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Building Businesses and Flourishing Communities with Spring GR | by Chris Robertson

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PovertyCure  exists to facilitate a global conversation on poverty and equip its participants with resources that promote lasting, enterprise-based solutions that affirm the role of individuals and families in turning around their situations.  We would like to introduce you to an organization today that is living out these principles here in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I believe that there are principles within this organization that can easily be used in cities around the world where there are individuals who want to train entrepreneurs to serve unserved areas.

Attah Obande works as Hub Coordinator and Business Coach for Spring GR. This organization provides entrepreneurship training in underserved communities. They accomplish this goal through cultivating entrepreneurs’ business ideas, consulting with program participants to build their business, and connecting them throughout the community to provide ongoing training.

Spring GR was launched in 2014 when a group of individuals came together to form an organization addressing the need for entrepreneur training at a grassroots level in Grand Rapids. A national search was done at that time to see if such an organization existed that they could model themselves after. Launch Chattanooga was found and it was determined to be a good model to follow.

Spring GR started in 2014 with a pilot entrepreneurship training class offered at Restorers, Inc. Attah came on board as business coach in this training because of his experience in working with small business  during his career as a banking Branch Manager. Attah met with programs participants regularly to help with their business plans as well as running his business AGO Design Group. This is a speaking, coaching, and consulting firm that seeks to empower individuals to realize their full potential, design, and live the lives they were created to live. 19 individuals were a part of this first training class.

Six weeks into this program Attah was meeting with one of the program participants to go over her business numbers. This entrepreneur realized she was now past her initial fears related to starting a business and now felt that this business could actually work. This reaction on the part of the entrepreneur caused Attah to realize this work at Spring GR was more than just teaching people some business principles. He felt it empowered the participants and encouraged the freedom to dream again. His heart was really in this work and as a result he took on more and more responsibility. He believes in the work of Spring GR and wants to see the effect it could have on our community.

Spring GR is connected with other like-minded organizations in Grand Rapids such as Partners Worldwide. While Attah argues that the training that Spring GR offers is important, he says that it is not the “end all.” Entrepreneurs can build on the foundation they have built with Spring GR with other organizations in the city and Attah diligently works to connect Spring GR alumni with those programs to continue their learning.

I asked Attah to dream a bit and describe what he sees on the horizon for the next three to five years.   He wants to see the number of entrepreneurs and businesses grow exponentially so the possibility of creating a business in underserved areas of Grand Rapids could be seen as normative. Attah stated that “As human beings, we aspire toward things that we see. If individuals see entrepreneurs grow from within their community, it gives them something to aspire to as well.” He desires to see the “snowball effect” of people aspiring to create businesses that resulting in the community’s thriving.

In addition, he would like to increase the availability to three kinds of capital: knowledge, social, and financial. Increased access to these kinds of capital will result in an environment very friendly to the creation of businesses. Attah says Spring GR exists because there are a great number of potential entrepreneurs in underserved areas of our city who have products and services they want to offer. The issue is that they do not have the skills and business acumen to create a sustainable business themselves. Spring GR’s goal is to equip these entrepreneurs with the skills, connections, and resources to create thriving businesses. Attah argues that people must help themselves, but sometimes they do not know where to go in order to help themselves. In addition, they may not have the confidence to create their own business. In a sense, they need to be able to draw these ideas out of themselves. This is where Spring GR comes in.

I asked Attah to share a story of an alumni who is now successfully operating a business. Attah told me about an entrepreneur named Nancy. She has a business in Grand Rapids where she sells clothing and jewelry made by her mother and sister in Mexico. She had been in business for a couple years prior to her taking Spring GR’s entrepreneurship course. The opportunities she pursued to sell her products were limited prior to this course. She would only sell products at an annual Hispanic festival and some other smaller venues. After taking this course and learning how to market herself and her business, she has grown her business significantly over the last six months. She now sells products online. She has made a number of other small tweaks to her business that she learned in the course that have brought increased exposure and sales. She’s looking into getting a storefront at the local mall. This broader vision for her business is the result of the entrepreneurship course she took and the investment Attah has made.

Attah is frequently asked “What does success look like for Spring GR?” Spring GR measures success in three different ways. First, the entrepreneur who starts the class but drops out. It may seem counterintuitive, but this individual realizes they should not be an entrepreneur. They’re better as employees than employers. Second, the entrepreneur who starts the business and realizes some financial gain. The business is a side thing that allows them to make a better living, put some money away, and spend more time with their family. Third, the business that grows into an enterprise that hires others. Spring GR desires to support all of these business to build their communities.

I’m excited about the vision and good work Spring GR is doing in Grand Rapids. I would encourage you to connect with Spring GR.

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Chris Robertson is the Program Outreach Coordinator for the Acton Institute. Chris Robertson earned his Bachelor of Science in Bible from Cornerstone University. Prior to coming to Acton, Chris worked in project management, eCommunications, and public relations for different non-profits in Grand Rapids, MI.  As Program Outreach Coordinator with Acton Institute, Chris networks with different universities, seminaries, and organizations throughout the evangelical space bringing Acton’s message of faith and economics through events, learning communities, curricula, and published resources.

Four Steps to Effective Charity | by Patrick Oetting

Effective Charity

When it comes to disaster relief, too often we fall prey to Bob Geldof’s “we just need to do something” attitude. But, is this a sustainable approach to charity and relief? Does it meet the need, or exacerbate it?

Last Friday CBS News released an article titled, “When Disaster Relief Brings Anything but Relief.” In it, Juanita Rilling, the Director of the Center for International Disaster Information in Washington D.C., brings forward many examples of the unintended consequences of our relief efforts that left me quite shocked. And you might guess, we here at PovertyCure aren’t exactly strangers to relief horror stories.

Please indulge me as I share a couple of poignant examples.

In 1998 a tremendous earthquake shook Honduras.  The seismic event left 11,000 dead and countless others without shelter, food or sanitary water. In the midst of this genuine crisis, a supply plane full of desperately needed survival goods was unable to land, and thus save lives, because donated winter coats had been left on the runway. Yes you read that correctly – winter coats… in Honduras!  Funny as that sounds, people were imperiled because well-meaning givers clogged an already weak infrastructure with garments no one in the entire country needed.

In 2012 a gunman killed 20 students and 6 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut. In what was surely intended as a kind-hearted response, people sent tens of thousands of teddy bears to Sandy Hook.  The outpouring prompted a school administrator to comment, “I think a lot of the stuff that came into the warehouse was more for the people that sent it, than it was for the people in Newtown.”

I’m reminded of Michael Fairbanks profound statement in the documentary film, Poverty, Inc., “Having a heart for the poor isn’t hard, having a mind for the poor – that’s the challenge.”

When we see others in pain or in need, our natural reaction is to help in any way possible. And when that person or group is a neighbor, we are able to better discern the type of charity we need to dispense.  But, when we send relief from a far-away place, without local knowledge of what is needed, our aid can be detrimental to the community development that we intended.

You might be asking, “Are you saying we shouldn’t help those who are suffering from a natural disaster?”

I’m not – we absolutely should.  But the examples above show that charity is complicated.  With that in mind, I offer that there are four things we MUST do before we dispense aid to a community outside our own – whether in the U.S. or international.

First, we need to stop, take a deep breath and think about the situation. We may, after all, have no idea what is truly going on.  A little humility could avoid the useless expenditure of our scarce resources.  Such as, distributing winter coats to Honduras, used tea bags to Rwanda or old breast milk to Haiti – yes, all three of these are real examples.  Just reading them here, I’m confident that you see how silly unconsidered aid can be.  Still, as you read above, this silliness can turn serious in a heartbeat and cause actual harm to those who most need our help.

Second, we need to research charity and aid organizations before we pledge our time, money or encourage others to give. It is not enough that we send a text message donating $10 because a celebrity prompts us to during a concert.  It may be cool to blindly promote a new initiative on social media because it is popular. But is it effective? If we want to ensure our resources create the impact we intend, it is eminently important that we know how they are being used.

Third, we need to hold the organizations that we choose to support accountable. All too often individuals donate to initiatives and never follow-up. We get caught up in our daily routines or we move on to the newer, more urgent relief effort and then forget to check in with the organization we previously tasked with a complex objective. If, relief organizations know what their donors expect, and follow up on results, they will dispense our scarce resources in a more thoughtful manner.

Fourth (and most importantly), we need to get on our knees and pray. Actually, you don’t have to pray on your knees. I do. But, I’m tall. My broader point is that much too often we rely on our human insights and resources to take care of astoundingly complex problems. Poverty is a labyrinthine – far too big of a problem for human minds, no matter how gifted, to solve alone. Oftentimes, the most compassionate act we can do for those suffering is to ask divine intervention, forgiveness, mercy and relief. I can guarantee this act of surrender is much more effective than sending winter coats to Honduras.

Relief is absolutely needed. That’s why it is imperative that we take steps in advance, get to know who is doing effective, ethical and considered aid work before the next catastrophe strikes.  We are called to act and to do so with humility, thoughtfulness, accountability and God’s supernatural guidance and grace.   If we don’t, we will continue to waste our resources and quite possibly cause even more harm to those we most want to help. But, if we do, there’s no limit to the life-giving change we can bring to countless communities around the world.

Patrick Oetting

Patrick Oetting is the Strategy and Engagement Manager of PovertyCure, an Acton Institute Initiative.  

Focused Community Strategies: From Meeting Needs to Transforming Neighborhoods

“Do you know what I have to go through just to get groceries?!”

This exasperation was expressed to us by one of our neighbors, who, like over a half million other people in Atlanta, live in a food desert – a place where low-income families lack access to healthy and affordable food.

Some respond to food deserts by distributing free food. Focused Community Strategies (FCS) however, responded by building a grocery store – turning a food desert into a food oasis!

FCS did this because 40 years of urban community development has taught us a lot about creating wealth in communities experiencing poverty.

There are three common and ineffective approaches to addressing poverty: one, by giving away material goods; two, by working only with individuals or their families; three, with a single-cause approach (jobs, education, etc).

FCS has learned that the poverty needle is moved when we start focusing on whole neighborhoods, not just the felt needs of individuals. For the last thirteen years, we have been working with the residents of historic South Atlanta, a neighborhood of 520 homes just south of downtown. Our model for neighborhood transformation centers on three areas of impact:

  1. Economic Development – This means thinking about jobs and affordable access to the things that makes neighborhoods thrive, like our grocery store! It means looking at the assets and barriers that exist and finding holistic ways to address challenges. It means partnering with business owners, entrepreneurs and others with the know-how for creating wealth and opportunity.
  2. Community Development – We don’t focus on what is broken. We think about the abundant assets here. We look for leaders and partner with them. We do a lot of listening. We attend neighborhood association meetings. We advocate for our schools. Much of the power needed to transform a community is already within that community.
  3. Mixed-Income Housing – We create access to quality, affordable housing, we work toward home ownership and we find ways to make our community a mixed-income neighborhood. Just as most neighborhoods became distressed when families with resources moved out, we invite resourced people to move in as partners with families experiencing poverty so that we experience Shalom together.

By taking this approach, a neighbor recently raised his voice with a very different message: “Hey, those plums I bought yesterday…they were AMAZING! Best plums I’ve ever had!”

 

 

If you’d like to learn more about creating wealth in low-income contexts, we would encourage you to read Charity Detox, written by our Founder, Dr. Robert Lupton. You can also reach out to our Director of Training and Education and contributor of the post, Dr. Shawn Duncan: shawn@fcsministries.org.