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  • Jack H. Bender


I attended a local fund-raising event two or three years ago. The event was a concert. I became intrigued by watching what appeared to be wealthy locals gathered in small groups and talking up a storm. 98% of the audience was seated and patiently waiting for the concert to begin, but those standing were intensely engaged in conversation. I couldn’t help but say to myself, “Look at those people network.” A common phrase most of us have heard is “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” Networking works.

Isolation is a common experience for people struggling with poverty. Author and activist Scott C. Miller puts it this way—Once in poverty, people very rapidly become isolated. They frequently don’t have a reliable car, money for gas, or a regularly working phone. They need to move to areas where the rent is lower, which often may be farther away from job opportunities, thereby setting up a no-win situation, further exacerbating their problems. *

In Walking with the Poor, Bryant L. Myers describes poverty this way—The poor are poor largely because they live in networks that do not work for their well-being. Their relationships are often oppressive and disempowering as a result of the non-poor ‘playing god’ in the lives of the poor.”

Providing a healthy networking environment helps people move out of poverty. Circles is a nation-wide program that convenes regular meetings between Circle Allies and Circle Leaders. Good Samaritan Ministries of Holland sponsors a Circles program.

Circles Leaders are people experiencing poverty and open to change. Often slowly acknowledging their own dignity, power and right of self-determination, leaders set their own short and long-term goals. Allies are non-poor advocates that walk with their leaders, helping them network and grow. Allies do not rescue, fix or interfere inappropriately with the decision-making rights of leaders. Circles provides the remedy to isolation while providing access to the social capital (networks and knowledge) of the Allies.

Good Samaritan Ministries sponsors weekly Circles meetings. One group of leaders and allies meets on Tuesday evening from 6-8 pm and another group meets on Thursday evenings. A meal and youth programming are provided. Some activists favor the word accompaniment to describe the healthy relationship that can exist among poor and non-poor. The roots of accompaniment mean “together with bread.” Circles fits the definition of accompaniment.

To be part of the program, Leaders commit to meeting weekly for twenty-two months. Allies commit to eighteen months. To be considered an active ally, one must attend two or more gatherings a month. Best practice matches three allies with a leader, but ally demand is greater than availability.

While some leaders are homeless, others are fleeing abusive environments (instant loss of shelter and possibly income) or burdened with medical debt. Leaders are encouraged to set an early goal of having income 200% of the poverty line. This goal may facilitate the payment of all bills, but the income level can only be described as “surviving not thriving.” A long-term goal is to move off of benefits, but such a transition requires preparation and support. There is an important mental piece that must be addressed in order for a leader to take risks, be resilient and prepared for something going wrong.

I talked with Good Sam’s Circles Director Lotefa Bartlett de Villarreal for much of this material. I asked for real-life stories. As you might guess, allies grow alongside leaders, crossing cultural barriers in order to be an ally. During a goal setting activity, leaders were asked, “What would stop you from reaching your goal?” One leader answered “isolation” helping his ally understand that isolation is very real and a barrier to success.

Allies can help leaders engage and navigate complex agencies. While a leader’s knowledge may be adequate, navigation can be a challenge for anyone. Career information of allies can be of help. In one instance a leader was seeking a GED in order to obtain work in the retail sector, assuming that retail is one of the few areas where a GED is acceptable. An ally, a banker, shared that entry level bank positions accept people with GEDs. Information like that opens up opportunities for leaders.

In an earlier blog post, I wrote that reaching sustainable life circumstances can take years. One of the more dramatic local success stories was a single mom with two adolescents who reached her 200% FPL in seven months. That time frame is uncommon. What was common for this single mom was the motivating factor of wanting her children to have a better life. When asked how she was able to be successful, she said that she had “heard it all” about how to be successful. What was new and powerful was a community of support saying, “You can do it. We believe in you.”

Non-poor want people to move out of poverty quickly. In their ignorance, they see this task as simple. “Why don’t they just_____fill in the blank)_____?” What’s invisible is trauma. Poverty produces trauma, debilitating trauma, and the issue must be named and addressed. Imagine living months and months in crisis mode. Bartlett de Villarreal states that we need a community discussion that results in us understanding and responding to people who are suffering and too traumatized to move forward.

Circles is pure democracy, flat democracy, maybe even biblical, where the last become first (leaders). It’s a program I am anxious to join.

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday and the Call to Worship had those gathered reciting our desire to repent from behaviors that actually contribute to poverty:

Turn away from the call of worldly success.

Turn away from the desire to have what everyone else has.

Turn away from greed and the race for power.

* Miller, Scott C. Until It’s Gone. Ending Poverty In Our Nation, In Our Lifetime. Introducing CirclesTM, a National Campaign of Support, Training and Opportunity. aha! Process, Inc. 2008.


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