A Circle of hope

Group uses tools of capitalism to pull people out of poverty

What if you could take two big problems, put them together – and end up with a solution for both?


And what if that solution were agreeable to liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans alike, and most everyone in-between?

That may be the case with a national nonprofit called Circles (www.circlesusa.org), which collaborates with communities to help people lift themselves out of poverty.

They do it with teams of middle- and upper-income volunteers who meet with self-selected families in poverty to help those families navigate the ins and outs of life in our (mostly) free-market economy. At the same time, it gives a real-world financial, business and social education to kids – 22 percent of whom live at or below the federal poverty line in this country.

The Circles model, which dates to 2000 and is in use in some 75 communities in 24 states and parts of Canada, reminds us of the SCORE approach, in which retired executives mentor aspiring entrepreneurs. That’s a great model, and so is Circles – named for the fact that we all run in circles and exist in nurturing circles of friends and other supporters.

The model also reminds us of Napoleon Hill’s famous “Mastermind” concept, in which you surround yourself with a small team of smart folks to help guide you toward your goals.

How’d you like to be mentored by a group of successful types?

The two problems that get attacked in Circles’ innovative program are 1) poverty, of course, and 2) what we would argue is a dwindling understanding of and appreciation for the capitalist system we live under.

Time was when we could assume that kids fathomed capitalism and liked it. It’s not so automatic anymore. Schools never have done very well in teaching financial literacy, and the blessings of capitalism aren’t all that fashionable in academic circles these days. Meanwhile, the media seem to do their best to highlight the shortcomings of capitalism – without, we would add, ever contrasting those pitfalls with the much more egregious failings of every other system. And the more dishonorable of the capitalists have done their utmost to help the media give free markets a bad name.

Today’s youths also have been born out from under the menacing shadows of the Cold War, and therefore don’t have the almost innate aversion to communism and socialism that most of us grew up with. To many of them, it’s just a lifestyle choice, and Che Guevara is just a cool face on a T-shirt.

In short, capitalism needs some champions. No other economic/political system has lifted so much of humanity up. No other system could, because no other system respects individual rights, abilities, hopes, dreams and uniqueness the way capitalism does.

Circles appeals to all political stripes, though. While touting the beauty of capitalism, it also acknowledges the warts, particularly for minorities. But the message to Circles families is, don’t let the system’s deficiencies paralyze you.

“We’re not going to wait around and have everything change out in the world before we take action,” says Circles founder and CEO Scott Miller.

Besides, in the Circles model – in which 20 families are mentored by 60 trained volunteers – many of our racial, class and ideological boundaries come crashing down with the explosive revelation that our differences aren’t nearly as great as either we or the media like to think. People who’ve always hung around people like themselves see their horizons stretched.

For people stuck in poverty, that means making friends with people who aren’t, perhaps for the first time.

“We hear all the time in Circles about people coming in with all of these preconceptions about people in poverty or people who have money, Republicans or Democrats – or fill in the blank,” Miller says. “If any of us want to make more money, the fastest way to do that is to build relationships with people who have more money.

“All sorts of magic can happen.”

And while the goal is to help people in poverty in ways the government has never been able or willing to – with tactics that are aimed higher than merely meeting immediate needs – the well-off mentors, or “allies,” in Circles get just as much out of it or more.

“Everybody wants to make a difference. It’s as transformational for the volunteers as it is for the families,” Miller says.

The Circles program goes where it’s invited. So far, it’s been invited to LaGrange, Columbus and Albany in Georgia.

With its barrier-breaking, farsighted, teach-a-man-to-fish approach, which has the added benefit of reinforcing the free market system, we wish this program was everywhere.



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