CINCINNATI — The work has started, and there's no time to waste.
Dozens of people gathered last week at a series of meetings organized by the Child Poverty Collaborative. That's the group working to lift 10,000 Hamilton County children out of poverty and help 5,000 unemployed or underemployed adults get good jobs.
The collaborative invited 300 people to go to one of five sessions held between April 4 and April 8. Everyone invited had expressed interest in being part of the group's work, and 125 people attended.
The people at the meetings were asked to discuss and answer two questions:
What are the top five reasons this approach could fail or go sideways?
What are the top five things that need to be in place in order for the process to work well and make a genuine lasting difference?
There were several themes that appeared over and over in the more than 125 answers that the group collected, said Lynn Marmer, the retired Kroger Co. executive who is executive director of the Child Poverty Collaborative.
Those themes included:
Make sure to have the right people in all the conversations and have the right conversations.
Demonstrate that the business community is committed to solutions.
Tackle the structure, the system and address the duplication within it.
Maintain energy throughout the process, celebrate successes, admit failures, and communicate at every step.
Make this practical, focus on the root causes and find leverage points.
Create the short-term wins while working towards long-term changes.
Do not view this as a zero-sum game.
Here's the less polite way to summarize that: Don't waste time talking about things that don't matter. Don't steal resources from programs that already are working. Bottom line: Don't screw it up.
'The Time Is Right'
Marmer told me she was excited by the energy at the meetings and by the candor and frank discussions that she heard.
"There's a sense that the time is right, and that's very exciting," she said. "There are many moments in which this feels very daunting. And I remind myself that there are many others that are in this with us. And I think the quality of conversation we had makes me really hopeful."
But the conversations earlier this month also made it clear that there's a lot of work to be done.
In an email sent this week to leaders of the Child Poverty Collaborative, Marmer described the lessons learned so far in three main categories:
Who should be involved. People from all sectors and cultures in the community, including business people, faith leaders, service providers, government representatives and people in poverty. The participants must be humble, honest and accountable. And they must be willing to discuss tough topics such as race, segregation, funding and self-interest without allowing themselves to be "paralyzed by the problem or the process."
Planning has to be based on data and community voices. The collaborative must see people as individuals and resist the temptation to adopt "one-size fits all" recommendations. The group must build trust through honest discussions. It also must tell people and organizations what they can do to help and have resources to pay for the solutions it proposes.
Requirements of the group's initial action plan. It should come from the community, and people must feel like they own the recommendations. It must have funding and/or the support it needs for changes or proposals. The plan must address the root causes of poverty and build in next steps. And it must create a framework for implementing changes, monitoring them and evaluating them to learn what's working.
'Can They Do It? Who Knows?'
It's a big job. And even some of the people rooting for the Child Poverty Collaborative aren't certain it can be done.
"Can they do it? Who knows," said Bob Mecum, the longtime CEO of Lighthouse Youth Services, a nonprofit working to end youth homelessness in the region by 2020. "I think it's lovely that they're trying."
Mecum attended one of the invitation-only meetings earlier this month. He was impressed by the discussion and the sincerity. The questions seemed on target, he said, but it's just such a big goal.
"I thought ending youth homelessness by 2020 was a daunting task," Mecum said. "Figuring out how to end children's poverty in Cincinnati? Whoa."
The key will be making sure the right people — particularly people experiencing poverty — have a say in the plan, said Sherman Bradley, co-pastor of New Life Covenant Cincinnati and founder and CEO of a nonprofit called Consider the Poor.
Bradley was at one of the Child Poverty Collaborative sessions, too. And he didn’t see anyone who had lived in poverty at the meeting he attended, he told me.
"It's always the folk in the grassroots efforts who have the pulse on what's going on versus the folk who sit in the ivory towers," Bradley said. "The players have to be willing to know and engage the folks at the grassroots level. And it's not an overnight process to build that kind of trust."
Marmer said that's a concern that she and members of the Child Poverty Collaborative's steering committee share.
The five meetings earlier this month had lots of people from organizations who work with poor families, she said, but not many people who are living in poverty or have ever lived in poverty.
"We know very much that trust is extremely important here and that it's not something that you get to establish casually," Marmer said.
Ways to Get Involved
That's part of the reason that the collaborative is working to identify "community ambassadors" — people who are trusted in various neighborhoods who can help connect the collaborative with people in need.
The collaborative also wants to train "facilitators," people who can help lead some of the dozens of community conversations that are planned for the months ahead.
People who know the community better might be more attuned to another of Bradley's concerns.
During the start of the meeting he attended, Bradley heard Child Poverty Collaborative leaders refer to Cincinnati as a generous and giving place.
But that feeling is not universal, he said.
"There's a demographic in our society that doesn't believe that and doesn't experience that," Bradley said. "All you have to do is look at Over-the-Rhine and Downtown and the West End — over the past 15 years, you can see a clear delineation about how the communities have been engaged."
Marmer said she understands that, too, and agreed that the collaborative must be sensitive to it.
"We need to understand the systems and where the systems are breaking down," she said. "But we also need to respect the fact that we're talking about individuals, and poverty is extremely complex."
It's another indication of how much work there is to be done to lift thousands of our community's children out of poverty — and how many people will need to help to make that happen.
To find out how to get involved and to get more information about becoming a facilitator or a community ambassador, email the Child Poverty Collaborative at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.