A very bold alternative

“What is this feedback thing all about?”

I‘m hearing this question more and more as the word about feedback in social change is spreading. I say that it is about transformational change, though it works incrementally. I say that it is about listening and connecting with people, that it amounts to a fundamental reorientation in the way those of us in “the helping professions” achieve social impact. We ask three system re-set questions: What do people want? Are we helping them get it? If not, how can we help them get it?

I guess I thought we were pretty bold in this call for fundamental system re-set. After reading Mauricio Miller’s landmark book, The Alternative: Most of what you believe about poverty is wrong, I realize that at best the feedback movement is a kind of half-way house. Miller poses a far bolder and I think more fundamental set of system re-set questions: What do people want? What are their own ways to get it? How do we work to enable them to build on their own initiative rather than supplant theirs for ours?

To answer these questions, says Miller, “…policymakers, funders and non-profits must learn how to learn from the families themselves.” In a conversational, jargon-free style, Miller sets out why and how we can and indeed must do this. He has a gift for rendering simple cut-through solutions that embrace the complexity of poverty in America. Speaking directly to funders, Miller suggests, “Their requests for proposals should ask those seeking funds to first discover what people are doing for themselves and others, and then explain how their services will enhance, rather than hide, those efforts.”

Miller mastered the complexity of poverty in the United States first by growing up poor, and then through over more than three decades working in and leading such programs. Over the past 10 years, he and his colleagues at the Family Independence Initiative (FII) – with backing from then City of Oakland mayor and now California governor Jerry Brown – created an iconic anti-program. If staff try to help the families that are enrolled at FII, they are fired. Instead, FII pays families a small monthly fee to share the stories of how they are working to get ahead, individually, and together with other families. Learning from these stories, FII creates the kinds of ‘leg up’ opportunities that are in place in the USA for the middle class. For example, FII has created an alternative credit score based on consistent data sharing and self-help initiative by FII members. FII then convinces lenders to recognize this Initiative Score as a more reliable indicator of people’s credit risk then the normally terrible conventional credit scores they have in the mainstream economy.

The results are impressive, as shown by this table of percentage increases in income, savings, starting side businesses, and increases of kids with attendance and grades up.

While FII has the evidence to show its approach works, Miller consistently brings us back to why this is happening at FII, and in so doing, provides an incisive precis of his work.

“Although the progress indicated by traditional measures of success such as income has been significant, what is the most encouraging is the increased confidence and sense of control that I’ve seen in families who formerly felt discouraged or disempowered by our society. Mutuality and community are the vital ingredients to success. Yet, if you think that FII is the silver bullet that we have searched for over the last fifty-year war on poverty, then you have missed the point. FII is there to demonstrate that if our society would trust families to make their own decisions and then back the actions those families take we would have large scale success…Our society provides that for the rich. Common sense should now tell us that a hands-off, trusting, encouraging environment is the nectar of success for our lower income populations.” [emphasis in original]

For the feedback movement, I think The Alternative poses an opportunity and a challenge.

The opportunity is to ensure that feedback loops are driven by questions that identify whether organizations understand how people solve problems themselves, and whether they have the kinds of high-trust relationships with people that can support rather than supplant people’s own initiative.

At Keystone we have in the past prioritized some of these questions. Does Organization X help you achieve what you want to achieve in your life? Do you trust Organization X? How responsive is Organization X to you? But now I can see how these questions could be used to validate the failed expert-led model that Miller is seeking to topple, hence the challenge. To make sure that Constituent Voice, as we call our approach to feedback, we need questions that discover people’s own solutions, that probe for whether and how people are striving and learning together. Questions like: Do you know anyone in your community who is succeeding in the way you would like to? What opportunities do you see to address your most important priorities?  Who helps you to take up those opportunities?

Everyone at Keystone is now reading The Alternative, and experiencing the bracing discomfort of discovering ways our work is currently not understanding and supporting the existing mutuality and personal initiative of those we ultimately seek to help. We are recommending the book to all of our clients and partners.

I hope all who read this post will read The Alternative – and please let me know what you think.


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