United Way of the Mid-South is partnering with human services agencies in Memphis to fundamentally change the city’s approach to poverty reduction through an initiative called Driving the Dream.
Poverty affects 27 percent of Memphians and that rate is increasing even as the poverty rate decreases in most of the country. The child poverty rate is 45 percent in Memphis. The black community and the Latinx community suffer from the worst poverty rates with poverty in the black community growing a full two percentile points since 2015, according to research presented in February by Dr. Elena Delavega of the University of Memphis.
CEO of the United Way of the Mid-South, Dr. Kenneth Robinson, believes a new approach is needed to better center individuals’ needs and respond to the structural factors that create and sustain poverty. The key, he says, is a system of care — modeled after a Detroit initiative called Transition to Success — that uses the collective resources of the Mid-South’s human services agencies to treat poverty like a health condition and not like a moral failure.
So far, there about thirty local agencies involved in the project. Staff at these agencies will be trained on how to speak with clients who come into their nonprofit looking for services. By asking clients what their goals and dreams are, they can connect them with services in the area. All progress will be tracked in a shared database.
The local chapter of United Way led an eight-week pilot run last summer and the full implementation is scheduled for early 2018.
Linda Williams, president and CEO of the Rise Foundation, stands for a portrait at the foundation's office. (Andrea Morales)
“We never really asked people what they want,” said Linda Williams of the Rise Foundation, which provides workshops and tools for Memphians to manage their financial goals and become self-sufficient.
Williams tells a story from when she was a social worker straight out of college. She had a client who worked in an incentive program for welfare recipients and had gone through every training class for cosmetology, upholstery, clothes making and welding; yet, none landed her a job.
Williams says her client was depressed and so she asked her, “What do you enjoy?” The client said she loved working in her yard and went on to obtain a job with City Beautiful planting.
“But nobody ever asked her. Everybody has a dream; you just have to ask.”
Although he acknowledges the important work done by nonprofits over the years, Dr. Robinson said that the most important shift in treating poverty will be countering the former model of social services which is sometimes criticized for being paternalistic instead of centering the needs of the client.
“There are two facets to the Dream, [in Driving the Dream]” Robinson said. “We learn what their dreams are … but, as the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s loss nears, we also continue the legacy of his dream.”
United Way contracted Consilience Group, a professional service firm who brought government and nonprofit partners together in what Consilience principal and practice leader Meredith Hennessy called the system advisory group. Together, the different sectors will produce a common framework and the shared technology platform that will allow the organizations to better coordinate services.
Hennessy sees the initiative as a movement toward providing holistic family-centered services.
“The paradigm has to shift from a transactional model to about the outcome we want that family or individual to achieve,” she said.
"It is changing the underlying philosophical approach to service delivery and related culture — recognizing the importance of using [agency] skills and experience as well as protocol. It’s about empowering front-line workers to help the families they are serving achieve their goals."
Memphis and Shelby County face higher rates of poverty than the rest of the nation, according to data from Dr. Elena Delavega.Williams at the Rise Foundation hopes that this system will empower people to work to achieve their goals instead of having to battle a system that focuses more on rules than people. She says that in the past, families have had to navigate social services on their own and come up with complex maneuvers to work within strict eligibility criteria.
Williams gives the example of displaying a bill with a cutoff notice to get financial assistance rather than developing a spending plan to move a family into housing with lower utility costs.
“Some do better others than figuring it out themselves, but eligibility creates a negative way of people looking at managing what they have,” she said.
“I’m hoping for a system where organizations work cooperatively with, not for, families to help them realize their dreams. Folks don’t want to be poor. They want things like everybody else. Like the concept of a dream.”
Williams says that in Rise’s financial literacy classes, her team asks about personal dreams as well as financial ones and encourages clients to make dream boards. Goals vary from saving for a house to eating healthier to going back to school.
Dr. Robinson, who is a graduate of Harvard Medical School, compares the factors that contribute to poverty to the social determinants of health. In America, your ZIP code is often your destiny in terms of health because social location informs your socioeconomic status, your environment, your education and more. Likewise, poverty is determined by such factors.
Therese Gustaitis, director of parish social ministry at Catholic Charities of West Tennessee, a partner with Driving the Dream, expanded this metaphor to show how the Driving the Dream standard of care is modeled after the healthcare system.
Dr. Kenneth Robinson, executive director of United Way of the Mid-South and Ceceilia Johnson-Powell, director of the Driving the Dream Initiative. (United Way/Ziggy Mack)
“Driving The Dream’s vision is a system similar to the health care system where a standard of care is the norm for each diagnosis: a broken leg will be treated in pretty much the same way throughout the city and the country,” she said.
“Currently, Memphis has an extensive network of services that address poverty. Each entity follows guidelines established the particular agency and its funding source and agencies are competing for the same funding sources,” she added.
“This creates a climate of silos and duplication of services versus a coordinated effort. In the world of nonprofits there can be numerous ways of doing the same thing versus identifying the best way that will empower people to move toward self-sufficiency.”
No matter what agency a Memphian in need walks into, they will be connected to appropriate resources offered by Driving the Dream partners. By working collaboratively, partners can wrap around Memphis’ 200,000 people living in poverty and support them towards achieving financial stability.
United Way expects the initiative to continue to grow and change as they learn best practices. The organization hired Ceceilia Johnson-Powell in January to direct the program.
“Generational poverty has deep roots in Memphis, but people can escape and live their dreams if we address the issues central to poverty and not only the symptoms,” Robinson said.