Practical solutions to poverty from unexpected sources

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By Randy White, D.Min,

I’ve had an article taped to my desk for almost a year. Mark Arax’s “Delusions of the Valley: The Poverty we Pretend Not to See” has unsettled me over and over, powerfully, uncomfortably unmasking the realities we are so tired of acknowledging—the stubbornness of our poverty and crime, the lack of educational attainment, the unemployment, the brain drain. As a sort of secular prophet, he confronted our coping mechanisms, the ways we distract ourselves and look away from the “crater [of poverty] carved into our core with shame.” I am moved by his passion that we see ourselves accurately.

But I found myself wishing Arax knew about the quiet, unheralded steps being taken to address our poverty head on, and the small breaths of fresh air we are feeling of late, perhaps from a source one might not have suspected. Last year I had the privilege of working with leaders of business and community benefit organizations in Fresno researching faith-centered solutions to unemployment. We spent time investigating encouraging models around the country.

What’s working
We were amazed. There was the tiny church in Albany Georgia that launched two small businesses to employ ex-cons that had turned their lives around but who couldn’t get jobs because of felony records. They were modest social enterprises: one rented bounce houses and party supplies, the other provided moving services. But they meant acquiring works skills, accountability and encouragement, and it all went on a resume. Another small church in Vancouver, BC, started three businesses: a pottery studio working with developmentally disabled people, a catering business with women recently released from prison and a renovation business providing work for men in recovery from addiction. It became clear these were just the tip of an amazing social enterprise iceberg.

The local story
These models were collected into a book we published called The Work of Our Hands (Condeopress.com, 2012). But books can sit on shelves, so last year we organized the Valley’s first faith-centered summit on job creation. There, the FPU Center for Community Transformation launched a business plan contest for social enterprise. Cash awards were made to local churches and community benefit organizations that submitted plans. Three very creative social enterprises based on those plans were launched. One is a street-level ad agency doing geo-centric flyer distribution using the local knowledge of inner-city teens. Another is a custom skateboard painting business that channels the artistic talents of kids to paint the boards, then helps them market them, sell them, do the accounting and set up bank accounts. Third was a fitness program for youth in the 93701 ZIP zone. It is expanding rapidly, and is already self-sustaining. The leaders are excited about the chances they have to speak into the lives of the young people.

Fresh approach for the Valley
Nobel Prize-winner Muhammad Yunus said, “Poverty is not created by poor people but by the system we have built, the institutions we have designed and the concepts we have formulated.” (Building Social Business: The New Kind of Capitalism that Serves Humanity’s Most Pressing Needs (Public Affairs, 2011)). In approaching our Valley’s greatest needs, it makes sense to mobilize one of the Valley’s greatest assets—the talents and resources of the faith community to modify the way our systems and institutions work for the greater good of our community. It has been demonstrated that faith institutions have the capacity to create employment solutions strengthened by abundant support in the process when shown working models. The next Work of Our Hands Summit is May 29. I ask you to imagine what we might do together. Find out more by calling 559-453-2367.

Randy White, D.Min., is executive director of the Fresno Pacific University Center for Community Transformation and associate professor of community transformation at the university. More about the center at www.transformcentralvalley.org

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