Category Archives: Leadership for Poverty Reduction

Poverty Reduction Leadership Series

Removing the Barriers that Trap People in Poverty: Part Two

“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 jamie@circlesusa.org.

Thanks in advance for your contributions,
Jamie Haft, Circles USA Executive Director

Removing the Barriers that Trap People in Poverty: Part One

“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

Reducing Poverty in Your Community: Introduction to Circles USA

Register here to join us on Zoom to learn about Reducing Poverty in Your Community an Introduction to Circles USA for those who are NEW to the Circles network on Monday, September 13, 2021, at 12 pm PT, 1 pm MT, 2 pm CT, 3 pm ET.


It’s critically important that communities know how to help families experiencing poverty to gain stability in the post-pandemic economy. Through the Circles model, participating communities support families to get out of poverty and remove the barriers that stand in the way. In this info session, Circles USA presenters will share ways to reduce poverty at a variety of levels.

Learn how to:

– Empower families of low wealth to make gains in income, education, employment, homeownership, reliable transportation, social support, and emotional/physical wellbeing

– Encourage volunteers and staff to expand their knowledge of poverty, their empathy, and their engagement in their communities

– Organize communities to implement initiatives that remove systemic barriers to poverty reduction

– Build relationships across all sectors, including the business/economic development stakeholders and policymakers

– Foster poverty reduction systems that tackle root causes of poverty

This info session is for those who are NEW to the Circles network. Click here to register.

Presented by Poverty Solutions Group (PSG), the lead organization for Circles Central Florida: PSG Regional Coach Adam Hartnett and Chantel L. Aquart, PSG Board Member and Circles Graduate.


Register here to join us on Zoom to learn about Reducing Poverty in Your Community an Introduction to Circles USA for those who are NEW to the Circles network on Monday, September 13, 2021, at 12 pm PT, 1 pm MT, 2 pm CT, 3 pm ET.

From Surviving to Thriving for Circles USA

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

2021 Network Awards: Outstanding Circle Leader– Circles Columbus, GA

A final 2021 award for outstanding Circle Leader goes to Circles Columbus, GA, Circle Leader Khyle Martin.

Khyle and his family were living in public housing when he saw a flier for Circles in the rental office. When Khyle began Circle Leader Training, he was not employed. He soon began an entry level job working in a call center, and today he is a business analyst. He achieved that goal in a little over two years. Khyle has graduated from Circles, yet he is still very connected to his Allies. “I love my Allies. I love them in my corner.”

“Circles is so different than anything else. It is such a family atmosphere. It is family oriented and was good for my kids, but it also feels like a family there. It gave me a new family. It was so helpful for my kids. They learned a lot and I really was glad they had positive people to know outside of school. I want them to learn more financial things. I wish I had had someone to teach me those things when I was their age and now I want to make sure they know.”

When asked to share his successes, Khyle lists moving from public housing, starting the process on home ownership, full-time employment, reliable transportation, having healthier personal relationships, and a wider skill base for parenting and navigating the world. Khyle says “to those considering joining Circles or funding Circles or volunteering with Circles – do it. This is a good thing. This is a life-changing program. It changes families. The education and the staff and the relationships are all life-changing.”

2021 Network Awards: Outstanding Circle Leader– Circles Troup County, GA

Another outstanding Circle Leader is from Circles Troup County, GA: Circle Leader Deb Brown. Deb came to Circles after hearing about it at work as a school bus driver. Here’s part of her story from this last year:

“One of the first things I learned in a Circles class was that I should spend 30% or less of my income on housing. At the time, my rent alone was 50% of my income. I started looking for something I could afford, but everything I found was dirty or not safe.

I knew eventually I wanted to buy a house, so Circles connected me to Brandon Brooks and he helped me figure out how to increase my credit score. I started paying off my credit cards and that was some work. I made a lot of changes like giving up my daily coffee. I get up at 4:30 a.m. for work and I really like my coffee, but I learned to make it at home and save that money.

Then COVID hit. I saved all my extra unemployment money toward the down payment and moving costs. When my lease was up, I stayed with my daughter for a month and saved that month of home bills.

Honestly, I couldn’t have done it without Holly, our Circles coach, saying ‘You can do this! You CAN do this!’

I had other things going on in my life, too. Circles connected me with a therapist who helped me become more mentally healthy so I could focus on what I wanted to do. Without that, I wouldn’t have been able to move on.

This past summer I bought a house! I can afford it on my own salary, but my son is in school for a year and my daughter just moved back to LaGrange and they are both living with me. With them helping out, I’m only spending 16.5% of my income on housing.

Circles has connected me to so many people and so many resources. Sometimes it’s big, sometimes it’s just encouragement – which is really big, too. I don’t have family here and I need support. It comes from Circles and a few close friends. Circles saved my life.”

Congratulations to Circles Troup County, GA and to Deb for her incredible perseverance and accomplishment.

2021 Network Awards: Outstanding Circle Leader– Circles Canada, Simcoe County

Congratulations to Circles Canada Simcoe County, Circle Leader Patricia Zepeda. Growing up in El Salvador, leaving an unfavorable relationship, and secretly escaping a war-torn country with three young children, aged 2, 4, and 6 was just the beginning of Patricia’s story.

Fast forward to 2018, Patricia had now been living in Canada for approximately 25 years with its share of challenges. She most recently found herself living in Midland, Ontario as a single person, facing mental health challenges, and in need of Ontario Works (social assistance) as she couldn’t make her financial ends meet.

Sometimes all it takes is one person, one referral, or one smiling face to change the trajectory of a person’s life.

Patricia visited the local library where she started her Circles journey. Their classes gave her a purpose to get up in the morning, a place to go where others were also planning their future story. She aimed for her new career with additional English classes and training to be a certified personal support worker to help the elderly.

Patricia is now employed with the county of Simcoe as a personal support worker caring for residents in a long-term care facility. She has also purchased a new vehicle and improved her living situation considerably. Patricia’s future story has become her now story, a Circle Leader success story!

2021 Network Awards: Outstanding Ally–Circles Troup County, GA

Another outstanding Ally is from Circles Troup County, GA Ally: Calvin Neely

From their coordinator, Sherri Brown, “Calvin Neely has been a Circles volunteer and Ally since we began. He has been an Ally for three families, but more than that, he’s been an Ally to the Circles community. Calvin spent most of his career in management, but several years ago retired from that and began his own business with Kona Ice.

His work has grown with several trucks, working at events, schools and fundraisers. In Circles, he uses his experience to help Circles Leaders prepare for job interviews and job success. He also has hired Circle Leaders who are getting back into the workforce. He has high expectations for all his employees, and all that have worked for him have gone on to successful permanent jobs.

He’s also compassionate. We had a Circles volunteer who is a kindergarten teacher ask for an adult to eat lunch with one of her students. It’s customary for students on their birthday to have a parent eat with them at a special table, but one student was going to be alone on her birthday. Calvin volunteered to have lunch with her and showed up in his Kona Ice shirt with bookmarks, magnets, and stickers for the birthday girl. It was a big deal because, as her teacher commented later, “In kindergarten, the Kona Ice man is equivalent to a rockstar.”

Two years ago, Calvin reached a breaking point with the exploitation he saw again and again in predatory lenders. He started researching on his own ways to combat the high interest loans that are often the only option for low-income families in our area. He found another Georgia organization that partnered with a financial institution to make low-interest secured loans to people who wanted to pay off their high interest loans. He called and got the details and was so impressed with what they did he loaded staff and volunteers in his car, drove them all 2.5 hours away to spend the day talking with leaders in this organization.

It took several months, but eventually Circles Troup County was fully approved by a local bank to make secured loans to our Circle Leaders. We purchased a CD at the bank, and are now able to take applications from our Circle Leaders to pay off their high interest loans (400% APR) at 3% interest. The bank will also report to credit agencies, improving credit scores for Circle Leaders. With Calvin’s tenacity, intellect and passion, we are now able to help Circle Leaders reduce debt quickly, increase credit scores, and make future financially sound decisions.

We think Calvin is not only a kindergarten rockstar, but also a Circles rockstar.”

Congratulations to Calvin Neely and Circles Troup County, GA.

2021 Network Awards: Outstanding Ally–Circles St. George, UT

 

Allies are essential to the success of the Circles model, intentionally supporting Circle Leaders on the journey from surviving to thriving. One pair of outstanding Allies comes from Circles St. George, Utah: Rona and Keith Hartz.

From their coordinator, Karen Todd, “They have gone above and beyond since they have been paired with Circle Leader, Adbby. Adbby is an inspiring young lady who moved from Mexico when she was 17 so she could finish her high school education here. When she graduated from high school, she got her first job and moved out on her own. She is now the legal guardian of her 15-year-old sister at the ripe old age of 25.

During quarantine, Rona and Keith have stayed in contact with Adbby by Zoom and text messages every week. She recently applied for a new job posted in our chapter newsletter, so Rona did mock interviewing with her and helped her become confident with her answers. She got the job and increased her pay by about $5.00 an hour. Adbby has said that without Circles and her great Allies, she would never have had the confidence to apply for a new job.

Adbby also had COVID in December, as well as her sister. She missed 20+ days of work because of contracting the virus and had no sick pay. She reached out to Rona and Keith, and together we brainstormed and found her rental assistance to get her through the month of December.

Rona and Keith have been outstanding Allies for their Circle Leader, modeling the perseverance and dedication the most successful Matched Circles have.”

Congratulations to Circles St. George, Rona, Keith, and of course to Adbby.

2021 Network Awards: Outstanding Children’s Program and Children’s Facilitator — Circles Washtenaw County, MI

Congratulations to Circles Washtenaw County in Ypsilanti, Michigan, for modeling a dynamic children’s program regardless of the obstacles quarantine put in their way.

From their program lead, Kaite Scott, “The Circles Washtenaw County Children’s Program is fortunate to have a group full of committed and engaged youth who show up, ready to engage with us! Our New & Good’s could go on forever with them. The relationships that our volunteers and teachers build with our children is really special. Even after being apart physically for months, we still have youth and volunteers committed to growing and learning with each other and checking in with one another week after week. Our youth are creative, thoughtful, unique citizens of our community and make our Circles program deeply enriched! I’m grateful to work with them daily and look forward to the many ways in which they continue to bring joy to our world.”

Circles USA also celebrates their children’s program facilitator: Najma Treadwell.

Najma teaches the elementary age class and always goes above and beyond expectations. She engages her kids with interactive lessons that apply the Circles themes to real life situations. During the theme of volunteerism, her class chose to help put away tables and chairs and clean up after the communal dinner. Then, she had her class discuss why it was important to serve their Circles community as well as the wider world.

During COVID, Najma has been creative as she engages with her class in a virtual setting. Together with her children at home, Najma has offered science demonstrations as well as utilized her oldest son, Jaheem’s, knowledge to help teach the younger children. Her class has shared their projects with the rest of the program, such as their vision boards and their homemade savings jars, inspiring all the youth to participate.

Najma’s dedication to Circles extends far beyond her class as well. She has facilitated classes for the Circles parents on setting up successful schedules for their children throughout the week as well as behavior management and strategies for difficult moments. Recently, Najma has also become a board member of their lead organization: Friends In Deed, taking her commitment to a whole new level.

Congratulations to Circles of Washtenaw County and Najma Treadwell.