Listening to those in poverty is key

SYRACUSE — When Rhonda O’Connor was developing a program to help address the poverty issue in Central New York, one of the first things she did was talk to individuals who were living in poverty.

She wanted to know what was important to them, what obstacles were holding them back, what routes they took to get to work when they found a job.

"We have to start listening to what their needs are instead of me saying what their needs are," said O’Connor, director of community development for Visions for Change. The nonprofit organization, which is based in Syracuse, seeks to offer long-term poverty solutions by building self-sufficiency through education, support and systematic changes, according to

Simulation opens eyes to poverty

"Some people say they just need to get a job," O’Connor said of platitudes people use to talk of people in poverty. "It’s not that easy. We can get anybody a job, but helping anyone retain the job requires looking at the whole person."

The organization’s "Choosing to Thrive" program takes that holistic approach and works on two levels, according to information at On an individual level, the program helps people working on moving from poverty to financial stability by offering them information and support. That includes providing the resources so they can obtain high-school diplomas, improve their job skills or start college. On a community level, those participants provide information on the barriers that keep people in poverty to guide organizations on how to systematically change policies and programs.

And the support individuals receive includes mentorship to guide them as they transition out of poverty, O’Connor said.

"Do they have a healthy support system … as the person tries to get out," she added. "Are friends and family trying to hold them back. … It’s hard to get out of that."

Another barrier is the "fiscal cliff," she said, where an individual may find it cheaper to stay home and receive social services than to work. For example, O’Connor said that a person may find a job and transportation but then is stuck with unaffordable child-care costs, so the person gives up the job.

"We really try and teach them not to make reactionary decisions," she said. "Think things through when living the ‘tyranny of the moment.’"

Following a March 26 poverty simulation she facilitated in Rochester, O’Connor is working with the Finger Lakes Health Systems Agency to bring "Choosing to Thrive" to the area, said Susan Hagen, an FLHSA spokeswoman. And the agency — which hosted the March 26 simulation — has asked her to conduct another simulation in the Finger Lakes region, she added.

"I think Rochester and Syracuse both have these wonderful programs out there, but a lot of those programs are geared toward helping people in the moment," noted O’Connor. "And we need to be able to help them through that horrible time. But what’s it going to take to help them through long periods?"

O’Connor said that the recently created anti-poverty task force in Rochester is a step in the right direction but must include participation of people living in or who have experienced poverty.

"I’m happy to hear people are coming together to try and come up with solutions," she said. "But it’s going to take more than just looking at their programs about what they have to do differently. … Everybody in the community has to come together."

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