Editor’s Note: This reflection was submitted as a companion to last week’s “The Power of Inquiry,” featuring Betsy Santiago-Layne. Betsy described the power of action research on her life as a mother who had to make use of the shelter system. Here, Donna Haig Freeman describes the university-based program that involved Betsy and others in researching the problems they had experienced and the many impacts that remarkable program had.
Having stepped down from my role as Director of the Center for Social Policy eleven months ago, I have had an opportunity to step back and reflect on these past 20 years of our collective efforts to impact the root causes of poverty. Three stories of this journey point to ways of moving forward on our unfinished collective agenda.
Story 1 offers a window into how those most affected by our social policy choices can be at the center of our ways of generating and building knowledge, as well as our policy development and implementation.
In 1995, I was completing my dissertation, having been a student researcher with Homes for Families (HFF), a newly founded statewide advocacy organization directed toward the elimination of family homelessness in the state. By design, 50 percent of board members have at one time or another been homeless with their children. HFF leaders and I secured a grant from the Boston Foundation to carry out an action research project aimed at informing the state’s approach to preventing family homelessness. We needed an academic home for this research, and I was looking for a new professional home. I came to what was then UMass Boston’s McCormack Institute with this grant in hand and was welcomed in.
The research team for this action research project comprised an ethnically and racially diverse team of four women who had lived in a family shelter with their children, as well as a finance analyst, a management professor with MIS expertise, and myself. Among other contributions, the four family researchers had very astute insights as to how to gather information from other families and service providers. At one point, our research team, along with HFF’s leaders, was invited to offer our research findings and recommendations to the state’s senior leaders in the Executive Office of Health and Human Services.
You might be assuming that the four family researchers were out of the woods, economically speaking. They were not; their economic hardships were continuing and played havoc in their lives and our work together every day. However, they had solidarity with each other; through our work and their connections with HFF, they came to understand that they were not to blame for their difficult circumstances. Their choices mattered, yes, but the structural housing, employment, education and racism, sexism and other –ism barriers that they and so many others were battling could not be fixed by one individual.
Their solidarity enabled them to begin to heal from the harms of being shamed as they intersected with the service system and as they came face to face with negative judgments toward people in their circumstances so rampant in the media, public discourse, and policy prescriptions—recall the welfare reform rhetoric of that decade, which regrettably has not abated.
Similar processes of tapping the energies and insights of those with the direct experience of poverty followed this initial action research project, leading to the engagement of Julia Tripp as the Center’s lead in this work. Specifically, in the late 1990s, the Center was in a position to advise the U.S. Departments of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Health and Human Services (HHS) and communities across the country on the implementation of homeless management information systems, using information technology to gather data from those served by shelter agencies with the goals of understanding the extent and nature of the problem, leading to the use of sound evidence to inform policy and programmatic solutions.
Julia and I were successful in convincing federal HHS and HUD administrators that consumers needed to be at the table at every stage of this work. Subsequently, Julia with others, who were just coming out of very harsh homelessness journeys, developed white papers on Consumer Involvement which were posted on HUD’s website; Julia became a technical advisor to homeless service providers locally and in other communities across the country.
With Julia as the lead, constituent involvement in the Center’s work has matured over the years leading to what is now a deep partnership with CSP’s Constituent Advisors, the International Fourth World Movement (FWM) and the College of Management’s Emerging Leaders Program1. We have been using a Merging of Knowledge2 methodology, created by and adapted with FWM members. The impacts have been profound. For example, last year, monthly two-hour dialogues, focused on work, carefully facilitated using a Merging of Knowledge dialogue approach, engaged four emerging leaders from business, government, and nonprofit sectors and 10–12 men and women with the direct experience of poverty. They sat at this table as equals, human being to human being. By spring, each of the emerging leaders realized that the human resource practices in their places of employment were getting in the way of opening doors to employment for those who had limited and challenging paid work opportunities. Each went back to his or her place of employment and precipitated a positive change in the company’s human resource screening approach for new hires.
Story 2 offers another window into the power of social connectedness.
Each of the examples I cite in this second story involves use of participatory approaches to generating and building knowledge for action—some of the most satisfying experiences of my professional career.
In our work during the past ten years, Center researchers and I were evaluation partners or close collaborators with the One Family Scholars Program, the Family Independence Initiative, resident-driven neighborhood change work in Mattapan and Codman Square, as well as Thrive in 5’s family engagement initiative taking place in six Boston neighborhoods.
All of these initiatives had two important features baked into the program design:
- Social connections and solidarity between and among families and neighbors, and
- Families or neighborhood residents themselves being in charge, directing the decision-making and leading the change efforts.
As was evident in my first story, solidarity among those most directly affected by harsh economic circumstances and marginalization is a healing force that unleashes creative thinking and energy for change making and builds hope.
Story 3 shines the light on stubbornly broken places that need fixing involving both public and private sector strategies and action.
After welfare reform was well underway across the country, the Center team with UMass Boston economist Randy Albelda asked two very important questions:
- Does work pay for people who have ended their reliance on public assistance and entered the paid workforce?
- How does the packaging of earnings and public income supports actually work for families?
Through a 2004–2007 action research project that the Center led with national partners, we sought to answer those questions and uncovered the hardship and eligibility gaps that impact family households with adult wage earners. We also identified the “cliff effects”3 that serve to undermine families’ desires to increase their work hours or accept promotions. These “broken places” in the system have not as yet been fixed.
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Case in point: A program participant at a recent nonprofit event stood up and asked the audience: “Why is it that if I accept a $50 increase in earnings, I’ll have to pay $50 more for housing, $50 more for child care and $50 more for healthcare?” Similarly, at a recent research forum at the State House, Lisa Gurgone, Executive Director of the statewide Home Care Aide Council, pleaded for a solution to the same problem, which causes home care aides to cut their hours when their wages increase. Panelists noted that care workers—those who care for our children and those who care for our elders—are the ones caught in these very tough dilemmas!
Which leads me to…
Our Unfinished Collective Agenda
Two ideas stand out for me that naturally build upon the threads from the three stories.
First, CSP team members and I have evaluated philanthropic interventions that use a collective impact framework for social change. In each case, these social change efforts engage broad constituencies in building and generating very big, game changing visions—within very limited timeframes—from a funding and long-term outcome point of view. With time-limited funding as a jump-starter, huge demands are placed on nonprofits to change the ways they do business— including, in this resource-scarce environment, putting their own organizational interests second for the good of the whole—to have a collective impact. And we have witnessed them eagerly stepping up to the plate.
Inevitably, philanthropic funding stops short of what it would actually take to realize the big vision; the innovations that worked appear to be forgotten, lost forever. Effective practices that have started to blossom lack the sustaining resource flows to go the whole distance. The burden tends to be on the local nonprofits or collaboratives to find ways to sustain what works.
Then, new funders start the visioning process all over again—from scratch, rarely building upon what has worked. Sustained public funding, realistically needed to scale up and replicate what works, is rarely secured.
Second, we are very far away from tapping the ingenuity, creativity, and insights of those most directly impacted by economic hardship for fixing our flawed social policies that at times do more harm than good.
Ponder this: 90 percent of people living below the poverty line manage to get above it within three years; about a third fall back within a short period.4
We all know that having a family income above the federal poverty line is in no way equal to economic adequacy nor economic stability. That issue aside for a moment, just imagine the ingenuity, hard work, juggling of demands, and other gargantuan efforts that families undertake to make this kind of progress to move themselves above the poverty line.
A charity approach is pervasive in our ways of talking, in our ways of thinking, and in the design of our outdated social policy remedies. Such charity inadvertently shames and disempowers those least resourced and most excluded. Without taking seriously the insights of those most directly affected, we will remain stuck in solutions that not only don’t work, but most importantly impede the relentless choices families themselves are making every day to overcome the challenges they face.
These families and individuals and communities have the greatest stake in creating effective, realistic and shame-proof solutions:
What would it take to flip the system on its head so that they were the idea generators and drivers of change, with powerful other public, philanthropic, nonprofit and business partners?
I’ll complete my reflections by offering some words that have inspired me for nearly five decades, hoping that they will inspire us collectively as we move forward together to fix what is broken. In the 1960s, I was very fortunate to be a social justice activist with others living and working in Appalachian communities, hard hit by extreme levels of poverty and egregious forms of discrimination. We chose as a reflection of our shared values and life commitments the following inspiring words: Honor and trespass boundaries as love and justice demand.
Boundaries create safety and predictability; they also divide us at times and prevent us from being one loving community. In the context of state policies and programs, agency-level boundaries help each state agency to accomplish its specific mission, but also contribute to siloed policy making that creates havoc and impedes economic progress for families, households and the service providers they turn to for help. Classism, racism, sexism and many other -isms are reflections of boundaries that divide us.
We are collectively called to trespass all of these boundaries to realize reciprocity in relationships, fundamental respect for families’ own desires and community building across class and cultures.
We are collectively called to trespass all of these boundaries, ensuring that those most directly affected are at the table with power and influence.
In the future, I am casting my lot—my time, treasure and talent—to those organizations, coalitions, and movements that have the courage to Honor and Trespass Boundaries as Love and Justice Demand.
- The UMass Boston’s College of Management hosts the Center for Collaborative Leadership. One of its signature programs is a yearlong leadership development program in which 40-50 Emerging Leaders, nominated by their companies, break into small teams, using collaborative leadership approaches, to assist organizations with important programmatic initiatives. For three to four years, the Center for Social Policy and this program have been working together to use face-to-face dialogues between those with the direct experience of poverty and emerging leader team members to change minds and hearts, leading to changes in business practices—one crucial dimension in the fight to impact the root causes of poverty.
- The Merging of Knowledge process enables those with the direct experience of poverty to surface and share their ideas as equal partners with policymakers, researchers and others.
- This term refers to the sudden loss of or decrease in public income supports, such as housing or child care assistance, when families’ earnings rise but are not sufficient on their own to meet families’ basic needs.
- DeNevas-Walt, Carmen, Proctor, B.D., Smith, J.C. (2013, September). Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the U.S.: 2012. Population Report. U.S. Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration, U.S. Census Bureau.