Last week I set out to run some errands and it took me about three times as long to get everything done as I'd planned. I had to talk to my neighbors about my cat who keeps trying to move in with them, then I had to run home and get James Herriot's classic "Cat Stories" for them to read. I stopped to talk to Steve from the assessor's office who was on his regular rounds to see if our house still existed " he showed me a great picture of our house as it looked new, 45 years ago. I caught up with a friend from my book club who hailed me in Kinko's. I stopped to ask a friend of my daughter when he was going back to school. I talked to another neighbor about his upcoming fishing trip to Canada.
It's hard to live in a place for over 20 years and get anything done very fast. You develop such ever-expanding circles of friends, colleagues, and acquaintances.
In fact, my last errand on that day was to stop by Carson City Health and Human Services to find out about a program called, appropriately, Circles. Dina Phippen is the "Capital City Circles Coordinator."
Circles is a unique combination of government, community, and faith based communities, Dina said, and its goal is to assist families out of poverty and into self-sufficiency. The Circles program originated with the Move the Mountain organization in Ames, Iowa, and Carson City is one of 30 original cities and counties nationwide who are taking part in the project. Circles founder Scott Miller has laid out bold goals for the program: "To eliminate poverty, what's needed is a consciously made decision that there is no longer any need for it to exist."
Miller writes that there is a broad social consensus that if people work hard and play by the rules, they should be able to meet basic needs and have some money left over to invest in the future. If we really acted on these beliefs, he says, it would be a foundation of a more just and equitable society. The goal of Circles is to act on these beliefs.
But how? The strategy of Circles is to encircle a family with relationships, and to supply resources " financial education, training, personal relationships across socioeconomic lines, goal-setting strategies " that enable families to gain self-sufficiency.
Circles is based on several principals that differ from the standard delivery of social services. First, families in poverty who take part in the program are called "Circle Leaders" and they are indeed leaders. The family sets its own goals and decides what it will take to get there. The Circle Leaders are encircled by two to four "allies" " community members who work with the Circle Leaders to achieve those goals. Each Circle Leader has the support of a case manager, who facilitates access to critical social services. All the circles are under the umbrella of a Guiding Coalition " in Carson City as elsewhere, this organization consists of community and faith leaders, government leaders and policy makers.
A second principal is the deliberate building of relationships across socioeconomic lines. One of the participants in a local candidates forum that I attended last night described proudly how he'd been on his own since 18 " making the point, I think, that since he did everything on his own, why can't everyone else? I think, though, that if any of us look honestly at ourselves and any success we have had in life, we'd find we haven't really done it on our own " we're built by the efforts and generosity of others: the perceptive teacher who suggests we try a field that becomes our profession; the father who teaches us how to balance our first checkbook; the Girl Scout leader who takes us camping. Many of the financial, social, and life management skills that middle class families take for granted don't exist in families in poverty. In the Circles program, Circle Leaders are encircled by middle class people " building bridges across socioeconomic lines so families can learn these necessary life skills in a supportive atmosphere.
Dina told me about a young Carson City woman who's participating in the program who said that when she asked her mother about going to college, her mother had answered, "Don't even think about it " college isn't for people like us."
The purpose of Circles, Dina says, is to instead have people saying, "Yes, you can do it. We believe in you."
It's taken about two years for Circles to get started in Carson City. Now, a Guiding Coalition is in place. Five families are enrolled in the program with more to come. Circle Leaders are beginning a 15-week training course. I asked Dina what community members interested in the program could do to help. She says you can refer someone to the program; volunteer as an ally or as a member of the guiding coalition; offer financial support (the 15-week training program costs $300 per participant), donate a meal or restaurant gift coupons (meals and child care are provided at all Circle and Coalition meetings).
Circles founder Scott Miller will be in town Sept. 18, speaking from 6:30-8:30 p.m. at Saint Peter's Church. If you'd like to attend, RSVP to Dina at 887-2190.
Fresh Ideas: Starting conversations by sharing personal perspectives on timely and timeless issues.
Anne Macquarie, a private-sector urban planner, is a longtime resident of Carson City.