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Program puts microscope on poverty


As they sat inside the Artcraft Theatre on Thursday morning, about 30 people had to face the day-to-day life that adults in poverty have to face.

The group, coming from all areas of the community, had come to the theater to learn how to better help those in need. To do that, they had to overcome their own preconceived notions of what those in need face, and be willing to learn from that reflection.

International expert Jodi Pfarr had come to Johnson County to guide them.

“The class you grew up in gives you certain experiences, and we bring those to work with us, and set up our programs around those,” she said.

Pfarr spent Wednesday and Thursday leading Bridges Out of Poverty, a workshop designed to reveal truths about the economic environments different people face, and how the “hidden rules” of class impacts the community. The event had been planned by Bridges Alliance of Johnson County, an organization aimed at helping individuals break out of the cycle of poverty.

The hope in inviting people from local businesses, organizations and civic groups would bring in those working directly with people in need to work together.

“We want to start that collaboration, both on an individual level, but also with organizations they might represent, to educate and help those in need,” said Mark Kamer, president of the Bridges Alliance of Johnson County’s board.

For nearly two decades, Pfarr has served as a consultant at aha! Process, the company which created Bridges Out of Poverty. The program is based on a book of the same name intended to educate people on how to relate to and work with the poor, and aha! Process provides resources to communities throughout the country that are seeking to improve job retention rates, build safety net infrastructure and support residents in poverty.

The Bridges Out of Poverty program is one of two pillars of the Bridges Alliance of Johnson County, which was created in 2017 to provide the framework for people to break the cycle of poverty and create a better life for themselves. Johnson County social service organizations, businesses, individuals and religious groups have collaborated to create the povertyreduction program.

“We are fairly young, but we are making a difference, both in educating groups, but also in actually helping individuals out of their situation,” Kamer said.

Pfarr, a Minneapolis resident with a background in social services and law enforcement, provided the ideal perspective to bring the subject to Johnson County, said David Sever, member of the Bridges of Alliance of Johnson County board.

At the core of Pfarr’s presentation was the idea that poverty is systemic and results from a combination of individual responsibility, institutional approach, community priorities and policy.

“If your city, your county, wants to address poverty, you have to address is in all ways,” Pfarr said. “Poverty is not just individual choice, but go into your community, you’ll hear that right away. And it’s not just institutions that cause poverty. It’s not just under-resourced communities, and it’s not just policies that cause poverty.”

Often after making that central point, Pfarr had attendees to the workshop break into small groups, something that was repeated throughout the program. The small groups could discuss the different topics together, using their own personal experiences and perspectives to address it.

Groups talked about things that people living in need might think about every day, such as jobs, housing, transportation, food and health. One constant concern that Pfarr pointed out was agency time — how much time is spent interacting with social agencies in order to get the help needed to survive. That time investment can wear on people, Pfarr said.

“As agencies, we’re constantly telling people that they’re not good enough, that they need to change the way they’re living and they have to improve,” she said.

A solution to the overwhelming aspect of agency time is collaboration, with organizations having hard conversations about the way they operate as one to provide a continuum of care, Pfarr said.

Doing so requires many agencies to change the way they think about the people they serve, she said. A large part of the program focused on the mental models for different classes. For example, those in poverty consider relationships of primary importance. Problems for them are interlocking — “one problem in poverty leads to 17 more,” Pfarr said.

All that matters is the present.

“It’s all about the right now,” Pfarr said.

In comparison, those in the middle class come from a more achievementbased perspective, such as earning a promotion, saving for a larger house or earning an advanced degree. Problems are contained and don’t spiral out of control. Much of their focus is on the future.

People from the middle class may put more emphasis on more formal speech, while under-classed individuals rely more on nonverbal communication.

All of these differences can cause problems, particularly for people working with those in need, Pfarr said.

But understanding those factors can make it possible to enact programs to change the role of poverty locally.

“That’s going to make for a stronger community,” Pfarr said.

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