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Make social service provision, well, more social.

What if places where people typically go to receive social services were transformed into places that help generate community & cultural assets?

Photo of Johnny Falla
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As the world shifts around the urban poor and they face new challenges associated with economic decline, families may not be aware of services and benefits already available to them. From new services being offered (think Cash for Clunkers) to situations where an individual sudden;y becomes eligible for an existing benefit program, there's no easy way to know what's out there. As a result, resources for every day people (returning vets, the elderly, young mothers, the recently unemployed and others) go unclaimed. And these are just formal resources offered by government agencies. What about the resources offered by nonprofits in your community? How would you know where to go? And then what about the latent potential of the people within your community? What might they be able to offer?

I recently heard that you can get an HIV test at the DMV in Washington DC. I also know of a group in Boston called Health Leads that uses counselors to "prescribe" services like better housing to people who come to hospitals with recurring health issues related to the underlying conditions of their living situation.

I'd like to build on these concepts and turn places where we all 'have' to go anyway (hospitals, post offices, DMVs and the like) into centers for exchange where people can connect with what's already available to them. Getting people what they need is just step 1 though.

Making the experience social is step 2. I'd like to introduce a Skillshare.com type model of teaching and learning in these places for people to come together and surface community assets. This presents an ideal opportunity for companies like Steelcase to get involved, perhaps the CFO can teach a monthly course on financial literacy, or the COO could give a lesson in managing a small business. Corporations can leverage government efforts to create healthier workforces by making them relevant to local communities.

The idea at its core is to create mechanisms that enable people to connect the dots in their lives between what's going on around them and what they need to effectively reverse the effects of economic decline where they live. 

If we can empower those in need by first stabilizing their living conditions, we can then reasonably expect them to make contributions in their communities that can set the stage for long-term growth. Vibrancy then is actually a natural byproduct of peoples' shared experiences and a product of solving real problems at the community level. 

Example: A woman loses her job and lives in a home with an outdated heating system. She can't afford the price of oil and so she never turns on the heat. She then shows up at the emergency room twice a month, without insurance, with pneumonia. She doesn't know it, but she's eligible for heating assistance. The doctor guesses something might be up and refers her to a counselor who helps her figure this out. The counselor helps her finish the complicated application paperwork. She says she knows 5 other moms from the same firm who have also been laid off, and the counselor encourages her to lead a workshop on how to get help. Since she can relate to what the other moms are going through, she agrees and convinces them all to come to her class. While prepping to lead her workshop, she notices the CFO of Steelcase is offering a session on how to avoid ATM and bank fees and signs up for that too... 

What resources (money, time, people, technology, etc) will your concept need to be successful?

Let's think about this in terms of savings, first, not cost ;) Integrating service providers under a single roof by any other name is consolidation, or downsizing. In our world, that's called leverage through an integrated or holistic approach. What that really means practically is that if you can address the underlying cause of a particular need, you can eliminate the need altogether and save money in the long run. Ingredients: --1 amazing local corporation willing to work with community stakeholders to help bring services, space, and talent together. --1% inspiration. --99% perspiration. --A nonprofit (like Health Leads) to train and equip counselors, procure equipment, and help manage facilities. --Local, State, and Federal service providers willing to try new things. The key is a healthy mix of partners who are already working on related issues. We're not starting from zero here!

What steps could you take to implement this idea today?

Health Leads already exists. Skillshare.com and services like it are already popular. Corporations are anxious to leverage their core competencies in the communities where they work to build better workforces. Government agencies are desperate to connect in new ways. All we need is people to connect the dots. Partnerships will help us fulfill the promise of a brighter future and we can already identify leaders in communities across the country who get this. The best and easiest way to go about this is start identifying the set of partners that could get a pilot off the ground.

How can your idea be scaled so that it's implemented in cities around the world?

Because governments have perfect monopolies on some aspects of service delivery (for instance, there is only one place you can go to register your car, no matter who you are--the DMV) there's often a physical place to start. There's no end to the number of novel public-private partnerships that could be created that are context specific to address community needs. Again, it just takes that catalyst for change--the Steelcase in a community that has a vested interest in the health of the community. Tracking results in any pilot would be key know that money is in fact being saved, people are getting what they need, and people are sharing what they're learning with others.

My Virtual Team

Joe De Loss is a friend who helps me think of the realities facing the urban poor. Yasmin Fodil and I are friends from grad school and we rap about policy mechanisms for urban renewal at work (we sit like two desks down from one another so we talk in the real world too!).

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Photo of An Old Friend

As I read the header of your concept I thought your idea was simply to have people not working meet up, share experiences, help each other figuring out the social benefits they can gain, help each other applying for jobs etc.
But reading your concept I saw that it was much more detailed.

I though think it could benefit from becoming more simple. Maybe unemployeed can meet at the local library, a local cafe, a community center or whatever public place, every morning for 4 hours? Every day some "counselor" is there to give advise on e.g. job applications, health, how to get social benefits, which local non-profits that can help them etc.

Photo of Johnny Falla

Hey thanks for this, Tanja! Yes, I think you're absolutely right. I've given you a laundry list of all my favorite things and each element could definitely be broken down into and number of combinations. The main thing for me is how to leverage space and existing points of human contact to refer people to what they need in life. For many folks who aren't as plugged in to the online world, these moments are precious.