WACO—Nonprofit specialists working to develop innovative solutions to hunger and poverty in communities focused on faith, politics and hope for America during the annual Drumwright Family Lecture at Baylor University.
Passion for fighting poverty
The panelists—Heather Reynolds, president and chief executive officer of Catholic Charities Fort Worth; Jeremy Everett, founding executive director of the Texas Hunger Initiative at Baylor; and Robert Doar, resident fellow and Morgridge Fellow in Poverty Studies for the American Enterprise Institute—have in common a passion for fighting poverty on the local, state and national levels.
Reynolds didn’t grow up in poverty, but her parents made sure that she frequently came face to face with it through community service. Her call to social justice grew serious when she became a parent of an adopted daughter and learned poverty was the only thing that stood in the way of the biological mother’s ability to raise her child.
“While I am forever grateful for my daughter, I will never quit fighting to end poverty as long as I have breath in me, because I’m a firm believer that poverty should not stand between a mom’s dreams for her child and her ability to make those things happen,” Reynolds said.
The inequity of wealth in America has been on Everett’s mind since he entered college. He was inspired by the story of St. Francis, who gave away his possessions to live a life intertwined with people in poverty and to rebuild the church.
Doar, a member with Everett of the National Commission on Hunger, grew up watching his father, John Doar, serve as an assistant attorney general under Robert F. Kennedy and build a poverty-fighting program through his work with civil rights. Doar decided to get involved in politics and find ways to help people move up in opportunity and escape poverty through employment, stronger families and better schools.
“Texas is really lucky to have these two outstanding people doing work for people in need,” Doar said. “Government doesn’t solve every problem. We are so dependent on work and programs like theirs.”
Innovations in the fight against poverty
Reynolds, Everett and Doar are all engaged in thinking about innovations—both in programs and policies—that can reduce poverty and increase opportunities for low-income families and children.
Catholic Charities Fort Worth partners with academic institutions so they can study the efficacy of their work, Reynolds said.
“I’m not in the business of repeat customers,” she said. “I’m in the business of ending poverty. So, we as an organization want to know what works and what doesn’t work.”
Catholic Charities Fort Worth particularly is interested in addressing low graduation rates among community college students throughout the country. Community college is often the only option for low-income citizens, Reynolds said, and a degree may be the difference between a lifetime of minimum-wage employment and a lifetime of living-wage employment.
“Less than 20 percent of students who start community college ever graduate or transfer to a four-year university,” Reynolds said.
In response to this concern, her organization exercises intensive case management at community colleges to encourage students to continue in their education, regardless of financial or social barriers.
“Heather and her team of case managers are taking each individual and each family and helping them develop that blue line so they can be guided through the process of poverty to financial independence,” Everett said.
The Texas Hunger Initiative is focused on building a cross-sector collaborative approach across the state, bringing organizations together to identify needs, developing strategic plans around them and addressing those needs comprehensively, Everett explained.
“Poverty is too complex for any one organization, individual or agency to be able to address all the time,” he said. “The only way that we’re going to be able to effectively reduce hunger and poverty both domestically and globally is if we’re all working together.”
Everett points to the collaborative efforts in communities like San Angelo, where eight years ago, 10,000 children were on the free or reduced-price lunch program. In response, citizens organized a coalition of city, state and federal officials, churches, nonprofits and school districts to work together on summer hunger.
Churches offered their kitchens for use, businesses gathered volunteers to deliver meals, neighbors opened their homes, and after a few months of planning, San Angelo served 20,000 meals to children.
The Texas Hunger Initiative has replicated that model to provide more than 500 million meals to children across Texas simply by getting people to work together.
Government programs and private initiatives
An effective systemic approach to addressing poverty involves different organizations playing different roles, Everett said.
“Part of what we believe as Christians is that we’re created in the image of God,” Everett said. “We believe as Paul wrote, that everybody plays a role in the body (of Christ). We all don’t have to do the same thing.”
Reynolds believes nonprofit organizations foster relationships and care about people as a whole, while the state agency office has transactional relationships.
However, the nonprofit sector—some with a majority of funding from government agencies—can end up looking like an extension of the government, she said.
“The social service agencies where people should be forging relationships with clients that are long term and truly transformational often have gotten reduced to ‘Here’s some assistance’ and not offering people something transformational,” Reynolds said.
Nonprofits walk a fine line between healthy partnership with government and an unhealthy partnership, she stressed.
All the panelists agreed a healthy partnership with all sectors contributing through different roles will help the country move forward in assisting vulnerable populations.