Mountain View Voice

- May 20, 2011

Teaming up to fight local poverty

by Jennifer Pence

Twenty-five percent of Santa Clara County residents live below the poverty line.

"Even here in Silicon Valley, many people are faced daily with choices such as, 'Do I buy gas so that I can go to work or buy food so that my children can eat?'" explains Almaz Negash, Director of Step Up Silicon Valley (SUSV).

Founded in 2007, SUSV was developed by Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County with the ambitious goal of cutting poverty in Santa Clara County in half by 2020. SUSV has built a collaborative network of over 90 key stakeholders: non-profits, corporations, educational institutions, faith-based groups, government, and foundations. Members of the network will share data and best practices and collaborate on projects.

As the organizations become more comfortable working with each other, initiatives can build off of each other. For example, the Franklin McKinley school district in the Santee neighborhood of San Jose formed a Children's Initiative in 2009 that was a collaboration between parents, the schools, and the government. The initiative borrowed some of the techniques pioneered by Harlem Children's Zone in New York to create a focused, block-by-block intervention to support children throughout their educational careers.

As a result of this project, a number of mothers in the community spoke up about their desire to create jobs for themselves to increase their family incomes. This desire found an outlet through a collaboration between the Women's Initiative for Self-Employment — which has designed a Spanish-language micro-enterprise program for the women — and SUSV, which is providing free child care and administrative support during the program. The goal for this year is to train 100 women.

Next, Santa Clara University's Leavey School of Business will work in the neighborhood to encourage new businesses in partnership with existing businesses.

SUSV also works on building awareness. A key tool is the Community Action Poverty Simulations that allow participants to see what it's like for a family of four to live on $1,600 a month. During the simulation, participants role play the lives of low-income families ranging from single parents trying to care for their children to senior citizens trying to maintain their self-sufficiency on Social Security. Each person spends a "month" in four 15-minute "weeks" trying to obtain food, shelter and other basic necessities with limited resources. Simulations are held in partnership with businesses such as Cisco and non-profits and faith-based groups such as the Unitarian Universalist Church in Palo Alto. This year, SUSV hopes to touch 2,500 community members through these simulations.

Finally, SUSV advocates for policy change. One of the group's biggest efforts in this area has been a campaign against payday lending in conjunction with the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation here in Mountain View.

Negash acknowledges that the group's goal is an ambitious one. In Santa Clara County, 125,000 people live in poverty. To reduce poverty by 50 percent by 2020, SUSV and its network need to help more than 5,000 people per year achieve self-sufficiency (based on a start date of 2007, when the group was founded).

Negash is not deterred by the fact that the group is not yet on track to hit this rate.

"It took 10 years for the UN Millenium Development Goals to see a measurable change in the poverty rate. We are a work in progress, and once intentional collaboration becomes the norm, change will accelerate," Negash said.

To learn more and sign your name to the Campaign to Cut Poverty, go to stepupsv.com. If you are interested in attending an upcoming poverty simulation, email povertysimulation@ccsj.org.

Mountain View resident Jennifer Pence is founder of the Windmill Giving Circle and founder and owner of Academic Springboard, a tutoring group. She can be reached at japence@hotmail.com.

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