Guest post by Christina Williams, Executive Director, Circles NWA
Would you believe me if I told you that friendship can end poverty? Well, it can and it does. According to a new study published in the New York Times, building friendship across income lines (between rich and poor) can lift people out of poverty. In fact, the study showed that this kind of friendship had a greater impact on a person’s economic opportunity than other commonly studied factors, including “school quality, family structure, job availability, or a community’s racial composition.”
At Circles NWA, we are seeing the impact of this kind of friendship every day. Our program brings together low-income participants (called “Circle Leaders”) with middle-to-upper income volunteers (called “Allies). Together, they work on the Circle Leader’s goals to increase income, build social connections, and learn from each other’s experiences. Our Circle Leaders and Allies have built real friendships with each other and are starting to experience the positive effects of relationships built across income lines.
One of our Circle Leaders came into the program after being laid off from her employer of twenty years due to downsizing. She was struggling to make ends meet and described life as constant stress and building pressure. In the past year with Circles, she has started a new career and has already been promoted three times. She has built friendships with her two Allies and others in the Circles program, and describes her new community and friendships as a support system that can shoulder some of the burden that she used to carry alone. She said, “I am starting to have time to take things in, to slow down, and focus on myself. I am realizing that I am human, and it feels so good.”
Circles is a way for our community to break out of the all-to-common pattern of spending time with people who are just like us. Poverty is not just about a lack of material wealth. The division across class lines can cut people out of opportunities and access to resources. By bringing people together across income lines, Circles works to counter this effect.
Circles NWA is based on the national Circles USA® model, a result of over twenty years of research with 80 chapters across the United States and Canada. Circles NWA is the first chapter here in Arkansas, and we are starting our second cohort this fall.
Circles provides a meaningful way to have an impact in your community. You will see the power of your presence, life experience, and connections at work. You will gain a broader perspective as you learn about the challenges that people in poverty face, and you will see first-hand the impact of systems and structures that keep people locked in a cycle of barely getting by.