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When Walking the Walk Means Taking a Step Back

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Every great social movement has been led by those most affected. The movement to end poverty in America and to ensure that all families become full stakeholders in the American Dream is no exception.

This is no top-down "War on Poverty" that can be abandoned at the whim of politicians. This is a movement bubbling up from the grassroots across the country, and it aims to abolish poverty, not merely alleviate it, by creating an economy driven by values of justice and equality, an economy that includes the voices of those who toil the hardest but have had the least say in it.

No one but those with the most at stake -- the 46.5 million people struggling to make ends meet in a market-driven society -- can make a change of that scale happen.

Earlier this year, family members nominated by Marguerite Casey Foundation grantee organizations across the country gathered to map out the infrastructure for Equal Voice Action, a national membership organization focused on eliminating social and economic inequality by ensuring that poor and low-income families have an equal voice in the public policies that affect them most.

The members of the Family Advisory Committee worked long hours to reach consensus on core issues that would define the fledgling organization. The central message that emerged was one of family leadership and collective ownership. To end poverty, they understood, poor and low-income families must be recognized as a cohesive constituency -- one that, because of its numbers and organization, cannot be ignored.

Philanthropy has a role to play in supporting the movement, but that role is to listen rather than to lead; to provide families with the resources they need to make their voices heard. Philanthropy can be the megaphone that amplifies their message, allowing them to be noticed over the general din of public discourse, but the content of that message belongs to the families themselves.

Those trying to make their organizations more inclusive often begin with the idea of "giving voice" to a particular group. While I share the values behind those efforts, I am concerned about the notion that one group of people has the capacity to "give voice" to another group. Over many years of working with poor and low-income families, whose aims and aspirations Marguerite Casey Foundation exists to support, it has become clear to me that the families already have a powerful, coherent and, ultimately, unstoppable voice. We can certainly help to strengthen and amplify that voice. But it is not our place to "give" them something that they already own.

As I watched the Family Advisory Committee get down to the business of building an organization, it also struck me that as important as "voice" may be, it is not the same as genuine ownership. Although it is absolutely necessary to hear a wide array of voices in the public sphere, the focus on "voice" can obscure a larger question: Are those of us who hold power -- including, but not limited to, philanthropists -- willing to give up "ownership"? Are we truly prepared to take a step back so that grassroots family leaders can step forward and lead the movement to transform their lives and communities?

Much rests on that question. There is no doubt that "capital" as it is traditionally defined -- the financial assets that allow philanthropy to make grants and help build the infrastructure for a national movement -- is central to the work of fostering change. But without the social capital that an empowered constituency of poor and low-income families brings to the table, no amount of money will be enough to spark and sustain the deep social change the family members on the advisory committee, and the many more they represent, demand and deserve.

There is no group in America more studied and dissected than the poor. But the time has come to stop scrutinizing poor families and instead simply listen -- listen and then act. Real change will not come until poor people are recognized as a constituency in their own right, with political power, not just personal needs.

As I listened in on the lively, sometimes contentious, and always inspiring conversation among the advisory committee members and heard each member commit to returning home and recruiting members for Equal Voice Action, I was filled with pride, and moreso, hope.

I have abiding hope that this rapidly multiplying constituency of outspoken family advocates can, with the right support, make real progress toward ensuring the economic and social well-being of America's families.

"We are the infrastructure of this organization we're building," one advisory committee member said to his colleagues as the meeting drew to a close and the long-term work began.

"It's an act of love that we've come this far together already," said another. "One day, we will look back on history and see we were an active part of it."

Imagine 3, 4, even 46.5 million poor and working-class Americans, all voting members of an organization with the capacity to speak in a single voice on policies that affect their daily lives. A movement of that scale and scope will be impossible to ignore or stop.