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Despite compassion fatigue, United Way leader sees hope in battle against poverty

Stacey Stewart, meeting with Twin Cities community leaders, talks about what’s working and what isn’t in the effort to reduce poverty.

Stacey Stewart meeting with a group of 30 persons representing education, social service and non-profit organizations on Thursday.
MinnPost photo by Cynthia Boyd

Worldwide United Way official Stacey Stewart sees both compassion fatigue and hope in the battle against poverty.

In the Twin Cities this week to meet with community leaders of color as well as Greater Twin Cities United Way officials, Stewart, 49, called Thursday for “community problem solving” and collective action to reduce poverty and its related problems.

More than 600,000 persons in this region live in poverty with many being served by United Way, according to the organization. Here as in the rest of the nation, persons of color are disproportionately represented among those at the bottom of the economic ladder.

“A lot of systems just aren’t working right now,’’ Stewart told a diverse group of 30 persons representing education, social service and non-profit organizations, acknowledging that poverty leads to widespread disparities in education, health care, shelter, employment and quality childcare.

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What’s needed, Stewart said, is clear identification of the problems related to poverty, data showing which programs work and implementation of the best programs. 

The highest-ranking African-American woman within the charitable organization, Stewart is also the first to hold the new role of U.S. president of United Way Worldwide.

Her background includes executive positions in community and charitable giving for Fannie Mae and the Fannie Mae Foundation, work in the area of affordable housing and employment on Wall Street.

I caught up with her at United Way offices in Minneapolis. Here are excerpts from my interview:

MinnPost: What difference will your appointment make to African Americans and to other persons of color?

Stacey Stewart: Based on my experiences so far, I think it gives people a lot of hope and inspiration. For some people it looks like them. For other people I hope it says something about United Way, that they have someone like me in this position.

MP: What is the single most significant problem facing those in poverty?

SS: The issues of poverty are very complex. There is not one program that solves poverty. Poverty is a confluence of lots of failures in systems and barriers to families and individuals. Forty-seven million people are living in poverty in the United States. Tens of millions are working and struggling to have some semblance of a middle-class life. The challenge is the economic disparities are getting greater.

Stacey Stewart
Stacey Stewart

MP: What about compassion fatigue – that is trying to find solutions but not seeing enough encouraging results? The latest U.S. poverty rate is about 16 percent, with 20 percent of the children in this country living in poverty.

SS: That happens when things aren’t working. It’s like trying to run a race when you haven’t had a good breakfast. We’re all so interested in solving [social] problems we’re throwing things on the wall to see what sticks. [We need to] go slow, to look at the data, to set realistic goals. Get the people around the table that can help solve the problem.

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MP: What about the recent Brookings Institution report about the growth of poverty in the suburbs? That change was revealed in 2011 after the 2010 U.S. Census. Why are people so surprised?

SS: Brookings is out with a report that frames it in a way we can get it. Lots of people had seen poverty as mostly an urban core problem. Poverty is beyond the urban core. It underscores the diminishing middle class. I’m hoping people will see [the report] as a call to act. If they were not motivated by seeing it as an urban issue, maybe they will now that it is a suburban issue.

MP: Given those poverty numbers, where is there hope?

SS: I hope it’s a wake-up call, that people aren’t hitting the snooze button. Maybe we’ve been so overwhelmed with the country just coming out of recession. I’m hoping people won’t stay stuck in their apathy. There are enough good stories of what’s working in our communities that should give people hope we can solve some of the country’s problem. If problems are going to get solved, it’s going to happen on state and local levels.

MP: It sometimes seems the single strongest argument for solving poverty in this country is that it’s good for business.

SS: I think it makes no business sense to leave so many millions of people not operating at their highest potential. But there is no silver-bullet program. It takes combined efforts, educational opportunities for young people and adults, family sustaining income. It takes a strong health-care system so they can be productive members of the country.

MP: What’s different about programs in the Twin Cities area? Why did you come here?

SS: This United Way is not only among the largest but they have a number of innovative practices, not just in United Way, but across the whole community. A big example is early education, a goal of educating young people from cradle to career.