Beyond Welfare: Money, Friends and Meaning…
Story County, Iowa has a population of just over 74,000, with the majority of those folks living in Ames, the county seat and home of Iowa State University. Less than 2% of those residents are people of color. There are 8,336 households in the county with incomes under $25,000. Nothing about those statistics stands out at first glance; Central Iowa is a mostly white place, and rural poverty is often hidden behind that homogeneity. But Story County is also home to a gathering of citizens who call themselves Beyond Welfare, an organization that brings down the walls between the hidden poor and the rest of the community. Beyond Welfare states its goal simply: eliminate poverty in Story County by 2020. Ambitious? Maybe. But the manner in which Beyond Welfare is moving toward that goal makes its attainment seem possible. To eliminate poverty, Beyond Welfare is reweaving community; promoting a connected life filled with enough money, friends and meaning for all. The Beyond Welfare folks call that their mantra—“we all need money, friends, and meaning”. But the inclusive implication of that mantra is startling. Poverty of life and experience can beset those who have enough money, but little meaning and few friends. So, there is something for everyone in the community built by Beyond Welfare. “Everything We Do Is Intentional” The founders of Beyond Welfare (BW) have thought long and hard about everything they do. There is a language and process that determines all of their actions. For example, the service-based language of “client” and “provider” has been replaced by the much more inclusive language of “participant” and “ally”. Becoming part of Beyond Welfare requires the same process for everyone, regardless of role or income. The BW folks are careful never to stray too far from the citizen-centered heart of the endeavor. The very small BW staff are committed to community engagement to build the capacity of ordinary unpaid community members to be involved in making Story County a safer, friendlier, and more supportive community for all its members. By engaging “consumers” and the community at large in this way, we strive to build a countywide community where all of us have enough money, healthy relationships, and a sense of purpose and meaning. Beyond Welfare facilitate relationships that assist and support individual families and are building a constituency of caring for the concerns of families at risk due to poverty and the harms associated with insufficient income. BW is governed by a local community-lead Board of Directors, constituted by at least 51% members who have been or are currently marginalized by poverty.
Based in Experience
In many ways, Beyond Welfare is the creation of the personal experience of Lois Smidt, BW co-founder, connector and guiding light. Having spent several years on welfare in the 90’s, Lois is keenly aware of the struggles and pitfalls of trying to raise a family in poverty. Isolation, suppressed anger, stereotypes—all seem to get in the way of even the most determined attempt to overcome them. “Although I certainly had many supportive relationships in my life by this time, as well as community involvement and support, I was still bombarded with patterns of worthlessness and helplessness that were reinforced by reliance on public assistance and the attitudes projected by human service providers and the general public,” she says.
These two ideas — that relationships are essential and that respectful supportive connections can cross barriers and build leadership — became cornerstones of Lois’ work and that of BW. She later encountered the concepts of Co-Counseling, or Re-Evaluation Counseling (RC), that provided her with tools and exercises that support her vision. The tools and principles of co-counseling aim to break down the barriers caused by race and class by engaging in the tough work of one-to-one listening and support.
We have helped develop the Boundaries Clock to help people manage their professional boundaries whilst meeting safeguarding obligations and promoting inclusion.
The Boundaries Clock – Peter Bates
Six pairs of competing priorities are set in opposition to one another to form the twelve-point Boundary Clock. Individual case studies or service arrangements can then be placed on the clock-face and the twelve vantage points used in turn to generate ideas for shaping practice in an individual situation. As each of the twelve viewpoints is merely an entry point to the clock-face area, the issues that arise inevitably overlap here and there, but the twelve points frame a systematic discussion.
The Boundaries Clock brings together the triple imperative to safeguard vulnerable people, maintain professional boundaries and advance social inclusion. It does not provide easy answers, but rather provides a systematic way to consider the issues and arrive at a defensible position. This paper applies the Boundaries Clock to the Community Circle demonstrating its utility, and assisting readers to develop sufficient fluency to apply the approach to new settings.
Circles in Scotland
Linda Keys from Edinburgh Development Group (EDG) has been working on setting up a community circle in North Edinburgh. To ensure that the circle is diverse in its membership from the beginning, Linda started off by meeting up with people from various ‘equalities’ groups. From this network, a small ‘core’ group agreed to form a wee team to set up the circle. We did it this way so that we could make sure there were several of us who were familiar with the ‘format’ of the meetings, so that when new members join it will already feel like a safe environment. It means that the group have ownership of the circle, and new members will be encouraged to take on that ownership too.
Barnet Pledgebank can be used to gather together people to get projects done. These can be tasks such as clearing snow and ice from pavements in the street, painting over graffiti or setting up computer classes in your area.
The website is based on the simple principle that the person making the online pledge will work to make it happen “but only if” a number of other people commit too.
Pledges don’t have to be started by the council — organisations, schools, community and volunteer groups can all get involved.
PledgeBank is designed to help residents passionate about doing their bit for the community. By working together, we can offer services that are popular and worthwhile.
Gift Circle in Fairfax, Chicago
How a Gift Circle Works
It is shockingly simple.
We meet, share some food, introduce ourselves. Then we form a circle. People go around and share what they need. All kinds of things have been asked for: bodywork, help healing a broken heart, advice on marketing a product, someone to talk to about life goals, help cleaning out files, etc. The need is spoken with no expectation of it being fulfilled. People in the circle respond if they feel it. Then people go around again and offer a gift, something they would like to share with no expectation of it being accepted. Again, a wide range of things have been offered: a dreamcatcher, a vacuum sealer, shamanic healing, handquilted potholders, research help (from a librarian), help writing a simple will (from a lawyer), etc, etc. Afterwards, people check in with those who responded to the gifts/needs/wishes and schedule them! (Bring your calendars!)
Mess Hall, an experimental cultural center in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago, USA
Other things we are thinking about…
Asset Based Community Development
Focusing on Community Capacity not Deficit. We now often work with this idea in our training around challenging behaviour and inclusion. Recruiting well connected community members to link up with vulnerable or isolated individuals or families and to build circles of support or connection around them using their contacts but NO paid professionals or experts. A free 50 page book that describes one approach to this idea is available from the ABCD Institute.
Building community connections by engaging the gifts of people on welfare, people with disabilities, people with mental illness,older people and young people. ABCD in Action Book and DVD profiles five diverse groups who have utilised the principles of ABCD to create partnerships with those they serve and in effect, rejuvenate and revitalise their organisations.
Included are profiles from:
- Neighbourhood associations in Savannah, Georgia
- Beyond Welfare, an organisation supporting people in poverty in Ames, Iowa
- The Archdiocese of Upper Michigan in Marquette, Michigan
- Lakes Region Community Services Council, supporting people with disabilities in New Hampshire
- Neighbourhood Housing Services, an organisation providing affordable housing opportunities in Asheville, North Carolina.
A linked idea is the concept of The Freeconomy Community which is about sharing the skills you’ve learnt throughout your life and learning those you haven’t. It’s about helping others and providing an opportunity for others to help you. Freeconomy allows people to make the transition from a money based communityless society to more of a community based moneyless society, and to share the land they don’t need or can’t use to facilitate a local food community. It’s about helping others and providing an opportunity for others to help you. It’s about sharing your tools so you all can have access to all the tools under the sun without it costing the earth. It’s about using any free space you have to either benefit positive, ethical and local projects, or to enable volunteers to keep doing their amazing work for free. It’s about sharing the land you don’t need in order to facilitate a local food community. It’s about connecting neighbours. It’s about learning to help each other again. It’s about making dinner for a friend who was yesterday a stranger. It’s about keeping money out of the equation. It’s about communicating face-to-face and phasing out technological communication. It’s about putting the soul back into society. It’s about helping each other not for profit, but just for the love-of it. Nottingham Freecycle can be joined here and is open to all who want to “recycle” that special something rather than throw it away. Whether it’s a chair, a fax machine, board game or an old door, feel free to post it. Or maybe you’re looking to acquire something yourself! Non-profits are also welcome to participate. Join in and have fun gifting! Everything posted must be free, legal and appropriate for all ages.
Making good use of Third Places
This term was coined by Ray Oldenburg in his book The Great Good Place: Cafes, coffee shops, bookstores, bars, hair salons (1999). Oldenburg is an Urban Sociologist from Florida who writes about the importance of informal public gathering places. ‘Third place’ simply refers to associations or connections between people that are based on locations, like becoming a regular in a cafe or bar. A third place is a place of belonging, somewhere that is comfortable, and conversation is the main thing, a place where you can get known without doing much. There are no qualifications needed and no criteria to be met. It is important to go at regular times, which works well for people who enjoy routine. We have learned that this method of connecting cannot be used casually though – you have to be active not passive in your support as you need to spot opportunities for interaction and relationship building. We have helped people with high support needs to become regulars of local places.
Have a look at the Nottingham Community Cafe Network. Community Meetings: Beyond Welfare style….
The Community Leadership Team (CLT) Meeting
The CLT meetings begin at 6:00 p.m. with a dinner in the church basement, which houses a big kitchen and spacious dining room. After dinner, usually around 6:45 p.m., people load their dishes on a cart to be brought into the kitchen; the child care workers gather the children into the child care room; the youth and adolescent worker moves his charges into another room for a program or to do their homework; and the adults go to the meeting room in the church’s main floor for the meeting.
The CLT meeting takes place in a large, comfortable room that has a long wall of windows overlooking the church’s courtyard. Lois usually facilitates the meeting. Occasionally, the Community Resources Coordinator, the psychologist, or a participant facilitates the meeting. The typical agenda includes:
CLT Purposes and Principles
A brief reminder about Beyond Welfare’s purpose and principles always opens the meetings. Lois first states the purpose of Beyond Welfare, which is “to ensure that everyone has enough money, meaning, and friends” and reminds participants that in attending the CLT meeting, they are “advocates for social change” who are there to “learn what it takes to eliminate poverty.” When Lois talks, everyone listens respectfully, even eagerly, as if her words could make dreams come true. Lois then invites a CLT member to recite the basic four principles about confidentiality and respect. They are:
- What is said here stays here
- If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all
- Honour confidentiality by not introducing others in the group as a Beyond Welfare group member to outsiders without permission
- Show respect by listening to and not gossiping about each other
The announcements often take up quite a bit of time, covering a very wide range of topics such as dates/times of upcoming local community events, solicitations for help with moving, offers to donate household items and requests for household items, and information about community resources, clothes drives, food pantry access, and new FIP, DHS, or state policies, regulations, or services. Announcement also may focus on upcoming Beyond Welfare advocacy events, including providing information, making requests for volunteers, and planning for car pools.
New and Good Update
In my yearly evaluations with CLT members, they always mention how much they enjoy sharing and listening to updates about something that is new and/or good in everyone’s lives. New and good updates include descriptions of social activities people engaged in during the previous week; announcements of new jobs, promotions, or raises; and updates on school progress or achievements. Sometimes members mention the accomplishments of their children, such as toilet training a toddler or good grades on a report card. Members will talk about getting a donated car, a new apartment, a warm winter coat at Goodwill and their relief at finally having access to energy assistance, housing assistance, or food stamps. Reports of new and good sometimes describe involvement in a Beyond Welfare advocacy or speaking for the first time at an orientation for new Family Partners. Sometimes, the new and good update is a way to, as the expression goes, turn lemons into lemonade, such as when one CLT member told the group that her “girls did not watch T.V. because the utilities were turned off.” Often, many of the women simply say, “I’m just happy to be here.”
Advocacy or Self-sufficiency Work
While meetings may vary in style and content, a typical meeting begins with Lois giving a brief presentation, providing an overview, explicating a policy, or sometimes, simply articulating the importance of working on a particular topic. Often, she will then ask the CLT members to form “listening pairs.” Listening pairs is a strategy used in Reevaluation Counseling to help people speak or “discharge” about an issue to a person who is listening attentively. The format includes each person in the pair discharging for two-three minutes while the other person listens without comment, judgment, or advice; they then switch. Lois will ask the CLT members to focus the listening pairs on one or two specific questions related to her presentation. At the end of the timed listening pairs, Lois brings everyone’s attention back to the circle for group discussion and problem-solving. Standing at the easel, where butcher paper is mounted for her to write group contributions, she will ask the CLT members, “Does anyone want to share what you learned in the listening pairs?” As hands are raised and Lois calls on different people, they only report what they themselves shared, not what their partner shared. Lois responds to each members’ contribution by affirming them verbally and writing down what she/he said. When the contributions and discussion are exhausted, Lois will draw some conclusions for the group to reflect upon or, depending on the topic, the group may decide upon a plan of advocacy.
To draw the CLT meeting to a close, CLT members go around the circle saying something positive to the person to her right. Often the time is short at the end of the meeting, so appreciations are kept to one or two words. If the group is small or when there is ample time, more is said. A sampling of appreciations from a range of evenings includes, “you are a strong and quick thinker,” “you are accepting and gentle,” “fun,” “kind,” “good listener,” “I appreciate the support you give me,” “your smile,” “nice,” and “I appreciate how you keep up with things and do so much.”
Five Ways To Go Into the World
Tom Kohler has spent 40 years connecting citizens of Savannah, Georgia to one another. As Co-ordinator and Executive Director of Chatham-Savannah Citizen Advocacy has introduced people who have an established place in community to people with disabilities who have found themselves placed on the margins of community life. Together these people explore how their relationship can change their lives, and impact the life of their community. In this video Tom shares skills that can be developed for this connecting work. For more information on Savannah’s Citizen Advocacy go to: https://www.savannahcitizenadvocacy.org
Community Engagement Research and Development Project – Final Report October 2019
Project based in Gloucestershire looking at post-16 education and training – Read the full report here