Recently there has been a rush of communities asking how to go about building a Bridges community for reducing poverty. We’ve heard from people in Kent, Ohio; Boulder, Colorado; Ludington, Michigan; and Kings County, California (to name just four). At the same time as some established Bridges communities are deliberating about how to integrate Bridges with a Circles™ initiative, some established Circles initiatives are beginning to use Bridges constructs.

In response, I’ve written a paper titled “How to Develop a Bridges Community”. It comes in three parts:

  • Part I is a three-page description of the Bridges Model that we’ve used since 2007.
  • Part II is a description of guiding principles, action steps, and a mental model of a Steering Committee.
  • Part III focuses on budgeting and aha! Process costs.

Bridges Steering Committees—a central place to deliberate, organize, and plan actions to end poverty and build sustainable communities—tend to be both organic and messy. As I say several times in the paper, there is no prescription, no single right way to build a Bridges community. We’ve learned a lot from those who have already formed Steering Committees in Springfield, Ohio; South Bend, Indiana; Battle Creek, Michigan; Columbiana County, Ohio; Pensacola, Florida; Syracuse, New York; Toledo, Ohio; and the Menominee Nation in Wisconsin. Every community has unique conditions, histories, resources, and leaders and, no matter what directions we give, not one community will be able to, or want to, follow it in lock-step … because it can’t be done.

What I have written is part description, part warning, and part forecast. The experiences of the communities mentioned above each tell a story. I’ve described the common themes and sequences of their journeys. We’ve learned as we’ve gone along, so this is also an attempt to help others avoid pitfalls by identifying guiding principles. I’ve projected what might happen with the business sector and how the growing momentum can lead to systemic change. I think these things can happen if the Steering Committees intend for them to happen.

None of the communities that have gone ahead would claim that they have mastered it completely; all of them have struggles with one aspect or another. And yet … they keep working at it. And we keep learning from each other through Bridges Institutes, conference calls, e-mails, and the best-practices page that we are building at the aha! Process website. The connections we have with each other and the urgency of our work keep us energized.

Two trends are driving the growing sense of urgency: the bursting of housing/credit bubble and inflation. Low-wage workers have been hit hardest by predatory loans and the ensuing defaults, but others have been affected too. Middle-class people have been moving out of their homes in the dead of night and doubling up with relatives and friends. The shock of the housing bust has been felt in virtually all U.S. communities as homes are abandoned, property values drop, and tax revenue is lost. And, of course, the housing disaster has been felt in the banking industry of the U.S. and abroad.

The relatively recent meteoric rise in the cost of living is putting terrible pressure on low-wage workers and other people in poverty. Deepening poverty will have a ripple effect across our communities, just as the housing disaster has. For example, in response to rising prices, many companies are laying off workers, and the downward pressure on wages is increasing.

Communities with high levels of poverty are not sustainable; they are unable to pass on a high quality of life to the next generations. Further, our communities can’t afford to allow people to be lured into risky loans. Communities can’t afford predatory lending and inflation. Communities can’t afford inflation and poor wages, and poor healthcare, and poor credit. When the tax base dissolves or leaves town as a result of these conditions, there will be few people left to pay the bills, making these communities unsustainable.

This is an example of how poverty affects us all. It makes me think about Lila Watson, an aboriginal woman from Australia, who said, “If you have come to help me, you can go home again. But if you see my struggles as a part of your own survival, then perhaps we can work together.”

So … what do you think? Might the struggles of those in poverty be part of our own survival (and, therefore, their struggles become our struggles)? In Bridges communities we think so, and we come together from all classes and races to solve problems and build sustainable communities where everyone can live well. We hope that you’ll join us and, when you do, that you’ll share your stories and learnings with the rest of us.

-Phil DeVol