01/13/2014 02:28 pm ET Updated Mar 15, 2014

To Tackle Poverty, Trust the Power of Community

Whaticia Wilson is one of those people who brings folks together. In her work as a property manager, in her neighborhood -- Bayview-Hunters Point in San Francisco -- and in her church, people go to Whaticia when they need advice, support and information. And she takes her role seriously: not as a gatekeeper or information broker, but as someone who sees that by connecting people with each other she is making her own community stronger.

Last summer Whaticia started STOP (Senseless Tragedies Oppressing Our People) to connect youth, particularly young men, with each other and with caring adults from their own community. In response to the gun violence and hardship she saw her people struggle with, she created change. In Whaticia's world, no one is swooping in to tell young people how to escape from their own neighborhood. Instead, people from the community are working together to support youth in making their neighborhood a place where they want to stay.

This week, on the 50th anniversary of Lyndon B. Johnson's declaration of a "war on poverty," we're certain to hear about what the social sector -- policy makers, the government, philanthropists, nonprofits and others -- should do to help people like Whaticia and her community. But what Whaticia does for her community goes well beyond what a social worker could do. At the Family Independence Initiative (FII), we know that the answer doesn't come from the social sector imposing more solutions; rather, it's a matter of building upon the solutions people like Whaticia create in community with their peers.

Since 2001, through partnerships with more than 1,000 low-income families across the country, FII has studied the critical role connections to peers play in families leaving poverty and gaining economic and social mobility.Family, friends, neighbors and colleagues can provide information, emotional encouragement and support and inspiration. They can also hold us accountable and be real-life role models for change. And together, people can do more than they can alone. It's the barn-raising approach to building mobility.

To be clear, the safety net system is critical. It keeps the bottom from falling out for millions of families. But embedded in even our most marginalized and resource-strapped communities are people with the skills, ideas and initiative to reshape their own lives, and to help others do the same.

Take the African American parents in New Orleans who created a camp to help prepare their children to rebuild after Katrina. Or the Columbian immigrants in East Boston, who started a social club to provide activities and cultural events for their children. These groups may have little in common in terms of language, culture, or customs, but one thing they share is an understanding of what it takes to make it: each other. From the immigrants who built the Chinatowns to the African Americans who built vibrant townships before and after slavery, America has a rich history of communities working together to create prosperity and wellbeing for themselves.

Unfortunately, the war on poverty doesn't reflect these examples. Despite half a century of trying, the social sector has not come up with the answer. And today we face poverty levels that look much like they did decades ago. Depending on who you ask, it's been steady at around 15 percent. In addition, the middle class is getting poorer. According to the Census, median income in 2012 was $51,017. It hasn't been that low since 1989. However, FII has learned that given an environment of trust, the support of peers, and access to targeted capital, families will work together to come up with the solutions that work for them. Low-income families partner with FII by sharing data and stories about the initiative they are taking to move their lives forward. Without direction from our staff, families are encouraged to turn to each other for support. From analyzing the data we collect, FII is able develop resources that families can access to leverage their initiative. This enables them to move forward faster.

Evidence from FII's first partnerships with families in Oakland, San Francisco, and Boston shows what's possible with this approach. In two years, families on average increased their savings by a remarkable 120 percent and increased earnings by 24 percent. One-third of the families started a small business; over 80 percent of children improved their grades; and over 75 percent of families reported taking steps to improve their health. Families also dropped government subsidies, pooled capital with others, and increased their civic engagement.

Our work is just beginning. Today, FII is catalyzing a large-scale movement toward family-driven social mobility through an online community-building site called UpTogether. Through UpTogether, families can self-organize, share what works, apply those shared ideas, and ultimately become more powerful collectively. FII has also established the Torchlight Prize, an annual award to recognize and reward groups of self-organized families, friends, and community members who come together to improve their communities. Torchlight Prize winners are driven by a strong passion to strengthen their communities from the inside.

Let's stop fighting poverty and start supporting and investing in the collective expertise, wisdom, and initiative that can be found in low-income communities across the country. Let's reconnect with our better nature and trust, even depend on, communities like Whaticia's to lead the way.