02/12/2013 06:46 pm ET Updated Apr 14, 2013

How Are Communities Better Off When They Work Together?

Social networks play a critical, though often unappreciated, role in people's efforts to improve their lives. In my work at the Family Independence Initiative, I regularly see the positive impact of community on the lives of the families with whom we partner. I see how they support, and are supported by, friends and family in inspiring and creative ways. I wrote the following essay about how community and mutuality have the power to spur economic mobility for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation's Annual Report. More of us must recognize how supportive community and social networks helps us unleash our abilities and encourages our initiative, so we can adopt new thinking and practices that promote and reinforce community.

We have a rich and varied history of people making the journey from poor to middle- and upper-class in the United States. Often, their stories are not rags-to-riches tales of individuals who made it to the top through sheer force of will. Rather, while hard work and determination played a critical role, the key ingredient was often community.

Before I founded the Family Independence Initiative (FII), I researched the paths people took out of poverty before the War on Poverty. I learned about African-Americans who founded their own thriving townships like Greenwood and Weeksville, and Chinese immigrants who created Chinatowns in cities across the country where the newly arrived could find job references, housing, loans and information. Many other ethnic groups -- Italians, Cambodians, Poles -- had similar stories. All these groups created paths to prosperity by pooling resources, sharing information, providing job references, supporting each other's businesses and opening their homes to others.

Today this sense of community and willingness to help is especially visible in times of trouble. When Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast, I was struck by the stories of people helping others. Neighbors left power strips on their front stoops so others still without power could charge their phones. There was this posting on Facebook: "If you need a warm place to stay, our house in Rahway, N.J. is open. Strangers welcome." There was the young man who walked to the top of a high rise in Coney Island with bottles of water and found there an elderly woman who'd been without water for two days.

At times, disaster brings out the best in us. I'm fortunate that I get to see the "best in us" regularly without an accompanying disaster, yet still often informed by that sense of community. Inspired by history, FII challenges low-income families to form cohorts with their friends in order to enroll in one of our Demonstrations, where we test an on-the-ground paradigm-shifting approach to spurring economic and social mobility. The families display this sense of caring for and supporting each other in their everyday lives. They are motivated by a shared desire to make their lives better. And they know that everyone does better when they all do better.

Candace, a Boston mother, told me, "Before joining FII, I used to be a loner. I was unemployed and had no direction to where I was going. When I joined I realized that I was not alone. Other people were going through the same thing I was going through."

With her cohort supporting her, Candace has secured a job and been promoted, she's in school pursuing her degree in health and human services while her husband, Mario, is training to be a nurse. Candace and Mario are also starting a childcare co-op with other FII families.

Sinita, Bertha and Jobana, who live in San Francisco, have 12 kids among their three families. Their child care options are limited given the cost and earning extra income is a challenge. A few months after joining FII, the three friends launched a business. Through their community, they find clients with homes and small offices that need cleaning. While two of the moms clean, the third cares for the kids. And they split the profits.

These families and the others I meet through FII have drive and passion to improve their lives and their children's future opportunities. But no one moves forward alone. The camaraderie, support, accountability and extra hands of friends and family are what enable us to truly unleash the power of our own talents and initiative.