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Seventeen years ago, Mauricio Lim Miller, a leader in the field of social services, received a phone call from Jerry Brown, who was the mayor of Oakland, Calif., at the time, that set him on a quest to understand how families really overcome poverty. Lim Miller had spent decades working in community development, leading an organization, Asian Neighborhood Design, that had grown into a nationally recognized model. In 1999, Lim Miller was one of the honorees, along with Rosa Parks, invited by President Bill Clinton to attend the State of the Union address.
Mr. Brown echoed those doubts in his phone call and issued a challenge. Lim Miller recalled,
“He said, ‘After 30 years of the war on poverty, all we’ve done is made poverty tolerable. We haven’t fundamentally changed anything. If you could do anything to bring about a fundamental change in poverty and economic mobility, what would you do?’ And he asked me to think about it and come to his office in a few weeks.”
People who are poor have to deal with class and gender and race issues, and they are so disrespected. All of us who want to make a difference need to learn how to be follower leaders — to use our positions and our privilege and access to money in a way that actually bolsters the initiative that the families take. But not to lead. It’s hard to stand back and trust families. But this change in perspective — to respect poor people — is what this country needs right now.