Forget the ‘F’ word or the ‘N’ word, what really scares us service providers is the ‘P’ word: Poverty

In the first of an occasional look at how issues of poverty affect our ability to move people from hunger into health, I consider the Bridges Out of Poverty model in an interview with Debora McDermed who teaches and facilitates the ‘Bridges’ work being done through the Northern Nevada Food Bank in Reno. What use is Bridges to us? How does it work? Does it function best as a simple set of language tools or as a community-wide effort? Does this bridge lead us somewhere or is it really just a culturally insensitive set of labels which only helps further stigmatize people? Read on and find out…

First, apologies for the hiatus. This blog took a break for the last couple of months of 2013, partially because it is the crazy season for food banks. The other reason is that this isn’t a blog that features my knee-jerk reactions to the burning issues of the day like gun control (for that go here), but rather a blog with an educational focus on meaty subjects of current concern in the ‘Health into Hunger’ sphere.

Like Poverty.

In our world we love the ‘F’ word (food); there are even fans of calling people the ‘N’ word (needy) – but whatever you do, don’t mention the ‘P’ word (poverty).

I have been in rooms with dedicated, caring management teams from food banks, where mentioning fighting poverty is like waving a silver cross in front of a vampire. The fear level about this issue is huge: ‘that’s not our concern…it’s mission drift…our donors would hate it…let’s just stick to being the good guys saving the day with the big trucks of food.’

This trepidation extends beyond the food bank world. You can see it in the messaging of an organization like ‘Share Our Strength’ that is focusing on child hunger, with the mantra that ‘we may not be able to tackle poverty, but we can at least make sure that no kid goes hungry.’

My own viewpoint is that food banks cannot escape facing up to wider issues of poverty and how they impact our work. Unless we’re in this just to have long-term job security and to look good at Christmas, then we have to say we have had enough of the current status quo – a national state of rampant malnutrition which continues to weaken the health of our communities. That means we are going to have to deal with poverty to some degree or other.

Most service providers would acknowledge that they have to not only ‘feed the line’ but to do something to ‘shorten the line,’ yet addressing poverty rarely figures in these plans. You would think that poverty is the most tangible thing in the world – you can see it and smell it and touch it – yet when we want to do something about it then it becomes some nebulous mist that seems to slip away from the grasp.

There seems little shared agreement about either its causes and its cures. Consequently it joins the increasing number of subjects – such as immigration and gun control that become too uncomfortable to talk about – and therefore must be placed in some ‘no go zone’ of polite national discourse.

How does Bridges Out of Poverty enter into this discussion? It is a series of training modules designed for individuals in poverty (the ‘Getting Ahead’ course) and for communities or organizations (Bridges Strategy and Applying Concepts courses) that seek to create a framework of common understanding about why people get trapped in poverty and which offers some ways in which both individuals and their communities can move out of poverty.

The work springs from the writings and involvement of one individual, Ruby Payne, originally from her book ‘A Framework for Understanding Poverty.’  This has now been largely superseded by the Bridges out of Poverty book as the definitive text.

bridges book

Now, of course, when you have such a wide-reaching set of social concepts arising from a single person (and one presenting very modest research or epidemiological evidence, and whose trainings are sold through copyrighted trainings and books) two things are going to happen:

The Academic Community Responds.
The Academic Community Responds.

1. The academic community will go ape shit in their desire to expose and condemn this heretic who has dared skip the years of longitudinal studies and research to say a lot of things which in the end are only backed up by their belief in their own experience and intuition, rather than in a long history of published research. And there are certainly Bridges opponents out there. Here’s a good broadside.  Bridges would argue that a lot of these critiques typically focus only on the framework and not how the framework is actually used and adapted within communities.

2. He/She who is condemned for their theories will also collect adherents– people looking for simple solutions to complex problems. These supporters will say that you need to charge ahead with what your gut tells you and not wait for some kind of historical validation, especially with such a pressing concern as poverty.

So, where does that leave the rest of us? We are not academic snobs but we also want to be sure that a new approach follows the doctor’s oath of ‘Primum no nocere’ or ‘First, do no harm’ and ensure that this will not make the situation worse.

Debora McDermod
Debora McDermod

I did some research into the Bridges work and met with Food Bank of Northern Nevada CEO, Cherie Jamason (who has spearheaded the uptake of Bridges in Reno) and Debora McDermed of The Vertical Dimension Consulting who runs the programs. Subsequently I invited Debora to present a workshop on Bridges at our annual Agency Leaders Summit.

2012 Agency Conference
2012 Agency Conference

Her presentation was a huge hit and seemed to touch a nerve with a lot of people from agencies who felt that this work was communicating something that they had believed at some level but never been able to put into words about the challenges they faced with their clients and that it offered some interesting tools for them to try on.

Deb, tell me about the different elements of the Bridges training.

There’s a two-hour presentation, which is an overview. That’s ideal for CEO’s or business people who just want to get the gist. They don’t necessarily want to come to the training. Then, there is a two-day training. The first day considers what is Bridges and what does it mean and why would you be interested in it? How could you immediately put it to use? Day two looks at the tools and the techniques. The two-day version is designed primarily for service providers who want to interact with the client differently or they want to try some new program designs. This training can also be done from an institutional or community point of view. We have run courses for the healthcare, educational and judicial communities. How can these ideas help you be more effective with the client group you are working with. (Here is the flyer from a recent Bridges training conducted by Santa Cruz Food Bank) Bridges Out of Poverty 2012 Flyer

‘Getting Ahead’ is an intense program for participants who want to transition out of poverty. They meet for about two hours a week or somewhere between 10 and 16 weeks depending on the group. They learn the same thing that Bridges trainers learned in the two-day course, except they’re investigating it much more thoroughly. They look at how does poverty occur for them and their family. What are the societal influences in poverty? What are their personal individual influences? It’s really very rigorous.

As to community, once a number of trainings have taken place with different groups, often someone will say: “We need this in a big way for what we’re trying to do.” And so then the program can have a wider community focus. That’s what happened in Reno.

bridge comm

I think Bridges is a long-term vision but it has some short-term gratification. BridgesModel_HardDifferentiators You’re not going to end the poverty in five years. But there is something you can do immediately which I think gives people on the ground tools and techniques and ideas to implement. The training answers a lot of questions that people have never been able to find answers to around why it is so hard to help people make behavior change. I think people are invigorated by that. Poverty is defined by a lack of resources, and the USA is a country that is has severe income disparity as defined by the GINI index. Countries with this great disparity have real problems with upward mobility, hence the need for approaches like Bridges.

You mentioned about changing people’s behavior. How much of this change has to be down to the individual, and how much does the community or society have to change? Where is the line?

These are hard questions.

Sorry. This is such a thorny area, there aren’t many easy questions.

Individual change begins to happen because the program that we facilitate for people who want to transition out of poverty gives them a voice. It’s not a program that’s designed for them. It’s a program that they designed to build their own resources. That creates more ownership, more autonomy, more buy-in. Systemic change is obviously harder. It looks at the way we organize bureaucratic and administrative things to see if it actually enhances people’s ability to take responsibility or if we’re actually putting processes in place that continue to keep them stuck. The community pieces of our program identifies what the barriers are in each community – and they’re going to be different. Some communities have great public transportation. Some have none.

I checked my watch. The bus is due in 8 months.
I checked my watch. The bus is due in like 8 months.

What barriers do we as a community need to tackle that would prevent people moving to sustainability over a period of 18 to 24 months. Can they get a job? Can they get transportation? Can they get childcare? Can they get on their feet in that period of time? Or is the community set up such that it will take much longer than this.  This process shows what the individual needs to change and what the community needs to change to be able to facilitate this.

What about the blame game? Some want to heap all the blame on the individual and some want to heap it all on society. Can Bridges help with this?

I think so, because this training goes down well with those on both the political right and the left. The right likes it because it makes people accountable. The left likes it because it says it’s not all their fault and we need to make changes to bring mobility back to the United States so that people can move from their economic strata like they once could. It’s a very current, hot conversation when I’m talking to those people because I can talk about rebuilding the middle class. But I should stress that Bridges is not about making people ‘middle class,’ it is about people being able to create stability and build resources. And Bridges isn’t a program brought in from the outside, but a set of ideas.  This is why Bridges and Getting Ahead are being used in Australia, Canada, Slovakia, Czech Republic etc and Detroit, Pensacola, Menominee Nation, Appalachia, etc.

Let’s talk in more detail about how the ‘Getting Ahead’ program works.

The first thing participants do is they draw a mental model of what their life looks like right now. (We have them draw because we don’t want to inhibit anyone who doesn’t read or write well.) Then, they identify those factors in their life that are affecting them dramatically. If they’re a single parent; if they are recovering or not yet recovering from substance abuse; are they dealing with the judicial system? These mental models help them build rapport with the facilitator. We call the person who teaches the course the ‘co-investigator.’ It’s not a hierarchical model.

Jose's mind map sent him straight to the head of the class
Jose’s mental model sent him straight to the head of the class

We sit at the table with them and say we’re going to investigate the situation, your life and the situation in the community and see what is possible. They start with their own life. The theory of change that Bridges uses says that when you are in poverty, you are in the concrete virtually all the time. We call that the ‘tyranny of the moment.’ Therefore, this makes it much harder to do the abstract thinking which is where all of your planning, and many of your good decisions come from.  This might include thinking such as If I spend this money on a plasma TV, I can’t go to the dentist. People in poverty, particularly generational poverty may have never learned how to do abstract thinking. We teach them how you can live in the concrete and think in the abstract. This helps them begin to step back and look at their life and analyze what’s going on and what to do about it. That’s very powerful for people. It’s also very painful. I had one person say, after they looked at their mental model, they said, “Wow, poverty really sucks.” But they were so busy just trying to eat, have shelter, some kind of job that they didn’t really have time to step back and look at it and go, “What new possibilities could I generate?”

Well, we found that one, anyway...
Well, we found that one, anyway…

Then, they have a lot of environmental influences like family members and neighbors who are all in the same boat who might live in ‘invisible communities,’ so they don’t know any people who could provide a different kind of help and assistance. Over a series of time, they also investigate societal change and influences. What are the societal influences that have kept people in poverty? What are the hidden rules of class? What does the middle class know that I don’t know? If I knew that, would I behave differently?

formal-informal

We do a lot of work in language skills, because they might habitually speak in what is called ‘casual register’ which is all about relationships and survival. It doesn’t work very well for job interviews or with a judge, or your kid’s teacher, where ‘formal register’ will be more effective. People can get marginalized because they might seem to speak disrespectfully or inappropriately. They start to learn about all the things they need to do to be able to cross this bridge. The course we run is not the end. When they graduate from it, they’ve developed a list of resources both personal and community that can help them move forward. They can’t magically change everything at once so they might decide to work on finance or emotional health.

Then, we encourage  a community structure that is there to assist you when you have finished the ‘Getting Ahead’ program. Graduates are invited to meet monthly with allies, people that are wanting to understand how to make this a better community for all. We don’t call them mentors. We don’t call them coaches. We call them allies. This meeting is monthly and it is a partly social, partly educational gathering. Graduates can stay in it for 18 to 24 months past the course. They start to lead those sessions over time. They start to talk about their experiences and share with other people that are trying to transition. So, we build a network for them which can take them to the next level. They don’t have to join if they don’t want to. It’s available to them. So far, we haven’t had anybody not want to do it.

Poverty can be a lifelong challenge. For instance, one of the people who came up to me after your agency workshop who has a job and is living in a $2100 a month condo – which I guess is not hard to do in Santa Barbara. He came from poverty, raised in poverty, and even though he is now out of poverty, he said to me, “I’m haunted everyday of my life that I’m going to end up back there.” What comes out of the wider community support is that people start to get to know each other. They start to understand that people in poverty are just like them. Then, they began to form alliances, when people know somebody who has a job going, and they now have someone to call. That’s social capital. We do it all the time. People in poverty don’t have that. The only kind of capital they have is bonding capital with people who are typically in the same situation as they are, perhaps not making healthy choices or good decisions.

Sometimes they’ve had to separate from some of their family members as part of the process because their family may not be supportive of them in moving ahead, getting out of poverty. There are some emotional challenges that happen along the way, and that’s why we do the emotional resiliency piece within the training. When you start to change, not everybody around you likes it. This doesn’t stop people getting hopeful and positive. They know what they can do. They understand how to build and where to start. They understand how hard it’s going to be, and that we are in tough economic times but they have a place to start.

Why do you think that food banks are well-positioned to get involved in something like Bridges?

Food banks serve so many different agencies and clients in communities that they can act as ‘honest brokers’ in the communities. It is also an effective way for them to work to ‘shorten the line’ of clients. It’s also fun to work with people in a resource-based way versus a need-based way. I think we’re excited that we’re helping people build resources for sustainability. We’re not just giving them something to get through the week with.

What about the food banks that are getting very concerned about drifting from their mission or getting into an area where some of their donors or their board are going to freak out at them by being involved in issues of poverty.

A process of education is often required for the food bank board. In Reno, we happen to have a board chair who is a businessman. He doesn’t want to keep raising money to feed the same people every year. He wants to find a way to help people move out of the need for our services. The logic of it then, from a bottom line point of view can be very appealing. It also involves being a leader in the community in a new way.

It is also be a way of making a difference in a measurable way quite quickly. We can count the number of people we’re educating. We can count the number of people graduating our ‘Getting Ahead’ program. We can count what happens to our graduates as they begin to move on. it’s a win-win. You can lower your food procurement dollars, and you can increase sustainability in the community.

I will tell you on that the fundraising side, the funders for our Bridges work are not people that were funding the food bank before. We’re finding a lot of new funders who are interested in capacity building. They were not interested in needs-based money. There’s been no adulteration of the food bank dollars. In some cases, the same people who donate to the food bank now also give to Bridges. Like Wells Fargo Bank and Charles Schwab. They say, “Yes, we’ll still continue to give for a food distribution program, but we’re also really interested in what happens to these people in the community as they began to grow.”

I believe in a previous conversation you talked about the ‘hidden rules’ about food distribution. Would you to clarify what you mean about that?

With people in poverty,  their view of food is all about scarcity and ‘having enough’. People will hoard food. They will take more than they need. This is because of scarcity being the primary focus. It doesn’t have to be good food or be cooked well. It doesn’t have to be nourishing or healthy. But there has to be enough of it. In middle class norms, people may care more about how things taste and look. With food distribution programs, those running them often care most about fairness. So you can see how these two things are going to rub up against each other, because both groups are not necessarily able to compensate for the other’s perspective.

If we have a situation where someone takes more than their allocation, then there is a breakdown in the relationship. There is agitation from the volunteer around fairness and agitation from the client around scarcity. I did a volunteers training at the Reno Food Bank. They were having these type of problems and the volunteers were pretty cranky! After they had the training, they tried some new things that they came up with on their own. There was a much better result meaning people didn’t hoard.

Give me an example of some of the things that they changed.

They changed the order in which they gave out food. People would always get there early, and they would be the same people every week. If you came later and were at the back of the line, sometimes you didn’t get anything. Now sometimes they start at the back of the line or in the middle. The second thing we did was ask the clients how they could improve the situation. The Bridges construct says that you give people in poverty a chance to be a problem-solver. You don’t solve the problem for them. The clients developed a way of trading food at the site. Somebody didn’t want bread. Somebody else wanted two cans of tuna fish, whatever. They figured it out themselves. They were happy with the result. The food bank distribution people were shocked. That’s what happened. There was a little lessening of control, but it worked to everyone’s benefit.

Deb, thanks for sharing some of your work.

THE EPILOGUE…

To move forward the Bridges work, Santa Barbara County Foodbank will be holding a two-day training with member agencies in the first half of this year. We will also look at pairing it with a cultural awareness training component. The Bridges concept of living in the ‘tyranny of the moment’ is fascinating (because we’ve all at least vacationed there…) and so are some of the observations about poverty class vs. middle class thinking in certain areas.

There are so many great things about Bridges. But what of the current challenges I see with Bridges? I would put them in two areas. The first is the ‘class’ labeling that is used extensively, with the intention of moving people from one class outlook to another. I could see that it might be hard to avoid people feeling inferior. There are the potential dangers of what is called ‘classism’, which is prejudice or discrimination based on social class.

Why were people giving him so much trouble about the new Food Bank org chart???
Why were people giving him so much trouble about the new Food Bank org chart???

I was brought up in England which had its own obsession with class, which was very clear and on the surface. People opened their mouths and you knew what the deal was. In America, it is more subtle. Money can reveal, but money can also obscure.

I do find the Bridges focus on making everyone middle class a little challenging sometimes as if the middle class has all the answers. I mean if the middle class is so smart why does it seem to be steadily being annihilated through financial genocide…just a thought, folks!

I think Bridges advocates might respond that it is more a process of getting people to look at how the world is working now, to look under the hood at the engine and get a new understanding that will benefit them as they make changes that they feel the need to.

There are some lousy murals of Cesar Chavez, but this is the worst!
There are some lousy murals of Cesar Chavez, but this is the worst!

The other challenge is culture. Currently, from the small amount I have seen, the program is not very well culturally attenuated. So, within the Latino community for instance, there are many very powerful tools and relationships that help people get by in life through mutual and extended family and community support. A lot of ‘middle class white’ families might give up some of their advantages for grandma living next door to watch the kids. (I know I would!)

There is also more solidity around community development and small scale inter-community investment, both with cash and sweat equity. I have no doubt that as the Bridges program develops further within Latino communities that it will be adapted to better suit a different cultural reality, and that some elements can be accepted and others rejected.

In an upcoming post, we will look at non-profit community development and empowerment programs that use different models – such as the Just Communities program here in Santa Barbara County.

01-19-12-Just-Communities-e1326987095799

This is an exciting field, because we are getting away from a fixation on scarcity which seems to breed more scarcity, and we are empowering people to generate more. I know I sound like some kind of infomercial dude telling you to ‘generate abundance.’ Or maybe I am. Give me a better tan and a toupee and I would be glad to shill for ‘generating sufficiency’ and ‘generating sustainability.’

I encourage you to investigate the Bridges approach. It is an imperfect tool, but one that is being developed and improved in communities across the country. There is no ‘silver bullet’ (just like with gun control, as Joe Biden said – he does know how to say just the wrong thing at the wrong time, doesn’t he!) At the very least Bridges is an interesting filter for individuals,organizations and agencies to look at the world through and ask: “Does this do anything to help me see more clearly? Or “Can I combine this with some other initiative to provide a culturally and community appropriate set of tools and pathways out of poverty and into a healthy, sustainable community?”

If you were an old timer like me who came of age in the 80’s, but were painfully hip then, you will remember how the musical group ‘Gang of Four’ put it.

"Gang of Four: To Hell With Poverty." 1981
“Gang of Four: To Hell With Poverty.” 1981

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