Leveraging Relationships to End Poverty: The Power of Circles
I was recently introduced to an innovative approach to address the personal and systemic challenges of poverty. Imagined and initiated by Scott Miller, CEO of Move the Mountain Leadership Center, Circles is a process taking place in communities throughout the U.S.
Scott’s mission, as I interpret it, is to inspire, educate, and connect people and resources to support personal and systemic change to end poverty. Quite an aspirational goal; however, having attended a Circles meeting, I can see the potential of this innovative approach to do just that.
As noted on the website, the Circles approach combines best practices in a number of disciplines, including community organizing, case management, grassroots leadership, SMART goal setting, financial literacy, mentoring, peer-to-peer counseling and learning, and youth development. It builds a resource-rich network in communities and around those in poverty to support systemic change. Having recently attended my first Circles meeting, I can see the potential for this approach to change the current narrative of poverty in the U.S.
When I think about the current narrative of poverty in the U.S., I interpret it as a generational problem centered around people who, for various reasons, have not been able to realize the American dream. The dream that has made the U.S. a highly respected and desired place to live and work assumes that everyone has the potential of creating a good life for themselves and their families; however, we must also consider how it contributes to the problem of poverty. The focus has been on the individual’s ability to create a good life with little emphasis on the importance of the community to support those efforts. We have spent little time analyzing the systemic factors that keep people stuck in the cycle of poverty, which is very difficult to break out of.
In his December 2011 blog post, Scott noted that we have more than 16.4 million children living in poverty. I purposely used the words "we have" here to help shift our national mental model—a model that asserts that the problem is one that we all need to hold and address and not something that is separate from us and our lives if we are fortunate enough to be living the American dream.
Scott also noted a concerning trigger that can greatly escalate poverty as the upcoming movement of baby boomers from the workforce and the lack of preparation of a new workforce to take their place. We already see this trend taking place in the Silicon Valley and other areas when large numbers of people from other countries are coming to the US for jobs that can’t be filled because of the skills gap.
What I really like about the Circles approach is that it is both systemic and personal. The meeting I attended included a number of Circle leaders—men and women currently living in poverty who are engaged in this program as a way to help themselves and their families, and to support the community as leaders in addressing the systemic poverty issues. I was moved to hear the story of two women who communicated how much confidence they have gained as Circle leaders and how much appreciation they have for the allies (those who have resources to support them) and the community members who come together on a weekly basis. They spoke to the difference it makes for them to know they have a community of support and how this is enabling them to address their personal situation. Neither seemed to be under the illusion that others were going to solve their problems, but rather that others were there to provide support to them in creating change in their lives and moving out of poverty. As I listened to these bright young women, I reflected on how our educational system does not support many young people who are creative and talented, but who are unable to perform well within the small box that is K-12 education. The increasing high school dropout rate is a reflection of this reality and likely an indicator of increasing poverty.
The problem of poverty is huge and not easily solved. Scott, his organization, and the Circles approach are changing the narrative of poverty one "circle" at a time. Scott realizes that his challenge now is how to scale this effort so that many more people and communities can be engaged.
I hope you will check out this work and provide your thoughts and ideas for scaling. I intend to get engaged with this organization and am blessed to have Scott here in Albuquerque where I am now located. If you are interested in starting this work in your community, I am happy to help you create the connections to make that happen. In the meantime, check out the current regional development centers.