Category Archives: Leadership for Poverty Reduction

Poverty Reduction Leadership Series

Q&A with Joan Kuriansky, Board Chair of Circles USA

Q&A with Joan Kuriansky, Board Chair of Circles USA

To refresh Circles USA’s vision for the future, we’ve been collecting stories from our members and partners. Here we share reflections from an interview with Joan Kuriansky, who became CUSA’s board chair in October 2020.

Tell us about one moment that shaped your commitment to ending poverty.

In my third year of college, I had the opportunity to volunteer in the social services department of a state mental institution.  I was struck by how little resources were available to either patients or social workers to increase the ability of patients to heal and fully return to their homes and communities. It was at this point that I decided to use the law to affect the circumstances of people’s lives rather than only deal with the consequences of such policies.

What motivates you to continue seeking change?

As my career progressed, the relationship between gender discrimination and poverty became clearer to me. I moved from D.C. to Philadelphia to run a large-scale shelter and legal center to serve battered women and children. We established the first domestic violence courts in the country as well as the first program to advocate on behalf of battered women in prison. No matter what their economic class beforehand, women were often destitute by the time they sought refuge for themselves and their children. Some women could not even leave the house without permission or have access to a credit card. The abusers exerted power and control in so many ways and usually with serious economic consequences.

After Philadelphia, I returned to DC where I served as executive director of The Older Women’s League. Because of economic inequities throughout their lifetime, older women were more likely to be poor and in poor health than men. As women aged, their options were limited in large part because they had not been compensated for the family caregiving they had done throughout their lives and women, who did work for pay, were often segregated in low-wage, dead-end work.

My last full-time position was as executive director of Wider Opportunities for Women (WOW). In the early 60’s, WOW was established in response to women being increasingly unwelcome in the workplace after World War II. Women of all class and education levels came to WOW for assistance in finding work. Over time WOW made a commitment to focus on low-income women with less access to education. WOW established the concept of non-traditional jobs in federal legislation, offered training for women to get apprenticeships as pathway to well-paid work, and, later, with partners across the country, launched a variety of programs to build a family’s economic security.

Given your impressive career, what reflections do you have about these issues today?

Today, happily women are represented in all kinds of jobs, whether in STEM, law or Wall Street. And I sometimes feel hopeful. But the statistics tell a different and old story. Women’s work is not valued as much as that of men. Jobs, primarily dominated by women, are the least well paid. It will take many years to close the gender equality pay gap. Those affected most are women from backgrounds with less access to education, inadequate housing and lack of affordable and adequate health care. A disproportionate number of these women are women of color. Today we hear the economic consequence of the “shecession” of the pandemic.

We must use our experience with COVID-19 to build strong and thriving communities in terms of public health and the economy with a commitment to address the social and historic inequities faced by so many. We can use the upcoming period to reset the norms of what is possible, fair and celebrate the voices of so many that have spoken out this year whether through the Poor People’s Campaign, Black Lives Matter, our own Circles Chapter leaders or so many others.

How did you get involved in CUSA?

I first learned about Circles when Scott reached out to WOW to explore a partnership. I served on the board of Circles during my tenure at WOW, and then Scott asked me to stay on the board. I continue to be so impressed by the work of the organization. The Circles multi-level approach is a recipe for success.

What do you find meaningful in CUSA’s work?

Our job is not to manage poverty but alleviate it; that is important. The Circles model is holistic. It’s about empowerment: the families are making their own decisions and plans, with community members providing resources. We are building partnerships, not paternalistic or unequal relationships.

I love how all participants and volunteers become advocates for change through the Big View. There’s been such creativity discovered at the local level to address access to healthcare, transportation, broadband, and other issues. Gloria Steinem writes “ordinary women do extraordinary things,” and that plays out in Circles every day.

How would you like to see CUSA grow?

I am excited by the possibility of Circles’ programs and outreach expanding to different populations and responding to the systemic and historic inequities laid bare during this period.  Are we using a gender or age lens? Are we considering the access to technology and transportation that rural or low-income families have or do not have? How do we build on the incredible strength and contributions made by so many people of color with so many different histories?

I envision communities that develop coordinated responses to lift families out of poverty that are centered on the experiences and wisdom or our leaders, with commitment from all sectors whether it be the government, private or non-sectors to develop the requisite policies and resources to implement the plan.  Ultimately, I believe that the work of Circles, community, by community, state by state, region by region will ultimately inform a national vision and blueprint to meet the economic and social imperative to end poverty in the United States.

~ Joan Kuriansky, Board Chair, and Former Executive Director of Wider Opportunities for Women (Washington, DC)


Learning Agendas for Yourself and Others

Refining your Personal Learning Agenda

We are each having a certain level of impact on the world around us. The Transformational Leadership approach assumes we are ready and eager to make a more significant impact in order to bring about the vision for our life and the world we want.

Upon further exploration, my inner voice told me more about my personal learning agenda:

I need to regularly clean out the mental clutter and hone my ability to laser-focus on my priorities. The move to my smaller home cleared clutter from my environment. Moving to four days a week with Circles USA freed up time and energy to focus on activity that is in alignment with my emerging new vision. Writing this book is reinforcing the ideas that are most important to me at this time in life. My new project with Transformational Leadership is a bridge to a more authentic experience and expression of self. I am learning how to be happier and more effective.

The following “curriculum” might work for your next stage of development as well:

  1. Affirm and act on your personal freedom in each day and in each activity.
    • Ask yourself regularly, “What do I want to do? Are there any “shoulds” I can identify and clear away?
    • Measure success by the amount of time and joy spent on meaningful activity versus how much money is made.
    • Change routines by inserting new and adventurous activity that generates more joy and enthusiasm for life.
  2. Develop structure to increase accountability to pursue high-impact strategies.
    • Commit to developing and following through on a strategic plan for both Circles USA and Transformational Leadership. Ask colleagues to help you stay focused on the plan, changing course only by intention, not through any delay pattern.
    • Build regular check-ins with those who also like to stay on track.
    • Do the essential but sometimes uncomfortable work of a clear and courageous evaluation of our weaknesses, unhelpful default patterns, and shadow selves. This might involve interviewing loved ones or trusted colleagues or working with a counselor. Including a plan to address “opportunities for growth” only strengthens our personal power. Keeping an open heart and the courage to be humble makes us better leaders.
  3. Clear out the clutter in relationships and activity.
    • As soon as it becomes clear that a client is no longer in alignment with achieving the transformational vision that you are pursuing, let go, and align with those who are. Each week assess which activities produced the most joy and which did not. Commit to creating a more joyful set of activities for next week.

Self-Reflection Questions

  • Ask yourself again—and this time tuning into your heart a bit more deeply—what do I need to learn next in order to increase my capacity to change my life and change the world?
  • How can my Allies help hold me accountable to continuing my journey and achieving the milestones I have identified?
  • Who knows me well enough to provide loving but honest feedback?
  • What do I find most personally challenging, and do I know anyone who is accomplished in areas where I know I have room for improvement? Am I willing to ask for support?

Other People’s Learning Agendas

Additionally, those who align with our visions and participate in our programs will form their own learning agendas, so we must be prepared to help them find the right people who can facilitate their learning. They will first need to understand best practices elsewhere that might be implemented locally. What training programs and support systems can be tapped into to help them learn their new roles? Secondly, they need to learn what they personally must know, be, and/or do differently in order to play their roles effectively.

Learn more: Transformational Leadership: A Framework to End Poverty ~ By Scott C. Miller

To learn more about Scott Miller, please see his website here.

Learning to Achieve your Vision

It’s stunning to me what kind of impact even one person can have if they have the right passion, perspective and are able to align the interest of a great team.
-Steve Case

When Moses caught his vision of a promised land and then aligned the masses to join him, he had to lead them across the desert. Metaphorically, this story illustrates the four stages of the Transformational Map. The promised land is the vision, the followers of Moses aligned with his vision, the desert refers to the learning agenda required to achieve their vision, and the arrival at the promised land is the final stage when we embed the vision into the culture.

Our worldview, skill sets, and life experiences will provide invaluable guidance and support, but the vision will demand personal learning from us. You have to ensure that those who are helping to achieve the vision are able to learn whatever is necessary to do so.

Self-Reflection Questions

● What do you personally need to learn in order to realize your new vision?

● Specifically, what skills, information, and new habits must you learn in order to achieve your vision?

● In order for others to share your vision, what must they know? Interview others, and then craft a learning agenda for achieving your vision in the world.


Learn more: Transformational Leadership: A Framework to End Poverty ~ By Scott C. Miller

To learn more about Scott Miller, please see his website here.

Poverty Management vs Poverty Reduction

Our communities are organized to manage growing poverty. They are not organized to reduce poverty.

Every community spends a lot of money to help people manage crises . A mayor in a Utah community once told me that 90% of the 911 calls came from a relatively small but heavily concentrated area of people in poverty. Rather than investing in understanding the problems of poverty and solutions, we often just keep investing as much money as we can in reacting to it.

State and federal agencies spend billions on programs aimed to stabilize people in poverty: SNAP, HUD, TANF, Medicaid, childcare assistance, to name a few of the big ones. These programs are not organized to help people out of poverty. If they were, there would not be the problem known as the cliff effect in which people lose more assistance than the increase in pay that comes from getting a new job, taking more hours, and/or getting a raise. According to, more than 40% of the residents in my home state of New Mexico receive Medicaid. Government spending is $18.2 billion in our state. Medicaid expenses are 30.3% of total government spending.

WOW. More than $5.5 billion for Medicaid in our relatively small population of just less than 2.1 million. How much would be saved by fixing the cliff effect? See our website for the most recent report regarding the cliff effect problem and what is being done about it.

Employers in New Mexico and numerous other communities served by Circles USA are complaining they cannot find enough qualified workers to fill jobs and expand their businesses. The economy depends on having people who can consistently show up for work and get their jobs done.

Poverty Reduction

Poverty reduction requires that teams of organizations work together to support a targeted number of households through the entire process of economic mobility noted in these five stages:

● Crisis intervention
● Stabilization
● Readiness for the workforce
● Placement into jobs
● Advancement to a good-paying job


Poverty reduction requires that federal, state, and local funders recognize they are rewarding poverty management when they pay for units of services that do not connect the dots between these stages of the process. They inadvertently contribute to increasing poverty and reducing economic vitality. Managing poverty generates that “phantom workforce”—people who should work, want to work, could work, but won’t or can’t because of the cliff effect and the lack of comprehensive programs that support people through the entire process.

Poverty reduction systems will change our nation. We currently tolerate far too much poverty, given the immense resources, talent, and innovation we possess. The old model of paying for random units of services to manage poverty will one day give way to a more powerful approach.

In the meantime, Circles USA is cultivating a national community of transformational leaders who are building the new model that will truly address poverty. You can learn more about the poverty reduction labs in my book, Transformational Leadership, a Framework for Ending Poverty.

From the book: Enough Money, Meaning & Friends ~ By Scott C. Miller

To learn more about Scott Miller, please see his website here.

Aligning with the Right People for Change

It’s stunning to me what kind of impact even one person can have if they have the right passion, perspective and are able to align the interest of a great team.
-Steve Case


I have led Circles USA through a series of multiple-year Transformational Cycles. Although I continue to lead Circles USA for now, I have an even deeper emerging vision of what must be transformed in the world:

The world must experience a revolution that is as deep and powerful as the industrial revolution was in shaping our collective behavior. At the center of this revolution will be people who embrace high ideals of what it is to be human: loving, caring, wise, respectful, peaceful, and happy. With these qualities, people can move mountains.

Through Circles USA, I will continue to support our strategies to bring Circles to 10% of all US Counties (300), and equip them to support a reduction of poverty by at least 10% over a decade. However, I am also going to support transformational leaders within our Circles work and on other complementary agendas using the Your Heart is Calling Program. The emerging vision requires aligning myself with a team of allies who understand marketing, distribution, business plans, workshops, books, etc. This new calling requires me to update my conversation with current allies, and cultivate new allies who will support me in fulfilling my new vision.

As we aspire to be the change we want to see happen in the world, we must identify and release internal resistance and procrastination patterns that will inevitably arise to protect the status quo. This may require letting go of our denial about the current conditions in the world and having enough courage to change what we can within our own lives to affect lasting change in the world around us. To effect meaningful changes on a larger stage, we must give ourselves an unusual amount of support.

Whatever we want to change in the world will require an equal change within ourselves. It is natural that our inner resistance to change will come to the surface and generate a certain amount of fear, frustration, helplessness, and a sense of ennui. Below is a common delay pattern that most of us must confront one way or the other.

The pattern will keep looping until we decide to interrupt it and choose another behavior. Rather than perpetually running this pattern through our minds and emotions, we can turn towards allies and begin talking about our vision with as much passion as possible. The more passion and enthusiasm we generate, the more energy we have available to pursue our vision. Taking action is what signals to ourselves, others, and life itself that we are serious about moving forward.

From the book: Your Heart Is Calling ~ By Scott C. Miller

To learn more about Scott Miller, please see his website here.


Tapping into your Vision for Change

In order to carry a positive action, we must develop here a positive vision.

-Dalai Lama


Perhaps you have never taken the time to write down or record on video exactly how you want to live your life. It can be an immensely powerful and satisfying process. Your vision is your through-line to the future you want. When you articulate your vision in detail you will have an easier time recognizing and seizing opportunities to manifest it.

You might think of it [sustainability] as extending the Golden Rule through time, so that you do unto future generations…as you would have them do unto you.

-Robert Gilman


Vision is informed by our soul’s primary purpose in being here. Each of us can tap into a deeper understanding about what we are to do next in life. When we are acting on our inner vision, it is normal to feel both anxious and excited at the same time; our awareness quickened by possibility. As we continue to affirm our vision and take steps towards it, we will feel more at ease, clearer about our purpose, and more confident in our ability to handle challenges. Enthusiasm and peace of mind are markers that assure us we are on the right path to fulfilling our unique calling.

Whether we have articulated it or not, each of us has a personal vision for the world we want. If we take the time to articulate it, we can then choose to act on it and enjoy the benefits of living a purposeful life. Once we are able to share our vision in both a detailed one-hour presentation as well as in a two-three-minute elevator speech, we can then align ourselves with others who share our vision and are willing to join us in bringing it to fruition. Achieving the vision requires learning whatever is necessary to embed the change into the culture.

From the book: Your Heart Is Calling ~ By Scott C. Miller

To learn more about Scott Miller, please see his website here.


Seasons of Transformation

The future enters into us, in order to transform itself in us, long before it happens.

-Rainer Maria Rilke

Moving through the Transformational Cycle is a natural process that each of us is always engaged in, whether we see it or not. Consciously and mindfully engaging in the cycle yields better and more profound results. We can use the metaphor of a garden and the four seasons to illustrate how the cycle operates.

Winter: A vision emerges from within us while in the resting stage of winter. We articulate it during this quieter season.

Spring: We look for fertile ground to plant the seeds of our vision with others. We align our lives to our new vision; preparing ourselves to tend to our transformational garden.

Summer: We are now deeply involved with the nurturing of our garden; weeding out what we don’t want and watering what we do. We are learning from fellow gardeners and from our own trials and errors.

Autumn: We persist and now harvest the fruits of our labor. We have embedded our vision into reality and the world has been changed.


From the book: Your Heart Is Calling ~ By Scott C. Miller

To learn more about Scott Miller, please see his website here.


Your Next Plan to Change the World

What is true for each of us that no matter how great your life is and how large your contribution, there is even more potential awaiting us. By claiming the next chapter of your life as the one in which you listen even more attentively to your heart’s desire and act on it, you can have a bigger impact on the world. If you feel zest and joy as you anticipate undertaking your new plans, you know that you are on the right track. The world is about to become a better place because you are listening to and acting on what your heart is telling you to do.

This book provides a structure to help you identify a bold vision and articulate the steps you need to take to bring it to reality. Developing your Heart is Calling Plan will help you identify and clarify what you need to do in each of the four seasons of the change process:

Once you have completed your Heart is Calling Plan, you will have a powerful summary of your vision. You will begin to align the seeds of your vision with those of others as you seek out the allies and partners who will support your journey. You will align your time, environment, and schedule with the people and organizations that can most help you bring your vision into reality. You may choose to develop your own organization and help others to align their personal energies to it to achieve the vision. You will also develop a written learning agenda that you must tend to so that you and others can learn whatever is necessary to embed your transformation so that the world can harvest the results.


Whatever we see to change in the world, we can be certain that there is something in our own lives that our heart wants us to explore, assess, and change. For example, through my early job experience in serving people who were struggling in poverty, I was struck by how often people seemed to be alone with their problems. I decided to set up support groups to help people move out of poverty as a response to the isolation I was seeing in them. I considered my own life and asked the question, “Where do I feel poverty and need more support?” I found parts of my life in which I felt isolated, alone, and unable to make the changes I wanted to make.

Before I could contribute to any lasting change in the world, I had to commit to changing my own life. In other words, I had to become the change I wanted to see happen. Circles USA was the result of an intense soul-searching process that I had begun in the mid-90s. Circles® became the simple process of surrounding one’s self with people who will be your allies as you make an important change in your life, like moving out of poverty. I have, however, put the Circles methodology to use in numerous areas of my own life for the past twenty years.

From the book: Your Heart Is Calling ~ By Scott C. Miller

To learn more about Scott Miller, please see his website here.


Create a World that Works for All

If you watch the “news,” it is easy to assume that humanity is devolving rather than moving forward in its evolution. To create a world that works for everyone, we need to plug our precious personal energy into solutions rather than the presentation of problems that passes as news in our mainstream culture. This requires seeking out information about what solutions are working, or could work, and determine how we can make our contribution. Ultimately if we are living a vibrant life, we generate positive energy to those around us.

According to the brilliant, late statistics guru Hans Rosling, the world works for more people now than it ever has before, based on global health and economic data. If you regularly watch the news, you may find this hard to believe given that the media’s strategy is to focus on “breaking news” that constantly alarms us so we will keep tuning into their story line. Rosling’s Ted Talk entitled “The best stats you’ve ever seen” is both inspiring and informative. It is important to acknowledge the progress that we humans are making and to affirm that we can grow and develop.

We can be certain that new economic and social systems are emerging as more people raise their consciousness and exercise their leadership in the world around them. Although it does not yet get mainstream media attention, there is massive ground-up and top-down leadership being brought to organizations, neighborhoods, communities, and nations throughout the globe by those who have clarity about what is at stake. These leaders have a vision for change, a plan to achieve it and enough support from others to bring their projects to fruition. More of us are looking for ways to make a significant contribution to creating a world that works for everyone.

Your Heart is Calling is one of many new tools being offered to help us increase our personal impact on the world.

From the book: Your Heart Is Calling ~ By Scott C. Miller

To learn more about Scott Miller, please see his website here.


Connecting with your Vision for Change

What is Your Story?

If you want to predict your future, listen to your conversations. What story are you telling yourself and others? Are you taking yourself and others into the future you want—or the future you don’t want?

Your vision must be connected to your deepest core values. If it is not, then you will not have the motivation and sustained energy to see a transformation through from beginning to end. Ask yourself, “What must happen in the next three years?” Ask it about your own life as well as about your community.

Once you articulate a vision that is highly important to you, you are ready to translate it into stories that move others toward achieving the vision.

We connect with one another emotionally, first, and then with information, second. Feed what you want to see happen with your story. Remember that a storyline that complains about how systems, people, events, community, and so on don’t work will only perpetuate a negative future. The power of self-fulfilling prophecy is real. Are you telling a story that leads to what you want or what you don’t want?

In the spirit of being the change, it is helpful to ask the following questions:

1. What in your life do you want to change so as to align to your new vision? Think about what we have discussed—people, activities, and your environment.

2. What support do you need from others in order to make the change?

3. Are you ready? On a 10-point scale where 10 represents the highest level of readiness, how ready and willing are you to change your life in ways that are most important to you?

4. If you are not a 10, what is between you and being a 10?

5. Now that you have identified the resistance, are you ready to let it go and take immediate action to begin your plan? What steps will you take this week?

Learn more: Transformational Leadership: A Framework to End Poverty ~ By Scott C. Miller

To learn more about Scott Miller, please see his website here.