By Nicole Bellford
It all began as a community conversation.
Nearly 10 years ago, when former Eau Claire City Manager, Michael Huggins, helped form Clear Vision, a citizen-based community visioning and strategic planning initiative, he wasn’t sure what kinds of problems the program was going to tackle.
By 2015, rising poverty levels in Eau Claire became a recurring conversation in community dialogue through the series of small-group meetings and research findings for which Clear Vision is known. At this point, it was a problem impossible to ignore.
“We saw it as a very challenging issue,” Huggins said. “It was the classic ‘wicked problem,’ in the sense that there was not a clear definition, and given what Clear Vision does, which is bring people together to talk about issues and try to take action on important issues, that’s how we came to select poverty.”
In response, Clear Vision began its current initiative, the Eau Claire Poverty Summit. Since its commencement in March of 2016, the Summit has engaged in three separate phases within the community to tackle both poverty and income security.
In its current and final phase, the implementation phase, separate action teams are working together to cultivate change in the community, tackling local factors that have led to poverty. Action team members focusing on mental health and incarceration reentry, as well as affected community members alike say that the Summit’s efforts have the potential to improve Eau Claire’s poverty problem.
Identifying the Problem
According to U.S. Census data for Eau Claire County, the poverty rate for the City of Eau Claire increased from 14.8 percent in 1980 to 17.7 percent in 2015, which is just over 3 percent higher than the national average (14.3 percent).
In addition, one in five children under the age of 18 in Eau Claire County is food insecure (possessing uncertain availability to healthy, adequate and safe food for a healthy lifestyle). And, over 40 percent of the students enrolled in the Eau Claire Area School District qualify for for free or reduced lunch (a federally reimbursable meal served to a child who qualifies due to a family income resting within the federal poverty threshold).
Aside from the data, Huggins said Clear Vision members were repeatedly hearing community members list poverty as a “major concern” in public meetings.
“We did a dozen small group conversations throughout Eau Claire County, on campus and in some of the rural communities, basically asking, ‘What values are important to you and and what threatens those things?’” Huggins said. “And one of the key themes that came out was the problem of poverty and income security.”
From there, Huggins said, Clear Vision members decided to begin phase one of the Poverty Summit in March of 2016—the pre-planning phase. He said this phase focused primarily on developing Summit outcomes and objectives.
The Clear Vision Board identified two Summit outcomes; first, to reduce the population of those living in poverty, and second, to build “more resilient, thriving and inclusive communities that empower citizens to act.”
“We were talking about issues that went beyond our city limits,” Huggins said. “So we were trying to build a culture of collaboration and problem solving.”
Gaining Community Support
For the next six months, the Clear Vision Board then built its financial support by identifying community stakeholders and recruiting them to participate in the Summit efforts. The Board used strategies such as phone calls and social media with the goal of gaining between 150-200 participants to contribute to the initiative, Huggins said.
The Eau Claire Area School District, Eau Claire Community Foundation, Eau Claire Transit, Market & Johnson, Marshfield Clinic, Mayo Clinic Health System, UW-Eau Claire Foundation, United Way of Greater Chippewa Valley and Sacred Heart Hospital all signed on as community contributors. In addition, Grace Lutheran Church offered its facility as a location for future phases of the Summit.
Lastly, Huggins said a primary concern of the Board was gaining stakeholders who reflected the diverse demographic and economic experiences of the community, such as the lower income population.
“We wanted to involve those who are directly impacted,” Huggins said. “Part of our process was to build the capacity of not just the government, but everyday, ordinary people to be more active in public settings and address the things that are important to them, to be more effective problem-solvers.”
The second phase of the Summit, which took place from September 2016 through March 2017, called for public meetings at Grace Lutheran Church in which stakeholders and any interested community members were invited to gather and engage in a dialogue to identify key factors related to the poverty problem in Eau Claire.
The eight meetings took place on select Thursdays for three hours at a time. Leading up to the first meeting, Huggins said, the Board was wary of the turnout.
“It was 10 minutes until (the start of the first meeting), and I started to get nervous,” Huggins said. “But, come the start and the room was full. I think we wound up having over 300 people for the first meeting.”
Although Huggins said the numbers dwindled to around 190 participants as the meetings continued, the number still achieved the Board’s original goal.
Among the faces in the crowd was Ruth Cronje, a professor in the Department of English at UW-Eau Claire. Cronje said she structured one of her courses around the Summit, calling for her students to attend and engage in the community conversation.
“I’d already started to focus my professional and my citizenship activities and energy around issues of equality and justice,” Cronje said. “So it was an exciting opportunity for me to both participate as a citizen, but also teach a class around it and get students involved with it.”
Throughout the course of the eight meetings, the participants identified 300 different factors that impacted the poverty problem in the community, Huggins said. The participants then grouped related factors together and eventually broke into nine different action groups. These actions groups each focused on a broad factor the participants wanted to eliminate or lessen in efforts to decrease poverty levels over the course of the next five years.
Looking at The Mental Health Action Team
Each group consisted of at least six members interested in the topic, and three “coaches,” responsible for organizing and leading action team meetings. Cronje found her place in what started as the mental health team.
Cronje said that increasing community resources in the realm of mental health is vital for improving poverty levels.
“One of the reasons we are criminalizing mental health is because we don’t have enough resources to treat it as a health issue,” Cronje said. “If you are going to treat something as a health issue, you need to have a healthcare professional to treat somebody who has the problem. We don’t have enough of those, so those people often end up getting into crisis, engaging in criminal behavior, and then they are in the incarceration pathway.”
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 43.8 million Americans experience mental illness in a given year. NAMI found approximately 10.2 million adults have co-occurring mental health and addiction disorders, 26 percent of homeless adults staying in shelters live with mental illness and 24 percent of state prisoners reported a recent history of a mental health condition.
“We can moan and yell and cry about how many of our mentally ill folks are ending up in prisons and jails,” Cronje said. “But, if we don’t build an infrastructure that can keep them out of those situations, and work more upstream to prevent these crises, it’s never going to stop.”
Implementation: Peer Mentoring Resources
As the final phase of the Summit, implementation, began in March of 2017, Cronje said the mental health team joined forced with the incarceration transition team. The combined teams have been working together to develop two types of resources for those with mental health conditions and ex-prisoners reentering society, keeping those impacted from falling into the low income population.
Although the team’s plans are preliminary, Cronje said her team members are looking into creating preventative resources, as well as a peer mentoring program. The idea is to allow both those with mental health conditions and ex-prisoners who have regained stability to serve as mentors to peers struggling in similar situations.
“It’s an opportunity to create two kinds of resources,” Cronje said. “One, actual services that are more preventive, for folks who need mental healthcare support…the other kind of resource we are trying to create is job niches, so folks who have peer experience with mental health have some facility to be employable, and fill in that gap for those who may need help getting jobs.”
Cronje said she hopes this plan can potentially help create employment opportunities for those who have suffered from mental health conditions or are reentering society as an ex-prisoner, keeping them above the poverty line.
The Potential for Success
Looking at the mental health action team’s plan, community member Sarah Ferber said she can see potential for success.
Ferber, the organizer of the Chippewa Valley Ex-Prisoners Organization (EXPO), said she first heard about the Poverty Summit through Huggins, who reached out in an effort to get those affected by poverty involved.
Ferber said she spent most of her life addicted to methamphetamine, using since she was 13 years old. In 2014, when she was 26, Ferber said, she faced her first conviction. Following conviction, Ferber said she struggled to break out of the cycle of going to jail and using. At one point, she was homeless.
Ferber said her experiences in Alternative to Incarcerating Mothers (AIM) treatment court and EXPO meetings helped her break the cycle. Ferber said she felt inspired to continue working with EXPO.
“It was a way for me to turn my negative past, so to speak, into something positive,” Ferber said.
Ferber’s responsibilities in EXPO include serving as a peer mentor to others, finding platforms for ex-prisoners and those who have suffered from addiction to share their stories, and serving as a “liaison” between those with lived experience and policy makers. Aside from her role in EXPO, Ferber is also currently enrolled at UW-Eau Claire as a social work student.
The Poverty Summit seemed like the perfect fit for her.
“I think it’s important to stick around and make sure our voices are represented,” Ferber said.
Ferber was a member of the incarceration transition action team and joined forces with the mental health team during the action phase. Overall, Ferber said, she thinks her action team’s efforts will build up the credibility of peer support organizations such as EXPO, providing hope of recovery and job security for those suffering from addiction, mental health or experiencing the transition from jail or prison into society.
Above anything, Ferber said, the efforts of the Poverty Summit will allow more people who experienced similar struggles to her own to become successful.
“I really want to see more people have that kind of community, to be able to try to replicate that or duplicate that for other people,” Ferber said. “I often say I brought a lot of people down with me when I was out there using drugs and committing crimes, and I want to bring at least twice as many people back up, now that I’m not.”