Art of Community | A promising poverty-fighting effort happening here
By Rufus Woods
Reducing generational poverty is the single most important community challenge we have in the Wenatchee Valley and North Central Washington.
In North Central Washington, about 60 percent of children under 18 are in poverty. This is a growing and pervasive challenge that we must solve if we want our communities to thrive.
The United Way of Chelan and Douglas Counties has taken the lead in a community-based approach that has proven successful in other areas of the country at addressing poverty that is perpetuated from generation to generation.
The approach is called Opportunity Community and it’s built on the work of Dr. Donna Beegle, who grew up in poverty and was one of the fortunate few to overcome that profound challenge.
Beegle was in town last week to put on a Prosperity Summit that invited community members to learn about generational poverty and ways that communities are effectively solving this issue.
There are no silver bullets and we cannot rely upon more government programs, Beegle said. Solving this requires building a network of community members to mentor individuals and families who are struggling to get out of poverty.
It was a real eye opener to hear real-life stories from Beegle about how poverty impacts human beings. Beegle talks about speaking two languages — English and poverty — to emphasize how poorly educated people in poverty who are struggling to make ends meet don’t talk like middle class or upper class folks.
People in poverty are then treated as if they are stupid because they lack not only the vocabulary but also the life experience that would allow them to fit in.
Beegle, the daughter of parents in poverty, was 15 years old when she spent her honeymoon in an East Wenatchee orchard, she told us.
She asked audience members to consider how we might react to the approach of a police officer if our only experience with law enforcement was that they arrested people and tacked up eviction notices.
From a middle class perspective, law enforcement officers are there to help, but that’s not the experience of those in poverty, she told us. As the adage goes, to understand another person’s perspective it’s helpful to walk a mile in their shoes.
Beegle was able to escape from poverty because of an innovative program that provided educational opportunities and because of mentors who made an extra effort to encourage and tutor her. She went on to earn a Ph.D. Her life’s work has been to find ways to help address generational poverty based on her experience.
What she has piloted successfully and is bringing to communities like the Wenatchee Valley is the Opportunity Community model, which invites people who are not in poverty to undergo special training to become navigators — like the ones who helped Beegle — and work with individuals and families to encourage, provide access and be an advocate for people who are trapped in the misery of poverty.
There can be no more important work in our communities.
More money is not the solution, it seems. The key is developing a community-wide commitment that we’re going to solve the issue, and then backing that up with time and energy.
“Poverty is expensive for our communities,” said Beegle, and we need to be investing in families and children to break the cycle.
Poverty is not a sexy subject. Politically, we often hear suggestions that people in poverty are the problem. The reality, Beegle said, is that these are tremendously resilient people who care deeply for their families and who figure out how to survive when everything is against them.
Beegle was able to break free from the cycle of poverty and she has helped family members get degrees and better their lives. She wants to help our communities do the same thing for those in poverty in our midst.
The United Way signed up several navigators last year and had some successes, said executive director Alan Walker. It’s challenging work, make no mistake about it. Now they are training a new group of navigators to continue the work of building relationships and opening doors that can lead to breaking the cycle of generational poverty.
If you want to help in any way, please contact Kenzie English at the United Way at 662-8261or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The United Way is also launching Opportunity Community Cafe, a meeting every first and third Tuesday, from 7-9 a.m. at the United Way conference room at 107 S. Mission St. This will help equip community members with the knowledge and understanding of what they can do to help alleviate our poverty challenges.