concerns about lack of alternatives for their youth, built a community center as a place to come together to celebrate cultural traditions and also began a college scholarship fund. As families donated even the smallest amounts, the youth learned there was both the expectation and the real possibility of college.
At the other end of the city in West Oakland, a group of African American families teach their children about their history through literature, art, and music. These families had come together to create arts programs for youth in their community, not only to offer the youth more structured activities but to build pride in their African roots, its arts and traditions. They built a cultural exchange with like-minded families in New Orleans, many of whom were housed and helped by the West Oakland group after Katrina. Many of the children of these families are now beating the odds to graduate high school and go on to college.
These groups exemplify efforts that deserve recognition and resources, yet they are largely ignored by the countless foundation and government projects that have been layered onto low-income communities in Oakland.
Homegrown Financial Solutions
Many neighborhood groups that synthesize trusting connections also come together to address the problem of limited financial access, for those who are either unbanked or who find the credit doors at mainstream banks closed. Communities across the country are developing informal lending circles to fill the gap for very small personal loans that microfinance and banks do not address.
In Boston, a group of families who emigrated from Colombia started a social club in the tradition of Latin American Natilleras. They began creating activities for their youth and launched fundraising for individual contributions to build a lending pool that is available to everyone in the group. They distributed the funds before Christmas; it is their own lay-away plan. What started as a handful of families now involves over 30 families and growing.
In another part of Boston, a mixed group of friends created an LLC (a limited liability corporation) to formalize an investment pool initially started by a few families. Families make monthly contributions and the company has so far bought one business, a cab company, in order to create jobs for themselves and their families. What began as a small group now numbers over 60 investors.
If efforts of groups of families and friends were recognized by funding institutions and the group investment was matched, these from-the-ground-up solutions could become engines of economic change on a broader scale.
Invest in Success
Alana, a woman in the West Oakland group, and her friends had kids who did manage to graduate high school despite the odds. Although Alana worked long hours, her friends helped watch over her kids, and together Alana and her friends shared a strong expectation that their kids graduate. They tried to share their success with other families by establishing a small community center, but this homegrown effort couldn’t compete for grants against the professionally run programs in their community.
From New Orleans to Albuquerque, Boston to Eureka, Calif., I have learned of many informal groups that are strengthening their communities and solving decades-old problems by self-organizing. They create successful small businesses, after school programs, and methods to share financial resources. The projects undertaken by these groups are effective and relevant because they are being generated from within the community. And most importantly, they build the sense of leadership, pride, and agency that is necessary for communities to sustain their efforts and challenge the status quo.
But many of these groups have limited access to resources because they are not institutions, not run by professionals, and are outside of the traditional funding process.
Highlighting Resident-led Solutions
In 2010, I was fortunate to be invited to sit on the White House Council for Community Solutions. As the Council nears the end of its tenure, it is submitting final recommendations to the President. Its report will highlight the Torchlight Prize, a national award established this year by FII. We launched this prize to spotlight the work of regular people – like the Iu Mien community in Richmond and Oakland, the African-American artists in Oakland and New Orleans, and the social club in Boston — who join together to better their communities. We want those who care about supporting low-income communities to invest directly in groups like the Torchlight Prize winners. We also hope to inspire more actions, led by friends and families, to impact their own lives. By overcoming the negative stereotyping of low-income families, we can turn to the capacity and ability that is already vital and blooming in so many low-income communities.