It might not look like it, but a quiet revolution is underway in a Jamaica Plain conference room on a sunny Monday morning.
Five women sit around a conference table, gathering as they have every month for a year. As their kids play nearby, they share pastry and dilemmas. One was recently homeless and her 4-year-old seems out of control; another has a disabled child who requires care she can’t afford; another is feeling defeated by her children’s staggered school schedules. All of them desperately need child care they can trust.
Nothing unusual here. These problems bedevil countless parents, poor and otherwise. But these women plan to sidestep a system that seems designed to make their lives impossible. They have decided to form their own child-care cooperative, and have a possible space in Codman Square. Next come the rigors of certification, a test for their spirit of mutual strength.
“Weren’t we all talking about training together and supporting each other?” Florence Brice asks the group.
There are 35 groups like this, all over the city. They began convening a couple of years ago, each working toward different goals. They have names like “Limitless,” “Dream Team,” and “Survivors.” They’re drawn together by a little-known outfit called the Family Independence Initiative, which recruits families, urges them to identify their aspirations, and pays them $160 a monthto record their progress toward achieving them.
The central idea behind the initiative is that poor people have the resourcefulness to solve their own problems. That with the support – and the watchful eyes – of a small community of peers, they can transform their lives.
The results so far have been stunning. Among the first families to join these groups two years ago, personal savings have grown a massive 264 percent. Average monthly incomes have risen 25 percent, not counting FII payments. Children’s grades have jumped 25 percent, too. Members have started businesses, bought houses, enrolled in college, begun microloan programs, gotten care for sick children, lost weight, and found community.
Though most of this is happening under the radar, word has gotten around. About 150 families are waiting to get into the program, which will expand over the next few months (though not enough to keep up with demand).
This spectacular success was born of numbing failure 11 years ago. Founder Maurice Lim Miller had spent more than two decades running social services in Oakland and San Francisco, trying to lift families out of poverty. None of his clients ever got far enough into the middle class to be fully independent, and helping parents didn’t keep their kids out of trouble.
“After about 15 years, I was questioning whether we were impacting poverty or just helping people make life more tolerable,” he says in an interview. He was struck by the fact that waves of immigrants seemed able to achieve for themselves what his clients did not. Irish and Polish immigrants — and Mexican ones, like his mother — found ways to ascend, then others in their communities followed. Why couldn’t Lim Miller’s clients do this, too?
“So I decided we should make money available to families so they can show us what they would do to get out of poverty,” he says. He offered families $160 a month to show up at regular meetings and record their progress on donated home computers. He audited them to make sure they were recording their incomes, debts, grades, and other information accurately. If families saved money for housing, business, or education, he’d match them 2-to-1, up to $1,000 a year. Then he got out of the way.
If his staff gave direction or counseling to the families, they’d be fired. This was all about autonomy, about giving people space to make their own successes and mistakes. One Oakland staffer wanted to intervene because a client was taking a mortgage from a predatory lender. Lim Miller forbade it. The family signed the mortgage, then other members of the group helped fix up the house so they could refinance on better terms. Then, seeing what was possible, they bought homes, too. None of that would have happened if his people had stepped in, Lim Miller says.
“Friends started picking up the pattern, just like the Irish and Polish had done,” he says. All the Initiative did was provide a small incentive. The families did the rest. “We’re not saving anybody,” he says.
When the Initiative came to Boston a few years ago, there were families in East Boston already living its ideals and showing the way. One group of mostly Colombian families had begun a Christmas club, $10 per week per child, which grew a pot so large that they offered low-interest loans for emergencies, and raffles, which brought in even more money. At the end of the year, each child ended up with $740. A second group grew from the first, pooling more money and investing it in livery cars, and a truck for a wholesale food operation.
Apart from adding an extra incentive to save, FII does little with these groups besides gather data. “We’re just learning off it,” says Jesus Gerena, director of the program in Boston. FII shares the lessons with other groups, some of which have formed lending clubs of their own.
Others have decided on less entrepreneurial goals. Groupo Diez, also in East Boston, organizes workshops for members on reducing stress. The families in Reborn are learning computer skills. Along the way, FII – funded mainly by the Barr and Boston Foundations, and by Boston Rising and the GreenLight Fund — has given these families small grants to help with expenses.
Butterfly Journey, with members in Dorchester and Roxbury, has become an old-fashioned, extended family, sharing communal meals and taking shifts tending to a member’s ill child. Members of Dream Team and Survivors have begun a Friday night movie program to keep kids in Grove Hall safer.
And Limitless wants to start that day-care co-op. If not for her group, Brice, 41, would likely have been left alone with her child-care woes. A single mother of girls ages 4 and 6, she works full time for the city and studies nursing part time. Like the other mothers in Limitless, she has initiative and is willing to solve her problems in unconventional ways. Without the group, she wouldn’t be getting far.
“It’s not only about you . . . and you get that push to move forward,” Brice says of her group.
The Initiative’s approach cuts through the partisan rancor that grips this country, defying the easy stereotypes both sides apply to poverty. To recognize its success, you have to acknowledge that those who struggle are just as resourceful and honorable as everybody else.
Groups like Dream Catchers and Limitless aren’t a substitute for better and more smartly-funded schools, child care, and antipoverty programs. It’s easy to forget, through the fog of nostalgia for the days when immigrants pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, that vast numbers of people languished because they had nothing to pull up on. Government still has a big and real role to play here.
But so does community. Having people watching you, and watching out for you, are powerful forces for change. The more of these watchful communities the Initiative creates, the less necessary it becomes. Which is the whole point.
“The more families take initiative, the more they watch out for each other, the more they share successes, the less they need us,” Gerena says. “We come and go, but they thrive.”