The Impoverished Need Us (to Get Out of the Way)

I was really encouraged by this piece on the New York Times earlier this week highlighting the Family Independence Initiative.

The Initiative works to provide families living in poverty with their own means of improving their lives. This is a deviation from the norm of the social sector, which involves providing programs or direct services to these families.

From the Initiative’s “About Us” page:

The fifty-year war on poverty has made living in poverty more tolerable but it has not made it more escapable.

Census data shows that within four years, 75% of families living below the poverty line move above it, yet 50% of these families slip back into poverty in five years.



After tracking hundreds of families over the past 15 years, the Family Independence Initiative (FII) has discovered that cycling in and out of poverty is not due to a lack of family initiative. Instead, this cycle can be traced to well-intentioned but inadequate governmental and charitable policies and practices that have:

Lack of Information: A lack of reliable information on the creative ways in which families achieve economic and social mobility

Resource Gap: Limited access to affordable capital which fuels families’ efforts to achieve their goals and dreams

Individual Focus: A misplaced focus on individual achievement that overlooks the power of communities to lift people into the middle class, just as communities have done for hundreds of years

It’s clear that current approaches to lifting people out of poverty aren’t working. How often have we heard the phrase: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” And yet so many of our services for the impoverished are plugs in a sinking ship, trying to merely mitigate the damage that has already been done.

The Initiative takes a different approach:

“We trust and invest in low-income families as well as the solutions they discover on their own. We start with the knowledge that we have underestimated the potential and resourcefulness of low-income communities to improve their own financial and general well-being. We know there are systematic barriers that challenge families’ ability to leverage their assets, strengths, and capacities. Our work is all about removing these barriers. We do away with the traditional top-down approach to fighting poverty by letting families themselves be the change agents.”

The Initiative is likely to receive broad bipartisan support, and therefore increase the likelihood of success, because of its focus on independence. Rather than providing direct services or programs (i.e. “handouts” as called by some), the Initiative encourages families and their communities to rely on each other.

In the Times, Initiative founder Mauricio Lim Miller acknowledged his own blind spots in this area while leading the nonprofit Asian Neighborhood Design organization:

I ran a program for 20 years. But I wouldn’t want my own family to use my own services, even though they were among the best in the country. Once I had money, I saw that the system for people with money runs very different than the social service system. When I get my kids tutors at Sylvan Learning Center, they ask, “Do you want tutors in the evening or afternoon? What works for you?” When I offered tutoring through my program, families had to take what I gave them, and I had to do what the funders required.

Additionally, Lim Miller puts pressure on the social sector to recognize the talents of families and to show them respect.

“[Social workers] have really good hearts and they want things to change, but it’s difficult to accept that you may be part of the problem, that in your desire to help, you may be playing into negative stereotypes that poor families have internalized…

…All of us who want to make a difference need to learn how to be follower leaders—to use our positions and our privilege and access to money in a way that actually bolsters the initiative that the families take. But not to lead. It’s hard to stand back and trust families. But this change in perspective—to respect poor people—is what this country needs right now.”

I wrote last week about stereotypes—not all stereotypes are bad or acted on with ill intentions, but they do create a shell of a person in one’s mind that misses out on the many nuances within. The social sector often views those living in poverty as people in need of our assistance, when in reality they can provide their own assistance, thank you very much, so long as everyone gets out of their way.

Image: Family Independence Initiative

Stereotypes are Natural, but Important to Counter

Obviously the big story in social change this week is the Google Manifesto, where an engineer was fired for “perpetuating stereotypes” against women.

Enough people are talking about whether the Manifesto was valid or not, and whether the engineer deserved to get fired, so I instead am thinking about stereotypes themselves.

I started thinking about this a few weeks ago when a woman lamented about how people felt almost affronted when they found out her partner was female, as if she was somehow hiding something from them, or that they should have known.

Stereotypes aren’t inherently bad. The brain uses stereotypes as a shortcut to help us understand a situation quickly, so as to free our brain power for new information. It’s like when you walk into a room. You don’t need to relearn each time what a floor is, or a wall, or a window. From our memories and our learning, we can spend as little brain power as possible on these items and instead focus on other things. Continue reading “Stereotypes are Natural, but Important to Counter”

Want Agreement? Change the Frame

More resource sharing than thought piece this week, but I wanted to share the excellent work that the FrameWorks Institute does.

Their mission is to “advance the nonprofit sector’s communications capacity by identifying, translating, and modeling relevant scholarly research to frame the public discourse on social problems.” What this means is that they help nonprofits figure out the most effective ways to spread their message and gain support with the public. Continue reading “Want Agreement? Change the Frame”

Others Shouldn’t Have to Earn Your Respect

I’ve always cringed at the phrase “You have to earn my respect.”

And it’s such a common saying that I rarely see anyone bat an eye at it.

Even a search of that phrase brings up a bevy of resources for people desperately seeking to earn others’ respect:

In truth, everyone should already have your respect—automatically. It should be a given that other people will receive your respect, even at the first moment you meet. Especially in this era of the internet, where you can often interact with hundreds of people a day without ever having more than just a passing shared moment with them.

Respect is defined, in part, as: “esteem for or a sense of the worth or excellence of a person”.

A challenge with the notion of earning one’s respect is that the respect giver must deem the other person worthy of respect by displaying some trait that the respect giver admires (generally a trait he or she admires about themselves or aspires to have).

But take two very different people from two very different cultures. It’s possible, and even likely, that due to the cultural differences the “respect giver” will find it challenging to, in essence, see themselves in the other person. Does that make the other person any less deserving of respect?

Don’t worry about others earning your respect. Think about how you can show respect.

This isn’t to say that people can’t lose your respect by acting in ways that are harmful to others. But take the pressure of judgment off of yourself in early interactions. See the other person as someone who has also undergone challenges, hardships, and successes. See the other person as a person.


Keep Asking Why

Little kids are great.

“Why is the sky blue?” “Why do I have to wear this?” “Why does your face look like that?” (OK maybe not so great with that last one.)

Their insatiable curiosity has conditioned most adults to respond in kneejerk “Because” statements. “Because it is.” “Because it’s cold out.” “Because I was born this way!”

At some point in our lives, we’ve transitioned from asking “why” to saying “because”. Is it the feeling that others are expecting an answer from us? Is it that once we asked “why” once, we accept that answer, unquestioningly, for eternity?

You can’t tell me you didn’t believe something for far too long because some sarcastic adult once answered your “why”.

Imagine if a child asked his parent how trees grow so tall. The parent, feeling funny, says the tree takes steroids. Now imagine if that child never asked “why” again. Not only would they continue for far too long with a false understanding, but they’re likely to share that information with others.

It’s so important to continue asking why.

When it comes to understanding people and their drivers, there is far more nuance and depth than a simple “because” answer can adequately convey. And yet we try.

“Republicans only want to help rich people because they’re greedy.”

“Democrats only want to help poor people because they’re lazy.”

Do you really believe these words—”greedy” and “lazy”—give an accurate understanding of millions of people, their backgrounds, their aspirations, and their philosophies?

Continue asking why. Why do Republicans focus on financial independence? Why do Democrats believe so strongly in government assistance?

And when you feel that you’ve come across a “because”, ask why again.

Be cautious about switching from “why” to “because” too quickly. You may believe trees take steroids.

Give Space for Others to be Wrong

People love being right, don’t they?

It’s something I’m quite prone to myself. Correcting people often kicks out of me without my even being conscious of it. I like to think I’m just making the world around me more precise and accurate, but likely all I’m truly doing is annoying people and shutting down conversations. (I can already see my husband laughing at me giving advice on this topic.) Continue reading “Give Space for Others to be Wrong”

Peace is an Act of Will

I was watching a recent Harry Potter movie marathon when a scene came on of Harry, Hermione, and Ron walking down a crowded London street. I thought about how vulnerable all of the “Muggles” on the street were compared to the magic the three could bring to bear, and how, if they wanted to, they could cause mass chaos easier than I could write a sentence.

Clearly, they wouldn’t, because they’re the heroes of the story. But I then thought about how it wouldn’t take magic to start pandemonium. Any person could just run down the street, punching people in the face. And it’s almost remarkable how rare these outbursts are compared to the overall population of people. Continue reading “Peace is an Act of Will”

Freedom Comes with the Responsibility to Yield

I was riding the subway earlier this week at rush hour when I heard raised voices.

“I’m a free man”, said Man 1 as the train started rolling. He had his back up against the train’s door and was glaring furiously at an older man standing just across from me. “You can’t tell me where to step, this isn’t your train,” he continued. “I’m a free man.” Continue reading “Freedom Comes with the Responsibility to Yield”

Why Are We OK With These Assassination Jokes?

This week, Johnny Depp publicly said: “When was the last time an actor assassinated a president?”

Last month, Kathy Griffin posted a horrific photo of herself holding up what appeared to be a bloodied, decapitated Trump head.

I strongly believe in the 1st amendment. I’m a huge proponent of allowing controversial speakers and of sparking debate. But calling for the murder of anyone is not exercising free speech. It’s a threat. And this language should not be used lightly or encouraged. Continue reading “Why Are We OK With These Assassination Jokes?”

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