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Reflections on the Child Poverty Summit: What the Collaborative Got Right, and How to Improve the Process

On Saturday June 25, the Child Poverty Collaborative held its first community-wide summit.  The big conference room at the Cintas Center was packed with people, truly from all walks of life—corporate CEOs, community activists, professional social workers, church leaders, non-profit executives, even people experiencing poverty.  The room was as inclusive as any ever gathered in Cincinnati, and summit organizers designed an agenda that let those voices be heard.

Upon arrival, attendees were presented with an opportunity to sign a wall-sized board waiting for them at the bottom of the stairway, their signatures a tangible symbol of their commitment to the communal nature of this work.  Smartly, no one had to officially “sign in”, as all materials, including name tags, were already on each table (along with innumerable ways to record feedback).  Another subtle but important move:  including relevant childhood poverty data on each table, a simple way to get people somewhat up to speed (and talking about the issue) as they waited for the program to begin while being soothed by live jazz.

In addition to supplying each table with documents like “The State of Black Cincinnati 2015” (among others), organizers also built a common informational foundation by providing a “poverty map” that visually connected the myriad social and economic factors influencing poverty.  Smartly, organizers showed a video that explained the map, and then asked for feedback on how to revise the map based on table-group discussions.  In this way, everyone had a part in mapping our unique poverty situation.

Most importantly, participants were offered many ways to express themselves during the summit:

  1. Several wall-sized boards scattered across the room asked for answers to thought-provoking questions (e.g. “What is your most important take-away from this event?”), a great way to let others know what was emerging over the course of the morning;
  2. A personal work-sheet with the core questions of the day so participants could answer over time and in private (e.g. “What do you want changed in five years?”; “What barriers do we need to overcome to achieve those changes?”);
  3. Facilitated table conversations about these core questions: first private thinking/writing time, then conversation and harvesting of feedback by the table facilitator;
  4. Question-by-question feedback presented to the whole room by table groups, which often led to spontaneous call-and-response affirmations of people’s points.

In the end, an incredible amount of data was captured at the summit:  through participants’ written statements, oral feedback captured by table-facilitators, video of whole-group feedback, even a visual harvest by several artists who were capturing the essence of the summit through colorful drawing and art.

Despite the summit’s success, some attendees found the it unproductive, especially if they were long-standing anti-poverty professionals or activists: “We’ve heard all of this before”; “We know what the problem is”; “We don’t need a sermon from Dr. Owens to get inspired to do this work”.

But these valid sentiments, however, miss the larger context in which the Child Poverty Collaborative is operating.  Most came into the room with deep personal knowledge of poverty, but until such knowledge is shared, we can’t know that others are on the same page.  This is especially important when it comes to race in Cincinnati:  African Americans generally don’t trust Cincinnati’s white corporate establishment (including large non-profit institutions like the United Way, Strive, and the Greater Cincinnati Foundation).  The first step in building community trust is for the powerful to listen to those without power.  That meant that the June 25th summit had to focus on listening to the African American community, even if that meant that nearly everyone in the room “had heard it all before”.

In other words, African Americans need to feel heard by the corporate community or else they won’t participate in the work of the Collaborative; and the corporate establishment needs to empathize with African Americans or risk poor decision-making and isolated implementation of recommendations.  So despite the sometimes-patronizing tone, summits like this are important.   Given the excellent design and execution of the June 25th summit, organizers surely understand that future summits will need to include a discussion of potential solutions, programs, and what we can DO together—indeed, the day’s mantra was “we must do this work together”.

From what Collaborative leaders are saying, however, the next summit will focus on the Collaborative’s report and recommendations.  Taking such a big leap (from listening to problem-identification to offering potential solutions) would invariably beg some deep questions and be a serious mistake.  At least three key steps seem to be missing from the Collaborative’s process:

  1. Developing a collective “why” statement (a common moral imperative);
  2. Creating mechanisms for the public to help develop initial recommendations;
  3. Addressing differences between the various communities experiencing poverty.

The development of a collective “why” statement

One gentleman who spoke to the whole room captured this missing step:  we have yet to define our moral cause.  In other words, WHY are we doing this in the first place was never agreed upon by the community and not addressed during the summit.  Our moral cause might seem obvious—to end (childhood) poverty—but why do we want to do that?  For some, ending poverty will extend the city’s downtown/OTR growth into neighborhoods.  Others want to end childhood poverty so we can be more efficient with our tax dollars (more money spent on preschool leads to less money spent on incarceration).  The man who spoke out suggested “that our top moral priority should be to ensure the welfare of all people”.  Undoubtedly there are many more reasons to end poverty, but we haven’t even broached the subject.

Collectively adopting such a “why” statement would radically change the Collaborative’s approach because it would likely challenge the essence of the capitalist economic model—that there are winners and losers, that everyone should “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps”, and that there are not enough resources to go around.  In other words, people working in or experiencing poverty know that we can’t successfully address poverty under an economic model that serves only a few.  For example, while there are valid reasons to spend T.I.F. dollars helping Western and Southern build an office tower, should this be our top priority when there are so many poor people in our city and when trickle-down economic theory has been debunked?

Moreover, modern neuroscience has shown that “why” statements—void of programmatic and financial detail—are what motivate people to do anything (check out Simon Sinek’s TED talk).    Look at the passion in the Tea Party or Bernie Sanders movements; those people just keep pushing because their “why” deeply inspires them.  The Child Poverty Collaborative must address this gaping hole in their burgeoning movement because it’s just not inspiring enough to “measure the impact of our programs”.

One related question has come up at every event hosted or sponsored by the Collaborative: “Where does the money come from?”  Another key theme: “Our current economic paradigm tilts the playing field so that there are many have-nots and very few haves”.  This means that doing something about “the system” must be part of the “why” behind this effort (at least according to those experiencing or fighting poverty).  And because economic policy is usually tied to politics, the Collaborative must be ready to launch a quasi-political campaign that gets the larger public to buy into the necessary economic/policy changes required to successfully address poverty (e.g. minimum wage, universal health coverage, housing for all, etc.).   Every voter needs to “feel the why” of this movement in order to motivate corporate and political leaders to act.

Achieving economic “equity” seems to be the goal of most people working in or experiencing poverty.  Corporate CEOs control vast sums of money in an economic model that is the antithesis of equity (check the growing disparity between the minimum wage and CEO pay to see if “equity” matters to corporate leadership).  Consequently, if the Collaborative doesn’t achieve some rough consensus on the deeper “why” of this work, it will never create the deep passion required to change an economic paradigm that our leadership never questions.

Of course, achieving such consensus is far beyond the scope of one or even two summits; the Collaborative needs to facilitate an ongoing dialog that explores our social and economic values while we experiment with programmatic solutions.

Creating mechanisms for the public to develop initial recommendations

From what Collaborative leaders said at the summit, they will take data harvested from the summit and the 100 “community conversations”, plus the results of a RAND study, and develop initial recommendations that will be presented and discussed at the second summit in October.  That implies that “the public” will have no say in how the data is interpreted or what programs are recommended.   This is a huge opportunity for conflict, especially without a coherent “why” statement—a common lens through which decisions are made.

And it won’t work to simply offer the public an opportunity to respond to initial recommendations at a second summit.  By that point, many questions will be begged, especially those that involve program evaluation; it’s much different to “benchmark” programs against “best practices” than to design new programs that embody a new economic paradigm.

For example, the Collaborative steering committee could make recommendations to expand already-successful programs like Every Child Succeeds, which are based on professional service providers.  The begged question, though, is whether professional service providers are the best method for helping others.  At a meeting hosted by the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition, leaders and poor Appalachians alike advocated for a neighborhood-based approach where local residents get paid to “take to scale” the community services that they are already doing quite successfully.  These people are far less expensive than a professional social worker, they are trusted by those they serve (leading to more people actually accepting services, a problem Every Child Succeeds has faced), and are so committed to their neighbors that they work harder and stick by them longer than any professional could.  And possibly just as important, the money paid to a neighborhood servant leader takes them out of poverty, and their wages are spent in that community, thereby bolstering the local economy (poor communities “recycle” money in their neighborhoods far less often that middle class communities).

This “resident-based” paradigm is generally not accepted by a corporate community who sees United Way’s professionally benchmarked and delivered programs to be the only way to ensure dollars are spent wisely.  Consequently, such an approach is unlikely to even be discussed when initial recommendations are debated.  And once a direction is set, public feedback at a large summit is unlikely to cause a change in direction.

That’s why the Collaborative needs to build a dialog process for identifying all of the diverse program options (and underlying paradigms) that we have to consider.  The National Issues Forum (NIF) has a great model for involving the public in co-creating options and making collective decisions.  First, NIF talks to any and every group they can, listing all of the ways a problem might be solved.  These myriad solutions are boiled down to three basic approaches to the problem, and each approach is included in an “issue brief” that lists the pros and cons of each approach along with the trade-offs we face in choosing one approach over the other.

The NIF issue brief is designed as a neutral document that summarizes how a community might solve a given problem; everyone must feel like their point of view is included.  Once so-approved, the issue brief (both a multi-page booklet and one-page summary) becomes the foundation for a public dialog on which approach(es) the community will undertake.  In other words, the community decides on the options before deliberating which to choose; leadership simply facilitates the process so that all voices are heard, good research is done, and choices emerge from a fair process that includes all voices.  (The NIF process includes steps for implementation that are worth exploring but beyond the scope of this white paper.)

The recognition of different voices experiencing poverty

Summit organizers made poverty seem like a racial issue by highlighting too many African American voices, racializing poverty in a way that belies issues that are far deeper than race, and marginalizing voices that are just as burdened by poverty as African Americans.  Hispanics and Appalachians are two significant local populations experiencing poverty; urban youth face an employment crisis; and the case could be made that even recent college graduates are experiencing their own sort of systemic poverty.  Yet we were presented with an opening sermon from Dr. Owens, a closing prayer by Pastor Tait, Curtis Fuller as MC, an African American solo performer, and an African American jazz band.

While everyone can agree that race impacts poverty, it’s only one factor that some commentators see as secondary to our country’s seriously flawed economic model.  For example, Appalachian’s have been shut out of much economic opportunity despite being a largely white community, and Appalachian leadership has been left off of the Collaborative’s steering committee despite 40% of the United Way service area being of white Appalachian descent.

So on a deeper level, this solicitous focus on African Americans distracts the community from the fact that the ultimate root of poverty is not race, but our country’s capitalist economic model.  Capitalism, at least as we implement it here in the United States, comes with a scarcity mind-set that pits individuals and families against each other; your community’s lost job is my gain.  The wealth gap has been growing for decades, and despite causing an economic calamity, investment bankers have been made whole while workers still suffer with an unlivable minimum wage. We see taxes as some sort of government malfeasance, and corporate success as independent of social infrastructure.

In other words, the focus on race begs the “why” question for many who care more about equity across all demographics than addressing specific racial imbalances.  If our “why” is “racial opportunity”, we would simply need to generate more minimum wage jobs so that African Americans can continue to be exploited by temp services (Cincinnati Works has long been glorified for preparing people for just such exploitation because it’s “the first step” toward economic self-sufficiency, which means having two minimum wage jobs without benefits).   If we are working to build an equitable economic model, we will put our efforts toward building neighborhood economies filled with mutually supportive entrepreneurs and customers who spend money at local businesses rather than Wal Mart.

The Real Work

So what does all this mean for the Child Poverty Collaborative?  Before getting to strategic suggestions, it should be noted that Collaborative organizers are doing a better job at engaging the community in a common effort than ever before.  From all accounts, the steering committee is itself highly inclusive, including those recently in poverty; they are having challenging conversations with empathy generated between rich and poor, white and black, servant and beneficiary.  In the minimum this should mean that greater resources are put into good programs with a proven track record—which is a good thing.

The problem with funding programs with a solid track record is that those programs grew out of the environment that created the poverty problem in the first place.  Increasing funding to these programs will likely only provide us with marginal results while keeping in place the conditions that give rise to poverty.  Even better education and jobs programs will simply lead to more high school graduates in low-wage, dead-end jobs that merely support corporate profits and passive-shareholder income.  Success should not be defined by this “Slavery by Another Name”.

To get the outcomes that people really want, we need much deeper change than the Collaborative is currently designed to generate.  Here are three key steps that must be taken if we are to truly reverse poverty’s course.

  1. Equity before issues. The empathetic conversations that worked so well at the first summit need to continue, both with Collaborative leadership and the public.  However, such empathy needs to be channeled into a conversation about values and moral priorities, not vague discussions about the problem.  This would force those IN power WITH wealth to consider their own values in the context of the whole community.  In the end, if the powerful and wealthy don’t see that they must play a personal role in changing our social and economic inequities, then all is for naught; we can’t wait for government to legislate an equal playing field by regulating CEO pay or the minimum wage, or changes in the ability of passive investors to make money off of a company that refuses to address these two core issues.  But issue discussion must wait until Collaborative leadership facilitates an empathetic discussion about the moral underpinning of this work.
  1. Paradigm before programs. The Collaborative is clearly focused on action, but action without examining our underlying economic and social assumptions will only lead to more of the same: marginal improvement that mainly benefits the professionals doing the work.  All good strategic plans question assumptions and evaluate broader trends and global conditions.  Other “capitalist” countries have shifted their economic paradigm, and enough American economists and politicians have discussed our flawed version of capitalism that the Collaborative has a moral obligation to examine our economic paradigm at the local level.  Similarly, we must also examine how our local politics and public policies impact poverty.  City Council keeps giving money to corporations who don’t need the help (the Western & Southern towers come to mind, and TIF money has skyrocketed under the Cranley administration).  While there are good reasons to support this kind of growth, we must look at these investments in the context of our other priorities, especially because the evidence shows that corporate welfare does not “trickle down” to benefit the poor. 
  1. Experimentation before recommendations. Any deep examination of community values and politico-economic paradigms will necessarily lead to a radically different programmatic approach, and the uncertainty arising from new approaches often scares people back to the tried and true.   That’s why the Collaborative should not make specific recommendations (at least in October), but set a general direction and define several experimental arenas inside of which diverse action teams can experiment with new programmatic approaches.  As work progresses, the Collaborative should convene each action team for co-learning events where 1) teams can learn from each other, and 2) the Collaborative can build systems of mutual support.

 An experimental approach is essential especially when so many poverty activists are looking to provide the poor with an ownership stake in the community: building entrepreneurship in supportive local networks; paying non-professional neighborhood residents to serve their own; forgiving debt to provide many with a fresh start; giving everyone housing without needing to jump through hoops like having a job or passing a drug test.  These ideas will not only challenge our values and paradigms, but our funding and project management skills.  We can’t rely on the United Way to vet these kinds of neighborhood-level experiments that seek generational changes and rely as much on social capital as measurable outcomes.

This is a lot to swallow let alone digest, but the leadership of the Collaborative seems remarkably open to new approaches, as the first summit made clear.  Now the Collaborative must use this new-found empathy to engage the whole community in examining the values, paradigms and programs that got us here in the first place.  Only by challenging and re-writing these assumptions can we hope to successfully eliminate poverty.


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