At the 2016 Addressing the Challenges of Poverty conference in Orlando, aha! Process will name Muskogee Bridges Out of Poverty the 2016 Bridges Out of Poverty Community of the Year.

Bringing many sectors of the community together at the planning table is a central strategy of Bridges, and Muskogee, Oklahoma, demonstrates the benefits of this practice. Their efforts at connecting such diverse sectors as K–12, business, criminal justice, health, faith communities, higher education, and people in poverty themselves make Muskogee an exemplary Bridges community.

Since Muskogee started implementing aha! Process strategies, more than 700 community and business leaders have been trained in Bridges Out of Poverty concepts, leading to a better understanding of the complexities of poverty. Getting Ahead in a Just-Gettin’-By World groups in English, Spanish, and for felons reentering the community have graduated 183 people working to make the transition to self-sufficiency.

In five years of offering the program, 69% of Muskogee Getting Ahead graduates have increased their income, 56% have decreased their debt, and 34% have furthered their education. In addition, 51% have opened a bank account since completing the program. Muskogee’s two-generation approach has also provided 215 children of Getting Ahead participants with educational childcare focused on Character Counts and the Khan Academy curriculum.

As with all Getting Ahead programs nationwide, participants are paid for the expertise they bring to each session. Muskogee Bridges Out of Poverty is funded by a grant from the City of Muskogee Foundation and employs three full-time staff: a director, a coach, and a Spanish-speaking coach. The 16-member volunteer steering committee includes the mayor, a college dean, a banker, and four Getting Ahead graduates, among others. An anonymous donor recently gave 10 tablet computers to the childcare program.

In response to needs identified by people in poverty, Muskogee Bridges has developed several offerings. Partnerships with local dentists who volunteer their time have made basic services, oral surgery, and dentures available, which can vastly improve confidence in job interviews. A grant from the Chapman Foundation funds dental supplies in addition to eye exams and glasses.

A volunteer CPA teaches a financial literacy class to respond to another identified need. The class covers everything from how to read a paycheck to tracking spending and budgeting for the future. A microloan program gives participants access to emergency funds when “life happens.” These small loans with a 0% interest rate can make a big difference for people whose other options are often pawn shops and predatory payday loans.

Muskogee Bridges also encourages the use of a free smartphone app that provides participants with information on resources in the community. The app connects people with local food pantries, healthcare clinics, utilities assistance, transportation, shelters, and crisis/counseling lines.

The biggest accomplishments of the Muskogee Bridges initiative are the connections they’ve made between people in the different economic classes in their community. Guest speakers such as the mayor, school superintendents, police department officials, and others participate in open discussions with Getting Ahead participants and graduates at speaking events. Local businesspeople and community leaders are also invited to social nights where they join Getting Ahead classes for dinner.

These engagements across socioeconomic lines have done a lot to bolster the social capital and understanding of everyone involved. Along with the Bridges Out of Poverty trainings, they have resulted in many improvements and opportunities. Some attendees have altered business policies that punish under-resourced employees for circumstances beyond their control, and others have extended job offers to Getting Ahead participants and graduates.

The impact of Muskogee Bridges Out of Poverty has extended beyond the individuals and organizations directly involved to effect change at the policy level. In 2014 the Muskogee City Council passed Resolution 2505, “A resolution designating the city of Muskogee as a community of practice; having the shared purpose of understanding poverty and supporting programs which assist those living in poverty [in achieving] self-sufficiency.”

Congratulations to Muskogee Bridges Out of Poverty, aha! Process’s Bridges Out of Poverty Community of the Year.