Power in Poverty

SONY DSCLow-Income does not have to mean Low Power.

Most of the programs highlighted on this site have focused on parenting.  But effective low-income mothers are not just skilled parents; they are motivated agents on behalf of themselves and their families.

Someone can be skilled and know exactly the right things to do, but if she isn’t motivated or does not consider herself empowered, the skills are useless.   On the other hand, a person who believes in taking action and advocating on behalf of herself  and her family will be effective even if her skills start out low.

So clearly, initiatives and research that focus on creating this kind of self-awareness, confidence and motivation can be expected to have a large positive impact on society.

A Notable Example

When I served on the Board of JobTrain, a Menlo Park job training and social service organization, the Executive Director, Sharon Williams introduced me to the Center for Sustainable Change.  They use certain theories of how to tap into and unleash positive human potential specifically to address ailing communities.  With partners, the CSC has created impressive change in low-income communities across the country — including cities in New York, Iowa, Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina and California.   What kind of change?  The content of the CSC videos that I saw years ago stayed with me.  Residents of crime ridden and low-opportunity neighborhoods self-reported a whole new approach to their lives as a result of participation in CSC training.  Some indicated that they moved from apathy and victim-hood  to optimism and advocacy.  At the community level, the CSC reports impressive impacts on crime, civic engagement, participation in school activities, health and other key metrics.

A Multiplier Effect

It is worth thinking through how this kind of change in adults’ thinking and orientation can affect children:

Photo: Helene Souza

  • There is an Italian story “The Mother” about two little boys, sons of a young single mother.  It describes how much safer they felt when they went out with their grandmother instead of with their mother.  The grandmother seemed to know how to do things and went through her activities with confidence.  The mother seemed ill-prepared and always timid when interacting with the broader world.  Children sense their parent’s power; it affects their stress level and may even become an “inherited” trait.
  • Adults who have a positive sense of their potential and worth are more likely to seek out and take advantage of all the resources available to them and to their children.
  • Parents with a positive outlook are likely to have lower stress and transmit less stress to their children. As noted in another post, low-income children not only hear fewer words at home than their more affluent peers, they also hear a much higher percentage of negative messages than their peers.  Although there are probably several factors that explain this, the toll of poverty on parents’ patience, energy, and happiness is a likely contributor .

Making it Happen

It is already less popular to fund parent-focused programs than it is to fund child-focused programs.  I suspect that it is easier to secure funding for  parenting skills initiatives than for more basic human-potential-enhancement programs such as the ones offered by the CSC.  But as I have noted before, “employee engagement” has become a recognized gold mine of additional business effectiveness and profit:  Shouldn’t we invest in the motivation and engagement of low-income parents with equally high expectation of returns?


More specifics about the Center for Sustainable Change

Their mission:

…we help people access innate mental health, innate resilience and wisdom in themselves, in their clients and in the children and youth they may live or work with.

How they describe what they do:

We teach parents, educators, youth-service workers, communities and organizations how to engage the innate resilience — the human capacity for learning, creativity, compassion, common sense and well-being — in the youth they teach and care for, and, as importantly, in themselves … to become wise and loving role models for our children.

The Center’s work is built on three decades of successfully applying a Principles-based/innate health psychology to communities and schools across the nation. We see an understanding of the principles of Mind, Consciousness and Thought as the “essential curriculum” for students, educators, caregivers and parents.

Understanding these Principles will assist our younger generations to most rapidly shed insecurity, fear, and the biases and prejudices of the past; and to more fully harness their innate goodness, creativity and wisdom …to create a world of unforeseen possibility and sustainable change.

Insights into how they work:

Viral impact:

“You’d think you’d need half the community to change, but Roger always instilled in us that if it’s only one or two, once they see a change they’ll tell another person,” Stennis says. “So if it’s two, there’ll be four, and if it’s four, there’ll be eight. So we really didn’t worry about numbers. We just worked with the ones that really wanted to change their lives.”


“Stennis knocked on doors, visited with the families, and asked them about their needs and goals. ‘When I asked them these questions, it was like a wall came down.” They weren’t accustomed to being asked what they wanted.'”

(Both quotes from CSC blog post)


Categories: All Posts, For Social Service Organizations

Tags: , , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: