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Flipping the Script on Anti-Poverty Programs: Family Independence Initiative (FII) Launches in Austin

We believe it’s time to change the narrative about low-income families.

FII’s model is markedly different from our typical investment at St. David’s Foundation. At first glance, FII’s model appears radical.  But when you take a step back, it’s actually intuitive.  It is rooted in basic constructs of human behavior.  Decades of research on motivation have shown that self-direction leads to better performance than carrots and sticks.

That knowledge is critical when you are trying to find the prescription for escaping poverty.  People succeed when they have choice, social connections, and access to capital.  Many of us take those for granted.  We shouldn’t.

For the past two years, the St. David’s Foundation has followed FII’s work in other regions.  After admiring that work from the sidelines, it’s great to celebrate the launch of FII at home – in Central Texas.

When the Foundation decided to make an initial investment of $425,000 to help FII expand to Austin, we did so because we believe it’s time to change the narrative about low-income families. Low-income families, like all families, know what they need to thrive when they have choices: the ability to get and give help to their peers, and access to small amounts of capital to seed their initiative.  These ingredients allow families to make progress for themselves, and their community.

FII Chief Executive Officer Jesús Gerena speaks to the crowd at the Austin Launch event, which was held on October 2nd at Sustainable Food Center.

FII isn’t a program with rules on what to do and not do.  Instead, FII lets families set their own goals and then uses a sophisticated data platform to track and reinforce progress. (Anyone with a Fit Bit knows the power of seeing your circle close). Ultimately, FII leverages the experiences of the families and the data they collect to tell a story about potential, resourcefulness, and the value of strong social connections.

The stories we tell ourselves are important. They frame our understanding of an issue.  If those stories create a narrative that says low-income families lack drive, natural supports and are poor decision makers, then we logically construct services that respond to that narrative.  That type of service system tends to look like a safety net or in some cases, a trap.

Safety nets are critical when someone is in crisis.  I need a safety net when I’m in danger of falling, but it doesn’t help me jump to the next rung on the ladder of economic mobility. What FII’s stories and data are showing is that low-income families’ ability to achieve independence requires more than safety nets – they also need springboards that leverage their initiative and commitment to their kids and community.

FII is keeping us on our toes.  It’s forcing us to think deeply and changing some of our long-held assumptions about what “help” looks like. We welcome the opportunity to take another look at our long-held assumptions about poverty, and our role in ending it.

FII is showing us that the magic bullet to escaping poverty isn’t going to be found in the perfect program.  That magic is already here – in people showing tremendous initiative and resourcefulness. As we start our work with FII, and our funding and thought partners at the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation and, we want to learn how to harness this power and not ignore or suppress it.

St. David’s Foundation Senior Program Officer Kim McPherson speaks to the crowd during FII’s launch event.

This is just the beginning, and we know the work is on us, and on all our partners, because while FII is helping us develop a new narrative about low-income families, that narrative is only as good as what we do with it.  It is incumbent upon us to take this information and drive it toward systems change.

We’re excited to work with all of our partners to tell a different, truer story about what low-income families can achieve for themselves and their community.

Media Links

Austin American-Statesman


KXAN (NBC Austin)

KVUE (ABC Austin)