Summit shares strategies for fighting poverty

Speakers Gigi Bisong and Nisha Patel talked about strategies for closing the opportunity gap, during part of the Grow Our Own Summit, held Thursday in Marshall. The summit was part of the Southwest Initiative Foundation’s efforts to support children and families in the region.

MARSHALL — One in six children in southwest Minnesota lives in poverty. But speakers at a Thursday summit said addressing that problem means focusing on more than just kids. It means looking at a bigger picture including families, jobs, skills training and more.

In some ways, helping close the opportunity gap means changing the stories we tell about how to get out of poverty, said speaker Nisha Patel.

“It turns out hard work isn’t enough today,” she said. While there are plenty of jobs available in the U.S., many don’t pay well. “You might be working full time, but you might still be struggling.”

But there are people around Minnesota and beyond working to give families in poverty a chance for a better future. The 2018 Grow Our Own Summit, held at Southwest Minnesota State University, was a chance to share ideas for closing the opportunity gap in local communities.

Thursday’s summit brought together an audience of hundreds of people, including representatives from southwestern Minnesota businesses, nonprofits, public agencies and more. The Southwest Initiative Foundation held the first Grow Our Own Summit at SMSU in 2016. It’s part of a new focus for SWIF — helping make sure future generations have a chance to succeed.

Diana Anderson, SWIF president and CEO, said giving those children an opportunity to achieve their potential would have a “triple bottom line” return for the region. Not only would it be a win for kids, it would be a win for area communities and businesses.

“We’re doing this work . . . because it’s simply the right thing to do,” Anderson said.

The question of what it would take for more people and families to get out of poverty was a major focus of the summit. Patel, who served as executive director of the U.S. Partnership on Mobility From Poverty at the Urban Institute, said Americans are having a harder time working to achieve a better life for themselves or their children. While 90 percent of children born in 1940 went on to earn more money than their parents did, only 50 percent of children born in 1980 did the same. “That’s a huge decline,” she said.

The opportunity gap also affects some demographic groups more than others. Patel said data from southwest Minnesota showed Native American children, Asian children and Hispanic children had much lower mobility out of poverty.

Besides addressing the stigma and isolation of poverty, the Partnership on Mobility from Poverty is proposing strategies like creating access to good jobs, and providing support in ways that empower people. Patel said an example of that could be approaching human services on “much more of a coaching model.”

Speaker Gigi Bisong talked about her experiences with the Jeremiah Program, a Minnesota nonprofit that helps single mothers and their children.

The program offers support like child care and life coaching, which Bisong said helped her to be able to finish college.

Keith Maki, director of communications for the Cascade Engineering family of companies, talked about Cascade’s approach to workforce development through a Welfare to Career program. In implementing the program at a plastics plant in Michigan, Cascade Engineering retrained its managers, and invited a social worker on site to work with employees. Maki said the extra support helped employees be better able to make the transition off of welfare.

“When people know they’re valued and supported, they will transform their own lives,” Maki said.