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Genius Fellow: Tackling Poverty Takes Creativity


Now, we turn from a story about privilege to one about poverty. Forty-six million Americans now live with poverty. That's according to the latest figures available from the Census Bureau and, while the poor have been talked about on the campaign trail, how often have they been talked with?

Well, anti-poverty activist Maurice Lim Miller has an innovative approach to helping poor families, helping them communicate with each other to find their own solutions and their own methods to improve their lives. Miller is the founder and CEO of the Family Independence Initiative, an Oakland-based nonprofit organization that helps fight poverty.

It was actually California Governor Jerry Brown, who was the mayor of Oakland at the time, who personally asked Miller to start the initiative. Miller was also recently honored with a MacArthur Genius Fellowship. Welcome to the program.

MAURICE LIM MILLER: Thank you very much. It's nice to be with you.

HEADLEE: So you get the genius title. Does that mean people have to call you something like sir or my genius lord now?

MILLER: No. It just means that I can't make genius jokes about the other people I know.

HEADLEE: That's right. Because you're included now. You know, I understand that Jerry Brown was actually the person who asked you to start this initiative, but there must have been something missing from the national conversation about poverty that really inspired you. What was it?

MILLER: There really was and it had a lot to do with my family, which is - you know, I had a Mexican mom with two kids coming to America to build a better life because this was the place to do it and it turned out to be much harder than we expected. My sister's life did not turn out well. I lost my mother in my mid-20s and I'm the only one that made it out.

And it really wasn't about poverty, per se. It wasn't about getting - about poverty. My mother wanted the American dream, you know, that we would be fully independent and so, after I lost my mother, I felt like something should be able to be done so that, you know, we wouldn't lose so many people the way my family had gone and so I went to the nonprofit sector into services trying to find solutions so that you could not just get above poverty. My mother would get above poverty, but really build fully independent lives.

But it turns out that, when you look at need the way the safety net is set up, it's not a springboard out and so my mother always knew that the safety net was not the way to actually build your life. It was just something that would catch you until you stabilized.

So, really, the conversation with my mother was - no. Welfare and all that are really important, but for - you know, for you and for me and for our family to get out, there has to be a different system and that's what seems to be missing in our country.

HEADLEE: It's kind of what you were writing about in the Boston Globe. You wrote about a new blueprint for social mobility. How do you do that? What's your plan to help people move up socially?

MILLER: Well, you know, the thing with Jerry Brown was that he was clear that, at that point when we talked in '99, that there had been a 30-some year war on poverty and we hadn't really impacted poverty. We made living in poverty more tolerable because I know I helped people, but he was also interested in the same thing as my mother was. It was like we've got to get people fully out.

You know, for us, it ended up being that we start looking at what were the things that developed America's reputation about social mobility that just didn't seem to be happening and this country has a huge history of social mobility, whether it was African-Americans after slavery building townships or, more recently, Cambodians own all the donut shops in California. You know, there were - it was really interesting, but my programs that I was running at the time looked nothing like our history and how entire communities had gotten, really, not just out poverty, but really built our middle class.

HEADLEE: So walk us through exactly how the Family Independence Initiative helps poor families. When a poor family or a mother or father walks into your building, what happens?

MILLER: Let's say it's - one family walks in and we tell them, look, you're never going to be able to get out just by yourself. We have no staff that is really going to be able to help you. Go find six or eight other families that are friends of yours and, if you organize those families and come in, we'll talk to you as a group and if we think that we can learn from you - and I have the mayor, I have a commission - we want to learn from you. And if you are going to try to change your life in the next two years, then we'll pay you for the time you spend showing us what the progress is that you're making.

You know, the other piece that is a parallel in business is that almost all of the motivational studies and behavioral studies will say something like what has happened like with Google, where they give their employees 20 percent time to do anything they want using the resources that Google has. They've gotten some of their best products by giving people the freedom to really experiment when they have resources available. That's all we do. We set up a platform for people to say, look, getting out of poverty and becoming independent is a creative process. You guys have the challenge to do that. You can earn some money from us. We'll give you access, but you have to actually show us products and steps.

HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. We're talking with anti-poverty activist and MacArthur Genius Award winner Maurice Lim Miller. And so we're now days away from a presidential election. There's been a lot of talk about the middle class. Not a lot said about the poor. What's the most important thing? What would you like to hear a candidate say when it comes to fighting poverty?

MILLER: It's actually really interesting because I just had a discussion with somebody who's into politics and I was telling him there's these - there's the 46 million that you mentioned that are under poverty, but if you really look at it in terms of households, there's about 40 to 70 million households that are really working poor. And we don't talk about them and the politicians don't talk about them, except in terms of programs and safety nets and as if they're in crisis, but these are people that work really hard.

And, instead, the politicians do talk about middle class. And what's interesting is so many of middle class families are falling into this working poor category that, if they actually spoke more to people that are, quote, "working poor," then there's a lot of votes to be had.

HEADLEE: You know, I wonder if it's gotten too politicized to really accomplish things on a national level, though. What do you think about that? Even when you start talking about the poor, when you say things like, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, when you say things like characterizing the poor as lazy, that now has political overtones. How do you separate this issue out from Democrats and Republicans?

MILLER: In many ways, what we did is we just kind of ignored all that and we went straight into these communities. We basically told them, look, there are these political battles going on. There's all of this going on. There's people that are trying to help you and, again, at this point, it's been a 47 year war on poverty and, you know, it's your turn.

So we're just talking to families and saying, look, you're the only ones that know your families. You're the only ones that know your friends. And what ended up happening is that, within two years, these families like in my first project in Oakland, household income jumped 27 percent. They start buying houses, starting businesses, kids start doing better in schools and a lot of it had to do with kind of this recognition, this validation that they were the solvers of the problem, that they were the ones that had to take the initiative and they could actually get access to resources through us because we were credible at that time. You know, we had the mayor behind us. They could get access to resources based on their initiative, based on the things that they actually would do on a positive level and that we weren't about charity at all, that there were programs for charity, but here we are. We're a resource for you if you actually do something that's tangible.

And they did all kinds of amazing things, from buying homes to, right now, 350 families are our sample in Oakland and San Francisco, and they've created 74 jobs at average investment of about $2,000 per job created. So these are the amazing things that can be done if we actually change the formula and start looking at people's initiative and strengths.

HEADLEE: And you've talked a little bit about your own family background, your own experience. I can understand how that would make you passionate about this. You were raised by a single mother. You were born in Mexico. I understand your father was Asian. This must have helped you connect with the issue and these families you were serving, but did it ever become a barrier? Was it ever a problem for you in your work?

MILLER: It wasn't my background that was the problem. It was the fact that I graduated out of U.C. Berkley. I taught kind of middle, upper class. You know, my language - my mother wouldn't let us speak Spanish after we moved up here because she didn't want people to know she was Mexican and so I had this kind of education in whatever was really a class-bias piece.

And so then, unless I told people my background - I told people about my mother and my sister and whatever - yeah. It was a problem because I was kind of seen as - well, it's that other group of folks that are kind of coming to help us again. And there is a lot of resistance to that, but people in the community right now that have gone through these programs for so long just feel like - well, we can only take what's given to us and what's given to us is based on need. They never look at our talents.

And so I had to actually break from that and one of the ways we did it - it wasn't just me - is that we - you know, if any of my staff starts giving these families direction or counseling, I fire them. And we fired four staff and it was like, no. This is not about you or staff or me and the power and the access we have. This is about these families. They know their family the best. We need to really trust them and we're going to learn from them.

HEADLEE: Well, that must mean, then, that you have a pretty strong reaction to some of these ideas about drug testing before someone has access to a social safety net.

MILLER: Not only is it a waste of money, but the message it sends, the distrust of how society looks at folks continues to send this message and these families - and my mother was really hurt by the message both from the right and the left. She didn't like being called Mexican and dirty and lazy and then she didn't like the social worker that was trying to say, oh, well, you know, you're a poor mom and we're going to help you and basically saying the same thing, that she wasn't capable. My mother had only a third grade education, but she was smart and she was rough and she really was resourceful and that's how these families are.

Respect. People don't understand how important respect and pride is and, in order to give people resources right now, we start taking that away and we just can't do that.

HEADLEE: Maurice Lim Miller, a MacArthur Foundation genius fellow. He's also the CEO and founder of the Family Independence Initiative. He joined us from member station KQED in San Francisco.

Thanks again and congratulations.

MILLER: Thank you very much. I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.