Q & A with Stuart D., a Circles Ally
What’s your background, and how did you become an ally? I’m 24 years old and grew up in Blacksburg, Virginia. My family was middle-upper class, my father was a professor and my mother a volunteer EMT rescue. I have 3 siblings, and all of us are college educated. I attended one of the poverty simulations about a year and a half ago and signed up to participate in Circles after that.
What struck you most about the simulation? How quickly you get caught up in putting out a lot of little fires, each of them could spread out of control if not addressed so you’re not able to think very far in the future. Michael asked, “How many of you started planning your children’s college funds or investing for retirement during the simulation?” This struck me, because those were things I had reinforced my whole life, but I was suddenly in a situation where I was totally focused on the here and now.
What was the training for Circles like? We had a month of training, then a month of meeting with Circle leaders, then after that began partnering. The training discussions reinforced for me the extent to which the social, financial, and educational situations of people are very dominated by race …There’s a sentiment among my generation that everything is equal, race and gender are no longer issues, but the Civil Rights Movement was only about 50 years ago and before that incredible inequality. There’s a lot of work to do to get to where people have same sort of opportunities, especially since so much is determined by our families.
Has this experience changed your view about government assistance programs or politics surrounding poverty?
Going into Circles, I wanted to be involved because I wanted to be in relationships with people in poverty to understand their situations and mentality. I’ve become more disenchanted with any political messages about poverty. When you boil something down to a political platform, you make assumptions about the way things are, but I’ve found, in listening to people and trying to understand, their background and aspirations vary really widely. It’s very hard to set up policy that will actually interact with people as intended. Lots of programs seem good on the surface, but then there are situations like this: a single mom who has a decent income and subsidized childcare, but then she advances in her job and gets a small pay raise that causes her to lose all child support and be in a much worse state. One step forward at work but five steps back based on how government programs are interacted with.
Circles takes a markedly different approach, a small-scale, relationship-centered one. What has been your experience being an Ally and forming relationships with Circles leaders?
It’s both challenging and rewarding. I’m very goal-oriented and like to make progress in measurable ways. The program makes it clear Circle leaders are leading and Allies are there for support. My first ally wanted to share personal history, but the impact of that was less measurable. It was a real opportunity for growth for me as I was able to practice being led by someone different from me and learning from others.
My current ally is a very interesting woman. She’s focused on her son who is 7 yrs old. He’s intelligent and talented. He’s recently been reconciling how to behave in the classroom to do well at his (public) school and how to behave on the playground to make friends. In learning how best to be an ally with the family, I’ve been befriending her son. Talk to him. Try to set a good example. We see each other every other week at Circles meetings.
My ally’s background matches mine with a goal-oriented focus. Her goal is to own a home. She’s highly educated and had well-paying jobs, but had a health incident that prevented her from working and resulted in high medical bills and credit card debt. We have a plan that she’s pretty much made on her own, a schedule for paying down debt and working toward a home.
How long do you plan to continue the partnership?
It’s an 18-month time commitment. Past that it’s common to stop being a formal circle but still stay in touch. I’m committed to at least the minimum time frame. It takes a really long time to build trust with someone. Not a few weeks, not a few months, a LONG time. Finances is one of the most personal aspects of your life. It can feel embarrassing or inappropriate to discuss, so it takes months to get to the point where you trust someone with that information, and with your goals/aspirations.
I see my role as listen and learn. I’m open about being sheltered and young. So far it’s been a great way to gain perspective and understand other experiences.