Category Archives: Circles in Action

Working Together to End Poverty + Racism

“Thousands of protesters gather at the Minnesota State Capitol on Sunday to demand justice for George Floydional Guard troops secured the perimeter of the Capitol building.” (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

How can Circles USA adequately respond to racism? Let’s be in community together to listen to each other and support our way forward. Please join me on Wednesday, June 3 at 1pm Pacific, 2pm Mountain, 3pm Central, 4pm Eastern. Email for the Zoom Meeting ID and password. In the meantime, here are some of my reflections:

Changing the mindset: At Circles, we believe that human beings can eradicate the conditions of poverty. The challenge is not about finding enough resources or figuring out what systems to change, but aligning the conviction: “We can and should end poverty!” Let’s bring this same bold energy to encourage ourselves and our communities that we can make a difference in addressing racism.

Understanding this present moment: A recurring question during meetings with our board, staff, and partners: “What are you seeing/hearing/noticing about COVID-19 in relation to current trends for poverty reduction?” This week, we’ll reflect on the recent protests and social unrest. Your perspective is invited too: here’s more about our story-collection process. Gaining clarity about this present moment will inform the organization’s strategic planning, ensuring we can be nimble enough to respond to what’s most pressing. 

Addressing inequity: In U.S. history, we have been managing the symptoms of poverty but not treating the cause. Circles Chapters advance necessary systemic change through the “Big View” committee and monthly meeting. Soon, Circles USA will release a policy platform with local and national recommendations on six key issues: quality jobs, cliff effect, broadband access, healthcare, housing, and transportation. We can use a lens of race equity in each Big View issue; as we design policy solutions, we can compensate for structural biases that make marginalized communities most vulnerable. 

Voting: Circles USA has been organizing a non-partisan Civic Participation Campaign to promote voter education and voter turnout. The campaign launched with a webinar, Civic Engagement 101. On June 17, our webinar about a “candidates’ forum” will teach Chapters how to share community stories with those in a position to make change. Your voice and your vote matters.

Considering privilege: Circles USA recently upgraded training for volunteers to be more responsive to the complex context of poverty with new material on structural racism. Understanding my own privilege, as a white person, has been important to my social-justice journey. There are so many great resources, such as Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People To Talk About Racism and Layla Saad’s Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor

Reaching out: Our friends, family, neighbors, and colleagues who are Black/African-American are experiencing a lot of trauma this week. Let’s not feel so daunted by injustice that we forget to ask those around us, “How can I best support you right now?” Building relationships across lines of difference is the heart of the Circles model. In a time of such intense polarization, let’s invest in relationships.

Many thanks to our Circles Chapters for continuing to build such thriving communities. I’m looking forward to our upcoming community conversation. 

~Jamie Haft, Executive Director, Circles USA

NEW 2019 Impact Report Released

Click HERE to download the PDF.

Featured sections include:

  • Our new Chapter curriculum for Circle Leaders, Allies, and Staff
  • Our work on systemic change, including Big View, Cliff Effect, and Poverty Reduction Labs
  • A recap of our 2019 Leadership Conference

We thank all of our dedicated staff, volunteers, and Circle Leaders across our network whose steadfast efforts are represented in this report.

Office of Family Assistance Publishes Brief Featuring Circles USA as Innovative Strategy for TANF

Circles USA is proud to be featured as an innovative strategy for TANF programs in a new brief, “Social Capital Initiatives To Achieve Employment Goals.” This brief is part of the Office of Family Assistance’s Emerging Practice Series, which highlights how TANF agencies and their partners are helping low-income individuals gain and sustain meaningful employment.

Here’s a description:

“TANF participants in Utah are moving from poverty to earning incomes at or above 200% of the federal poverty level (FPL) through a social capital-building strategy. Implemented by the Utah Department of Workforce Services through partnerships with community action agencies, the Circles program matches TANF participants with community volunteers in a long-term weekly support group. With this circle of support and resources, participants are empowered to move toward employment and self-sufficiency.

The brief [gives] an overview of the program model, and the results that have been achieved. Compelling stories of participants’ success and suggestions from TANF agency staff to their peers provide actionable insights and on-the-ground perspectives.”

Click here to download the brief.


Circles Sharing Webinar: 2020 Big View Strategy + Civic Engagement 101

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:

  • how a bill becomes a law;
  • which policymakers 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 a change.

Watch the webinar here.

Support Through Coronavirus/COVID-19

We’re sending this message of support and gratitude to all our Circles communities across North America. Thank you for the work you do – in times of crisis and every day – to build thriving communities.

We trust each Circle location is following recommendations from the CDC about keeping community centers, workplaces, and schools safe. Below please find suggestions about using technology to stay connected to your local Circles community.*

A Community of Practice Virtual Meeting will be held on Tuesday, March 17th at 1pm Pacific, 2pm Mountain, 3pm Central, 4pm Eastern: online via Go-To Meeting or by phone: #646-749-3131 with access code: 549-928-581. Please join us to explore strategies for supporting Circle Leaders and community members through this challenging time. 

In solidarity,

Jamie Haft, Executive Director of Circles USA

*Thanks to Kamatara Johnson, Jen Nibley, Monique Proffitt, and Courtney Cowan for compiling these tips from our community’s internal discussion on Freedcamp and from other resources.

Resources and Recommendations

If your government or local schools have required closing for gatherings of your size, please follow their lead on canceling in-person events for their suggested timeframe.

Here is the link to all 50 State Health Departments with resources for patient and healthcare providers and the recommendations from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) to learn more.

Staying Connected with Your Circles Community 

Please reach out by email and phone to Circles participants, including Circle Leaders and volunteers. While some of the work of Circles can be adapted to virtual meetings, please keep in mind that your community members will need more than self-guided learning. There is an emotional, financial, and physical impact of the Coronavirus/COVID-19, so reaching out personally to individuals will be meaningful as we bridge this difficult time.

Additionally, your Chapter’s Services Team can survey, via Google Forms, your Circles community members to ascertain any immediate needs people may have including childcare and internet access, and then research what local services are being offered in your area. For example, here’s a survey from Albuquerque.

The following suggestions are from Monique Proffitt in Circles Johnson County, IN:

We are creating a Google Doc Folder with each Circle Leader’s goals and next steps with an electronic sign-in sheet and link that the Leader, their Allies, and the Coach will have access to, so individual Circles can still meet twice a month and we are able to capture attendance and progress for data. 

Resource teams can meet the same way, with a link to the information needed for that meeting. We will have a six month e-learning and meeting plan.

We are using Zoom and found that, with stressed systems, non-paying users have limited signal; we went ahead and paid the yearly $150 fee to secure our space. We’re loading materials needed for Circle Leader and Ally training. We can easily make it a web-based classroom, so we can continue to train. It will be a Google Doc folder with a link for each potential Circle Leader as well, with a facilitator’s folder link to access all materials needed. 

If we don’t end up needing them from home, we can still use them in class with computers and be no waste. We’re working on making a mockup to drop on Freedcamp so you have a visual template to work off of.

Some internet companies are offering services for people who don’t have it at no or a discounted cost. Starting March 13, 2020, Comcast is offering two months of free internet to low income families. If you have Circle Leaders who don’t have internet either for this or their children’s e-school you might want to check into that now before they also get overloaded. The mobile internet check outs at the libraries will go fast, and people might not be able to return them.

Collecting Stories to Guide Circles USA’s Future

For more than 20 years, the Circles USA network has pursued this mission: to inspire and equip families and communities to end poverty and thrive.

As a fairly new executive director joining an established organization with a respected history, I’ve been learning about the challenges and successes in our past. Now, I’m inviting you to join me in a reflective process to refresh our vision for the future.

Guiding questions:

  • What is the nature of this unique present moment — the zeitgeist — as it relates to poverty?
  • What social, cultural, political, and economic forces are shaping how we understand poverty in this unique moment?
  • What experiences from our work illuminate what’s most important for responding to poverty today and in the future?

To probe these questions, we’re collecting stories from Circles USA members and partners. Stories are integral to the Circles method. We ask all of our Circle Leaders to consider their own stories as they develop a unique plan to escape poverty. So, gathering stories from our entire network to guide us into the future is consistent with the method. From these stories, we aim to identify new ways to support the next generation of diverse leaders committed to ending poverty.

Your story can be submitted in writing or other media like video/audio recording or photo collage. To be interviewed, to submit your written or multimedia story, or to nominate someone with an important story to participate, email me at Thanks in advance for your engagement and vision!

Story prompts:

Participants can choose to answer any combination of questions that resonate. Here are questions about your personal journey and aspirations:

  • How did you come to the work of poverty alleviation?
  • Tell us about one moment that shaped your commitment to ending poverty.
  • What breaks your heart about the issue?
  • What motivates you to continue seeking change?
  • Paint a picture of poverty five years from now: Is it worse or better? What has changed – any why?

And these prompts ask about your relationship to Circles USA (CUSA), if relevant:

  • How did you come to be involved in CUSA?
  • What does the organization mean to you?
  • What words or language would you use to describe the CUSA organization (its mission, values, culture, and leadership)? Is there an experience or story you can share that speaks to your response?
  • How might the CUSA network expand to more fully reflect the diverse demographics of those experiencing poverty across the U.S.? And how can the CUSA Board and/or leadership better reflect that diversity?
  • Paint a picture of CUSA five years from now. What does the organization look like? How might it be different from today? What has changed – and why?

~Jamie Haft, Executive Director, Circles USA

PS: Thanks to Christy Vines of the Ideos Institute for collaborating on this strategic planning project.

Connecting with Allied Voter Campaigns

In conjunction with our 2020 Civic Participation Campaign, Circles USA (CUSA) Board Member Joan Kuriansky prepared this list of allied efforts.

But first, let’s review the basics: How 501(c)(3)s Can Talk to Candidates During an Election Year. Alliance for Justice provides this wonderful resource for nonprofit organizations.

Below, we share other 501(c)3 organizations undertaking voter participation efforts this year in states where Circles Chapters are located. These organizations share our commitment to addressing poverty in our country. 

Connecting with these organizations could be useful this year and for many years to come. In the short-term, these organizations might:

  • Provide Chapters with an easy way to join a voter engagement project
  • Partner with Chapters on efforts to engage candidates or government officials;
  • Share with Chapters relevant information or background on some of the Big View issues being addressed. 

In the long-term, some of these organizations might be partners in the Big View efforts that chapters undertake, bringing new visibility to the mission of ending poverty.

Poor People’s Campaign

This effort was created by Rev. William J. Barber II to raise the voices of the poor and allies of the poor. The Campaign advocates for policy changes at all levels of government and more recently has been engaged in many efforts to “get out the vote.” In addition to collaborating with campaigns across 20 states, the campaign has developed state-by-state fact sheets for nearly all U.S. states. Fact sheets include state-specific data on the extent of poverty in each state, along with principles and a “call to action” with specific policy goals. Between May 2019 and May 2020, the Campaign is leading a major national bus tour. The tour will culminate in the Mass Poor Peoples’ March and Assembly in Washington, DC on June 20, 2020. 

Community Change

This organization works at both the grassroots and national level to affect policy change by empowering women, immigrants, people of color, and those experiencing low incomes. Their goal is a “just, equitable, and inclusive economy and democracy where all people and communities thrive.” They collaborate with many organizations and use innovative community-organizing models. Notable is their work building an “electoral powerhouse” in communities of color through Community Change Action in 20 states. 

Movement Voter Project

This is a nationwide campaign to engage disenfranchised voters to participate in elections at all levels of government. Their innovative approach supports local community-based organizations in 40 states working for both long-term policy change and efforts to “get out the vote.” They are placing emphasis in five key states. Chapters should consider as possible partners the local and national organizations they are supporting.

When We All Vote

Their purpose is to “make sure that every eligible voter is registered and ready to vote throughout the country.” The organization is addressing the race and age divide in voting and changing the culture around voting. They provide tools and training materials to help partner organizations. It was launched by Michelle Obama in conjunction with a large, partially celebrity-led advisory board, and is directed by Valerie Jarrett. 

~Joan Kuriansky, Board Member, Circles USA

2019 CUSA Leadership Conference Network Awards

Best Video #1:

Circles Newaygo, Michigan

Encapsulating what Circles is with this animated video

Best Video #2:

Circles Davis County, Utah

Highlighting the people and community in a Circles Chapter

Best Social Media:

Arrive Utah

Best Newsletter:

Circles Ashland, Virginia

Outstanding Allies:

Joyce Gale of Circles Utah Valley

Joyce Gale has been a Circles Ally for the last three years. She was matched with a Circle Leader named Menou who raised four kids as a single mom. Menou is unable to read because of a brain injury when she was young, which restricted some jobs that were open to her even though she is a hard worker, a quick learner, and a valuable employee.

Joyce befriended Menou and went right to work to help Menou overcome this obstacle by doing research on this kind of disability, finding a doctor who would donate the therapy she needed. Joyce went with Menou to the appointments and supported Menou through these, explaining the confusing items that Menou couldn’t read for herself. Most importantly, Joyce was a steady friend in helping Menou navigate things. With the help of Joyce, Menou graduated from Circles last month at 200% of FPG!

Circles owes much of its success to allies like Joyce. Joyce says, “My life has been blessed because I know Menou. She is my friend. I love her and want to help her in any way I can. Because of Circles I have gained greater compassion and understanding of those in poverty. Since joining Circles, I am a better friend to everyone I meet, and I am confident to offer kindness and helpfulness to others. I have a better understanding of how to help and support people and how to allow them to become their best selves.”

Beth Young of Circles Davis County, Utah

“Beth brings an energy to our group that is contagious in driving change. Her ability to pinpoint a person’s skills, ability, and uniqueness has brought hope to everyone that she meets. Her love and enthusiasm for life is not only felt but seen by her actions and willingness to listen and encourage.Beth is often one of the first to the meeting as she helps with set up and prepares to greet each individual coming to Circles. She also arrives early to our events and helps pull the event together. Whether a staff, participant, or visitor, they feel her love and true concern for them as not only a member of our Circles family but as a person.

Our meetings often start with Beth having a hug for everyone and a name tag as she works to unify our meetings. During the meeting, her smile of encouragement to all participants and kind words encourage and support us during vulnerable moments, bringing a feeling of safety. Our chapter, staff, and participants are all better off due to her contribution to our Circles family.”


Outstanding Circle Leaders:

Autumn Hendrickson of Circles Utah Valley

Our first outstanding Circle Leader is a single mother of three who, in just four years, raised her income 540%. Hendrickson gives credit to her Circles Allies who had confidence in her and helped with her own confidence. She now plans to buy a home! Congratulations on your success Autumn and Circles Utah Valley. Click here for the full article.

Jess and Cameron Lyman of Circles Davis County, Utah

Our second outstanding Circle Leader actually goes to a couple who joined Circles in December of 2018, got connected with the Small Business Development Center, and began their dream of operating a food truck. With the help of Circles Davis County, Utah and especially Lamont, Circle Leaders Jess and Cameron Lyman became a great hit with their food truck. They now earn in one event what they used to earn in a week. Congratulations to Jess and Cameron Lyman and Circles Davis County Utah.


The Cliff Effect: Policy Recommendations for Advocates, Leaders, and Stakeholders

This report integrates research by Circles USA concerning the Cliff Effect, data from Michigan households utilizing public support, and three hypothetical family cases to develop both general and program-specific policy recommendations. These policy recommendations aim to mitigate the impact of the Cliff Effect on families receiving public assistance as they transition to economic self-sufficiency. The report focuses on the Cliff Effect from Michigan’s Family Independence Program (FIP), Food Assistance Program (FAP), and Child Development and Care Program (CDC). Policy-level recommendations focus on bringing awareness to key stakeholders (public officials, community leaders, and Michigan employers) about the impact of the Cliff Effect on families seeking economic self-sufficiency, development of community assistance programs to help families avoid cliffs, and the development of employment training programs to help displaced workers in Michigan.

Based on the most recent Census reports, the poverty rate in Michigan is 16.3%. The majority of those affected are single-parent (typically female-headed) households with one or more children.37 An estimated 23% of Michigan’s children current live in poverty, defined as less than 100% of FPLs.36 These numbers do not include an additional 25% of Michigan households who are considered “Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed (ALICE).” As a result, the Cliff Effect experienced by families moving off CDC benefits may be the highest priority for Michigan policy makers to address. Specific recommendations for Michigan’s CDC program include:

1. Extension of the program, at some level of benefit, to families with household incomes between 130% and at least 250% of FPLs.

2. Development of a graduated exit ramp, where the decrease in received subsidy is proportional to the amount the family’s earned income exceeds the exit criteria.

3. Development of CDC reimbursement rates categories that reflect the market rates for highly-rated daycare providers, reducing balance billing payments (the financial remainder which is passed on to parents) for families who are seeking quality care for their children.

Read More…

What is Circles USA’s Response to Potential Food Stamps Cut?

The Trump administration has proposed a new rule for the Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which could potentially eliminate eligibility for three million families. Circles USA’s Founder Scott Miller wrote this response. The administration is collecting feedback through this Monday, September 23; instructions for commenting can be found here. Our appreciation goes to the Circles Washtenaw Big View Team for their inspiring civic-engagement efforts.

The concept of mutual responsibility has always guided our poverty-reduction work at Circles USA. We inspire and equip individuals to take control of their lives and do whatever they can to become economically stable, no matter the external conditions. Likewise, we advise government and community-based program leaders to take responsibility for adding value to these individual efforts by building coherent systems to support and reward all those seeking economic stability.

We currently have a poverty management system that is not accountable to reducing poverty rates. (At best, it keeps people experiencing poverty safe.) While it is tempting to cut benefits to reduce a perceived “dependency,” this alone will not reduce poverty in our nation. We first need a poverty reduction system that is designed to support people out of poverty. Second, we need this new system to converge with the emerging economy, not an outdated notion of job creation. If we don’t generate enough quality jobs to overcome rapid changes in the use of automation, artificial intelligence, and global outsourcing, then we must create new jobs and reimagine the social safety net so that everyone has enough money to thrive.

Before we make cuts in our safety net, let’s first transform our programs to support people all of the way out of poverty and into economic stability. Let’s address the “Cliff Effect” that reduces benefits for basic needs faster than people can replace them with new earned income. Let’s make sure our local, state, and national economic-development programs are generating a robust economy that provides enough jobs, so people don’t need as much work-subsidy programs like food stamps. Once we have all these in place, we are better positioned to assess whether or not it is time to reduce programs like food stamps.