Circles takes new approach to fighting poverty

Circles takes new approach to fighting poverty
September 03
00:00 2014
(pictured above: Circle Leader Denise Terry (center) with her allies, Barbara Keller and Claudia Jokinen.)

Circles Winston-Salem held its first “Big View” meeting last Thursday at Green Street United Methodist Church.

Circles is new to the city, but the nationwide program – which works to elevate those in poverty by teaming them with middle class “allies” who support their efforts to obtain economic parity – begun in 1992. Both “Circle Leaders,” the term used for the person living in poverty, and allies take part in training before they enter into a partnership that lasts at least 18 months. Annette Snider, the North Carolina Circles Coach, said those being aided are called Circle Leaders because of their knowledge of poverty.



“The experts about poverty are the people who are living in it, right now, every single day,” she said. “They can tell you every barrier that is in your community, who to go to and who not to go to; they can tell you where it’s going to work and where it’s not going to work … they are incredibly well resourced and networked on where the barriers are.”

The Big View, hosted by Mayor Allen Joines, was the first in a series of monthly meetings that will bring together Circles teams with the greater community, including many who work regularly with the poor. The meetings are among several components utilized by the program to support Circle Leaders and open networking opportunities for them.



“We really begin to collaborate and take what our Circle Leaders are learning and sharing with us and put that in connection with leaders such as yourself in the community and find ways to break down the barriers to poverty in Winston-Salem,” said Big View Team Chair Touré Marshall, pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church.

Nationally, more than 1,000 community-based organizations have adopted the program, starting their own Circles programs. The Shalom Project, whose services include a food pantry and medical clinic for those in need, started the Winston-Salem program. There are six active “Circles” here and at least a dozen Circle Leaders in training. This is the first time Circles has been launched in an urban city in the state.

Pastor Kelly Carpenter speaks to the crowd.

Pastor Kelly Carpenter speaks to the crowd.

“For years, we’ve been asking the question at the Shalom Project – can we develop a way that’s not just an immediate response to a need?” said Green Street Pastor Kelly Carpenter, who founded the Shalom Project and sits on its board. “Is there a way we can also build a ladder and be part of a program that helps folks we’ve learned to be in a relationship with, and to use that relationship to help folks move and make advances to a more stable life?”

Denise Terry was among the initial batch of Circle Leaders. Like many Americans, she has been unemployed for a long period after losing her job as a social worker two-and-half years ago. Even with a master’s degree, she has been unable to find steady work. The divorced mom has had to deplete her retirement account and savings to make ends meet.

The lack of income has created barriers that make it even more difficult to find work. She can’t use her car because she can’t afford insurance, tags and an inspection. Because of a ticket that she couldn’t pay, she lost her driver’s license, which many employers require.

She’s met several times with her circle allies, Claudia Jokinen and Barbara Keller. They offer suggestions and job leads. The allies suggested that Terry take advantage of computer labs at local libraries after Terry was unable to continue to pay for Internet service at home.

“They’re trying to think and be creative and come up with ideas and solutions,” Terry said of her allies. “They’re searching their networks of people.”

Keller said that though she is still new to the Circles experience, she’s learning a lot.

“It’s been eye-opening to me,” she said. “Developing a one-to-one relationship really does get you inside poverty in a way you haven’t been before.”

Jokinen said since the allies aren’t themselves employers, there are limits to what they can do to help Circle Leaders, which she says can be disheartening.

“It’s satisfying in some areas and it’s still frustrating in other areas because the people who really can impact change for our Circle Leaders aren’t really involved in the program yet,” she said.

Circles Winston-Salem is in need of donations to sponsor Circle Leaders and in need of dozens of Allies for the next crop of Leaders. Email or call 336-721-0606 ext. 108 for more information.

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Todd Luck

Todd Luck

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