Putting Family and Community at the Center: What Does It Really Take?

Author:Evans, Tracy Wareing
Position:President's memo - Column

Consider this: what if each one of us--in the work we do every day no matter our role, vantage point, or experience, were relentless in our pursuit of the limitless possibilities of human potential? What if we were truly committed to having all individuals and families be intimately involved in planning for and acting on their own economic and social success? What if we not only understood parents as caregivers and breadwinners in theory, but actually enacted policies and practices that addressed both the wealth and wellness of families at the same time?

These kinds of paradigm shifts are at the heart of placing family and community at the center of our work. We must find authentic and meaningful ways to honor the lived experiences of families--understanding the full context of where we all live, work, play, and age. To do so requires us to disrupt long-held mindsets and highly entrenched ways of doing business.

Consider the lived experience of Chef Jeff Henderson, a keynote speaker at our recent National Health and Human Services Summit, who described generational poverty as a "mindset"--one that is formed by the expectations and values experienced while growing up in poverty, and by the "otherness" we create when as a society we describe poverty as happening elsewhere and to others.

Several leaders in our field have noted that, through our systems and processes, "we make families prove just how poor they really are." We also consistently "subcategorize people," as 1 heard recently described, into "artificial parts" through the transactional, administrative-based delivery of discrete programs, most of which do not consider the family as a whole or the context in which they live. We then wonder why we don't get the results we want. As human services leaders, we must recognize that our operating systems constantly reinforce deficit-based thinking--whether from the perspective of the people receiving services, the frontline staff, or the public at large.

To flip our mental models, we must ask ourselves what kind of impact does such a system and structure have on people? What might our own mindset be if we were "seen" only from the answers to the paperwork we must complete? How might it affect our willingness to seek help? What might we believe about ourselves and our own capabilities, let alone about the community in which we live?

At a recent meeting sponsored by Casey Family Programs, I was struck by a story shared by a woman who cared for...

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