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Circles of support

Program aims to stamp out poverty in the U.S. by building bonds across class lines

My dad was in the Marines. He was not so nice at home. At 13, I ran away. I didn’t like being beaten up anymore. I was in foster homes. Then I lived in group homes. I married at 18. It was a good marriage. I had two kids. After 15 years, my husband passed away from alcohol. From age 13 to age 32, I was either into drugs or alcohol, OK, but I’m not going to go into all that, because that’s in the past now. I’ve been clean and sober for 12 years. – Angie Olson, 44

The program is called Circles. Its goal: Eradicate poverty in the United States by building relationships across class lines.

Circles programs throw out conventional poverty-reducing strategies and poverty jargon, too. For instance, people working out of poverty are Circles “leaders” while middle-class folks are their “allies.”

Leaders Angie and Bobby Olson of Coeur d’Alene recently partnered with three allies to form a “matched circle” through Community Action Partnership, the lead organization in this community-based initiative. Their story helps explain the larger story of Circles, a national initiative that’s gaining momentum in North Idaho.

“The typical person in poverty has relationships with seven to 10 agencies,” explains Mark Haberman, Circles Coordinator for the North Idaho initiative. “They go from agency to agency, and they do what the agencies say they have to do in order for the agency to help them.

“The Circles program goes beyond what the safety net provides. It’s not designed by the middle class for people in poverty. The family leaving poverty creates the agenda.”

I was born and raised in Coeur d’Alene. I used to have a T-shirt that said, “I was raised in the ’60s” and on the back it said, “No, I don’t remember it.” Fortunately, I’ve been sober now for over 22 years. I never saw myself being in poverty until I joined Circles. Most people think of poverty as hillbillies living up on top of a mountain, still packing water, still having an outhouse. I haven’t always had what I wanted, but I made enough to get what I needed. – Bobby Olson, 58

On a recent Wednesday evening, the Olsons sat in a circle around a coffee table in a warm, welcoming room at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in downtown Coeur d’Alene.

Together in early spring, the Olsons completed “Getting Ahead,” the course required of those who wish to be matched in an official circle. They were then matched with three allies. They have been meeting every month since June.

The rules of the matched circle are straightforward:

•Leaders and allies will meet at least once a month for 18 months.

•Leaders facilitate all meetings, set the agenda and the goals.

•Allies are not to lecture, not to give lots of advice, not to lend money.

•Allies are urged to listen and share their own stories honestly.

On the surface, Angie and Bobby share little in common with their allies. The allies have college and advanced degrees. They’ve always been solidly middle- to upper-middle class. Their jobs, savings and retirement strategies give them financial flexibility and security.

Bobby and Angie both dropped out of high school but later earned their equivalency degrees. Neither considered college. They have always held jobs, but they sometimes felt “the tyranny of the moment,” as it’s called in Circles jargon.

Translation: They couldn’t plan for the future, because crises of the moment diverted their energy and money.

Below the surface of all their lives, however, similarities emerge. These leaders and allies are all in transitions of one sort or another.

Bobby, who worked construction all his life, is looking for less physically demanding work. His lungs are compromised from years of smoking.

Angie, who has worked as a housekeeper and as an aide for the elderly, must also give up physical labor due to health problems. She has applied for SSI, a federal financial aid program for people with disabilities.

Ally Mary Beth Jorgensen, a 62-year-old lawyer, recently lost her communications job in Spokane due to a restructuring.

Her husband, Bob Runkle, a 73-year-old retired business manager, still works part-time and volunteers. He’s weighing whether to become a deacon in the Episcopal Church.

The third ally, Dale Lloyd, 71, is retired and grieving the death of his wife of 46 years, Karoline. She died in December from brain disease.

It’s apparent that the allies need this circle as much as the Olsons.

“I’m reinventing myself even as we speak,” Jorgensen says. “It’s been a time of reflection and not trying to control what happens next, because I can’t. I was drawn to Circles because it seemed like the right time to be with people who are trying to help themselves.”

I’m not used to talking with people I don’t feel comfortable around. I don’t feel like I have the technical language. It’s beyond vocabulary. A lot of times (as a child) I’d get hit for even speaking. – Angie

Say the words “ain’t” or “have went” in a job interview and it may mark you as poorly educated. It may cost you the job.

Circles programs talk openly about the hidden rules of middle-class life, such as the need for proper grammar.

Ruby Payne, educator and author, pioneered much of the academic work that stresses the value of relationships across class lines.

In her book “Bridges out of Poverty,” Payne writes: “Hidden rules are about the unspoken understandings that cue the members of the group that this individual does or does not fit. In order to successfully move from one class to the next, it is important to have a mentor from the class to which you wish to move to teach you the hidden rules.”

Payne and other Circles advocates have been accused of “classism.” But they counter that they are not asking people in poverty to adopt all middle-class values, but to learn the hidden rules, because “schools, agencies, and the work world operate on the basis of middle-class rules,” Payne points out.

The best thing we’ve learned is the budgeting and putting our own plan into effect. Not somebody else’s plan, but our own plan. I save every receipt. Even if you’re just getting a latte, save a receipt. – Angie

Scott Miller is co-founder of Move the Mountain Leadership Center, the major sponsoring group of Circles.

“Move the Mountain is now in 40 communities in 20 states,” he explained in an interview last June when he visited the North Idaho program.

“We have 400 to 500 circles. That means 1,000-plus allies being invited into this experience of building relationships across class lines. You can’t get this country wanting to end poverty without getting a critical mass of people close to the pain of poverty.”

Whether Circles is permanently ending poverty in people’s lives remains unknown. A longitudinal, statistical study is under way.

Meanwhile, Angie and Bobby lead their circle with increased confidence. And Bobby is co-facilitating a new Getting Ahead class that meets Monday evenings in Coeur d’Alene.

At the end of their recent Circles meeting, ally Dale Lloyd said to Angie: “I always want to respect people’s personal space. Sometimes I feel intrusive when I say to Bobby, ‘How’s Angie doing?’ ”

In a strong, clear voice, Angie said to Lloyd: “Feel free to ask anytime. Because guess what? I’m going to ask about your health. I want to know.”

I don’t like the term “class” but I’ve dealt with it all my life. I come up the hard way. Everything I got I worked for. I wrote rich people off as snobs. Where they came from and where we come from is a long ways apart, but through Circles, it puts you all on the same level. You learn by osmosis. I can’t perceive anything coming up that I couldn’t ask these guys.– Bobby