Philip DeVol, Heidi Jones, Stephen MacDonald, and Treasure McKenzie
People who understand poverty know that it kills people every day. However, for many, it can be too easy to view poverty as something that they can’t do anything about and that doesn’t impact them.
One of the most striking features of this pandemic is the disruption to the status quo. We can’t remember a time in recent history in which people have been so aware that their behavior has life-or-death consequences for their neighbors.
In Bridges communities we know that it is the people we work with who are most likely to contract the disease. They may be living where it is impossible to do social distancing, living in homeless shelters and crowded apartments. As we work to find solutions, we must not fall into the tyranny of the moment. We need to look to what comes next so we can help shape a future that is truly different.
The talk now is about when to open up the economy and “return to normal.” By “returning to normal” people often mean going to work and school and picking up social activities where they left off. As wonderful as that sounds, those of us in Bridges communities cannot accept returning to a normal that includes baked-in preexisting conditions that made people in poverty and marginalized people so vulnerable in a crisis. Things such as the class divide, the income and wage gap, healthcare inequality, lack of health insurance, poor housing conditions/high costs, inequality in education opportunities, targeted criminalization and incarceration, and barriers to social cohesion. All of these barriers exist for people in poverty and the working poor but are multiplied for women, people of color, ethnic groups, people with disabilities, and other marginalized people.
We met to discuss how Bridges communities can turn this crisis into an opportunity. Heidi from Marion Matters in Marion, Ohio; Stephen from the Impact Coalition in Toledo, Ohio; and Treasure from Muskogee Bridges Out of Poverty in Oklahoma represent three Bridges sites that are well established in their communities.
Prior to the pandemic, like all Bridges sites, we were immersed in running and staying in touch with Getting Ahead in a Just-Gettin’-By World groups, managing our organizations, and supporting partner organizations that are making institutional changes. Ironically, the experience of adapting to the crisis has allowed us to look at everything we’re doing with fresh eyes. Our communities are implementing online Getting Ahead classes and holding virtual Bridges steering committee meetings. We are relying on Getting Ahead graduates to provide an accurate picture of “what it’s like now” relative to COVID-19, and we are using the circumstances as an opportunity to promote leadership.
We have also been involved in conference calls, private calls, and emails with Getting Ahead graduates. Two major themes emerged from these conversations that are the core of our proposal for how Bridges can help create a new normal.
First, Getting Ahead graduates often become leaders when given the opportunity. We have always said that Getting Ahead graduates need to be at the planning and decision-making tables. This crisis provides an opportunity to accelerate and expand that process.
Second, by engaging Getting Ahead graduates more fully, we can have a greater impact on our communities and on shaping policies that address inequalities and barriers at the city, county, state, and national levels.
Taking the issue of leadership first, recent conversations with Carol Steegman and Ermina Soler led to the idea of a Getting Ahead leadership academy. Early thinking on this includes events like a course to be designed by Getting Ahead graduates that could be delivered by webinar. The topics and experts would be determined by the planners. With existing contacts in universities and colleges, there was interest in this being a credit-bearing course. Graduates of the academy would be obvious candidates to serve on boards and committees in local communities.
As for the second theme—engaging Getting Ahead graduates more fully—we discussed the idea of running focus groups. In Ohio, for example, we ran focus groups of Getting Ahead While Getting Out (reentry) graduates in four sites. The issue was additional funding in the state budget for public defenders. That experience showed that Getting Ahead graduates, already familiar with the roles of investigator and group member, are ideal focus group members.
There are several ways to conduct focus groups. Given the many barriers that Getting Ahead graduates encounter, these questions could be posed:
- What goal were you working on?
- What derailed you? What barrier did you encounter?
- What did you do to solve the problem and get back on track?
- How did you survive this experience?
- What did you need that would have helped you?
- What policy changes would have helped you?
Focus groups could work on local issues, but we imagine conducting focus groups on the baked-in issues mentioned earlier. National issues are, after all, played out at the local level. Getting Ahead focus groups could be held on a single topic (the cost of housing, for example) at the same time at Bridges sites across the U.S. This could be done regionally by engaging 10–15 sites in each region. Getting Ahead focus groups would bring powerful stories to support factual data. Using the strategies laid out in Bridges Across Every Divide, the findings could lead to policies that better support people in poverty
By definition, Bridges initiatives bring people together from all classes, races, sectors, and political persuasions and are therefore relevant and important in their own communities. Partnering organizations from various sectors (early childhood development, education, health, business, criminal justice/reentry, and more) are innovating with Bridges concepts to improve their work with people in poverty. As Bridges champions, they have changed policies and procedures, documented improved outcomes, and shared their best practices with others. Our partners can be powerful voices for policy change at the state and national next levels.
The pandemic exposed and will compound inequality, but it has shown us that individuals, families, organizations, cities, states, and nations have been able to change behaviors and policies quickly in order to save lives. It has been frightening, but it also demonstrates that with sufficient urgency and clarity of purpose, we can make differences that matter—and create a new normal.