Monday, April 28, 2014

Family Independence Initiative: Turning Communities into Families

Our GreenLight SpotLight series shares stories of impact from our portfolio organizations, clients and social entrepreneurs.

Author: Rebecca Simon
GreenLight Fund Development Intern

We recently met with one of the family members participating in the Family Independence Initiative (FII) at their office in Jamaica Plain. FII, GreenLight Boston’s fifth portfolio organization, empowers low-income families to move out of poverty through access to connections, choice and capital. Since 2001, FII has innovated and tested new approaches to economic and social mobility that demonstrate that low-income families have the initiative and capacity to move themselves and their communities out of poverty.

Families organize themselves in groups that meet monthly to share their goals and plans for improving their circumstances. At each meeting, the members report on their progress, help each other overcome barriers, identify resources they need to move forward and encourage each other. FII provides each household participating in the groups with a computer to provide data on what they’re doing.

As families set and work toward their goals, FII collects this data to understand the steps they’re taking, the barriers that hold them back, and the resources that will best support their efforts. FII is then able to invest resources based on the strengths and initiative families demonstrate towards improving their lives. These resources range from microloans to start businesses to technology-based services like Hello Wallet and Rental Karma to manage their finances and improve their credit. It is an incredibly innovative approach to poverty alleviation and the results are promising. In the first two years in Boston, families saw an average 20% increase in income. Savings went up 259% on average, and indicators on housing situations, health and well-being all rose significantly.

However, the most compelling illustration of FII’s success is best reflected in the stories of family members like Jo Ann.

Photo credit: Carl Mastandrea

Jo Ann, born in Puerto Rico, moved first to New York as a child and then to Boston where she bounced around from aunt to aunt. Today, Jo Ann lives in Jamaica Plain and has three children and five grandchildren. She was first introduced to FII through a family member who asked her to join one of the meetings.

Jo Ann was at first skeptical about FII. She wondered if it was a scam that would take money and time from the members and give nothing in return. Though it sounded too good to be true, Jo Ann decided to give it a try. After learning more and meeting other families in FII, Jo Ann took a leap of faith and signed on as one of the original 35 members of FII in Boston.

In joining FII, Jo Ann had a number of goals she wanted to achieve, primarily to go back to school. With the encouragement of her FII group, she joined her 22-year old son at Bunker Hill Community College to get a degree in human resources. She also took courses in information technology – skills she brought back to her FII group. FII gave Jo Ann not only the springboard she needed to achieve her goals, but also the confidence to be a leader in a group. When she was asked to lead a group meeting she was hesitant at first: “I had never led anything in my life and I had no knowledge of what I was going to do, but I said all right, I am going to try it.”

Now as an FII Fellow, Jo Ann takes her role seriously. The job of an FII Fellow is to lead projects and initiatives within the FII community, encourage families to work together and to create and offer resources to achieve goals. From the start, Jo Ann encouraged her group to rely on each other, share ideas and meet more often. Everyone participates in her group, and when one person wants to quit, it becomes a team effort to make sure that person knows they have many shoulders to lean on. Jo Ann’s enthusiasm is contagious and her group has come to know and love her signature drum roll. “We’re the loudest group…when someone achieves a goal or does something positive, drum roll!” 

Photo credit: Carl Mastandrea

Within just a few months of being at FII, Jo Ann saw a lot of changes in herself. She became more extroverted, social and open to hearing other people’s advice and opinions. Most surprisingly to herself, Jo Ann noticed that she started to turn to the other members of her FII group for help and advice, whereas before she would have asked one of her numerous relatives. Said Jo Ann, “on top of all of the resources, you get a family. I have a lot of family and so many cousins, but when I need something, I turn to my FII family first because I know there’s real sisterhood support there.”

One of Jo Ann’s main goals these days is to recruit new members to FII. She told us that when things fall apart, FII provides a sense of determination, perseverance and hope. She explains to the people in her community that “FII gives us a support network. You bring information to the group and you get information in return. It isn’t a place where it’s all ‘give me, give me’ and you get nothing in return. Everyone has something to give and something to offer.”