Sol Anderson, vice president of the Chicago branch of LIFT, a national nonprofit working to break the cycle of poverty, is leading the organization’s upcoming relocation from Uptown to a still undecided mid-South Side neighborhood. LIFT works to help low-income families across the country strengthen their personal, social, and financial foundations. According to Anderson, 2,500 low-income families were served annually at its Uptown location, with each averaging three or four meetings with LIFT’s staff. The staff is comprised of four full-time employees, nine AmeriCorps members, and as many as fifty volunteers at a time. For the past year, their direct services were suspended as they focused on their move, and when they relaunch in June, LIFT Chicago will start smaller and expand from there. The Weekly spoke to Anderson recently about why he chose nonprofit work, LIFT’s move, and the future of social services on the South Side.
I know this is really weird to say, but I feel like I didn’t choose nonprofit work; I kind of feel like it was always my path. I finished my MBA in 2005, and at the time there weren’t a ton of nonprofit MBA programs, so I was really the only person in my MBA program that wanted to do nonprofit management. Not a lot of people really understood why I wanted to pursue this path, but it’s just something that’s always been important to me.
I grew up on Ballard Street, a working-class neighborhood in Grand Rapids, Michigan—all around me family, friends, and neighbors were living in poverty or struggling to make ends meet. My father was a minister, a teacher, and a counselor, so he was always involved in helping alleviate the poverty around us. Black churches have traditionally played a social service role, so social service work was always in my life.
My grandfather was also a minister in Michigan. Before that, though, he was a sharecropper with fourteen kids in Mississippi, all of whom my grandparents sent to college. That’s pretty remarkable for anyone, and especially on what a sharecropper makes. They were able to do it because they were able to move their family up north and find stability and a supportive church and community. They received all kinds of support. It wasn’t just in one area, it was anything—you know, someone in the neighborhood who could watch the kids if you had to take another kid to the doctor. Their story helped me to understand that it’s never really just one thing that causes someone to fall into—or keeps someone out of—poverty and you really need to be able to support people holistically, or at least have an understanding that everything is interconnected.
LIFT operates under this kind of holistic approach. Our fundamental intervention is a volunteer—or advocate, as we call it—sitting down with a LIFT low-income member and working together. Primarily our advocate and member are sitting at a computer one-on-one and talking through what steps the member needs to take.
On one hand, our advocates help our members come up with a financial plan. To that effect, we help with resumes, cover letters, and interviews preparation. We help members fill out affordable housing applications, find banks and other institutions.
On the other hand, we focus on social connections and personal foundations, meaning helping members build self-confidence and self-esteem. Those are huge hurdles—believing you can do something is a really big indicator of whether you’ll be able to do something. Another one of the biggest things I think holds people back from feeling that they can achieve things is not having anyone in their corner. There’s a lot of research out there that shows that people are more likely to find persistence in their employment and housing if they feel supported, so we train people to do that. In general, I think we do a really good job of leveraging the power of relationships. And our volunteers bring a lot of positivity and a lot of motivation to our work and to our office, and that whole vibe of people coming into a positive environment creates something special.
Right now, an important part of the work we’re doing is connecting to other like-minded organizations that understand the holistic needs of people living in poverty and are building their interventions around that. When we move to the South Side we want to be connected to other organizations in the community, regardless of how few there are, to make sure we are part of a web of support for people.
The other thing we’re doing is planning our new intervention approach, which we’ll primarily be advertising through our partner organizations. Our plan is to start on the ground working with one or two small cohorts of parents (five to ten parents at a time). We want to go to community gathering places and start a program with parents whose children are in those centers, so that they don’t have to pack up and take their kids to another place. I have a ten-and-a-half-month-old son and it’s really hard to get a baby anywhere, and I don’t want to make parents do that. So we want to be in childcare centers, we want to be in head start centers, we want to be in churches; we’ll be in people’s basements if there are enough people on a block who want to do something together. We’ll go wherever people can get to us. Accessibility is a big deal.
Additionally, we think a group-based intervention will be important. We want to help parents to become resources for one another. We want to build a peer network, something we don’t do a lot currently. So if one group member doesn’t have a safe, affordable daycare center near her, then maybe she and someone else in her group can trade off taking care of each other’s kids. We want to create opportunities like that for our members.
We also want to connect people with opportunities to learn how to be community leaders. When we think about organizing, we often think about protests, but organizing is more robust than that. It’s really about understanding the underlying systemic base behind an issue, and building consensus with other people who care about that issue, and being able to talk to other people who can make decisions around that issue. That type of training, that type of leadership development, can be applicable in a number of settings. So we want to put our members through leadership development training and give them the opportunity to join and take leadership positions in grassroots efforts or start their own. LIFT was working with some community groups in Roseland a few years ago—there were no real grocery stores in the neighborhood, so the community created a large and really great farmer’s market. We want to help our members get into that kind of work, identifying community needs and working to make positive change.
My pie-in-the-sky goal, my long-term goal, is for LIFT to be providing these sorts of satellite services in a number of neighborhoods in Chicago. Obviously we’re starting in the mid-South Side, but we want to expand to the far South Side over the course of the next few years and also start looking at West Side neighborhoods like Austin where families are facing some of the same things so that we can help in neighborhoods all across Chicago.
I believe that the South Side will eventually transform from the social service desert it currently is. I have to believe it, you know—otherwise, why do it? This is my fifteenth, twentieth year of doing this, but I’m still an optimist, still believe beyond belief that we can do it, and the way I see it happening is that someone has to make the first step and that’s why it’s important for us to make this move. Low-income parents need support and we’re in a position to provide parents with good supports and connect them with other parents. We’re going to start to build a network of people. Our presence is one more brick in the wall, one more piece of this infrastructure we’re trying to build. And then when the next organization comes in, we’ll welcome them with open arms and make them a part of the work that we’re doing too and just all get on the same page. I know that sounds a little optimistic, but that’s the only way it’s going to happen. Social services, businesses, community members: it has to be a community effort.