Sometimes all it takes is a little bit of faith for a struggling individual to finally find success. With MicroGrants, Joe Selvaggio is helping those he calls "people of potential" bridge the gap to their goals.
MicroGrants was founded in 2006, the same year that Mohammed Yunus won the Nobel Prize for pioneering a system of microloans to those in need with his Grameen Bank. The key distinction of MicroGrants, however, is that the program gives out $1,000 grants, rather than loans.
"Poor people have too much debt," Joe said. "It's too risky for them to put their own skin in the game."
Instead, MicroGrants gives the money outright to applicants who can submit their bid through twelve partner organizations in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where they are based. Assisting people in everything from buying the supplies they need to get a business running, to helping pay for educational training courses, or even to upgrade a vehicle for better transportation to work.
Take Shegitu: as an immigrant from Ethiopia, Shegitu found her way into a job, while also working at non-profits to help single mothers find jobs. Discovering that many of the women she met did not have the basic skills to find employment, she decided to start her own small cleaning business, though she lacked the money for a location or supplies. With her MicroGrant, Shegitu was able not only to launch her business, but currently employs 38 women while running several non-profits on the side to benefit women in need of assistance.
Joe, 73, has spent the past forty years dedicated to closing the gap between the wealthy and the poor. After leaving the Catholic ministry for a career in social justice, he founded the Project for Pride in Living and the One Percent Club. The first assists the impoverished to become self-sufficient through housing, employment training, education, and support services. The second encourages the wealthy to donate 1 percent of their net worth or 5 percent of their annual income each year to the charity of their choice.
According to Joe, his faith in the potential for all people to succeed, given the chance, stems from his childhood in Chicago as the child of Italian immigrants.
"It's that immigrant mentality--work hard and make more money, and get better jobs, more education..." he said. MicroGrants lets their grantees get the first foot off the ground so they can work to support themselves.
MicroGrants operates on a donation-based budget that has reached about $500,000 each year, allowing them to give out one or two loans each week. Joe credits the easy logic of reciprocity for the generosity that has allowed the organization to continue on.
"The heart message is stronger than the head--'I was helped by somebody, why not take a chance and help somebody?'" he said. "It's a simple concept: people launch themselves into self sufficiency, it's a very easy thing to understand."
Certainly, Joe has made a life of communicating that concept to others. Assigned to a parish in an inner city in Minnesota, he could not ignore his desire to help the poor become more affluent, and so left priesthood to pursue his passion. After a few years working to sell mutual funds, he realized that there were enough people willing to give their money to the less-fortunate that he could focus solely on administrating the exchange between givers and receivers.
Though Joe hopes that MicroGrants will go nationwide, or at least branch out to other states soon, he has only fond words for his longtime home, the Twin Cities.
"It's a very good culture of giving here in Minneapolis," he said. "There are good, generous, compassionate people here."
Joe, who will be 74 soon, has not wearied of his work in the past forty years.
"I am still excited about this stuff, I never get tired of it," he said. "Seeing people really improve their lives and become self-sufficient is universally accepted--to see people working and making their own way in life is a bridge between the rich and the poor."
For more, visit our Third World America section.
Eliminating poverty begins at the source--economic disadvantage.
Anneliese Gryta, a lawyer who has dedicated her work to helping low-income workers gain access to the legal aid they need to help their businesses function, wants to tackle poverty at the root, rather than simply treating its symptoms.
As an Equal Justice Works Fellow, she has set up the Microenterprise Legal Assistance Project with Advocates for Basic Equality in Toledo, Ohio, helping provide legal advice and access to capital for entrepreneurs interested in starting their own small business.
Anneliese, 28, who grew up in a family of musicians in Buffalo, New York, and was a classical violinist throughout college, didn't always plan to become a lawyer. It wasn't until she was exposed to the conditions in inner-city schools as a music teacher while still in college that her focus changed.
"I could never surmount those obstacles with a violin alone," she remembers thinking. "I became so angry that I couldn't provide more help to the kids and families I was working with, and felt like I was going to become very burnt out, very fast, if I didn't acquire some sharper tools to help fight poverty."
A class she took called "Urban Geography" cemented her belief that she could effect change through working in law, and made her understand the "connection between law and legislation and all the social ills that are plaguing our cities."
"That made me really aggressively go on this track of, I just want to learn as much as I can," she said. "A seed implanted by that one professor has impacted the rest of my life."
After graduating from law school in 2008, Anneliese immediately set out to help. With the Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellowship, she began her work helping small businesses with legal aid and clinics. For those untrained in the legal intricacies of starting a business, help from seasoned attorneys can be invaluable.
"Sometimes when people go into business and they're looking into getting a commercial lease,
a few people haven't read the contracts at all, and negotiated for themselves," she said of one instance where legal misunderstanding can harm the budding entrepreneur. "They just sign on the dotted line and the contract will be completely written in favor of the property owner."
This isn't the only hurdle that businesses might face. Liability, contract drafting, and the administrative tangles of setting up a non-profit are just a few of the difficulties that may daunt people who are trying to start a business.
The attorneys love to volunteer and the entrepreneurs really love the help," she said. "It's a win-win."
In her second fellowship with Equal Justice Works, Anneliese is aiming even higher--helping businesses acquire the loans they need to get off the ground, with a focus on the economically disadvantaged.
"In this economy, in a place like Toledo with such a high unemployment rate you may have to create your own job," she said. "I wanted to do something that treated the cause of poverty--lack of resources, lack of finances, lack of credit, lack of education in how to handle money."
Her newest project involves founding two microloans funds for Toledo-based businesses. Assets Toledo helps with very small loans up to $5,000 for graduates of the business training program they also run, with a special focus on those with little credit history.
The Toledo CDC Alliance revives an older, defunct program by partnering with local banks to make loans available to established businesses that want to set up shop in the ailing commercial corridors of the city, so that they can build tangible assets in communities that need them.
Right now, Anneliese is helping save an 80-year-old community arts center, where the economy and other local closures have made it impossible to continue paying the bills, from foreclosure. She is defending the foreclosure and looking for another community group to step up and buy the property before it goes to auction.
"I wanted to expand the capacity of a legal services organization," she said. "To develop a project and respond to a need that I identified and do it in a completely new way."
For more, visit our Third World America section.