It’s true that not everyone knows what to do in order to get ahead, whether they’re rich or poor. That explains why many of my colleagues in the philanthropic and social services sector assume that solutions must come from them, rather than the low-income families they serve. Yet solutions are best when they’re home grown and “bottom up” because paths forged by low-income families are the solutions that their peers tend to follow. When one refugee family, Jorge and Maria-Elena, part of the Family Independence Initiative (FII), bought a home in Oakland all of their close friends and others in their community began to buy homes. Most families from that refugee community didn’t think home ownership was possible until one of their own deviated from the “norm” and realized their dreams by, succeeding through their own initiative.
There is a human behavioral change process called positive deviance. It has been documented that in most groupings of people there are positive deviants that succeed even if they start under the same circumstances as their peers. These ordinary examples are what brings about sustained change in communities. So rather than a new theory of change, the social services and philanthropic sector needs to find these grassroots solutions and then support the other families that want to follow the same path, whether to start businesses, get to college or solve a gang problem.
I ran social service programs in Oakland and San Francisco for 20 years but I noticed that families that did not use my services were often making more progress than the ones I was actually “helping.” My bookkeeping clerk lived in San Francisco’s Chinatown and I kept trying to get her mother and father to take vocational English classes so they could leave what were exploitative jobs in Chinatown sewing factory sweatshops and restaurants. Finally, her father told me “That’s not the way it is done!” What Yvonne, my clerk, explained and that I observed of so many other poor immigrants from Hong Kong is that the parents and oldest child, Yvonne, all went to work in any job they could find. They worked sewing and washing dishes in places where they could make friends with others living in similar situations. They first lived in single room occupancy hotels and got to know others. Then the pattern was that two to three families would rent and share a multi-bedroom flat as they concentrated on getting their kids into college. Then as some graduated and were able to help, two of the families would buy a house together. The final step was to split the equity and each family would buy a separate house, ideally with one of their graduates. The process took a decade but was a path that was forged by Hong Kong families before them and continued to prove successful.
These examples of people following and helping each other is how nutrition issues were solved in villages in Vietnam and historically how the first Black township in Oklahoma after slavery resulted in 50 more townships in that State alone.
Besides learning from Yvonne’s family and their friends in the mid 1990s, I observed how the Iu Mien community solved its own youth gang problem. I ran youth gang programs in Oakland, California as did other nonprofits as well as the city itself. Rivalries between Iu Mien youth in the mid 90s led to their having the highest incarceration rate of any ethnicity in Oakland. So the parents, many on welfare, came together to talk to their young male sons to re-establish pride in their culture and language. They started a scholarship program with donations of $25 and, in the same way, collectively purchased some land and a run-down house to be their cultural center. But it wasn’t the center or the small scholarships that changed the trajectory of their youth. It was that these young men could see the love and care that family and so many friends had for them and their future. That pride in community, family and culture is what changed the trajectory for these young men and now the expectation for Iu Mien youth is that they attend four-year colleges.
I recently asked a Iu Mien friend, Kouichoy, about the impact that my programs and the city programs had on setting this new trajectory and he scoffed. “The programs got all the money and recognition but changed nothing” was his comment. What he and his community did for themselves stayed invisible because programs like mine had to claim credit or we would not get funding down the road.
Cities, policy makers and foundations often feel it is the community center, library or grocery store that will change trajectories of families in poverty. But as the saying goes, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” It is not the outside theories, program or structure that carry power for fundamental change … it is the mutuality and sense of community with others. It is why the Jewish Community and others stress tradition and cohesion. The Mardi Gras Indian Tribes in New Orleans involve their kids and friends in making the costumes they compete in. In those gatherings their children take pride in extended family while learning African American history. Their children tend to stay on a positive trajectory just as the Iu Mien youth do now.
If the city builds the community center, it is nice but not fundamental. But if the families on their own build the center — even just a rickety house — there is community pride in that. Foundations and the city would do well by just matching the funds raised by the families but leaving control in the families’ hands. That would be respectful support.
What I learned growing up and what FII is learning from hundreds of families, demonstrates the need for a huge change in the way the social sector and its funders do business. Instead of spending funds to do strategic plans and develop new theories of change, spend the money surveying the families, every month or quarter, about what they are doing. What problems do they see and especially ask what are their solutions! Then instead of taking the idea over and making it into a program, stay behind the scenes and just match the efforts on the ground. As low income families see that funders and programs are honoring their self-defined efforts for change, we will see countless new paths forged by the families themselves.