“Is my work making a big enough difference?” I’ve built a life around social justice work for the last 15 years, and this question has consistently challenged me. Burnout is a critical threat to people working exhaustive hours for dignity, security, and stability without seeing commensurate results. In the face of injustice, we must nurture belief in our ability to make positive change. When I was first trained as a community organizer, I learned the importance of building momentum through early wins. At Circles, participants use SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timebound) goals to make progress on their individual plan out of poverty. With a similar idea, Big View teams take actions–large and small–to address the systemic barriers that trap people in poverty.
In Part One, I described the conceptual framework of the Big View: a grassroots “task force” that empowers Circles chapters to pursue systemic change. Testimonials from Circles participants and volunteers revealed how Big View activities develop confidence toward self-advocacy and civic engagement. Plus, we shared a dialogue process that’s ready for use in your communities.
We Build Policy Platforms
To inspire Circles chapters to think big, Circles USA published a poverty-reduction platform with policy recommendations at the local, state, and national levels. This platform, authored by Board Chair Joan Kuriansky, addresses six issues our chapters flagged as high priority: quality jobs, the “cliff effect,” broadband access, healthcare, housing, and transportation. Critically, the platform also lays out Circles USA’s commitment to addressing the structural biases that unjustly affect people of color and other historically marginalized communities.
Since publishing the policy platform, chapters have reported Big View milestones on additional topics. At the headquarters, we’re continuing to harvest learning from all of these efforts for the network’s benefit.
We Tackle Issues
Here are some examples of issues being explored in the Circles network.
Quality jobs — Circles Dorchester County, MD interviewed local manufacturers, trade contractors, and hospitality companies to locate the best job opportunities for residents experiencing poverty. They also interviewed job seekers to understand the obstacles limiting entry-wage workers. Based on this research, Circles Dorchester County recently launched its first cohort of participants, which aims to provide more intentional support for professional success in the region’s top industries. Many chapters–such as Circles Greenville County, SC–promote entrepreneurship as well, empowering Circles participants to start their own businesses.
The “cliff effect” — More than a dozen Circles chapters are piloting the use of tools from our two major partners. The Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta created an online dashboard and planner to help individuals compare different job pathways and create a long-term budget for overcoming the cliff effect. The Leap Fund created a coaching program and a calculator for recipients of public benefits to determine if they will hit a cliff, when it will happen, and how long it will take to recover.
Broadband access — Circles Carbon County, UT helped their participants challenge a local utility company that was charging exorbitant late and reconnection fees. Other chapters have organized laptop donations during COVID and provided tech support to help families join weekly Circles virtual meetings.
Healthcare — Circles Campaign of the Mid-Ohio Valley, WV hosted an online candidates’ forum on healthcare. Circles participants were empowered to ask questions and offer feedback on politicians’ policy platforms. Meanwhile, several chapters advanced the regional focus on public health by growing community gardens that expand access to fresh produce.
Housing — Circles Salt Lake, UT helped in the creation and passing of the “truth in renting” bill, which protects renters from being ambushed by hidden fees that weren’t disclosed at the time they signed a lease and requires landlords to disclose up front any restrictions against renting to people with criminal records or poor credit histories before pocketing the application fees. Circles Laurel Highlands Region, PA discovered that banks won’t give loans to potential builders because of the limited infrastructure (water, sewage, etc.) in their rural area; Circles participants are testifying to policy makers and community leaders to communicate the need for affordable housing. Some Circles chapters have also connected participants to COVID-related government funds for eviction protection.
Transportation — Circles West Orange, FL was concerned about kids crossing at an unsafe intersection on their way to school, so participants learned how to work with the City Police Department to have a crosswalk installed. Several chapters are also pursuing stop-gap measures, such as bike-sharing and carpooling, to increase Circles participants’ access to reliable transportation.
Predatory lending/credit restoration — Circles Troup County, GA developed a program for Circles participants to pay off predatory loans with unreasonable interest rates. The Chapter initiated a partnership with CenterState Bank to enable Circles participants to borrow up to $750 to pay off their high-interest loans. The loans negotiated through CenterState have an interest rate of 4.5% and no “loan origination” fees.
We Share Our Stories
From early wins to lasting systemic change, Circles chapters are removing the barriers that trap people in poverty. To increase visibility for this work, let’s create a compendium of Big View actions in the Circles network! To be included in Circles USA’s forthcoming publication, click here to access the questionnaire via Google Docs for your written responses. If you’d prefer to be interviewed, please email email@example.com.
Thanks in advance for your contributions, Jamie Haft, Circles USA Executive Director
“Someone I love is experiencing poverty; what can I do?” This was a question at the heart of my personal life when I first encountered Circles USA. I had witnessed how someone could work so hard but still not overcome the many barriers to financial security, from catastrophic medical bills to workplace discrimination. This experience strengthened my conviction that we must address the root causes of poverty that hurt the people we love. The Circles model showed me how to carry this conviction into action. Our chapters help families get out of poverty and remove the barriers that get in the way. Most important is that the lived experiences of poverty–our stories, memories, and hard-learned lessons–shape the approach to change. One of my priorities, as executive director, is to further document the many ways that Circles chapters are pursuing systemic change in their communities.
We Take the Big View
Each Circles chapter has a Big View Team to tackle systemic change. This team includes community members drawn from government, schools, nonprofits, businesses, and philanthropies. Circles participants with first-hand knowledge of poverty share their perspectives to shape immediate, practical solutions as well as policy change.
Each Big View Team:
– Analyzes the service gaps and systems barriers that limit economic mobility. (For example: How is limited access to a bus route keeping Circles participants from job interviews, and what can we do to change that?) – Builds community capacity for civic engagement. (What is preventing Circles participants from voting in the upcoming local election, and how can we prove to them that their vote matters?) – Raises awareness of the issues. (How can we amplify the voices of Circles participants in dialogue with those in the community who have inherent biases against people experiencing poverty?) – Engages local, state, and federal elected officials. (Which politicians can advance specific change on this issue? How do we mobilize them?) – Implements a community-driven action plan to achieve measurable change (What are our short-term and long-term goals?)
We Advocate For Ourselves—and Each Other
Whether we promote voter education, testify to government officials, or work with city planners to grow infrastructure, participants develop the skills to tackle a multitude of barriers to economic security. Once participants grow their confidence in advocating for themselves, there is no end to the issues they can tackle.
”Being a part of a Town Hall meeting with three U.S. Representatives has given me a newfound confidence in the way the system works,” said Bonita Thomas, former Circles participant and now staff at Circles West Orange in Florida. “I feel like my voice was heard. I believe this gave the Representatives a look at the people that are on the ground being impacted by the decisions they make.”
Circles volunteers likewise benefit from participation on their Big View Team. As volunteer Sandi Wallace from Circles West Orange reflected: “Having an opportunity to teach Circles participants about the electoral process and to provide information about candidates and issues required me to do more homework than ever before. I was way more engaged in the election this year, and I know that others from Circles were more engaged too. The information shared at Big View meetings helped us feel informed and empowered to vote. Increasing voter education and turnout reinforces in me the belief that Circles is benefiting our whole community.”
We Engage in Dialogue
To inspire community deliberation, Circles USA recently published a template for research and analysis on seven different issues that typically affect families experiencing poverty: quality jobs, broadband access, healthcare, housing, transportation, childcare, and credit/lending. Key questions posed include: When it comes to this issue, what are the needs of people experiencing poverty? What alternatives are available? What workarounds are people using? In what ways will solving this issue benefit the community? Do participants know the current policies related to this topic? How can we leverage this collective knowledge to find potential solutions?
Designed by Jenny Lipfert, all seven of these slide deck templates are available for use in your communities. Click here to download.
In Part Two, we feature Big View examples from across the country. Plus, there’s an invitation to share your story for a forthcoming publication.
With excitement about the work ahead, Jamie Haft, Circles USA Executive Director
At Circles, we ask participants experiencing poverty to work with us for at least 18 months. “Surviving” is where many participants begin. “Thriving” is our ultimate goal.
As a first-time executive director navigating leadership in a pandemic, these past 18 months gave me a visceral experience of “survival mode.” While my education and a decade of national leadership primed me for this moment, the weight of responsibility that comes with the role humbles me every day.
When COVID began, I worried: How will Circles USA survive an economic downturn? How will Circles chapters adapt their critical services from in-person to virtual? Most importantly, how will we support Circles stakeholders through such acute uncertainty and grief? Over time, the answers came from within our community. Just as Circles participants have the support and encouragement of volunteer Allies, our national network guided and inspired me as a leader during this collective crisis.
Throughout the pandemic, our staff hosted more virtual gatherings than ever before, convening our community of practice through 23 webinars and an online conference with 44 sessions. Our chapters exchanged a wealth of skill and wisdom on facilitating Circles virtually and organizing COVID-related mutual aid. Our board analyzed new national policies for COVID economic recovery to benefit Circles chapters and families. Our foundation partners unrestricted our grants, freeing funds for pressing needs. Our donors increased their annual gifts, showing such loyalty and courage during a recession. Our community supported each other through the crushing loss of lives. And, crucially, we used technology to uplift and amplify the joy of Circles participants as they achieved their goals. In a time when survival itself is most precarious, I’ve gained new appreciation for the many ways our relationships help us to thrive together.
I want to share with you the stories from Circles during COVID—stories of resiliency, community care, and thriving despite hardship. Our most recent Impact Report features amazing first-voice testimonies from our participants, volunteers, and staff.
Thanks to all of these Circles stakeholders, my vision of what’s possible for Circles USA is expanding. From surviving to thriving, questions we’re asking now include:
– How can Circles communities deepen the impact of their efforts toward systemic change? We’re documenting the actions being taken on issues from our policy platform: quality jobs, the “cliff effect,” broadband access, healthcare, housing, and transportation. – How can we significantly grow the number of participants achieving economic mobility? We’re culling best practices, such as newfound benefits of using technology for aspects of the Circles model, to fuel chapter expansion and scalability. – How can we help communities name bold goals for poverty alleviation and develop cooperative plans to achieve those goals? We’re consulting on poverty alleviation systems in select sites, testing new tools and processes so they can be replicated across the country.
I’ll share more about the answers to these, and other big-picture questions driving our work, in coming months. In the meantime, please accept my heartfelt thanks for being part of our network during a critical time. I am so grateful for this opportunity to learn and lead alongside you. Circles USA is poised to thrive, and that growth is a testament to you.
With much appreciation,Jamie Haft, Circles USA Executive Director
Circles USA invites your participation in our non-partisan Get-Out-The-Vote (GOTV) Challenge!
Pictured above: Circles Winter Garden, FL
Is your Chapter seeking to engage policymakers? promote voter education and voter turnout? advance lasting change on issues like affordable housing, the Cliff Effect, reliable transportation, and more? This webinar is for you!
Through Circles USA, Chapters and Poverty Reduction Labs are advancing systemic change on key issues. This is the Big View – and it creates a foundation to develop and promote a shared anti-poverty agenda. In an election year like 2020, we have a unique opportunity to scale-up Big View efforts across the country and raise visibility for our mission of ending poverty.
The webinar will feature guest facilitator Amy Basken, a seasoned legislative advocate who serves as Director of Programs at the Pediatric Congenital Heart Association. Amy also volunteers with Circles Sauk Prairie, WI.
Amy’s webinar presentation will cover the basics of civic engagement, including:
We’re making progress on our New Year’s resolutions here at Circles USA (CUSA). At the top of our to-do list: launching a non-partisan Civic Participation Campaign for 2020.
When CUSA Chapters advance systemic change on key issues, we call this work the Big View. In an election year like 2020, we have a unique opportunity to scale-up Big View efforts across the country and raise visibility for the mission of ending poverty.
Activities this year include:
To begin, CUSA is hosting a February webinar with guest facilitator Amy Basken, a seasoned legislative advocate and volunteer with Circles Sauk Prairie, WI. Amy’s presentation will refresh participants on: how a bill becomes a law; which policy makers to contact; tips for in-person and virtual communication with officials; opportunities during an election year; and the importance of sharing your stories with those in a position to make change.
In subsequent months, we’ll highlight Big View success stories and feature resources on specific issues of critical importance to the network. For example, CUSA Chief Learning Officer Kamatara Johnson recently surveyed all Chapters about their Big View experiences and aspirations. The 24 survey responses revealed these top issues:
Because those experiencing poverty are considered the experts, input from Circle Leaders will drive our efforts to design community-wide solutions.
By the conclusion of this campaign, we’ll create a compendium with everything we collectively learned this year.
CUSA’s Civic Participation Campaign will engage a diversity of political viewpoints. We believe that sustainable social change comes from the bottom up, when individual members of the community compel elected officials and institutions to take action. By encouraging voter education and voter turnout in 2020, we seek to ensure that all candidates elected will embrace an agenda concerned with ending poverty.
This campaign is non-partisan, and we will provide CUSA members with information about how to be civically engaged while honoring our status as a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization.
The Big View Advisory Committee is meeting every 4-6 weeks to lead the campaign’s strategy and activities. Thanks to members, Joan Kuriansky (CUSA Board); Lisa Doyle-Parsons (CUSA Coach in WV); Amy Basken (CUSA Volunteer in WI); and Lynette Fields (Circles Central Florida Director in FL). To join this Committee or contribute to campaign plans, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. To stay informed, sign-up for our Big View monthly newsletter on poverty research and policy change.
~ Jamie Haft, Executive Director, Circles USA
As the Chief Learning Officer for Circles USA (CUSA) and one of the key planners for our 2019 Leadership Conference, I’ve been asked quite a few times about my key takeaways and the best part of our time together. There was a lot on which to reflect:110 participants representing 24 states plus D.C., 28 breakout sessions, three featured speakers, and everything that happened in between. It really comes down to one realization for me: This conference embodied the difference between a network and a community of practice.
We insist that Circles USA is not a program–it is an initiative. Similarly, I now know from my experience at the conference: we are not a network–we truly are a community of practice.
A community of practice can be defined as the place where domain, practice, and community meet. Our domain is ending poverty. Our practice is all of the learning and innovation that continue to keep this initiative relevant and potent. Our community consists of concentric circles: local, county, neighboring communities, state, nation, and globe.
While CUSA exists in 70+ Chapters and now four Poverty Reduction Labs, locations are not a franchise. It’s not about wearing the same blue and white polo shirt; it’s not about checking a box. Each Chapter and Lab is empowered to use the model and its best practices and then customize in ways that make sense for that community. We have a dynamic (not static) domain within which to do powerful work to end poverty.
Then the practice expands and deepens as Chapters and Labs share their innovations with each other. The conference’s 28 breakout sessions were almost entirely presented by people in Circles: we have passionate and skilled experts in-house. As we say in Circles, “everyone has something to learn, and everyone has something to give.” The conference held space to honor innovation, to elevate the voices of our leaders and visionaries, and to inspire each other to take risks. Ending poverty is pioneering work!
What is special about our sharing is the sense of care and attention to people in Circles give to each other. There’s support professionally and personally. I knew regardless of what we planned for the conference, the most important sessions would happen in the in-between — the unscripted time of breaks, meals, and nighttime activities. These moments build the intentional friendships that fuel Circles on every level. This bonding gives us the motivation and courage to persevere upon returning home and facing whatever obstacles may be in the way of standing in our truth and ending poverty. Our work is more potent because of each other.
And so we live the Circles model of moving communities from surviving to thriving, developing courage and skills to change the system, and supporting each other to persevere. The values of Circles is reflected in the larger structure for how Chapters and Labs function and relate to each other. Everyone in Circles USA is positively impacted.
My goal at the CUSA Headquarters is to continue to encourage this connection with each other. I aim to support innovation and to push the boundaries of what people think is possible.
It’s easy to feel busy — nose-to-the-grindstone — forgetting to look up and around. But we have a dynamic and meaningful community of practice here that is as good as you engage with it. Make time for the webinars, the monthly network calls, and the wellness calls with CUSA staff. Read the newsletters, save money in your budget to attend the next Leadership Conference, and above all, reach out to each other and know you’re not alone.
During more than 20 years of speaking to communities throughout the United States and Canada, I have been making the statement that we can and should end poverty. I have never encountered any resistance to the idea that we should end poverty. It’s the “we can end poverty” that causes people to bring up their objections with statements such as, “We have been fighting the War on Poverty over 50 years, and it’s only gotten worse.” But have we really been fighting all these years? I would say no; we haven’t had a national goal to eliminate poverty.
First, the war in Vietnam increasingly distracted the Johnson administration’s focus from the War on Poverty. Some safety nets were implemented, such as the Food Stamp Act of 1964, the Social Security Act of 1965 that created Medicare and Medicaid. However, these safety nets created an array of allopathic remedies. Some would argue these remedies make people too busy with paperwork, getting their basic needs met and lessening the urgency of finding a job. This is a poverty management system.
Furthermore, there are no financial incentives from federal agencies for long-term results of supporting people out of poverty and increasing economic stability. The baby boomers provided such a substantial labor pool that local economies did not need to worry about qualifying those in poverty for the workforce. Without pressure from business, poverty management continues in government and with community-based organizations addressing various needs of small target populations.
My strong belief is that human beings can eradicate the condition of poverty. The challenge is not if we have enough resources to do it – because we have enough. It is not if we know how to make the necessary systemic changes – because we know enough. First and foremost, the challenge is aligning the conviction that we can and should end it.
Because society could be easily overwhelmed by the massive task of ending poverty in the face of realities described above, I have found value in an article by scientists on tipping points. They discovered that when just 10% of a network’s population holds an unshakable belief, the majority of that network of people will adopt that belief. As Boleslaw Szymanski at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has elaborated:
“When the number of committed opinion holders is below 10%, there is no visible progress in the spread of ideas. It would literally take the amount of time comparable to the age of the universe for this size group to reach the majority. Once that number grows above 10%, the idea spreads like flame.”
We have all seen in our time social movements that reached a tipping point and fundamentally changed society. How can we intentionally lead in a manner that causes a tipping point in our society? Achieving a tipping point is the goal that focuses Circles USA’s work to inspire and equip leaders to build Poverty Reduction Labs and Circles Chapters to support 10% of households in their communities to climb out of poverty. The theoretical potential of a tipping point is that once 10% is reached, momentum will take over, and the process of reducing poverty will become easier as more people embrace the effort.
Meeting resistance from within our own minds, as well as from those in our communities, we will need to align our intention to be transformational leaders. We need to follow our conviction about ending poverty, no matter what we confront along the way. Otherwise, we will be vulnerable to conforming to the status quo and colluding with a poverty management system that maintains poverty.
The guiding principle for the Transformational Leadership Program is to “become the change you want to see happen.” (“Be the change that you wish to see in the world” has been attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, although Wikiquote attributes the principle to Arleen Lorrance, at the Teleos Institute.) We are each hard-wired to want to make a difference in the world. If you assert the belief that we can support 10% of children out of poverty, you will eventually find others to join you. Together, you can build your own momentum toward a tipping point of people who will mobilize a new poverty reduction system around that goal in your community.
Scott. C. Miller, Founder and CEO, Circles USA
The content for this Blog Series is drawn from the Poverty Reduction Lab program, a collaboration with CQIU. The program’s focus includes:
To stay tuned, sign-up for The Big View Newsletter, our monthly bulletin about poverty research and policy change.
Amazon’s raise of full and part-time minimum wage to $15/hour is ALMOST good news. But businesses and policymakers on both sides of the aisle don’t fully understand how work subsidy programs like Medicaid, childcare assistance, food stamps, and cash assistance are prematurely cut before people earn enough to replace them.
I founded Circles USA in the mid 90’s to support families out of poverty. In 2014, I asked the Circles growing network of over 70 communities across 20 states, “What’s the biggest barrier to getting out of poverty?” The answer, unequivocally, was the Cliff Effect. When working families lose public support benefits faster than they can earn income to replace the lost resources, it feels like falling off a cliff.
For example, Circles supported a single Dad with three children in childcare. He got promoted at work with a $3/hour wage increase. The raise was just enough to reach the next category of eligibility for childcare assistance and to lose all of it. The net difference was a loss of $500/month! He did exactly what we hope everyone does—get a good job and increase earned income—but he suffered immediate consequences. This particular story had a happy ending: his employer was outraged by the system and so gave the additional $500/month needed to permanently let go of governmental childcare assistance. But don’t count on that being a universal response.
Subsidy programs are necessary to support people unable to earn a livable wage. The federal and state agencies must pro-rate the exit ramps so people can safely leave these programs. If one earns an extra dollar per hour, then give them a dollar less in subsidies, not four of five dollars less. The Cliff Effect creates a massive phantom workforce in which millions of people who want to work, could work, and should work, cannot afford to take the new job, accept the raise, or increase their hours.
There are no online calculators to help people understand the full impact of the Cliff Effect, so Circles USA and a team at Mass Mutual are collaborating to build a new tool. We are also working with foundations in Michigan and New Mexico to provide state policy makers with research on efforts to mitigate the Cliff Effect. Our goal is to provide states across the country and federal policy makers with resources that will estimate all the cost savings for eliminating the Cliff Effect. You can view our latest reports at CirclesUSA.org.
Raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour is a positive step to help hard-working Americans earn enough money for the basic needs of life. The other half of the solution is to eliminate the Cliff Effect that will unleash an enormous untapped workforce and save billions of dollars in taxes used for subsidies. Otherwise, positive increases in wages might be just enough income to put people in harm’s way.