The Northwest Area Foundation (NWAF) decided 10 years ago to focus its attention on poverty reduction across its eight-state region. In 2004, the foundation partnered with Portland, Oregon’s housing and community development bureau, where Howard Cutler designed an innovative poverty reduction program.
Cutler spoke about his program to invited local organizations January 21-22 at NWAF’s St. Paul headquarters. “The number-one problem in Portland for 20 years was blighted areas,” he explained of the Economic Opportunity Initiative, which currently funds 27 community-based workforce programs, along with seven micro-enterprise projects.
Its main goal is to increase adult participants’ incomes by a minimum of 25 percent after three years, and also to train youth for jobs that will allow them to pursue higher education or a career path. The seven micro-enterprise projects help participants to start or expand small businesses.
Portland’s previous attempts to eliminate poverty only produced minimal results, especially among long-term residents. “There are multiple reasons why an individual is poor,” said Cutler. “Our goal was to use a people-centered strategy, [and] the projects are built around the strengths of the individual.” The essence of the “Portland model,” then, appears to be making a special effort to match individuals who are living in poverty with training and jobs matched to their individual interests and talents.
He announced that this past year the Initiative graduated its first class. Eighty percent of the participants were earning below the federal poverty level when they first enrolled in 2004-05; 51 percent are people of color, and 74 percent were unemployed at the time of enrollment.
According to Cutler, 25-30 percent of the participants “are [young] African Americans,” adding that the enrollees’ incomes have nearly doubled after completing the program.
“Every individual is tracked for three years to see if there is improvement,” he explained. “Our goal is to decrease poverty.”
Cutler said that there are now 2,000 Portland residents enrolled in the Initiative, adding that his program will be needed “as long as poverty exists” in Portland. For the past 18 months, Cutler has been a consultant for “Duluth at Work.”
“It [Duluth At Work] is a poverty reduction and workforce model,” explained Duluth At Work Program Coordinator Emily Larson. She estimates that at least 30 percent of the city’s Black population could benefit from it.
“There are a disproportionate number of people of color living in poverty,” she added. “Part of my personal hope is that we are really intentional in partnering with communities of color. One of the things that we are going to be doing is to work with Community Action Duluth, which is hiring African American employment mentors to work specifically with African Americans and [members] of the Chippewa Tribe.”
Could the “Portland model” work in the Twin Cities? “Is there anything [in the Portland project] worth [any] value here?” Cutler asked the audience. Steve Cramer of Project for Pride in Living (PPL) responded by pointing out that his and other such organizations are already doing similar work in the Twin Cities.
However, African Development Center of Minnesota Executive Director Hussein Samatar disagreed. He told the audience that in order to reduce poverty among Blacks and persons of color, they must be in leadership roles.
“In Minnesota, the only way you can [have] community development is when people are helping themselves,” Samatar said. “You have to have talented people of color at the table, getting resources and implementing their own studies to uplift their own communities.”
Samatar added that even “traditional organizations that have been serving these communities” aren’t doing enough. “If you are expecting different outcomes doing the same things, [changes] won’t happen,” Samatar surmised.
According to an NWAF spokesperson, around 15 local organizations were invited, but only a few persons of color were among the 30 individuals in attendance.
“Was that because they couldn’t, or they didn’t get the email to be here?” Roxanne Peyton, director of resident connections for AEON, a local community development corporation that provides affordable housing in the Twin Cities, asked afterwards. She learned about the meeting from her boss, she said.
“I just happened to find out about it from one of our partners, [who] is in [Washington,] D.C., and said that I [needed] to be at this meeting,” added Grover Jones of NEON, a North Minneapolis business start-up agency. “There should have been probably a lot more [representation from] organizations that I know of in North Minneapolis that could have benefited.”
With the North Side considered one of the city’s hardest hit areas economically, Jones said that Cutler’s model could work there. “I think North Minneapolis is actually right for something like this to take place.”
However, Peyton warned that such models must operate effectively “so that we don’t further sabotage or set up folks for failure by getting them halfway through something, and then those outside supports aren’t there to help them get through such a program.”
Finally, in trying not to be judgmental, Cutler said that he hoped the local agencies in attendance gained something from his presentation.
“I am not sure that they saw much value in it, and whether or not they saw how it is applicable,” he surmised. “I think that the proof will be in a month from now, if there are any follow-up discussions and settling on a path to make adjustments in the current system here.”
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