Sometimes something happens that makes so much sense it takes you by surprise. This is especially true, in my experience, if it involves what is essentially a political goal such as fighting poverty. For years I dealt with well-meaning and well-credentialed elected and appointed officials who designed and/or worked in Federal programs to fight poverty. Some programs worked very well; others didn’t meet expectations. But the one thing they all shared, as far as I could tell, is that the “client” group was not all that well-represented, except in the abstract. They may have benefitted from the programs, but, by and large, they were dependent upon resource allocation and program management by professionals, who were not poor.
Last night, at the new Winston-Salem library (which, by the way, is a magnificent monument to a city’s dedication to improving the quality of life for all its citizens and, as such, a fitting place to hold a meeting about alleviating poverty in our city), a dozen or more folks came to a meeting of The Partnership for Prosperity. They had come to hear the reasons for establishing an Advisory Board to help guide the decisions about what kind of programs will actually help diminish the impact of poverty on our city.
It would have been easy to assemble an Advisory Board from those who are on the front lines of the fight against poverty in Winston-Salem. By my count, and if you include the proactive churches, city programs, Federal and state programs, and our universities, there are almost 400 Not For Profit organizations in Winston-Salem doing good works in reducing hunger, encouraging learning, and helping find jobs. An Advisory Board that fully represented that level of effort would be huge and cumbersome, but it would be incredibly well-credentialed. So the Board of Directors of The Partnership for Prosperity did something different. They decided that ten of the thirteen members of the new Advisory Board would have to have experienced poverty at some point.
At last night’s meeting, all but three or four had experienced poverty, had or were working their way out of it, and were productive citizens. It required a tenacious pursuit of education, a determination to break the cycle of poverty, a desire to “pay back,” and a little luck. All but four were black. The stories they told about their breakaway from poverty were hard to listen to and their achievements nothing short of a reaffirmation of the human spirit. When it comes to credentials to advise about programs intended to fight poverty, this Advisory Board will be well equipped. Those on the Board of Directors who aren’t poor and might never have been, who insisted that the “client” group be an active participant in something that directly affects their lives, deserve a shoutout for thinking outside the box.