New nonprofit helps people help themselves

August 26, 2011
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“As much as possible, I’m getting out of the way,” says Jesús Gerena, director of the new JP-based Family Independence Initiative-Boston (FII-Boston).

It’s an unusual mission statement for a social-service nonprofit, where intervention and advocacy are standard tactics. That’s because FII-Boston aims to help people help themselves by organizing families into self-sustaining support groups.

“What we’re trying to do is something completely new and different,” said Gerena. “The families are in control. We don’t really dictate anything except basic values that we hold.”

FII-Boston is working with over 80 households citywide, including four in JP. Candace Keshwar, a resident of Jackson Square’s Bromley-Heath housing development, is one of its early success stories.

“It felt like you were held accountable for things you said you were going to do,” Keshwar, who is rapidly plowing through an ambitious to-do list of life improvements, said in a Gazette interview. “It’s really been a phenomenal journey for me.”

Founded last year, FII-Boston is the local branch of a national nonprofit in California. Its mission is to empower people to pull themselves out of poverty. Its models include the townships of African-American former slaves after the Civil War, and American immigrant communities such as the Irish, Italians and Chinese.

FII-Boston organizes small groups of people, each representing a household. Each member sets personal goals, and receives a small stipend and a laptop computer for reporting back info.

Each group has an FII-Boston liaison, but their main job is often to say “no” to help requests. Need to learn how to use that laptop? Ask the group. Looking for a job or drug rehab for a family member? See what resources the group has or knows about.

“You have to trust that these families know better than anybody else,” said Gerena. The core tactic, he said, is believing that “they know how to help themselves, and putting that belief back on them.”

Gerena said that FII’s approach is not intended to replace hands-on social services or the government safety net. It is not for people in crisis, he said, but rather for those “one emergency away” from it and still able to help themselves.

But FII is also concerned about social programs that are “incentivizing [people] to stay in place” and locked in poverty, Gerena said. What FII gets out of the deal is data about the participants’ lives, which will be used to formulate policy initiatives. For example, he said, a lack of child care is emerging as a theme among FII-Boston’s families.

FII-Boston’s tough-love approach is working for Keshwar, she said. She moved from Trinidad to New York a decade ago, pursuing the American dream and aiming for a degree in psychology.

But on the eve of college entry, she became pregnant. She lost one of her twin children, and now has three children, two with special needs. She didn’t make it back to school, and couldn’t afford to go home. She and husband Mario Lucas moved to Boston, where she has felt even more isolated, she said.

“I forgot who I was,” Keshwar said. “I just tried to put one foot in front of another and survive. The dream had seemed so far away.”

The “cheering squad” and goal-setting of the FII-Boston group changed that, she said. She is quickly checking off her personal goals: getting a driver’s license, a car and a job, and taking steps toward higher education and home ownership. Her husband, a construction worker, is now enrolled in college as well.

Keshwar is one of FII-Boston’s most successful participants. Others haven’t had so many quick changes, she said, but added that the program is having an impact.

Before anything can happen, the participants have to trust each other and FII-Boston itself. Keshwar said she was skeptical of a group offering a free laptop and wanting to know people’s Social Security numbers. A key trust-builder is Gerena himself.

“I always start with my own story,” Gerena said.

A JP resident, he is well-known as a former chair of the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council and a longtime head organizer at the Hyde Square Task Force. But it is his personal story that resonates with FII-Boston participants like Keshwar.

He was born the youngest of three kids in San Juan, Puerto Rico, to parents who divorced when he was young. His single mother was soon stuck with limited options. She moved the family to Amherst in 1983, living on food stamps in subsidized housing, but with support from a sister and her church. Within a decade, his mother got a master’s degree, bought a home and put two of the three children into college.

“The dramatic change between Puerto Rico and Amherst was resources and opportunities,” Gerena said.

That is what FII-Boston participants learn to give each other. “It’s like there’s no stopping me,” Keshwar said. “The sky is the limit—the house with the white-picket fence and the yard for kids to play in.”

For more information, see fiinet.org.