Innovative Poverty Solutions, a new nonprofit organization in Northwest Arkansas, is nearing the launch of its first initiative.
Circles NWA (circlesnwa.org) is a mentorship program designed to help people pursue upward mobility out of poverty. Circles helps participants set goals and execute an 18-month plan to increase their income and move toward stability.
The process begins with a 12-week training class, during which people accepted to the program learn basic financial literacy and create a plan to achieve their goals.
When they graduate from the 12-week class, they become “circle leaders.” Circles NWA then matches leaders with two or three community volunteers it calls “allies.” Allies receive training to prepare them to support their leaders in achieving their goals.
Christina Williams is the founder and executive director of Innovative Poverty Solutions. Board members include Mariah Green, TJ Williams, Lynette Washington, Khalid Ahmadzai and Sara Bishop.
Williams said the nonprofit’s first cohort of leaders is nearing the end of their training. Allies recently started their six weeks of online training.
When they are matched, the allies help guide the leaders through such essential tasks as polishing a resume, budgeting, negotiating debt repayments, setting up a bill-paying system, learning job skills, finding a job and ensuring good childcare.
Williams said Circles NWA’s inaugural 18-month program would launch in early October.
According to its website, Circles NWA is Arkansas’ first chapter of the national nonprofit Circles USA, which has more than 80 locations in 22 states and parts of Canada. The site said Circles represents the relational approach of getting people off of welfare and into jobs through peer support from middle-income volunteers.
According to the Center for Business & Economic Research at the University of Arkansas, the poverty rate for Northwest Arkansas was 12.6% in 2019. The rate was lower than the 16.2% poverty rate for the state.
“One of the main reasons we decided to bring Circles to Northwest Arkansas is that the Circles model emphasizes moving a community from a system of poverty management to one of poverty reduction,” said Williams. She has lived in Northwest Arkansas for more than 20 years and has a background in community and social research and program evaluation. “To do that, we focus on helping low-income families pursue and achieve upward mobility from poverty.
“We focus on helping our participants increase their incomes and grow in their jobs and careers. We also help them expand their social networks and build their social capital, get connected to already existing resources and services, and begin to see themselves as leaders, both in their own lives and in our community.”
Circles NWA has selected seven low-income adults from Fayetteville and Springdale for its initial cohort of circle leaders. Williams said Circles NWA deliberately kept the first group small due to COVID-19.
“We can go up to anywhere from 20 to 25,” she said.
There are about 15 allies whom Circles NWA will match with leaders. One of the volunteers is Michelle Fittro, a director at Arvest Bank in Benton County. Before joining Arvest in 2007, Fittro lived in Springfield, Mo., and worked as resource development and marketing manager for Ozarks Area Community Action Corp., a nonprofit organization. She created and coordinated a poverty summit to raise awareness about those living in poverty and provide information about resources for those in need.
“That’s where I was truly exposed to the concept of barriers that existed for individuals striving to break the cycle of poverty,” Fittro said. She said that for many people struggling with poverty, it takes more than just financial assistance. They also need guidance and support to help navigate the sometimes overwhelming process of just trying to survive, let alone thrive.
Williams said the first Circles NWA cohort of leaders and allies will meet weekly at Genesis Church in south Fayetteville. She called the weekly meetings a very structured time to have a meal together and discuss goals and progress. Other programming includes events open to the public, business and civic leaders to have “community conversations” on various issues.
Williams said there are plans to launch other Circles NWA sites throughout Northwest Arkansas in the future but will focus on the Fayetteville site for the first couple of cohorts.