Below the Line: Oakland-based FII believes families have the power to lift themselves out of poverty

'I would describe it as a miracle'

As part of WCPO's ongoing coverage of childhood poverty, we are profiling organizations in other communities that are helping children and families through struggles that people here face, too. This is the third in a series of three stories about what is working elsewhere and what the needs are locally. Click here to read the first story in the series. Click here to read the second.

Sharon Burden was unemployed and volunteering at the community center in Detroit's Brightmoor neighborhood when a friend told her about Family Independence Initiative.

Her friend said FII could connect low-income families to the resources and money they needed to get ahead — at no cost to the families. Burden was skeptical.

"Let me understand this," she remembers saying. "I'm going to be in a program for free, and it's going to help me to get my family and myself on a level that I would want to be on?"

But it didn't take long for Burden to become a believer.

Now she credits her involvement with FII for helping her get the connections and resources she needed to get a full-time job, move out of government-subsidized housing and build a better life for herself and her two sons. FII's impact on her life is much bigger than any program's.

"I would describe it as a miracle," she said. "Because even when this idea was presented to me, I still didn't see it going this far."

FII started in Oakland, California in 2001 and was founded on the belief that low-income families can move themselves and their communities out of poverty when they have access to connections, choice and capital — the same things higher-income people use to get ahead. The nonprofit organization now has operations in San Francisco, Boston, Albuquerque, New Orleans, Detroit and Fresno, too. The organization counts 1,300 families among its members — representing more than 4,000 adults and children.

"At the core of our work, it's really about putting people back in the place of control and giving them the choice of being able to drive the change they want in their lives," said Jesús Gerena, the managing partner of FII who runs the organization's operations. "We let the people who are most affected by these issues to drive that change."

'You Already Have the Answers'

If that doesn't sound revolutionary, consider how FII does it:

• Every family that joins FII gets a free laptop to report back to FII about monthly goals, income, assets and liabilities. They must report the data for six months. After a year, the laptops are theirs to keep.

• FII pays families for attending monthly meetings, keeping journals on their finances and goals and submitting the journals in a timely fashion. Families can earn as much as $300 every three months — or as much as $1,200 per year — in taxable income that FII refers to as stipends.

• After families have been FII members for six months, they can access FII's "resource bank" to get no-interest loans for up to $2,500 or grants that match members' savings two-to-one for home repairs and educational needs.

The organization has an annual budget of roughly $8 million and a staff of 15, Gerena said. Between 60 and 70 percent of the dollars FII receives from institutions, individuals and family foundations goes to the families the organization serves. 

"What differentiates us is that we're saying, 'You already have the answers. You just have to find them for yourself,'" Gerena said. "And if you don't, there are people in your community who can help you."

Jesús Gerena

The powerful approach looks at poor communities and sees their strengths instead of focusing on their problems. And the organization uses the data it collects from those families to document their success and spotlight the initiative, creativity and leadership that can be found in low-income communities in the hopes of one day changing the way national policies treat poor people.

Gerena said the organization hasn't had problems with people selling the laptops or using the money in inappropriate ways. Each year, the organization loses about 10 percent to 15 percent of the families that join initially, he said.

"The assumption always is that people are going to do the wrong thing. We haven't had that experience at all," Gerena said. "Part of this narrative is we don't trust these people to make decisions for themselves. There are studies that demonstrate that when you do invest in people directly in this way, over 90 percent of the dollars given are always used in a positive way."

GreenLight Fund was so impressed with the model that it helped FII launch in Boston in 2010. Boston-based GreenLight Fund invests in innovative nonprofit organizations to address unmet community needs. It expanded into Cincinnati last year and is working to determine which nonprofit to bring here. Its decision won't be announced until later this year.

Related: New poverty-fighting fund hits Cincinnati

"Living in poverty can be very isolating. FII creates a network effect that then creates ripple effects in communities," said Kate Barrett, associate director of GreenLight Fund's national portfolio. "We saw FII as an opportunity to come and work with families that were kind of right on that edge — hovering right above or below the poverty line."

The fact that FII focuses on the strengths of families and communities — instead of focusing only on their problems — intrigues Ross Meyer, vice president of community impact at United Way of Greater Cincinnati. Meyer said he hopes GreenLight Cincinnati will consider FII as it considers which new nonprofit to bring to town.

"One of the many challenges and consequences of concentrated poverty is the lack of social connection and social capital, and rebuilding that social capital is not easy to do but is really important," Meyer said. "In all of our lives, what made a lot of us successful are the people we've leaned on when we needed help. And if you don't have that system of support through the hard times, it can be really tough."

FII focuses much of its efforts on the working poor and is not designed to work with families in crisis, Gerena said.

"If you're homeless or in an abusive relationship or if someone in your household or you are battling drug addiction, that's what you need to take care of," he said. "You can't be setting other goals for yourself. We just say, 'Take care of those things and come back.'"

'They Have Taught Me To Be A Leader'

The approach makes a world of sense to Keishea Ewing. She's a single mom in Cincinnati who recently worked her way off of welfare with the support of the local nonprofit Santa Maria Community Services.

Related: This group helps people get off welfare

When Ewing was struggling between pay days, she appreciated that she could call Santa Maria and get a $25 Kroger gift card to help her scrape by.

But she said having a quarterly stipend that she could count on would have been even better — not to mention the community connections that FII encourages.

"This is absolutely amazing," Ewing said. "For FII to start with building community groups and not just building program plans — I feel like if we don't talk to each other and give each other those resources, we have nothing."

Keishea Ewing and her children. Photo by Emily Maxwell | WCPO

For people who have become FII members, those community connections can be even more valuable than the financial help.

Romona Shewl became an FII member in 2010. She heard about the organization from a woman in a support group that she was leading for the nonprofit where Shewl works.

"I had just started grad school. I had no computer, and I was getting to work early and staying late just to do homework," said Shewl, who is 51. "Getting the laptop — that was the beginning."

Romona Shewl

The computer and financial help with graduate school were great, she said, and FII has helped her pay for her younger son's college education, too.

But Shewl said the biggest benefit has been the relationships she has developed in her FII community groups and what she has learned from them.

"They have taught me to be a leader," she said. "They have taught me to be a role model."

FII members typically value the communities they build even more than the financial resources that the organization can offer, said Kofi Kenyatta, the director of FII Detroit.

"We're trying to focus on that sense of community, that coming together and building those bridges and relationships will transcend the money," he said. "It's not just the resources. We're a nonprofit, and resources can go away."

A 'Domino Effect' of Support

For Theresa McIntyre, FII was about much more than money. Her involvement with the organization gave her the confidence to become a resource to other parents, she said.

McIntyre joined FII Boston in 2012. Her daughter was in first grade at the time, and McIntyre was struggling a bit as a single mom. Her income was too high to qualify for government assistance. But money was still tight from time to time. Mostly, though, McIntyre was having problems with her daughter's school that were related to her daughter's disabilities and IEP — or Individualized Education Program.

"I remember being very frustrated with my daughter's school at the time," McIntyre said.

She was at an FII meeting and shared her frustrations with the group — something she had not done before.

"It was right then that my group members supported me," she said. "Like a domino effect."

The support was so powerful that McIntyre later applied to FII for money to start a group for parents of children with IEPs. She got $100 per month to pay for childcare and pizza so parents could get together, talk about their frustrations and help each other advocate for their kids. She calls the group Parents of Purpose, and she's been leading it for about two years now.

Parents of Purpose has grown in numbers and influence, and the experience helped McIntyre get a job as a parent partner at a Boston nonprofit organization where she has turned her passion into a new career.

Eventually, McIntyre hopes to turn Parents of Purpose into a 501c3 so it can raise more money and reach more families. It's a role she never envisioned for herself before FII.

"I was someone that was very quiet and didn't talk in front of a group," said McIntyre, who is 39. "These are life-changing skills that you're learning — how to really cope with certain things that are going on in your life and really make an impact. And that's more valuable than money."

Household Income Doubled

In Albuquerque, New Mexico, FII helped Flor Gonzalez build a business that has doubled her family's monthly income.

Gonzalez has been a part of FII for about a year. She got involved after a friend at a local community college told her about the organization.

Gonzalez had been earning money by watching two children in her home, but her dream was to convert her family's garage into a daycare center so she could accommodate more kids. Gonzalez and her husband have four children of their own, so she likes the flexibility of being able to work from her home.

Gonzalez and her husband were able to keep $1,000 in savings for three consecutive months and got a matching grant from FII for another $2,000, said Susy Sarmiento, FII's site director if Albuquerque.

Gonzalez and her husband, who works in construction, used that money to convert their garage into a daycare space that is now licensed to have as many as six children.

Flor Gonzalez at her daycare.

Before FII, Gonzalez was earning about $195 each week watching two children, she said. With the new daycare space, she now earns between $400 and $500 each week.

Her family's household income went from about $1,500 per month, including her husband's income, to about $3,000 per month now, she said.

"I haven't had to think about going to look for a job elsewhere," Gonzalez said as Sarmiento translated for her. "Even though I'm working, I'm also able to fulfill my duties at home."

And if Gonzalez gets approval to watch even more children, she plans to hire another worker or bring her husband into the business.

Penalized For Success

Jobs, of course, are a critical part of any family's path out of poverty.

But the way the system now works, families who get government assistance are penalized the more they earn on their own.

FII as an organization believes that is a flaw in the system that is based on the way people in poverty are viewed.

"We look at low-income communities, and we always are seeing them for their deficits, and we've evolved a pretty complex narrative around who they are," Gerena said. "That they are needy — poor beyond monetary poverty — that they lack motivation and that they are the reason they are in their current circumstance."

As those poor people earn more, benefits are withdrawn, making it all the more difficult for them to get ahead, he said.

It's the opposite for higher-wealth people, he said.

"As you're making investments in your households, you get IRA breaks, tax breaks — you are compensated and incentivized to do more," he said.

FII is trying to create similar supports and incentives for the working poor.

"We're creating a new system with them that sees their positives, that matches their investment and just like the wealthy relies heavily on their social networks to support them in the long term," Gerena said.

It has worked wonders for Sharon Burden.

Sharon Burden

When she started with FII nearly two years ago, she could no longer afford private schooling for her older son. He was 13 at the time and was having trouble in public school.

After a bad car crash, she had gone from being someone who had always been able to support her sons to a single mom who was struggling.

Through her FII community group, she learned that a private school had scholarships available for her teenage son. And she got him enrolled there.

Before long, she heard that Meijer, Inc. was planning to build a new store near her neighborhood. She organized her neighbors, contacted a state lawmaker and pushed for the company to hire people from the community in an effort to reduce the unemployment rate.

"About 150 people got hired from the neighborhood," Burden said. She was one of them.

Burden, who is 36, has worked at Meijer about seven months now. She already has been promoted from cashier to supervisor.

Getting the job meant she no longer qualified for her subsidized housing, Kenyatta said. But Burden found a rent-to-own program in Detroit and has moved into four-bedroom home. As long as she pays her $443 rent on time each month, she will own the house in 15 years, she said.

"I started crying when we moved in because there was still plastic on the toilet seats," she said. "I had never had that."

Now Burden is an FII "fellow," and the organization looks to her for her leadership and experience. She has attended out-of-town conferences for FII where she has found new confidence in her ability to make a difference for her family and her community.

"I never saw it going this far. And it wasn't like a $3,000 or $4,000 a month opportunity," Burden said. "It was just knowing that there was some help coming and that you could actually look forward to it.

"It's made me feel kind of like there is no limit to the things I would be able to achieve."

It's the sort of success that low-income families across Greater Cincinnati are aching to achieve, too.

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 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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