CincySHIFT event to discuss successful strategies to alleviate poverty

'We're all living in some sort of deprivation'

CINCINNATI -- There is more than one way to be poor in this world, and there is more than one way to be rich.

Exploring those truths will be at the heart of CincySHIFT, a two-day conference at Cincinnati Christian University designed to examine successful strategies to overcome systemic poverty. The conference will begin the evening of Oct. 14 and will start again the next morning.

Neighborhoods Embracing Transformation, or NET, organized the event for the many people in Greater Cincinnati who want to help alleviate poverty here but don't know the most effective way to go about it, said Paula Bussard, a co-founder of NET and co-pastor at New Hope Ministries in Colerain Township.

"We see ourselves as networkers," Bussard said of NET. "Laying the groundwork for dealing with poverty in our region is a first step."

Paula Bussard

For CincySHIFT, NET has invited experts in poverty alleviation and community transformation to talk about what works and what doesn't.

Speakers will include Pastor Damon Lynch III of New Prospect Baptist Church, City Gospel Mission President Roger Howell and Kirk Lithander, outreach pastor at Fairhaven Church in Kettering and executive director of Kettering Circles.

Bussard said she hopes CincySHIFT and its speakers can help change perceptions, especially those held by business people attending the event.

"It's the perception that those in poverty could get out if they really wanted to -- that they're just lazy," she said. "We want to express that we're all living in some sort of deprivation in our lives."

Poverty can be financial, moral, spiritual or relational, she said.

Just as people who don't have a lot of money have other strengths and gifts that should be acknowledged and nurtured, Lynch said.

'Half-full' approach

That's what Lynch will focus on during his presentations at CincySHIFT, he said.

"I will be talking to them about the half-full approach," he said. "It's how you build on strengths and capacity and giftedness of communities. How you acknowledge that even in what we call 'poor' communities, that they are gifted. And after we acknowledge that, how we can affirm that giftedness and activate those capacities."

Damon Lynch III

It's called an asset-based approach, and Lynch is part of the faculty of the Chicago-based Asset-Based Community Development Institute.

That approach doesn't ignore the fact that there is "emptiness" in that half-full glass, Lynch said.

"But it's the belief that the only way that the glass fills up is by expanding the capacity that already exists," he said. "As opposed to pouring into the emptiness of a person's life."

City Gospel Mission is one of a number of local nonprofit organizations that work to do more than pour into the emptiness.

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Howell said he hopes to encourage business people to be more strategic in how they help neighbors in need, just as they are strategic in how they run their businesses.

"We have a lot of people in Cincinnati who are very generous and very caring. But a lot of times their help to people in poverty and people in need is more enabling than it is helpful," Howell said.

It's like the old saying about teaching a man to fish instead of giving him a fish, Howell said.

To truly help neighbors in need means having a relationship with them, understanding their hopes and goals and walking alongside them as they get there, he said.

Fairhaven Church, a mega-church in Kettering with more than 6,000 members, has adopted a specific strategy to do just that.

'We can learn from one another'

Several years ago -- during the depths of the Great Recession -- the church's pastor met with mayors of the community and asked them to identify the region's biggest problem. Every mayor agreed that it was poverty, Lithander said.

After much study, discussion and prayer, the church decided to use the power of its congregation to do more than collect money and make donations.

Kirk Lithander

In late 2011, Fairhaven launched Kettering Circles as a way to empower neighbors in need who weren't necessarily connected to the church in any way.

Circles is a secular organization based in New Mexico that uses a community-based strategy to help strengthen families and neighborhoods.

A person in need -- or "circle leader" -- is teamed up with two or three volunteers from the church who are known as "circle allies." The goal is not for those allies to mentor or coach or teach, Lithander said. Rather, the goal is for everyone in the circle to get to know each other and learn from each other's connections and experiences.

"Many of our participants -- circle leaders -- are not only in poverty financially. But relationally, they're isolated," Lithander said. "They don't have close friends. Sometimes there is no family nearby. They're in isolation, which provides a sense of hopelessness. Now they can view Circles as their family."

Kettering Circles is open to people of all races, ethnicities and religious faiths and has connected with close to 100 local families at this point, he said.

The initiative has been so successful that Fairhaven is launching something called Abundant Communities, or ACTS, as a way to help train other churches in the approach.

A large gathering of Kettering Circles.

"It's to help churches understand the framework, that poverty is not just a lack of material needs," Lithander said. "We in upper middle class are often in poverty, often relationally, because we don't know our neighbors. We're broken. People in poverty are broken. And we can learn from one another."

Bussard said CincySHIFT organizers don't see their efforts as competing with the work of the Child Poverty Collaborative, which has a community forum scheduled for Oct. 29 to discuss the next steps in its work.

Lynch agreed. Although he has not been involved in the Child Poverty Collaborative's work, he said he thinks NET's efforts can be complementary.

"Everybody needs to collaborate and work together," he said.

Details about CincySHIFT and registration information are available online. Lunch on Saturday is included in the $20 online registration fee. Walk-ins are welcome and can register at the door.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and also shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Childhood poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO. To read more stories about childhood poverty, go to www.wcpo.com/poverty.

To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.

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