Seeing Capacity Where it Already Exists

Seeing Capacity Where it Already Exists

What works to help families move out of poverty? Spirit in Action is addressing this on the international level, with our Small Business Fund, and our support of grassroots organizations. It turns out our answer is similar to the one presented in a fascinating article and interview in the New York Times this month!

When social worker Mauricio Lim Miller was asked for advice about how to address poverty in California in 2000, he turned away from the programs and institutions that were part of the “war on poverty” and instead looked to individuals for answers.

“Lim Miller had long had doubts about the effectiveness of his work helping people escape poverty.” He didn’t know the answer, but he did know who would have some ideas. (I’ve also written about knowing how much I don’t know.)

The article quotes Lim Miller, “When I came to Jerry Brown’s office [mayor of Oakland, at the time] I told him, ‘I don’t know what to do. But my mother figured out how to get me out of poverty, and I think other mothers, fathers and guardians might also have ideas about how to get their lives together. I would ask them to show us how to build their lives.’

The outcome of the discussion was the Family Independence Initiative, which helps to strengthen social networks and provide resources to low-income families in the U.S., so that they can create a new future for themselves.

Smart Risk #5 Practicing Vulnerability

Smart Risks

Trust and invest in families,” pleads the front page of the Family Independence Initiative. The request is a familiar one to us in international development. People don’t want to be seen as victims, they want to be trusted and supported to move forward.

In the interview, Lim Millar highlights how people attempting to address poverty have missed the capacity in the communities themselves. War on poverty fell into a “listening gap,” he says, providing services without listening first.

Listening to Small Business Fund leaders in Malawi as they tell me about their successes.

This is in fact the same message as my co-authors and I write about in the new book, Smart Risks: How small grants are helping to solve some of the world’s biggest problems. The book features thirty short essays, all stressing the importance of listening to local experts, investing for the long-run, and building up community support systems where empowered individuals work with peers to rise up out of poverty.

When we dare to trust, we see results. From Lim Miller, “The data showed that when we provided an encouraging environment, but didn’t provide services, families had better outcomes.”

It can feel like a risk to trust people when you are giving money. However, if we give money without listening first, we risk something even greater. We risk leaving untapped the power, knowledge, initiative, and expertise that already exists in all communities.

It is an honor to witness the strength that exists in the Manyamula COMSIP cooperative in Malawi.

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3 Comments on "Seeing Capacity Where it Already Exists"

  • Barbara Neighbors Deal says

    Thank you, Tanya, for this powerful message. I’m reading SMART RISKS right now. What a transformative thing it could be if SiA Board Members and donors (and supporters of so many other world service organizations) were able to read and act on the wisdom in this book. We sometimes underestimate the wisdom, vision, and abilities of people in very challenging circumstances, who can work out their own good solutions, given access to resources, training support and encouragement. Trusting their abilities doubles the value of the grant — first, it addresses and can help meet the specific need — and perhaps even more important — it empowers the one who receives to learn that she or he has strengths and abilities and competence to create solutions to needs.

  • marsha johnson says

    I really like the way you wove the New York Times article in with your own experiences with your Spirit in Action work and the small business fund. It’s encouraging to know that others are thinking and moving in similar helpful, empowering ways….

  • Diana Halpenny says

    Another powerful message about the importance of trusting people to develop solutions to poverty when given the opportunity to realize their dreams.

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