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Poverty, Prosperity, and National Security
Maybe you care about poverty in this country, maybe you don’t. Maybe you care aboutour nation’s economic prosperity, maybe you don’t. But I’m sure you care, at least a littlebit, about national security. I care about all of them and how they connect. As a nation, Ibelieve that we need to make this connection for our own collective good. To begin,allow me to jumpstart your thinking about how one issue affects another because,frankly, I believe our nation, and, perhaps, our humanity, depend upon coming togetherto change the foundation of the equation—poverty. I hope this notion will be the sparkthat helps us, as a society, recognize that it’s in all of our best interests to begin workingon poverty, not just for people who live in poverty, but also for the rest of us. I fear that itwill uncover an indifference to poverty that will ultimately cost each of us our prosperityand security. I hope these ideas will initiate action. I fear that they won’t.
As delusional as it may sound, I know of a way to bring us together to create a nationwith prosperity and security for all. You know, as in the founding principles of this nation.
I’m no economist or sociologist, but I know that if more people contribute to theeconomy as healthy, vibrant producers and consumers, we all do better and are moreprosperous than if fewer people contribute. And I know that when there is prosperity,security follows. I also know this at a personal level: I feel more secure when I’mprosperous than when I’m not, don’t you? If we stop and think about that for a minute,we find that it is true at every level of society. Simplistic perhaps; economists andsociologists can fill in the details. I want to point out some things you may not be awareof—current trends and how we’ve dealt with poverty so far—to get us thinking morebroadly. And then, I’d like to propose a specific whole-system strategy that may actuallyget us all working in the same direction as a nation, for the same purpose, for thecommon good. Consider this strategy as an alternative to what hasn’t worked.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe I have “the answer” to poverty, prosperity, ornational security nor do I believe anyone does—each issue is far too complex. Justwatch the news; if someone knew the answer, we’d be seeing quite a different picture.
What I do know is a workable way to find the answer—an “answer-to-the-answer,” so tospeak. You see, the answers ARE out there. Somewhere in the brilliance of ourinnovative and “can-do” collective mind, we have an answer to poverty, prosperity, andnational security, but we haven’t yet approached it in any unified way. Sure, we’ve madeprogress, but honestly, things are not working particularly well in any of these areas atthe moment, and there’s an ever-present sense of impending doom in each of them.
Like waiting for an approaching horror scene in a movie; we all seem to hear the musicsignaling that something scary is about to happen, but we don’t know what to do aboutit. As we continue to watch the movie, we realize that the plot has thickened. In thepoverty plot, we see that we have created a booming service economy that we all knowand love, especially when we’re the ones getting the service. The plot thickens moreand the scary music starts. We realize that many workers who keep our service Poverty, Prosperity, and National Security economy running don’t make enough money to support their families and can’t takeadvantage of the very services they provide. This scares us because we’ve built thiscountry on the belief that hard work brings the American Dream, and the realityassociated with the scary music threatens this belief. The prosperity plot also thickensbecause it’s interdependent with the poverty plot. They are scenes in the samemovie—produced, directed, and filmed by the same society. In this plot, we see that theeconomy is interdependent—every segment of society has a role in the health of theeconomy.
The scary music becomes more intense when we see that the economy is being dividedinto two ever-distant halves, or, more accurately, two “haves”—the “haves” and “have-nots.” The have-nots work hard, but can’t support their families, let alone go out in themarketplace and spend, spend, spend, to support our economy. The music in thisscene is almost deafening and when I hit the pause button to take a break from thevolume, I wonder how willing we are as a nation to allow the gap between rich and poorto grow until it breaks down the entire economic engine. After all, it can only run on twocylinders at a high r.p.m. for a limited time. If we allow that to happen, you don’t needme to tell you what that would do to national security. Just look at the internationalexamples of how secure nations are when only two ends of the financial spectruminteract. But, I’m not here to paint a picture of doom and gloom. On the contrary, as Isaid, the answers ARE out there and there is a way to find them. Let’s back up a minuteand let me tell you what you’re in for, should you choose to continue reading.
You’ve probably figured out that this is a no-nonsense, practical kind of article. Therearen’t many statistics, and I can guarantee there won’t be any five-syllable words youwill need to look up in the dictionary. I will attempt to be brutally honest with you. Ibelieve it’s time to get real as a nation about poverty. In my travels as a leader of a largepoverty project and as a regular gal, I have been exposed to some of the best thinkingon the issues of poverty and prosperity. I’m thankful that some of it sunk in. What madeit through my personal sorting process congealed with my own observations into acomplete storyline, which I am now desperately trying to put into words. Researchers, Iask for your indulgence and encourage you, mentally, to refer to statistical studies thatsupport what’s here. To everyone else, simply refer to your own experiences andcommon sense. After all, that’s all I’m doing.
In the spirit of honest disclosure, I’ll also confess that I’m no expert on poverty. I’m not aresearcher, sociologist, or politician, and I haven’t written any books. I did, however,lead a project to develop new ways to think about and address poverty that initiated meinto those circles and pointed me to what I now consider my life’s work. I’m notpolitically active; I’ve not yet lived in poverty (though I have close relatives who have,despite a life of hard work), nor have I lived in luxury. I am the daughter of an automechanic and a secretary; “normal folks,” you might say. I’m not an advocate for thepoor, nor am I an advocate for the rich. I’m more of an advocate for life, of humanbeings, of potential, of all of us. I’m writing this not because I have a political agenda topromote or a book to sell, but because I care about our individual and collective well-being. I believe we can do better, and I want to invite you to a specific, collectiveprocess that will help us develop “the answer” together.
Poverty, Prosperity, and National Security I’m focusing on the poverty part of the Poverty, Prosperity, and National SecurityEquation because it’s not usually the first thing people think about when they think ofnational prosperity and security, and I think it needs to be a part of the conversation. Idon’t need to tell you that we see lots of action in the news about prosperity andsecurity, but not a whole lot about poverty. You already know that. As we saw duringand after the Hurricane Katrina disaster, it takes an “act of God” to get us talking aboutpoverty (and then mainly to assign blame). But change the interest rate .01% orintercept a lost Piper Cub whose wing touched forbidden airspace and we are sent intoa veritable frenzy. Even if you’re not all that interested in poverty, I hope you’ll read onto explore some things about poverty and its connections to things you ARE interestedin. Otherwise, I’m doing all this thinking and writing to preach to the choir. What wouldbe the point in that? Speaking of the choir, I’m not saying that we haven’t paid any attention to poverty. Onthe contrary, there are thousands of people and organizations that dedicate themselvesto addressing poverty in a myriad of ways. In fact, a lot is happening in each of the threeareas I’m trying to help us connect. The poverty folks work mainly in the backgroundand are some of the hardest working, most dedicated folks you’ll ever meet. My ownsmall contribution so far pales in comparison to what I know people are doing out thereand have been doing most of their lives. The government, along with foundations andprivate funders, invests hundreds of billions of dollars annually on anti-povertyprograms. Community and economic development folks create incredibly innovativesolutions one community at a time, often on shoestring budgets with too few staff.
Researchers and scholars have done tremendous work to help us understand thecomplex, dynamic, and systemic nature of the problem. Economists help us understandthe interdependencies in our economic system and can show us what poverty costs usas a nation, at least in terms of dollars. I know less about the specific work of thenational security folks. I know that we, the general public, are pretty focused on theirwork, and that they are also very dedicated. These are all good things.
So, I’m not saying we’re just sitting around doing nothing, and I’m not saying we haven’tmade progress. All I’m saying is that we haven’t put the kind of unified attention to thepoverty part of the equation that would help us get the return on investment that we’relooking for. I don’t know how much the country invests in developing the economy or onnational security, but I know that the federal government alone invests over $400 billion(yes, billion, with a “b”) a year on anti-poverty programs. Foundations and faith-basedorganizations, among others, also invest significant amounts. The question is: are wegetting an acceptable return on that investment? The programs funded by theseinvestments have helped get more people working than ever before. The problem is thatthey are still poor. In other words, they do a good job helping the extremely poorbecome slightly less poor. I find that the national trend of working and still not being ableto support your family makes it hard to continue saying, with a straight face, that “theAmerican Dream is possible with hard work.” As for the prosperity and security parts of the equation, I believe that coming togetherabout poverty in ways that allow the massive space of our common ground andinterests to emerge will be a huge “leverage factor” for getting returns on our prosperity Poverty, Prosperity, and National Security and national security investments. I’m not saying we need to invest more money in ouranti-poverty efforts. I’m saying we need invest more systemic and unified energy onit—the kind of energy that produces shared meaning to motivate people from everysector of society to action and that melds individual effort into collective action. This isnot a radical concept; we do it all the time. Times of disaster come to mind quickly, butwe’ve come together systemically—despite our individual differences—on a whole hostof large and small social issues that have benefited us all in some way (e.g., drunkdriving, seatbelt use, smoking, obesity, discrimination, teenage pregnancy, andneighborhood watch groups). Yet, we haven’t put that amount of systemic energy intoreducing poverty. For that matter, we don’t even have a national policy to reducepoverty, so it’s not at all surprising that we aren’t focused on it as a nation. We haveallowed its complexity and our differing views about whose responsibility it is to keep usfrom finding our common ground and interests that would lead to a solution.
Rather than applying a systemic approach to a systemic issue, we’ve pretty much putthe onus of responsibility on the federal government or on the individual living in poverty(e.g., “Let us do it for you!” and “Do it yourself; pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”). Idon’t know about you, but that doesn’t seem too systemic to me. We have trouble goingbeyond the two ends of the continuum of responsibility to see the truth sitting right therein the middle. Every sector of society has some responsibility. If drunk driving or thehealth risks of smoking had been approached in the same two-pronged, simplistic way,we’d still be paying the price—in human lives and in medical costs—just as we all stillpay the price for poverty. If only we would look away from our electronic gizmos (oftenmanufactured by workers who can’t afford to buy them) long enough to see! Becausewe have toggled our focus between the two ends of the continuum—changing thebehavior of the government on one end and the behavior of the individual on the otherfor ensuring individual opportunity and self-sufficiency, we have not placed equal focuson behavioral change for other parts of the system, which fall all along the continuum ofresponsibility.
Despite the fact that every part of the system engages in some type of behavior thathinders the ability of individuals, families, communities, and society to thrive, we haven’tlooked very hard to identify those behaviors or to change them. Researchers andadvocates have done a lot of this work, but they are, themselves, part of the system andcan’t very well be expected to change systemic behaviors on their own. I’m not implyingthat our societal institutions purposely hinder anyone’s ability to avoid or get out ofpoverty. In fact, it’s often only when you look at the behavior or specific policy of onesocietal institution in relation to another, that you see how they combine to hinder thisability. I’m suggesting that if we begin problem-solving in a systemic way from a point ofcommon interest, we’ll uncover many things that individual sectors and institutions dothat create unnecessary obstacles to self-sufficiency and the American Dream.
Until recently, I hadn’t a clue about any of the more dysfunctional aspects of the systemand how they combine to make it much more difficult to avoid or get out of poverty. Likeme, most never-poor people have no reference points or experiences that wouldnaturally point them in a direction to discover these unknowns. I know that low-wageworkers living in poverty are intimately aware of how this works, but it was only when I Poverty, Prosperity, and National Security was exposed to a diverse set of people, with a variety of world views, experiences,knowledge, and perspectives that I even began to understand. Our institutions oftenwork against each other and, in some cases, against the very principles on which thiscountry is founded. Again, I’m not implying intent. In fact, I think that because we’venever gotten the whole system “in the room” together, there is no way to even knowwhere or how the counter play of separate societal entities combines to fly in the face ofour own, treasured American principles.
I believe that once we start engaging in systemic problem-solving, the act of charginglow-income individuals 200% interest to buy a car or furniture while charging single-digitinterest rates to those with higher incomes will be recognized as a practice thatultimately does not serve us well as a nation and one that we can improve. We’ll realizehow futile it is to demand that low-wage workers budget carefully and save, while at thesame time relocating what little financial means they have into the bank accounts ofcorporate and financial entities charging elevated rates. We’ll discover that it would bein our society’s best interest to figure out how to provide everyone with access to asset-building approaches like 401k plans and other benefits that many middle- to high-income workers have as employees of businesses that recognize the value of theirworkers. We’ll learn as a nation that many mainstream goods and services, if accessibleat all, cost more for those with low incomes than for those with higher incomes. That’sright; it costs more to be poor. For example, the next time you are in a poor urban area,notice the gas prices, and then head out toward the suburbs. Compare prices. (Note:before you head out to do this comparison, you may want to fill your tank in thesuburbs.) As we engage the whole system, we’ll discover a host of other situations inmany areas of society, education, health, employment, technology, that make it difficultto avoid or stay out of poverty. These areas can be aligned to work together to producea stronger, healthier, more prosperous nation for all of us and our children. Since oneout of every four children lives in poverty, they may only be able to dream about theAmerican Dream.
It’s time for us to realize collectively that no sector or individual, including government orindividuals living in poverty, can deliver the complete answer to a systemic issue. We’vebeen putting off this realization for at least 40 years, despite the fact that all theresearch points us to a set of interdependent causes and effects. We seem to want tosolve this problem, but when we look around, no one seems to have the answer. That’sbecause the answer is not within any one place; it is among us. There are lots ofindividual strategies from a host of individual sectors of society (e.g., education, humanservices, financial services, community action, workforce development, public health)that serve as valuable pieces of the puzzle, but not one of them provides the completeanswer. So why do we argue so vehemently about one strategy over another if none ofthem individually can possibly address the entire problem? Despite the individual meritof many of these strategies and despite the positive intentions of their proponents, itdoes little good to argue about which strategy (or whose) is best, because none of themtaken individually will get us where we know we need to be as a nation. We might aswell try to construct a puzzle blindfolded, using puzzle pieces that don’t fit together inthe first place.
Poverty, Prosperity, and National Security If we only invested half the time, energy, and money finding common ground anddeveloping strategies holistically as a system of interdependent stakeholders that we’vespent defending one strategy over another, or one world view over another, we’d bemuch closer to sustaining national prosperity and security. Although we’d like to believewe already have this, we know in our hearts we don’t. If we look beyond our positionson the state of the nation, and are brutally honest, we know we can do better, we justdon’t know how. Highly visible representatives from both political parties have saidpublicly that “poverty is unworthy of our nation’s promise.” Despite my aversion topolitics, I have to agree. We know we fall short of living our nation’s founding principles,we just don’t know what to do about it; you might call it a “collective flummox.” There is something we can do—even in the comfort of our own homes—that can beginto move us out of this “deer-in-headlights” collective flummox. We can realize that it’sokay if each of us views the issue from a different perspective for a different reason. Infact, not only is it okay, but the research into problem solving strongly suggests that themore complex the issue, the more complex the ingredients must be to solve it, and thepoverty-prosperity-national security thing is about as complex as it gets. Many of usclaim that we “embrace differences” and “encourage divergent viewpoints,” but as we allknow, walking that particular talk is “easier said than done.” Come on, I’ll admit it if youwill. My “embraces” sometimes more closely resemble chokeholds designed to squeezethe life out of any opponent. Of course, I am speaking symbolically, not literally. In anycase, I hereby give us all permission to bring all of our perspectives to this issue. Don’tEVEN think I’m kidding, because by the end of this article, I’ll actually show you aspecific process that will allow you to do just that.
If the thought of fellow humans suffering in poverty makes you care about this issue,fine. If the thought of American institutions inadvertently or intentionally reneging onAmerican principles gets you fired up, fine. If your faith tells you that we are all createdfrom the same Source and calls you to compassionate action, bless you. If the thoughtof another day choosing between paying your electric bill or feeding your kids drives youto action, more power to you. If you want more people to have enough money to buyyour company’s products, great. If you don’t like the prospect of poverty as the fuel forinternal or external threats to national security, “Semper Fi.” If the $200 billion annualloss in tax revenue attributed to school dropout rates makes you want to preventpoverty from happening in the first place, great. If you want to make sure your childrenand grandchildren have a real shot at living the American Dream, peace. If you wantpoor people to pick themselves up from their own bootstraps like you did, fine. If youdon’t give a rip about any bleeding heart mumbo-jumbo, but want to see your stockprofile grow, that’s fine, too. We don’t need to agree on WHY we care about it, only thatwe do. THAT’S what’s going to get us in the room together and solve this thing, notstanding in separate corners spitting at each other. There can be no winner if we arefighting ourselves; solving this will allow us all to win.
Regardless of which of the above statements you most identified with, there issomething in it for you to come to the collective problem-solving table. We can, as anation, view eliminating poverty as: Poverty, Prosperity, and National Security • A way to ensure sustainable national prosperity and security; • A way to truly embody the principles upon which the nation is founded, • An exercise in developing self-sustaining conditions at the individual, family, • A win-win for society, institutions, and individuals; and • A way to create conditions that allow for continued innovation, economic growth, strong relationships, non-violence, health, and harmony.
Yeah, I know. When seen through the lens of our cynical selves, these statementsseem to come from a Pollyanna. I’ll admit that. Distract your cynical self for just amoment and be honest. Is there anything undesirable in the above statements? Icertainly hope I’m not the only one who thinks these are all good things that we’d wantto create. The simple fact is this: We can’t create new strategies using old thinking andwe can’t find a viable answer that is in all of our best interests if we think about povertythe same old way. I figure that unless our current thinking has been forcefully streamedinto our brains against our will, we’ve created how we think about poverty by ourselvesand that we can just as easily create something else—something more useful, moresustainable, more innovative, more in line with the principles upon which America issupposed to be built.
There’s always a sense of “now what?” hanging in the air when conversations aboutpoverty make it to the news or at public events. I’ve attended a few of these events andI’ve seen some of the news coverage that pops up. The results are often similar. Theexperience leaves us with just enough information to be outraged, sufficiently called toaction, or hopeless. The trouble is that if we are lucky enough to feel called to action,there’s no “there” there; no place to put our energies. This unfortunately places us inone of the other two categories—either outraged or hopeless. If this cycle is repeatedoften enough, even the most dedicated among us reunite with our cynical selves andgive up. Prepare to put your energy (even your cynical energy) somewhere, folks. ThereIS a “there” there.
Let’s get to it. I promised that I would lay out a specific, concrete, actionable strategyand it won’t do any of us any good if I’m walking alone. I’ll start with the general andmove to the specific because I want us to be grounded in our common experiencebefore I reveal something new. Trust me, I’m a professional, which you’ll know forcertain when you see that I’m about to tell you something you already know and thenact like I’m the one who’s brilliant. Here goes: I think I have sufficiently established thatpoverty is a systemic problem that affects us all, and that as such, it requires systemicthinking and problem-solving, and that no one (person, organization, political party, orsector) has the silver-bullet “answer” that will solve the problem. What a revelation! Wecannot afford to keep believing that one small part of the system is going to crack the“flummox code” and figure this thing out by itself and that, if by some miraculous set ofcircumstances it does, that it could implement its solution by itself.
Given these facts and high stakes we all face if we do nothing, the simple truth is this: Poverty, Prosperity, and National Security We have to get the whole system together to figure it out.
There is no simpler way to put it. Here’s where it gets really exciting; where the music inthe movie signals hope and perseverance; where the task gets manageable. Scoff ifyou will, but there‘s already a way to get the whole system together to figure it out. Infact, we can use it not only to bring the whole system together, but also to plan for,commit to, and actually get it to implement solutions quickly—on a national scale. It isnot the “answer,” but rather, the “answer-to-get-to-the-answer.” This “answer-to-the-answer” is a real program in a real organization; it uses a real, tested methodology; andinvolves real people—mainly you, as parts of the whole system. I say “program”because that’s the term we use to distinguish one body of work from another. In thiscase, the work of the “program” is to serve as the mechanism for the real work—outthere, in our collectively flummoxed system. I point this out so that you know that the“program” is not another “place” where the work happens in a vacuum, where the“answer” is developed, and then “delivered.” If we think that any “program” has the answer—even this one, we’re right back tosquare one—waiting for some “place,” some “program,” some single “entity” to solve ourproblem. As one who is diligently trying to capture in words the futility of that belief, Ihave no desire to perpetuate it. All this buildup is to say that the work of the program isthe map, not the territory. It’s the vacation plans, not the vacation; the route, not thejourney; the post office, not the package; the equation, not the answer. You get thepoint. You might be wondering, “Well, if this darned thing already exists, where the heckis it and how can I get some?” The program is new, so between its newness and therelative obscurity of its parent organization, you probably haven’t heard of it. Believe itor not, that’s a good thing. The people and organizations that do their work outside thehype are often too busy making a difference to become popular.
So, a little bit about the organization as an introduction and then on to more detailsabout the “what’s and the how’s” of the “program…” The organization itself is prettysmall, but its reach and credentials are global, and, though it has made significantimpacts in communities worldwide for fifteen years, it remains obscure because it doesits work without fanfare and without marketing. The phenomenal outcomes theorganization has initiated using its tested methodology are reported in newspapersacross the globe, but the method for initiating them and the organization behind it arerarely named. Again, I’m speaking of the map and it’s time to move on to the territory.
There will be plenty of time to study the map later.
So, how do we get the whole system together to work through its collective flummoxand get this nation out of its fitful sleep and back to the American Dream? We use anexisting approach that: • Starts at the community level, where the people know what supports, strategies, or solutions they need to fully address community poverty and increaseprosperity for all. No federal or other outside entity can know what supports,strategies, or solutions any particular community needs to address its issues of Poverty, Prosperity, and National Security poverty and to build community prosperity; attempts to prescribe solutions tocommunities often fail.
Engages the “whole system,” to include broad participation, including residents, members of multiple sectors the community itself identifies, including local, state,and federal policy makers. Each community brings together 60 to 80stakeholders who collectively have the authority, resources, expertise,information, and need to act. Together, as they begin to develop action plans,they don’t need to ask permission from anyone who isn’t there. This principleremoves the single biggest barrier to large group planning—not having all the keyplayers in the same room.
Was created for the express purpose of helping people go beyond problem- solving to make systemic improvements in their communities. It has beenemployed with virtually all social, technological and economic issues in North andSouth America, Africa, Australia, Europe, India, and South Asia. People achievefour outputs from a single session—shared values, a plan for the future, concretegoals, and an implementation strategy.
Uses a methodology that is proven to enable cooperation in complex situations of high conflict and uncertainty. The methodology relies on tested principles forhelping people collaborate despite differences of culture, class, gender, age,race, ethnicity, language, and education. The method works equally well withcommunities, schools, hospitals, churches, government agencies, foundations,and NGOs with documented success. Because the methodology is culture free,requiring only that participants share their experiences, it has helped thousandsof people carry out action plans that once were considered impossible.
Is proven to produce positive outcomes. Hundreds of communities have created action plans with a high commitment to implementing the plans they create usingthis approach. Participants often start implementing plans they claimed wereunthinkable and achieve long-lasting outcomes. A few examples of outcomesinclude the demobilization of thousands of child soldiers from the front lines ofwar in Sudan; the reduction of African-American infant mortality rates inMilwaukee, WI; the formation of America’s Promise, the Alliance for Youth; theresolution of racial tensions between two Berrien County, MI communities andthe collaborative integration of economic development; and the reconnection ofstruggling members of the rural community of Ko’olau Loa, HI to their healthytraditional values.
Creates broad responsibility for action: Managers and facilitators work in such a way that participants develop their own conclusions, manage their own smallgroup work, and take responsibility for whatever they choose to do. In short, theyhelp people with differing experiences and views listen to one another and todiscover their shared commitments. Those in leadership roles find previouslyunavailable backing and resources. The principles of the methodology enablebroadly supported action plans that are creative, practical, and ready forimplementation. This methodology differs from “town hall” meetings, because Poverty, Prosperity, and National Security participants walk away with plans that they created, they supported, and that theycan realistically implement together.
Bridges the gap between communities and policy. While communities have the largest stake in creating prosperous conditions for themselves and often havesignificant capacity to address their own issues of poverty, one of the majorchallenges communities face in being truly able to address local poverty issues isthe inability to influence policy at higher levels of government to create practical,effective policy conditions. The program will engage interested communitiesnationwide in meaningful planning and rapid action that includes the participationof local, state, and federal policy makers. Following this, similar planning andaction by the policy makers themselves creates action plans for developingenabling policy. This method of community-to-policy planning and action bridgesthe gap between the community—where the issues of poverty are directlyexperienced and the implications of policy are felt—and the policy makingengine, which is typically isolated from community-level reality and theimplications of its policies.
Builds community-by-community to create national impact. In the first cycle of the program, eight communities will participate and produce their “prosperity plans.”Higher-level policy issues that hinder communities’ ability to create sustainableprosperity will naturally emerge during this cycle and will be used in subsequentpolicy planning sessions. Policy makers from all of the individual communityplanning sessions will then convene using the same methodology to developaction plans for developing enabling policy. The learning and outcomes from acomplete community-to-policy cycle would be documented and analyzed toinform the next cycle, which could include even more communities and policymakers in a single cycle. Therefore, not only would each participating communitybecome more prosperous from implementing the action strategies they developin the individual action conferences, but their efforts would be collectivelyleveraged to produce the higher-level policy changes they need to become evenmore prosperous long after their individual conference. As the cycles continue,several thousand residents of dozens of communities across the country andhundreds of policy makers—all focusing on addressing poverty and creatingprosperity in new ways—will have actively participated, making lasting change atthe national level inevitable.
Pretty ambitious, isn’t it? Well, frankly, it has to be; the scary music is still playing andwe’re all in this movie theater together. The economy is running on two cylinders, andas a nation, we are falling short of following our coveted American values. If only it werejust a movie, we could all pick the gum off our shoes and head home (if we have one),glad that stuff like that really doesn’t happen in America. But it is real; it is the situationin which we find ourselves. We’re the ones who created it, and we’re the ones who haveto fix it. The Wright Brothers didn’t get a plane in the air by thinking about it staying onthe ground and we won’t create sustainable national prosperity and security for all bythinking it’s impossible. So, while the approach might be ambitious and new, it surebeats doing the same old thing, because we know that’s not working. Besides, it doesn’tcost anywhere near the billions of dollars we spend every year trying to dream up parts Poverty, Prosperity, and National Security of a solution, by parts of the system, for parts of the problem. By developing wholesolutions, by the whole system, for the whole problem, we not only get a better return onour investment, but the investment itself is disbursed among many sectors.
For as little as $100,000 per sector, per year, we’d at least have the whole systemworking on the issue, which is more than we can say about our current approaches. Theplans that affect the whole system would at least be created by the whole system usinginformation from the whole system. The high level of commitment translating thoseplans into real action that has already been demonstrated will at least increase thelikelihood that the plans lead to real change. The community-to-policy cycle will at leastensure that the people making the policies are grounded in the direct experience ofcommunity realities before going back into their policy community. Any of those “atleasts” makes it worth a try. There’s way more to lose by not trying, if you ask me.
Well, I’ve kept you long enough. Now I’ll tell you what all this is called, where it lives,some of the initial plans, how to find out more, and how to become involved. The“program” is called Prosperous Communities, Prosperous Nation (PCPN) and it is anew national, community-based approach to creating sustainable prosperity for all. Itlives in the Future Search Network (FSN), a well-established non-profit organizationwith over 350 members across the country who are trained facilitators in the FutureSearch methodology. Over the last twenty years, Future Search has proven that it cancreate lasting change, community by community and issue by issue. It continues to doso. In its new program, FSN is expanding its mission by focusing the methodology andthe Network on a single, systemic issue, and in the process, leverage these nationalcommunity outcomes into lasting national change and increased prosperity for all. Whilethe overall strategy, specific approach, methodology, and the nationwide network offacilitators are already part of FSN, PCPN is in the early developmental stage. Asfunding becomes available, the program will immediately go “live,” and materials,infrastructure, technology, staff, and other program resources will be phased in. TheFSN web site is filled with information on the organization, the Method, Future Searchstories from around the world, training events, and benefits of membership, and isadding more and more PCPN information all the time (
If you are still with me, you must be intrigued, outraged, curious, or excited (or you’reincredibly bored, but nevertheless dutiful). Whatever your condition, I invite you tobecome involved; you are an important part of the system and you hold part of theanswer. There are numerous ways to make sure that your part of the answer gets intothe shared pool of possibilities, including: • Visiting to find out more • Becoming a community leader for a PCPN Future Search • Signing up to be a corporate sponsor of PCPN • Becoming an advisory team member (all sectors wanted) • Joining the team of trained facilitators Poverty, Prosperity, and National Security • Investing financial, technology, or administrative resources in PCPN (all sectors • Sponsoring a specific PCPN community Future Search • Participating on a community planning team to plan for a PCPN Future Search • Contacting PCPN by e-mail at to Because you are part of the system, hold part of the answer, and stand to benefit fromthe solution, I hope you’ll consider doing whatever you’re able to do, even if it’s only tothink about it some more. Even if you only begin to notice aspects of our individual andcollective behavior that contribute to the problem or that place exclusive blame on onepart of the system or another, you’re an active participant in the solution. This type ofparticipation is just as important as the external, direct participation I’ve described, if notmore so. This kind of internal participation is the glue that will hold us steady enough,long enough, to allow the external work to begin producing the changes we need tomake in our structures and systems to support prosperity for all. Of course, if you aremotivated toward more direct support or action, I’d sure like to hear from you.
The stakes of doing nothing are high and getting higher. The cost of poverty on ourcollective prosperity can be felt in our economy and national security, as well as inemotional, moral, and spiritual terms. We’ve never been a nation that sits back andallows something to threaten what this country stands for or that gazes indifferently athuman suffering. In the case of domestic poverty, we are doing both. It’s time to poolour collective resources, experience, knowledge, and energy to move beyond ourphilosophical positions, beyond research studies, beyond sound bites, and beyondrhetoric. We need to begin working to create the kind of prosperous communities andnation we are capable of and that this nation was founded upon. If we fail to at least try,it won’t matter who any of us thinks is to blame or who was “right or wrong,” becausewe’ll all suffer. I can’t imagine us letting it get to that point and we don’t need to. Let’sroll.
Nancy Polend is the Program Director for the Prosperous Community, ProsperousNation Program. Nancy has worked in private industry, federal, state, and localgovernment, and in non-profit settings, focusing several years of her career on providingtraining and consulting services to state and local human services agencies. Nancyserved as Project Manager for the 21st Century Model to Address Poverty Project, atwo-year, multi-million dollar project to develop structures for changing the way thecountry thinks about and addresses poverty.
Poverty, Prosperity, and National Security



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