Torchlight Prize Honors Grassroots Community Building

For 10-plus years, the Family Independence Initiative (FII) has demonstrated that a strength-based approach to assisting low-income people has positive outcomes that successfully challenge, on a family-by-family basis, the safety-net system we currently have in place. Through its Torchlight Prize, the organization recognizes and supports groups of people who have self-organized to improve their communities.

Founded in 2001, the FII takes the radical position that families know what they need to move out of poverty, they just don’t have the resources to do so. Unlike government programs which often rely on a one-size-fits-all approach to assistance, FII puts each family in the driver’s seat, providing non-directive support that recognizes the family's decision-making abilities. FII vice president Mia Birdsong stresses that this is not a program, but the testing of an approach that supports mutuality and assumes that people want to be moving ahead and want to take control of their lives.

“What families like the ones we work with need is not more programs and social workers and things like that,” she says. “They need access to social and financial capital that allows them to make choices about what they want to do with their lives; that responds to their initiative; that recognizes their self-determination; and that recognizes their communities.”

Stereotypes of low-income people as either lazy moochers or helpless victims that need someone to tell them what to do exist on both sides of the political table. FII is about challenging those stereotypes.

“The safety net system, as it’s set up, with all these programs and services, is absolutely critical for people in crisis,” says Birdsong, listing people who are homeless, starving, have substance abuse issues or need to leave abusive homes as being among those in crisis. “But most poor people are not in crisis,” she continues. “Struggling, sure, but not in crisis.”

FII founder, Maurice Lim Miller, who was recently awarded a Genius Grant from the MacArthur Foundation for his work, modeled the organization’s approach after African-American townships and immigrant neighborhoods that became thriving communities, despite relatively few resources. What these communities had in common was a strong sense of community and mutual support: they worked together, they pooled resources, they watched each others’ kids, they would share money, they would share information, and they invested in each others’ businesses. As Birdsong explains, “You had a community coming together to create a pathway for those that came after them.”

“People are still doing that,” she says. “We’ve just decided that we’re going to create programs and services to get people out of poverty as opposed to looking at what people are doing as they work together, and investing in that.”

Drawing on that same sense of community and the notion that transformative connections are taking place on a neighbor-to-neighbor level, FII has created the Torchlight Prize to support local groups working to improve their communities. The prize awards up to four groups $10,000 each over two years and the money can be used however the group sees fit. The only requirement is that it has to be a group of people, not affiliated with any nonprofit or government program, who have self-organized around a community. One goal of the contest is to show that people with few resources can and do take initiative to better their lives.

“Do-gooders bring solutions, but people are already doing all this stuff and they need to be recognized,” says Birdsong. “It’s about looking at the solutions that already exist in the community because they’re going to be culturally relevant, they’re going to be replicable and they’re going to be owned by the community.”

Previous Torchlight Prize winners include a group that has organized to reduce gang violence by celebrating its culture; a social club that encourages mutual learning, working together to save money and positive activities for youngsters; and an artist collective that establishes cultural venues and programs to educate the community about its history, providing a sense of purpose and belonging.

Birdsong emphasizes that they’re not looking for nonprofits with a bunch of data and proven outcomes, but rather, groups of people who are self-organizing to better their families and communities. One of the challenges for FII is finding these groups, as they generally operate under the radar. 

If you know of a group that meets the criteria and would benefit from being a Torchlight Prize winner, nominate them, or nominate your own group. The submission deadline for the 2013 Torchlight Prize is December 21. Visit for more details.


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