By Katie Latino
According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, 25% of families in North Carolina with children under 18 are headed by single women, and though many are employed, almost 40% of all women in Western North Carolina live near or below the federal poverty line. Poverty and unstable situations make it difficult for people to change, plan for the future, or build resources. Many poverty alleviation programs address the symptoms of poverty rather than the circumstances that lead to poverty. The YWCA’s Getting Ahead in a Just Gettin’ By World program is different; this curriculum recognizes that climbing out of poverty is not a linear process and acknowledges there is no single roadmap or approach that works for everyone. The Getting Ahead (GA) philosophy seeks to create individual, institutional, and community change. Getting Ahead is a key program of the YWCA, an organization dedicated to eliminating racism, empowering women and promoting peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all. The YWCA works to accomplish this mission by providing programs that help bridge gaps in education, earning power, health and wellness, and access to childcare for low-income and/or minority families in our community.
Ami Irish Greene is the Director of Women’s Empowerment at the YWCA of Asheville. Ami has a background in social work, and she was drawn to the YWCA because she wanted to support women in poverty. As Women’s Empowerment Director, Ami focuses on three YWCA programs—Getting Ahead, MotherLove, and Empowerment Child Care. MotherLove provides mentoring and support for teens, who are pregnant or parenting, helping them build skills as strong parents and successful students. Empowerment Child Care provides free, high quality childcare for women seeking jobs, education, and essential social services to improve their family’s economic security.
I first met Ami when I began a year of AmeriCorps service at the YWCA in August 2015. That winter Ami invited me to participate in her Getting Ahead group.
Katie Latino: How do you explain the Getting Ahead in a Just Getting By World program to people?
Ami Irish Greene: Getting Ahead utilizes a curriculum based on the research of Ruby Payne, which explores the causes of poverty and the hidden rules of social class. During group sessions, we talk about the causes of poverty not just on a personal level, but on a community level, and even a national and historical level. Participants create a plan for change. Poverty is not just money. There are a lot of areas that impact poverty like health, spirituality, relationships, and transportation. We look at all those areas and make Resource Building Plans to improve their lives. Participants are given 18 months of follow up, during which time I am available to help them access resources they need. Participants are also given a small stipend in recognition of their time and contributions to the group. The goal is for it’s participants to find ways to move themselves out of poverty and to give back to their community, to help their community be a better, more supportive place for people to move themselves out of poverty.
KL: Can you share more about how participants do that community work?
AIG: Sure. The first Getting Ahead group advocated for making childcare more available to people through the use of vouchers. Another group created a letter with questions and suggestions and shared their opinions with the committee reviewing the policies of the Housing Trust Fund. Also, whenever our group is happening during an election cycle we talk about the importance of voting.
KL: What do the Resource Building Plans look like?
AIG: People set an end goal for where they’d like to be and work backwards from there. They identify resource areas that are not as strong as they’d like them to be. For example, if someone wants to own a home then they work backwards from there. A part of their plan may be to increase their income, build their credit score, improve their housekeeping skills. A lot of people have the same goal, but their Resource Building Plans have different ways to get there. Common goals are getting out of debt, getting a better job, living somewhere affordable, and going back to school. There are usually health goals, too.
KL: What is the average Getting Ahead participant like? What is the range of diversity of Getting Ahead participants?
AIG: Getting Ahead participants are usually living at or below 200% of the poverty level. More likely than not, she is African American. That’s not by design. That’s just the way the groups have fallen out. She is usually ready to make a change. She is usually a mother, of young children or grown children. Most participants have parented and raised children while living in poverty. Most of our participants come from generational poverty. Most participants grew up in Asheville. Most are working poor. They’re working at some job, even if it’s not full time. Diversity wise, we’ve had an age range from 20 to 80. We’ve served African American women, White women, and Latina women.
KL: What have some major successes of the program been?
AIG: One woman signed up for Habitat and got her home. She has also started funding a 401k and a savings account. Another woman got a better job, enrolled in school, and will graduate in December, which will allow her to get an even better job. Another woman who already had a Bachelor’s degree, applied for a job and is now working in professional role, which will reimburse her for classes toward her master’s degree. One participant who started the program homeless secured housing and a full time job. She is on track to go back to school in the fall of 2017. Another lady learned about living wage in GA and noticed that her employer was on a list of living wage employers but that she and others weren’t paid a living wage, so she pointed that out and got a raise not just for herself but for everyone else too. Another woman who was in danger of losing her family home took on a second job, contacted attorneys, and figured out a way not to lose it and the home is actually paid off now. And a lot of people have gotten better jobs. That’s the thing, you know, if you’ve lived in poverty your whole life, you’re not gonna get out of poverty in 18 months. That’s a very ambitious timeline, but participants are connected with resources to help them continue even after our 18 months are over. Part of Getting Ahead’s goal is to make people find that fire in their belly to saying “It’s okay that I’m scared, and I’m gonna do this.” They’re not necessarily shifting careers in the short term, but finding something where they can get paid more for what they already do.
KL: What are you most excited about in the year ahead?
AIG: I’m excited about the level of interest my Getting Ahead participants have been showing in this housing trust fund. I also am excited about the possibility of forming a Bridging Social Capital group that is in the very beginning phases. It would be a group where middle class women get together with Getting Ahead participants and talk. With MotherLove I’m excited that we have more direct partnerships, like Goodwill, Nurse Family Partners, and a doula group. I feel like we’re expanding the safety net for our MotherLove participants. I’m also excited about working with an infant mortality group, leading to even deeper collaboration than what already exists in Asheville. I think Asheville is already a very collaborative community, but I think it could be an opportunity to make a significant impact not just on infant mortality but to bring light to the racial and economic segregation that exists in Asheville. More people are talking about it, more people are noticing, and that makes me think that more people are gonna take action, which excites me a lot. I’m hopeful.
KL: That sounds really good. I’m excited to hear more about that. Do you see other advocacy ties in for participants?
AIG: Some of my participants volunteered with Week without Violence and manned the table where we wrote postcards to our legislators about supporting House Rule 2216 and the Safe Act which are designed to protect and support victims and survivors of domestic and sexual assault. I really want some participant to get on the Women’s Commission, so I will continue to encourage and share that information when those seats are available.
KL: What have you learned from your participants?
AIG: Oh my gosh. Wow. A lot. I understand the impact of racism in a much more personal way. Their stories have taught me so much more than anything I ever learned in class or from TV or whatever. I’ve been shocked by the things I’ve heard. And humbled. I’ve always been impressed by the resilience of women in general and women struggling to raise families in poverty, and that’s been a theme of my whole career. I continue to learn about the resilience of the human spirit and it is inspiring. And because I’m new to practicing in Asheville, I’ve learned about some community resources. I’ve learned more intimately about living conditions in housing developments and low-income areas, things that don’t show up on the news.
KL: What are your hopes and dreams for the program?
AIG: To expand the program to serve more people in the community, to train graduates to facilitate the groups out in the community, to eventually turn Asheville into a Bridges community, meaning our institutions are familiarized with the Bridges Out of Poverty model which GA is based on, and to implement some more supportive policies and procedures. Institutions are based on middle class values. More respect for people living in poverty. Their voices matter, they are smart, and they are worth listening to. More control of the community resources by the people who are directly impacted by the policies or people who are trying to access the resources. There’s a lot of money spent by white, middle class people without people in poverty at the table. They need to be at the table.
KL: Are there ways that people can support the program?
AIG: Money!!! If people have ways to link people to housing or jobs they could be a contact. They could get trained in the curriculum, find a way to sponsor the stipends, and facilitate the groups. If they have a skill that they’d like to share with people who are trying to get ahead, they could volunteer. They could donate healthy meals, and provide transportation for participants who don’t have cars to drive them to and from group.
If you are interested in getting involved with or participating in Getting Ahead, contact Ami at firstname.lastname@example.org or 828.254.7206 x116.
Katie Latino is the Mission Advancement Fellow at the YWCA of Asheville. She is passionate about feminism, racial justice, and public education. Katie holds a B.S. in Sociology with a concentration in Social Inequalities, a minor in Women’s Studies, and a Certificate in Non-Profit Management from Appalachian State University. She served as an AmeriCorps VISTA for two years at Asheville City Schools Foundation and the YWCA of Asheville, where she learned to write and manage grants and take excellent meeting minutes. According to her boss, she is an “insightful, curious, pop culture queen.” Katie inspires thoughtfulness and a spirit of collaboration, and she excels in a deadline driven environment. In an alternate universe, Katie would be a comedy writer that goes shopping with Mindy Kaling.