2014 Torchlight Prize Winners: The Power of Community-led Collective Action

Every day in communities across the United States, regular people are coming together to imagine, create, and demand better futures for themselves and their communities. While they occasionally make the news, more often their efforts go unnoticed.

In Detroit, elders volunteer to patrol their neighborhoods, using walkie-talkies to communicate and to combat break-ins. In San Francisco, several women created their own support group called Solutions for Women that encourages emotional wellness and promotes education.  In Boston, a group of neighbors converted a vacant, trash-filled, city owned lot into a gardening space with compost, flower beds, and a rainwater-catching system that allows them to grow food, learn about urban agriculture, and build community.

Until we recognize and hold up these collective efforts, we will miss critical lessons about how we can effectively tackle the issues our communities care about – like community safety, social justice, economic mobility, and better health.

A few months ago on, Family Independence Initiative Founder Mauricio Lim Miller issued a call for nominations for the 3rd annual Torchlight Prize – a national award, the Family Independence Initiative (FII) established to publically recognize the leadership, skill, and initiative demonstrated by self-organized community groups. Here are the winners—each will receive a $10,000 prize in recognition of their efforts to improve and strengthen their communities:

El Valle Women’s Collaborative is based in the rural town of Ribera, New Mexico. The founding members created the group to address a unique set of environmental and economic challenges faced by families in their community. Their goal: to strengthen their economy so they could work where they live and create a safe space for neighbors to gather and engage in community-building events and activities.  The group has established several projects in pursuit of their mission, including El Valle Thrift Exchange, a retail thrift store that allows customers to pay what they can afford instead of a set price; Earn and Learn, a small business development training program; and Bueno Para Todos Cooperative, which supports local farmers in taking their produce to market.

HOLA Ohio was founded to improve opportunities for the Latino community in northeast Ohio through organizing, advocacy, and civic engagement. In the early 2000s, the population of immigrant workers grew exponentially and led to clashes with the established community, as well as labor abuses, discrimination, and disparities in healthcare and education. What started as a small, informal group of Latino immigrants in Painesville, Ohio, has since grown into four chapters that have influenced immigration policy both locally and nationally. The group has saved many immigrants from incarceration and family separation due to deportation. Through political education, HOLA empowers its members who previously lived in fear on the margins of society.

Facing one of the highest crime rates in the country—and following the murder of a young resident—community members in North Oakland, California organized the North Oakland Restorative Justice Council to examine ways to sustainably curb violence in their neighborhood. The group meets every month to review evictions, shootings, and other local conflicts.  They also organize trainings, fundraisers, healing circles, and other approaches to preventing, treating, and managing interpersonal and institutional community violence. In 2015, the group will launch a restorative justice alternative sentencing pilot project to help bring an end to the “preschool to prison” pipeline for youth in North Oakland.  

Finally, KhushDC, is a volunteer-supported group that promotes awareness and acceptance—along with fostering positive cultural and sexual identity—for members of the South Asian lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) community. KhushDC organizes advocacy initiatives to address the criminalization of homosexuality and hate crimes due to race, sexual orientation, and gender presentation. The group also collaborates with other LGBTQ organizations in the DC metropolitan area to host discussion groups, participate in Gay Pride events, and organize other social events that build a sense of community.

These Torchlight Prize winners represent a small sample of the powerful work that’s happening in communities across the country.  They show us that by working together, families and communities can achieve powerful and sustainable results and tackle some of our nation’s most pressing social and economic challenges. They also remind us that in addition to pushing for policy solutions, we need to examine and support the collective work being done by community based organizations to spur economic and social mobility.

A different way forward is possible, and by working together, we can make change happen.

Author’s note: Learn more about this year’s winners and finalists, and read about past honorees, on the Torchlight Prize website.



Does America Really Believe in Second Chances?

In America, we punish people for being poor.  From predatory lending, to the criminalization of homelessness, to modern day debtors’ prisons, we make life expensive for individuals and families who are already struggling to make ends meet.

But we don’t just punish people for being poor.  In some cases, we punish them for being punished.

Consider the felony drug ban, which imposes a lifetime restriction on welfare and food stamp benefits for anyone convicted of a state or federal drug felony.  Passed in the “tough on crime” era of the mid-1990s, the ban denies basic assistance to people who may have sold a small amount of marijuana years or even decades ago and have been law-abiding citizens ever since.

Because the felony drug ban was adopted with little debate, it’s hard to know exactly what Congress intended.  But we can measure the law’s effect.  Last year, The Sentencing Project found that the legislation subjects an estimated 180,000 women in the twelve most impacted states to a lifetime ban on welfare benefits.

Given racial disparities throughout the criminal justice system — particularly related to the war on drugs — banning benefits based on a prior drug conviction has brutally unfair consequences for people of color.  About 60% of people in America’s prisons are racial and ethnic minorities.  Of those individuals serving time for drug offenses, about two-thirds are black or Latino.  Further, blacks are three to four times more likely to be arrested for drug offenses than whites, even though they use and sell drugs at roughly the same rates.

People who cannot meet basic needs may be more likely to turn to dangerous activities.  A study by researchers at Yale Medical School found that women who are denied food assistance due to a drug conviction are at greater risk of hunger. These women are also more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior such as prostitution in order to get money for food.

The felony drug ban is just one of many collateral consequences that formerly incarcerated individuals face as they strive to reenter society.  Some of these barriers are informal: an employer who will not hire a person with a criminal record; a university application that requires all applicants to “check the box” for a prior arrest or conviction.

We don’t just punish people for being poor. In some cases, we punish them for being punished.<br />

But private sector discrimination has been compounded by laws that erect barriers and cut services for people sent to prison.  In the 1990s, Congress barred Pell grants for incarcerated individuals — ensuring that most could not receive a college education prior to release — and restricted access to public housing and financial aid for higher education for some former prisoners.

Felony disenfranchisement laws – which date to colonial times but were tailored in the post-Reconstruction era to exclude black voters – place voting restrictions on an estimated 5.85 million Americans.  In the upcoming elections, more than one in five black adults will be denied the right to vote in Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia due to a criminal conviction.

Fortunately, as public attitudes about mass incarceration have changed, there is a growing recognition that fair sentencing can meet the mutual goals of punishment and rehabilitation.  Imposing collateral consequences after a criminal conviction is not only vindictive but also counterproductive to building safe and healthy communities.

In recent months, federal lawmakers in both parties have introduced legislation to remove some of these barriers and promote a safer transition into society.  The REDEEM Act, introduced by Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Rand Paul (R-KY), would allow the sealing of criminal records and lift the ban on benefits for some people convicted of nonviolent drug offenses.  Though the bill should go much further — for example, by also lifting restrictions on housing and education benefits — it is a good first step toward restoring access to assistance for individuals who urgently need it.

Former President Bill Clinton — who signed the felony drug ban into law — recently told a group of mayors and law enforcement officials that some measures intended to address crime have been misguided and others have gone too far.  Clinton predicted that criminal justice reform would be debated in the 2016 presidential race.  If so, it will represent a major shift in our politics, which have too often focused on getting tough on crime rather than on promoting healthy communities.  But for millions of people who are still being punished long after completing their sentences, 2016 is too long to wait.

It is an injustice to punish people for being poor.  It is doubly unjust to punish them after they have already been punished.


First Person

SNAP into Action: Celebrate 50 Years of Food Stamps Using #snap4SNAP

Fifty years ago President Johnson signed the Food Stamp Act of 1964 into law.  The legislation made the food stamp program, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), permanent.

SNAP has helped to keep food on the table and in the fridges of families for five decades. It is also a program that helps keep kids and families healthy in times of need.  Yet, despite its success, SNAP often faces political attacks that result in cuts to its funding.

One significant cut occurred almost a year ago on November 1, 2013. Every family participating in SNAP saw their benefits reduced, meaning less food and fewer meals.  The impact of this and other cuts helps to show the importance of SNAP and demonstrates why it should be strengthened and celebrated instead of demonized and diminished.

It is critical that we learn and share more about SNAP—what it really does for families and why it is so important to millions of Americans.  We need to help people understand that the program is a strong anti-poverty measure that helps families thrive.

That’s why on Thursday, October 30 from 2:00-4:00 ET, the Center for Hunger-Free Communities, Witnesses to Hunger, and over 40 other organizations will tweet and post about SNAP using #snap4SNAP.  We will post pictures, information, and stories about SNAP, and we hope you will join us.

Members of Witnesses to Hunger are kicking off the #snap4SNAP campaign today at TalkPoverty with these reflections on the role of SNAP in their lives:

“My youngest daughter, Prayer, is 5 years old and has severe food allergies – to wheat, eggs, peanuts, and tree nuts. To keep her healthy and safe I need to buy her food from specialty stores, which costs a lot of money. With the cuts to SNAP, it has been even more of a struggle to make sure she gets the food she needs. And in that process, I’ve had to make tough choices, taking away some of the money I allot for food for my other daughter in order to feed Prayer. Taking food away from one mouth to try to feed the other – it’s terrible. And if I can’t get the proper nutrition, I’m of no good to either one of my daughters.”

Juell Frazier, Witnesses to Hunger, Boston

Juell is the mother of two girls. She graduated from medical assistance school, and is working on getting a Bachelor’s degree in human services. Juell wants to see changes in Boston, including holding landlords responsible and creating clean and safe environments for families.

“Families depend on SNAP every month. Any cuts to SNAP were just crazy – they make things harder for families who are already struggling.”

Tiffany Ross, Witnesses to Hunger, Philadelphia

Tiffany is the mother of one daughter, Zaniyah. Zaniyah’s father, Troy, was shot and killed while Tiffany was still pregnant. Tiffany was living in a homeless shelter for young mothers, and is now in an apartment subsidized by the shelter. She completed a community college program on a scholarship and now works as a pharmacy technician.

“I know what it is like to struggle to feed your family.  I have four children and I rely on SNAP to ensure my kids and I have enough to eat.  As the cost of food increases, it gets harder and harder for parents like myself to feed our families.  I already know that I am not giving my children the nutrients they need simply because I cannot afford it.  Like all other SNAP participants, I received a cut in November. And now, since I live in New Jersey, I will face another major cut thanks to “heat and eat” provision cut from this year’s Farm Bill. I cannot tell my children, ‘I’m sorry we don’t have anything for dinner tonight.’  My 14 year old eats 4 or 5 times when he comes home from school because his class eats lunch before 11 o’clock each day.  He is hungry when he gets home and I do my best to try to fill his belly. Any reduction in SNAP benefits will mean I have to take money from paying my bills to use at the grocery store since I don’t have any buffer to help make up for this loss, meaning my son will be hungry.  My SNAP benefits already did not last for the month. I was already struggling to keep food on the table. SNAP needs to be protected, and supported! Not taken away from families who are just trying to do right by their kids.”  

Anisa Davis, Witnesses to Hunger, Camden

Anisa is the mother of four children and grandmother of a 4 year-old. She is helping to raise her grandson while her daughter works two jobs, and she is also supporting her oldest son, a full-time college student.

No parent should have to worry about whether their child will be ok, whether there will be enough food for them to eat

“I already work to stretch my SNAP benefits by shopping around for the best deals and I go to three food pantries – but especially after the November 1st cuts last year I still don’t have enough to last the month, and it has increased my stress and decreased my food supply.  My son loves bananas and I would love to encourage him to eat more fruits but I can’t afford them and they aren’t available at food pantries.  No parent should have to worry about whether their child will be ok, whether there will be enough food for them to eat, whether you will have dinner for them after school but I do worry.”

Bonita Cuff, Witness to Hunger, Boston

Bonita is a mother of five, ranging in age from 6 to 26. She currently cares for her young niece whose parents both work but cannot afford safe childcare; once her niece goes to pre-k Bonita hopes to return to full-time employment to better the lives of her family members.

“I go to the pantry at the New Haven Salvation Army. I took a picture of the sign outside that says, ‘Emergency Pantry.’ It says it’s an emergency, and before I could use it as an emergency. But since the cuts to SNAP, the pantry is now a part of my monthly budgeting for food.”

Kimberly Hart, Witnesses to Hunger, New Haven

Kim is an advocate for social and economic injustices.  She is also a member of Mothers for Justice, the New Haven Food Policy Council, and the Food Assistance Working Group. 

“It’s a tragedy that we constantly have to prove that we exist.  With the November 1st cuts we were again pushed further and further away from the assistance we need to provide stability for our families.  We are taught as children to fight for what we believe in and take a stand.  Witnesses to Hunger will continue to do just that.”

Barbie Izquierdo, Witnesses to Hunger, Philadelphia

Barbie is the mother of one son and one daughter. She was featured in the documentary A Place at the Table, sharing her experience of struggling with food insecurity and the cliff effect. Today, Barbie is an honor-roll student at Ezperanza College where she studies criminal justice.

Join us this Thursday as we snap into action to celebrate SNAP.  You can take part by signing up here or simply hop on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram on Thursday from 2:00 – 4:00pm ET and search for #snap4SNAP.



Four Ways to Help Kids Live in Better Neighborhoods—Without Congressional Action

Where children grow up can affect their lifelong health and success, and improvements to federal rental assistance programs could substantially better their life outcomes, as my colleague Douglas Rice and I explain in a new report.

Importantly, most of these programmatic improvements can be made even without congressional action or more federal funding.

Nearly 4 million children live in families that receive federal rental assistance.  But just 15 percent of the kids whose families receive rent subsidies through the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) three major rental assistance programs — the Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) program, public housing, and Section 8 Project-Based Rental Assistance — live in high-opportunity neighborhoods with access to good schools, safe streets, and high employment rates.

More kids in assisted families — 18 percent — live in extreme-poverty neighborhoods, where at least 40 percent of the residents are poor.

The research shows the difference location can make.  Kids who are exposed to extremely poor and violent neighborhoods often suffer cognitive, health, and academic deficiencies, while those who grow up in safer neighborhoods with better schools fare better.

Policymakers have tried for several decades to reduce the concentration of low-income families receiving federal rental assistance in distressed neighborhoods.  To improve these families’ access to higher-opportunity neighborhoods, they’ve relied increasingly on housing vouchers (rather than housing projects that often are in very poor, segregated neighborhoods) to give families greater choice in where to live.

The HCV program has performed much better than HUD’s project-based rental assistance programs in enabling more low-income families with children to live in lower-poverty neighborhoods (see chart).  Having a housing voucher also substantially reduces a family’s likelihood of living in an extreme-poverty neighborhood.


Nevertheless, a quarter of a million children in the HCV program live in these troubled neighborhoods.  The HCV program simply doesn’t deliver on its potential to expand children’s access to good schools in safe neighborhoods.

Two near-term goals for federal rental assistance programs could help improve on this track record:  1) the programs should provide greater opportunities for families to choose affordable housing outside of extreme-poverty neighborhoods; and 2) they should provide better access for families to low-poverty, safe communities with better-performing schools.

We can make substantial progress toward these goals in the next few years.

Federal, state, and local agencies can take four key actions to help more families live in better locations:

  • Create stronger incentives for local and state housing agencies to help families move to better neighborhoods.  HUD could provide incentives for agencies to reduce the share of families using vouchers in extreme-poverty areas and increase the share living in low-poverty, high-opportunity areas in three ways: 1) give added weight to location outcomes in measuring agency performance; 2) reinforce these changes with a strong fair housing rule — one that requires recipients of federal housing and community development funds from HUD to take steps that foster more inclusive communities; and 3) pay additional administrative fees to those agencies that help families move to high-opportunity areas.
  • Modify policies that discourage families from living in higher-opportunity communities. Currently, various policies unintentionally encourage families with housing vouchers to use them in poor neighborhoods that are often racially segregated. (Most extremely poor neighborhoods are predominantly African American and/or Latino). For example, the caps on rental subsidy amounts often are too low to enable families to rent units in areas in more demand; HUD should set those caps for smaller geographic areas than it does currently so they better reflect local price trends.  Also, agencies should be required to identify available units in lower-poverty communities and extend the search period for families seeking to move to these communities.
  • Minimize jurisdictional barriers in the HCV program that make it more difficult for families to choose to live in high-opportunity communities. Nearly all of the largest metro areas have one agency that administers the Housing Choice Voucher program in the central city and one or more that serve suburban cities and towns. This separation makes it harder for families to move to safe neighborhoods with high-performing schools. HUD should encourage agencies in the same metropolitan area to unify their program operations and simplify “portability” procedures to use vouchers in areas served by other agencies.
  • Better assist families in using vouchers to live in high-opportunity areas. State and local governments and housing agencies should adopt policies—such as targeted tax incentives and laws prohibiting discrimination against voucher holders—that expand the number of landlords participating in the HCV program in safe, low-poverty neighborhoods with well-performing schools.  These reforms would increase the number of housing choices available to families in these neighborhoods.   Programs such as mobility counseling — supported by state or local funds or philanthropy — could also help interested families use their vouchers in these communities.

Kids benefit from living in safer neighborhoods with good schools, and the nation benefits when children have better life outcomes.  These changes to the HCV program would make a big difference for many of the 2.4 million children in families that currently use housing vouchers.



Fostering the Power of Universities and Hospitals for Community Change

Communities across the country are recognizing the tremendous resources nonprofit anchor institutions—such as hospitals and universities—can provide as engines of inclusive and equitable economic development. Increasingly, cities—often led by Mayors—are launching comprehensive strategies to leverage these institutions to address challenging problems of unemployment, poverty, and disinvestment. In 2014, several cities, including Chicago, Baltimore and New Orleans, have launched community building and job creation strategies that revolve around anchor institutions; and in Cleveland, a decade old collaboration of philanthropy, anchor institutions, and the municipal government continues to rebuild economies in some of the poorest neighborhoods in the city.

The ongoing fiscal crisis at all levels of government is putting tremendous stress on local economic development efforts designed to create family-supporting living wage jobs, revitalize local economies, and bring back wealth to our communities. Through their procurement and investment practices, anchor institutions represent a new source of economic development financing, but their enormous potential is so far largely unrealized. Unfortunately, the federal government has been largely missing in action in terms of creating the right policies to support cities in harnessing the full economic might of their anchor institutions.

Nearly 20 years ago, Harvard Business School Professor Michael Porter noted that urban university expenditures were nine times greater than spending on all federal urban job and business development programs combined. That number is surely much greater now.

Anchor institutions represent a new source of economic development financing, but their enormous potential is so far largely unrealized.

Today, universities, hospitals and other anchor institutions wield considerable economic power in a community. Hospitals and universities are responsible for more than $1 trillion of our nation’s $17 trillion economy (about 6% of GDP). In addition, these “eds and meds” control well over $500 billion of endowment investments and they employ roughly 8% of the national workforce.

Anchor institutions are place-based enterprises, firmly rooted in their locales. Other anchors include community foundations, cultural institutions such as museums and performing arts centers, and municipal governments. Typically, anchors tend to be nonprofit corporations. Because they are “sticky capital”—in contrast to for-profit corporations which may relocate for a variety of reasons, such as lower labor costs, more subsidies, fewer environmental regulations—anchors have an economic self-interest in helping to ensure that the communities in which they are based are safe, vibrant, and healthy.

A particular opportunity is presented by emerging institutional “buy local” strategies which drive anchor procurement and investment locally, substitute imports, and recirculate money two or three times in what economists call a “multiplier effect.”

In Cleveland, University Hospital’s “Vision 2010” initiative drove 92% of a $1.2 billion construction and procurement effort into the local and regional economy (at the height of the 2008-09 recession), benefiting more than 100 local minority- and female-owned businesses. In Philadelphia, the University of Pennsylvania has systematically shifted nearly $100 million of procurement annually into the distressed West Philadelphia neighborhoods adjacent to its campus. In southern Ohio, the University of Cincinnati has allocated more than 10% of its $1 billion endowment to local investments intended to stabilize and revitalize the city’s Uptown District. Finally, in Boston, Northeastern University has seeded an economic development fund with $2.5 million to enable local businesses to expand and hire more employees.

The latest innovation in the field involves mayors using the power of their office to develop and implement multi-anchor strategies aimed at strengthening local economies. In March 2014, World Business Chicago, a not-for-profit economic development organization chaired by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, launched Chicago Anchors for a Strong Economy (CASE). The goal is clear: identify ways to connect the city’s anchor purchasing needs to local firms, thus producing a stronger and more integrated local economy. Earlier this year, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake launched the Baltimore City Anchor Plan (BCAP) which focuses on place-based opportunities to connect anchors and neighborhoods—particularly those that are disinvested and most in need of equitable development linked to employment for low-income residents. And in mid-September, Mayor Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans launched the Economic Opportunity Strategy to “recruit, train and connect the hardest to employ to real jobs and match local businesses to strategic opportunities for growth.” Anchor institutions, among the city’s largest purchasers of goods and services, have been identified as key partners in the new strategy.

Many have imagined how much more powerful these local anchor-based economic development strategies could be if the federal government were to provide a policy framework that would encourage anchors to align their business practices (purchasing, investment, hiring) to explicitly benefit the communities which they call home. After all, the vast majority of anchors are quasi-public institutions that receive substantial taxpayer resources ranging from university research grants to hospital Medicare reimbursements, and, of course, generally do not pay taxes themselves. Shouldn’t the federal government provide greater encouragement to these beneficiaries of public funds?

In 2008, just as President Obama was taking office, the Anchor Institution Task Force (AITF), a consortium of universities engaged in community work (full disclosure: I sit on its steering committee) presented the incoming Administration with a set of specific policy recommendations, arguing that “the federal government can and should play a catalytic role in engaging anchor institutions in democratic partnerships with their communities, cities, and regions.”

These recommendations for federal action were based on a long history of governmental encouragement of both universities and hospitals in their civic roles. From the Land-Grant College Act of 1862 and the GI Bill and the formation of the National Science Foundation in the 1940s and 50s, to today’s implementation of the Affordable Care Act and its requirement that nonprofit hospitals file Community Health Needs Assessments with the IRS, the federal Government has helped shape the direction of higher education and health care in America.

It is past time for a new federal policy strategy to help cities leverage the economic might of their anchor institutions to benefit communities—particularly low- and moderate-income communities that have been marginalized by growing wealth inequality, low-wage work, and dwindling resources focused on their needs.

Editor’s note: A new report from CAP Senior Policy Analyst Tracey Ross explores strategies for how the federal government can encourage universities and hospitals to use their vast economic resources to increase community revitalization and economic growth.  Read it here