More than 146 million Americans are either "poor" or "low income.
57% of all American children live in a home that is either "poor" or "low income". In Tucson, 1 in 3 children are living in poverty.
Median household income has fallen for four consecutive years. As people who care for the poor, how do we deal with news worsening so much? Many volunteers feel overwhelmed by the increasing demand for food, clothing and other items and realize that, in spite of their best efforts, they cannot fill all the needs of those who call, many of which go unmet.
This is a humbling experience, but also one that should make us think beyond our usual ways of assistance and think creatively.
When we help people in need, we can only do two things: work at eliminating their suffering, or help them realize their potential.
Perhaps, too often we limit ourselves to the first one, without realizing that the two go together. We want to eliminate the suffering not just to help people survive until tomorrow. Most importantly, we want to free them from the immediate concerns so that they can start to focus on their future.
Building the future is a long process. Can we point them to the first rung of the ladder, and then help them to climb out of their situation, while, through advocacy, we ensure that the needed resources are available to them?
If we feel already overwhelmed by day-to-day direct assistance, how can we take-on all these other tasks? This is where we need to broaden our views.
Families in poverty often tend to be isolated, in spite of living in communities, and in neighborhoods. We know where those neighborhoods are, because we walk there when doing home visits. If we can think of a way to link the people that we know and serve in a certain neighborhood, we might have the chance to raise the quality of life for everyone involved. This is “community development”.
These are some excerpt from an article on the website of Neighborhood Centers, Inc. It gives us some interesting ideas:
“The first principle of community development is that the people are not the problem, people are the asset. The second principle is that the leadership needed in every neighborhood is already there. Community development is about unlocking that asset, releasing people’s potential to move forward together.
What is the value of a neighbor who will give you a ride when you need one, or sit with your child while you take another one to the clinic, or lend you a truck to help you move? How do you put a price on someone who shows you how to use the public transportation system or guides you to the best school? People connected in communities have priceless assets in one another.”
Already the most important ingredient for success is there. Our job then is not to fix their situation. It is not to define goals for them so that they might live according to our expectations. Instead, we must listen deeply, study rigorously, document faithfully what motivates them, and build on that. We build on strengths and skills. You cannot build on “broken”.
And we ask questions. Not the old, worn-out “needs assessment” questions that demoralize even the interviewer—a brand-new set of questions, because we believe that change begins with the first new question. What works here? Who really cares about this community? What are the sights, sounds, and smells that make this neighborhood feel like home? Whom do you go to when you want advice? Who knows the history of why this street, this building, this school matters so much? What is your most treasured hope for your child?
These are powerful questions, and it is challenging to ask them over and over. Many communities have already been so well trained to think of themselves as broken that they automatically answer with what is wrong even when you are asking what is right about the place they call home.
When you think that there are strengths and assets in every community, it can sound like people shouldn’t need any help. But that is not how it works. Everyone wants to live in a neighborhood where they can be connected, where there is a good school, where there is a financial institution that they can trust a clinic, and a grocery market. Poor people are not different, and any approach premised on an idea that they are somehow distinct as a group—a group lacking in some respect—is doomed to failure. Under that model, you may provide a service, but you will never achieve a transformation.
We don’t ignore the problems. We fulfill our mission to bring resources, education, and connection by working side by side with people in neighborhoods. Simply put, we go where we are invited and we do what we are asked to do.
Is this not what we want to do through Systemic Change?