Donna Beegle grew up, married, and started a family in extreme poverty. In her mid-twenties, she was single mother worried about becoming homeless and losing her two children.
But, a local welfare officer told her about a new program designed to help people like her. She joined that program and her life changed. It was changed by people; people in that program and in her community.
Those people helped her gain confidence and hope. They assisted her in seeing that she had strengths she did not recognize in herself. Those people walked with her when she stepped outside what she knew and was comfortable with. For example, they introduced her to folks at her local community college who helped her get financial aid, something she had no idea was available, and who helped her complete a GED.
In other words, people she did not previously know from within her community navigated her to personal and community resources and opportunities that changed her and her sons’ lives.
She completed her GED and much more. Today she holds a doctoral degree and is the president of Communication Across Barriers (CAB), a consulting firm “dedicated to broadening and improving opportunities for all people who live in the war zone of poverty.”
According to the CAB website (combarriers.com), Beegle “combined her experience of living for 28 years in extreme migrant labor poverty with 20 years of studying and working with communities to create a research-based model for assisting people to move out—and to stay out—of poverty.” That model is the “Opportunity Community Model.”
A core team of Newton County community leaders, spearheaded by the Newton County School System, hopes to implement that model in Newton County. On March 17, Beegle presented the Opportunity Community Model to a group of about 120 local citizens.
The definitions, principles, and organization of an Opportunity Community are outlined in detail on the CAB website, but described here in general terms.
An Opportunity Community is a community dedicated to ending poverty within its borders. It is a community that has organized itself to efficiently do what Beegle’s community did for her when she was in her twenties. That is, help those living in poverty develop confidence and hope as well as connect them with existing community resources and opportunities which can help them move out of poverty.
An Opportunity Community must first be “poverty informed.” That is, people in the community must understand the real causes and impacts of poverty as opposed to the myths, “sound-bites,” and judgments that often inform opinion. In Beegle’s words, “If you are judging, you cannot connect. If you cannot connect, you cannot communicate. And if you cannot communicate, you cannot eradicate poverty.”
An Opportunity Community has an inventory of people dedicated to fighting poverty as well what resources and opportunities they or their organization can offer to help people living in poverty. The inventory would include people in poverty, business, social service, education, healthcare, faith-based organizations, the justice system, and other individuals or organizations. An Opportunity Community maintains close connections between these people so that everyone knows and can connect those in poverty with the people able to offer needed help.
In Beegle’s model, a “navigator/neighbor” system is also created. Community members living in poverty and referred to as “neighbors” are matched with community members called “navigators.” Navigators are trained to navigate neighbors to people, resources, and opportunities within the community that can help them move out of poverty. The model is designed to give anyone who is interested a clear and organized way to participate. “People want to help, but don’t know how,” Beegle said.
The principle aims of an Opportunity Community are to rebuild hope for those living in poverty as well as for those people whose job it is to work with those in poverty; remove the shame, judgment, and isolation that come with poverty; create a community-wide, connected, and poverty-informed approach to helping people find resources and opportunities they can use to move out of poverty; and spur grassroots economic development.
If done right, Beegle says, “The result is empowered neighbors who have the hope, tools, support, and connections they need to get out and stay out of poverty.”
The next step is for Newton County’s core team to decide if it wants to engage Beegle’s consulting firm to replicate the Opportunity Community Model in Newton County.