The Answer to Everything

I am a person for whom school “worked.” I liked school so much that I gravitated back into school as a career choice serving as a school psychologist for the past 34 years. Like many people raised and living in middle class, I value education as the most effective strategy to improve one’s chances in life. If you work hard at school and pursue an interest about which you are passionate, you can succeed and have a stable life. I taught this to my kids and I continue to encourage students in the schools I serve to this day.

As I got involved in community work to address poverty through the Bridges Out of Poverty material, I realized that many well-intentioned middle-class approaches to addressing poverty apply the middle-class value of education in which I had always believed. If people need help, offer them a class! A good class will teach people what they need to know. It’s the answer to everything!

The problem, I began to realize, was that for many people who have come from a background of generational poverty, traditional education didn’t go so well the first time through. Many did not do well during their K-12 years and some accumulated college debt without every acquiring a certification or degree of any kind. Putting some people in a traditional classroom experience is somewhat of a post-traumatic stress experience. It turns out that traditional education is a really good answer for people who do well with traditional education experiences! Financial literacy is one of the areas that is often addressed through traditional classes and curriculum.

At the national Addressing the Challenges of Poverty Conference held in St. Louis in late September 2017, I got to meet and hear from Sara Money about the program that she developed called Money & ME. The first thing that Sara tells you is that “Money” really is her last name! But more importantly, she speaks of how she encountered this curriculum problem, recognizing that traditional materials, vocabularies, programs and classes were not meeting the needs of under-resourced community members, especially those coming from generational poverty. She recognized that learning about financial literacy required an approach that addressed the barriers people face. The result was her Money & ME curriculum. I encourage you to check into this program as one which might be useful for your own community work.

The brilliance of the Bridges Out of Poverty and Getting Ahead in a Just Gettin’ By World materials is that they allow people to explore their own experiences in a process and with language that makes sense to them. We will all benefit from more people like Sara Money who are taking the same approach with other specific areas. Learning, as opposed to traditional classes, may well be “the answer to everything.” Packaging learning opportunities in a format that can be accessed by those who need it most is one of the exciting challenges for those addressing poverty in their communities.

Jim Ott is an aha! Process national consultant, a school psychologist in northeastern Iowa, and the cofounder of the City of Dubuque’s Circles Initiative, which applies Bridges Out of Poverty concepts at the community level. He is also an Emerge Solutions member. Contact Jim at or through aha! Process.


Eclipsing Poverty – The Power of a Common Goal. Report from St. Louis: Addressing the Challenges of Poverty National Conference

On Aug. 21, 2017 I had the privilege of being in Hopkinsville, Ky. to experience the most amazing natural sight I have ever or likely will ever witness – the total eclipse of the sun. There were many aspects to that experience that impacted me, but one of the most significant was the diversity of the people who came together to view the eclipse in this small Midwestern town. There were young and old, people of many races, multiple languages – there was a busload of what I can only describe as hippies from the ‘60s! It was a wonderful assortment of humanity.

And everyone was nice. Everyone was smiling. Everyone was polite. With so much diversity in a contained space, there must have been innumerable possible conflicts and disagreements and arguments and probably some outright fights. But there was none of it. The common cause of the total eclipse allowed for unity in the presence of great difference. Heck, even the traffic in and out of the place was good-natured! The common thing that brought us together, and which was bigger than any one person, “eclipsed” the differences so that for that time, the differences were insignificant.

On Sept. 26, at the closing session for this year’s Addressing the Challenges of Poverty National Conference in St. Louis, Gene Krebs (Republican) and Phil Devol (“I am not a Republican”) inspired us with a vision of addressing poverty in our communities that reminded me of my total eclipse experience. After a stirring presentation from Gene about how his relatives, by moving north, were responsible for the Civil War (you probably had to be there, but it was good stuff), Phil asked a serious question along the lines of this:

When your Bridges communities get together to have conversations about the challenge of poverty, do the conversations get bogged down in politics? Do you hear people talking about the President or the election?

One of the most important things I heard Gene say was that he believed there were solutions to virtually every public policy issue when those issues are viewed through the Bridges lens. Ohio has led the way through the bipartisan HB 64*, through which $11.5 million has been distributed to Ohio communities, with grants given to counties through what amounts to a Bridges len

Gene and Phil’s point was that when we have serious conversations about poverty through the Bridges lens, political affiliations and opinions lose their significance. Sort of like a total eclipse. Our differences no longer matter because doing something real about poverty in our communities is simply too important to get stuck taking sides. We don’t have time for that.

I was challenged by Gene and Phil’s presentation to renew my enthusiasm for applying Bridges concepts in my work at the schools I serve and in the community at large. I encourage you to join me and hundreds of others who are doing amazing work across the country and around the world making communities places where everyone has the opportunity to do well!

Editor’s note: Ohio HB 64 has established county-level Healthier Buckeye councils throughout Ohio to connect residents who face hurdles to sustainable employment– such as generational poverty, mental health issues, drug and alcohol addiction and lack of education–with resources to help them move forward.

Jim Ott is an aha! Process national consultant, a school psychologist in northeastern Iowa, and the cofounder of the City of Dubuque’s Circles Initiative, which applies Bridges Out of Poverty concepts at the community level. He is also an Emerge Solutions member. Contact Jim at or through aha! Process.


Bridges Out of Poverty: Addressing Community Challenges Through Intentional Relationships

There is no doubt that these are difficult days in our country. Communities large and small struggle with brokenness in relationships across race, ethnicity, language, economics and other divisive categories. Conflicts and suspicions seem to lead inevitably to violence. Many of us wait with suspended breath for the next terrible story to break in the media, which for its part is ever-ready to pounce on yet another sensational example of how wrong things are. 

[restrict]And things are wrong. It’s not supposed to be like this. We are supposed to be better than this.

Experience teaches that difficulties are opportunities for change. After all, no one is very motivated to make things better when they already seem better!  If, as people go through difficult times, they take time to step back and ask good questions, the result can be individual, organizational and community improvement in every area one can imagine. 

As an example, during the current difficult times, much has been said about the need to have better and deeper conversations across lines of divide of every kind, but especially across racial lines. There are many creative ways to build stronger relationships. Bridges Out of Poverty plus Getting Ahead in a Just Gettin’ By World is one context in which we are seeing life-changing, long-term relationships being built.  My own experience through facilitating Getting Ahead and doing community Bridges trainings through the Dubuque Circles Initiative continues to inspire me to build community stability through this powerful context.

A couple of weeks ago, I was in line at the grocery store with a few items and I noticed that Pauline was in line ahead of me. Pauline was a participant in our most recent Getting Ahead group. She was not able to complete the group because she had obtained full-time employment that conflicted with the meeting time. But she had been in the group for six or eight weeks, and relationships had been built. 

Pauline and I differ in many characteristics. I can say that before being involved with Bridges and Getting Ahead, Pauline is someone with whom I would likely not even have made eye contact in the grocery store. This is honest stuff. But isn’t it true that we tend to connect with those who are most like us? And even if we are not conscious of it, we tend to avoid or—and I can only speak for myself here—outright ignore those who are different from us. The more the differences, the more likely that no connection will be made.

Instead, not only did we make eye contact, but Pauline and I had a little reunion there in the grocery line that was a joy to us both. I got to hear about her job and how that was going. She got to hear about how the group was progressing since she had not been able to come. I would like to think that anyone around us got to see two people who were clearly not the same interacting as friends and building community.

Bridges Out of Poverty and Getting Ahead are community-building tools that provide a context for working directly in the area of relationships. Dr. Ruby Payne’s definition of poverty, “the extent to which an individual does without resources,” emphasizes the importance of building more than just financial resources to help people achieve stability in their lives. 

One of the eight resources included in Dr. Payne’s list is Relationships and Role Models. Communities that apply Bridges concepts through Bridges trainings, Getting Ahead groups and the rapidly evolving Staying Ahead support groups for Getting Ahead graduates are finding that when individuals from different economic, racial and ethnic backgrounds spend time in genuine discussions about common community issues, walls of division begin to fall and relationships are built.

If individuals in poverty need relationships and role models in order to build stability, it is also true for whole communities. The more relationships of mutual respect that are built within a community, the more stability that community will have. Bridges, Getting Ahead and Staying Ahead provide a context for intentionally developing those relationships, and I strongly recommend learning and applying these tools in your community. 

But building relationships doesn’t have to start in a structured program. It can start at the grocery store. For every Pauline who is not like me, but whom I know and greet in the grocery store, there are who-knows-how-many-more people not like me whom I will meet in a given day. Bridges and Getting Ahead have helped me see these differences not as divisions, but as bridge-building opportunities. 

In these difficult times where so much brokenness is exposed, we need strategies and programs that focus on relationship-building. We are supposed to be better than this, and we can be better than this! Communities using Bridges principles build individual and community stability through relationships, week after week. In so doing, they mend the brokenness across the lines that divide them and find productive ways to have genuine discussions about the challenges they face.  


Poverty is a context, not an excuse

The new school year has arrived and with it the opportunity for me to do a number of presentations to various school districts and other organizations on the subject of dealing with kids from poverty. In my first week of school, I had the privilege of speaking to school bus drivers, city bus drivers, the K-12 faculty of one of the rural districts I serve and the small staff of a brand new alternative school in another district. In every audience there are various attitudes that are fairly easy to read on the faces of those about to subjected to my marvelous insights![restrict]

“Who is this joker?”

“I have so much stuff to do in my room.”

“I can hardly wait to hear what he has to say. This is going to be so interesting.” (Usually younger folks who think they are still in college!)

More seriously, poverty and other social issues are emotionally loaded subjects. Because of the strong emotions associated with the subject of poverty, there are those who are obviously resistant along the lines of “Great! Here is someone else to make excuses for these people.” And at the other end, those who are obviously receptive to anything that smacks of tolerance and learning to accept people just the way they are. “You can’t blame them for how they are! Just look at where they have come from.” I think both of these attitudes are unfortunate and potentially damaging to real children who have real potential and real needs. Both lead to justification and excusing that are not helpful to those students who are often most in need of what school and other systems have to offer.

Among the criticisms I have heard about Dr. Payne’s approach to addressing poverty is that seeing poverty through Dr. Payne’s lens results in lowered expectations for kids in poverty. Both of the above attitudes could certainly result in a view of kids in poverty that concludes that there is no way they can meet expectations. But if those who are exposed to Framework concepts come to and apply the conclusion that somehow these concepts justify lower expectations, they are missing the power and opportunity that Framework affords those who are working with under resourced students.

One of my favorite slides in the current Framework material is the Key Point #13:

Mutual respect is:

  • High expectations
  • Insistence
  • Support

Dealing with kids in poverty through Dr. Payne’s concepts has led me to the conclusion that not only should we not expect less of kids from poverty, but rather that expectations must be more clearly defined and rigidly enforced. All three of the above points are necessary to enhance the possibilities of success for kids coming from under resourced backgrounds.

High expectations are necessary because so many of the kids I work with have had limited exposure to high expectations; at least as they relate to achievement and education. They may have heard or seen expectations but never completely understood their relevance or perhaps more importantly how to meet them. I have had some success working with a variety of visual mental models to help teach and reinforce both expectations the steps to meet them.

High and clear expectations are also needed because life in poverty is often fluid in terms of changing priorities and expectations. This can make it difficult not only to meet expectations but even to know which expectations to meet. It might be that the school “system” has contributed to this confusion by having so many expectations from grades and behavior to fire drills and lunch room regulations.

Insistence is necessary because it is helpful for keeping focus and understanding the importance of meeting expectations. Many students, from poverty or not, have difficulty keeping their eye on the goal. The kids may need that outer voice that encourages and even demands, “I will not let you fail at this task”. A few positive outcomes and the need for the outer voice fades as the kids develop their own inner voice based on confidence obtained from repeated successes.

Support is necessary because many students lack the necessary skills to meet the expectations to which they are held accountable in the education system. Support may be needed for skill development in areas ranging from time management to academic skills to emotional resources for dealing with frustration. In the meeting of expectations with support, skills are also being developed to better meet future expectations.

It is important to mention that all three are necessary. Expectations and Insistence without Support is going to lead to frustration and even bitterness or perhaps more likely, enabling – the student meets the expectations because we insist that he do so, but in the end we end up doing most of the work ourselves! Expectations and Support without Insistence can also be seen as rules and procedures without relationship which according to the well known saying leads to rebellion. Insistence and Support without clear Expectations is directionless. Stability is found in adequately providing all three parts.

Another way to look at it is to see these three as the What, Why and How of meeting expectations. The Expectations are the What, Insistence becomes the Why, and Support is the How. My experience in schools tells me that as a system, we have lots of Whats (Expectations) and believe that we are providing the Hows (Support), but are deficient in the Whys (Insistence) that can make the educational process relevant to students whose backgrounds have not made it so. So when the system sees kids in poverty not doing well, we hear, “What do you expect from those kids?” or “Those poor kids, they have had such a hard life. We can’t expect much more.”

Some have heard Dr. Payne’s material and believed it to be more of the same – excusing kids from poverty or liberating them from the unrealistic expectations of the school system. For me, Dr. Payne’s material is useful because rather than excusing kids from poverty, the concepts have liberated the kids I know from MY beliefs regarding their capabilities and potential. The Framework material gave me a context for understanding the difficulties that under resourced students face. It did not provide an excuse; for me or for the students! Rather than modifying (translate: reduce) expectations so that under resourced kids can meet them, I now understand that the expectations need to be more clearly defined and more rigidly enforced through Insistence and Support. Rather than being satisfied with under resourced kids not meeting expectations (but “they did the best they could”), I now understand that the resources in the system need to be applied in ways that prove to the system and more importantly to the students themselves that they can be successful. This is hard work for sure, but so gratifying and one of the main reasons most of us got into education in the first place! So roll up your sleeves, define those expectations clearly and then do whatever it takes to help the kids you know meet those expectations no excuses![/restrict]