Addressing poverty through community connections: Circles program launches in Allen County

How connected are you to the people around you, and how much do your social connections influence your wealth, health, and general well-being?

They sound like simple—even light-hearted—questions on the surface, but a 2022 study from Social Capital suggests that our connections impact our lives in deeper ways than we might realize. Specifically, the more connections people have across income and class, the fewer clique-type social networks that exist, and the higher rates of volunteerism and civic engagement in communities can significantly increase a child’s chance of earning a higher income as an adult and leaving poverty.

While Fort Wayne and Allen County have pockets of social cohesion and upward mobility, the city and county overall remain fragmented, with stark gaps between urban and suburban populations, according to findings on Social Capital’s website.

The research looks at three factors: Economic connectedness, the degree to which low-income and high-income people are friends with one another; cohesiveness, the degree to which social networks are fragmented into cliques; and civic engagement, the rate of volunteering and participation in community organizations.

Mary Ann Mings, Director of Circles of Allen CountyBy Social Capital’s measurements, the places in Fort Wayne with the highest rates of social connectedness, cohesiveness, and civic engagement are tight-knit, often insular networks of Fort Wayne’s suburban communities on the Southwest and Northeast sides of town in the 46804, 46814, 46845, and 46835 zip codes. These areas also have the highest median incomes and rates of upward income mobility, which is the average income in adulthood of children from low-income families. In the broader spectrum of Allen County, Huntertown and Leo/Leo-Cedarville have the highest median incomes, and the highest rates of connectedness, cohesiveness, and civic engagement. 

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Fort Wayne’s near-Downtown zip codes of 46802, 46803, 46805, 46806, 46807, 46808, and 46816 have the lowest median incomes in Allen County. These areas also have some of the lowest rates of social connectedness, cohesiveness, and civic engagement. 

This gap in social capital between urban and suburban communities exists not only in Fort Wayne but in cities across the U.S., exacerbated by suburban sprawl and the automobile boom of the post-World War II era. Now the challenge for many cities is: How do you bring people of different incomes and classes together to reduce poverty and improve outcomes for everyone?

It’s a question Circles USA has been working to address since it was founded in the 1990s in Ames, Iowa, with a mission of “building community to end poverty.” Circles is a nonprofit that uses a community-led support system to help individuals and families leave poverty. There are Circles chapters in more than 80 locations across the United States and Canada, and Allen County’s chapter just launched in October.

Unlike other organizations that address poverty, Circles is focused on poverty reduction as opposed to poverty management. They want to equip people with the skills, knowledge, and support to change their lives. 

Within Circles, there are three categories of people: Leaders, Allies, and support volunteers. Leaders are those who signed up to change their lives and are working to leave poverty, and allies are people of higher income, walking with them as friends and mentors throughout the process. 

Debbie Smith, Assistant Director of Circles of Allen County, prepares to check in attendees at the first meeting.Nationwide, Circles claims a 63 percent success rate for Leaders leaving poverty. Executive Director of Circles of Allen County, Mary Ann Mings says the number might not sound high, but when compared to other programs addressing poverty, Circles is far more successful.

Behind the launch of Circles of Allen County are Mings and her Assistant Director Debbie Smith. Mings recently relocated to Fort Wayne from Chicago to work for Broadway Christain Church, which asked her to help address the poverty in Allen County.

Mings is no stranger to poverty. For 30 years she ran a factory in Chicago that employed more than 1,200 employees, all of which were either on work release, recently released from prison, in a homeless shelter, in a rehabilitation center, or were refugees. By providing livable wages, benefits, and a bit of patience, Mings says she was able to watch many of the employees leave poverty.

Mary Ann Mings, Director of Circles of Allen CountyThis experience has given her a perspective she’s ready to apply in Allen County, where the gaps between wealthy and poor communities are particularly stark. According to data from UnitedStatesZipCodes.org, Allen County is the only county in the U.S. to have both the highest and lowest levels of poverty in the state. This disparity, along with Mings’s previous experience, has inspired her and her assistant director to be lively and efficient in their operations. When Circles headquarters told Mings it would take approximately 12 months to launch the program here, she replied, “No. I am not taking 12 months.”

It took Mings and Smith less than five months to get Circles of Allen County off the ground.

The weekly meetings provide training and education to help Leaders with various aspects of life, including financial literacy, goal setting, and decision making. Each week a meal is provided for everyone in attendance. Mings says this has been the most difficult part to orchestrate, as they rely on people to donate, cook, and serve the food. Leaders and Allies with children are encouraged to bring them, as Circles provides childcare through the meeting.

Folders containing a workbook and paperwork for Leaders and Allies at the first meeting for Circles of Allen County.Jamien Fleming, a local mother of four, is one of Circles of Allen County’s first Leaders to join the program.

“I want a better life for me and my children,” says Fleming. “I want to change the generational poverty that I grew up in and came from, and I want to show my kids that it can be done.”

Mings says a chapter typically launches with three leaders; Circles of Allen County launched with 12 leaders signed up, and although only six showed up to the kickoff meeting, the number still doubled an average kickoff. She views this as a sign the program is needed.

Brenda Majors agrees. She worked in social services for the City of Fort Wayne for 35 years, and before she retired, she heard about Circles through a meeting and decided to join as an Ally.

“I said, ‘Oh my god! There’s a program like that, helping families out of poverty?’” Majors recalls. “Sign me up!”

Allies are community volunteers with Circles who are paired up with a Leader to be a support system throughout their time in the program. Ming notes that many Allies and Leaders remain in contact beyond the program, too, as a sign of a stronger community connection being built. 

Majors has worked in housing for the past 12 years of her career and says her job allowed her to witness the struggles of families in poverty firsthand, walking beside them. She likes Circles because the program builds the confidence of Leaders and helps them become self-sufficient.

“Sometimes, the pressure is so great people in poverty feel they have no ability to come out of it,” says Majors. “Walking with them and listening to their story and supporting them, I've seen them come up and do some great things. I was pretty excited when I heard about this.”

An Ally flips through her workbook at the first meeting of Circles of Allen County.In addition to Allies, Circles invites community leaders, business leaders, and local decision-makers to speak with the Leaders at meetings. This, in turn, provides Leaders with a chance to meet the people making decisions in their communities and helps tear down barriers to previously hard-to-reach departments and people. The program also utilizes support volunteers to cook meals, watch children, and provide transportation at meetings. 

In this way, the program weaves a broad network of support for people from multiple walks of life to learn and to meet people they might not otherwise encounter in Allen County, increasing social cohesion across the community.


Learn more

Circles meetings are hosted on Monday nights from 5:30-7:00 p.m. at the Come As You Are Church at 7910 S Anthony Blvd, Fort Wayne, IN 46816.

While applications for Leaders have closed for the first round, they are taking applications for the second cohort. Circles is still looking for volunteers to assist with food, childcare, and other logistics. 

If you are interested in participating or volunteering, call 260-422-3498, or email Mary Ann Mings at [email protected].

 

Read more articles by Brittany Smith.

Brittany Smith is Input Fort Wayne’s Assistant Editor. She previously worked for Northeast Indiana Public Radio and participated in the College Input Program.