“I have been poor; I am not poor any more. I am a middle-class person who lives in Centerville, Ohio. I am a working mom; I own my own home; I have two Master’s degrees and my son just graduated high school. I own two cars and have a well-paying job at MetLife.” In the Centerville-Kettering Circles group, Stacy is the only black woman who is an Ally.
For the past two weeks, Stacy Mitchell has been describing Ohio’s Centerville-Kettering chapter of Circles USA. The chapter is home to several circles, and each circle has a Leader who is forging his or her way out of poverty. Two Allies with experience in financial stability complete the circle, asking questions and lending practical help so the Leader makes it out of public assistance and into financial freedom. Click here to read Part 1 or Part 2 of our 4-part series.
Many of the Allies are white men and women. They’re good people with much to share, but Stacy sees a need for more diversity. Leaders are often black women, who need more black female Allies to believe they can thrive. In Stacy, they find someone who is familiar with their cultural background and who has been through the system. She has tried to get friends to volunteer, but people are busy and slow to respond. “It’s a really good organization,” she says. “There’s a community here. Earlier this year, someone committed suicide, and everyone decided to make sure that never happened in this group again. Now we have one night each month where we split into small groups. You don’t sit with your normal group—you pick a number to determine where to go. Ones get together; twos get together; threes, and we start talking. We ask questions that are on a list: What makes you sad; what in your childhood is still frustrating you today? You only have to answer to the point you feel comfortable, but it’s inspired this awesome sense of community.”
Conversations where people of different races, genders and incomes get real and personal? Now that’s a way to break stratification, maybe create trust and social change. Throughout the years we spend in these temporary bodies, God teaches and expands us. Regardless of our economic status, He’s never short on work. We all make decisions based on our upbringing, dependencies, experiences and desires, and sometimes our lives need repair. Both rich and poor have issues and insights to share.
Stacy has convinced me that Circles is the place to be. Leaders and Allies, Big View discussions, breaking down communication barriers… Let’s get practical. How does all this fit into a meeting?
“First, we eat,” Stacy tells me. “And it’s good food, too!” In addition to Allies, there are organization leaders who coordinate volunteers, cooks and supplies. Five churches sponsor this chapter, and food is always the beginning. “One time they had this pork loin with a chipotle glaze on it. It was so good! Someone bought potato salad, and they made green beans to go with it.”
“After we eat, we put away all the tables and arrange the chairs in a large circle. A Circles leader tells everyone what we’re about, and then we go around and share what’s New and Good. We spend so much time in our lives focusing on what’s wrong that we need to take time to think about what’s right. Even if nothing has actually happened that you can say is new and good in your life, you can always say, ‘I’m here.’ That’s a positive thing—you showed up. Really, if you have to force yourself to think of a New and Good every day, then it gets easy.
At that point, we’ve said all good things for about ten minutes, so we get into the night’s agenda. There’s a theme for every week. For example, on the third Tuesday, there’s a Resource Group night. We meet in our Resource Groups and work on something we can do to be a resource. My group is Jobs and Education. Another Tuesday, Allies and Leaders meet. There’s a week for training, a week for questions, and if the month has a fifth Tuesday we have Potluck. That’s a night where we focus on whatever is most needed.”
After the night’s agenda item, we come back to the big circle. We end with Appreciation. One person says something to the person on his or her left, thanks or a compliment. It goes around the circle until everyone has received appreciation.”
Stacy repeats, “It’s a real community. I enjoy being a part of it.” The Allies aren’t just there for the Leaders—they help each other as well. Stacy was at work one day and got a call from another volunteer. The woman is working on a second degree, and yelled at her eight year old son while she was trying to concentrate on writing a paper. She made him cry and called Stacy in tears. Stacy asked, “Do we have to do this homework today?”
“Well, it’s due tonight at midnight. I have a 4.0.”
“Yes, but if you get a 3.9 and don’t make your son cry, which is better?”
“But I have a 4.0.”
“Girl, when you walk across that stage, nobody is going to care about your GPA.” When you’re motivated to go back to school and provide a better life for your son, you don’t want your relationship with him destroyed along the way. I know that girl felt better—I felt better just hearing about it.
Circles USA promotes improvements that are sustainable and healthy. Next week, we’ll talk about what that can mean in your life. For now, test your cultural sensitivity by clicking here. You might look past cultural differences, but understanding them can give you greater impact.
If you’d like to find or start a Circles chapter in your area, click here.