A couple months back I stumbled upon an essay by Malcom Gladwell titled ‘Six Degrees of Lois Weisberg’. In this piece he proposes that certain individuals serve as critical conduits for access to opportunities and resources, and further, that privilege might be measured by the degree to which one has access to these people. The following excerpt sums up the idea:
If the world really is held together by people like Lois Weisberg, in other words, how poor you are can be defined quite simply as how far you have to go to get to someone like her. Wendy Willrich and Helen Doria and all the countless other people in Lois’s circle needed to make only one phone call. They are well-off. The dropout wouldn’t even know where to start. That’s why he’s poor. Poverty is not deprivation. It is isolation.
Today I read a NYT piece, “Trusting Families to Help Themselves”, that had some interesting echoes of the phenomenon Gladwell comments. The story highlights the work of Family Independence Initiative (F.I.I.), “an organization that encourages low-income families to define their own goals and work towards them in mutual support groups, while carefully documenting their successes.” F.I.I. founder Maurice Lim Miller gave this example of how the organization interacts with families:
A woman called the office because she had had a car accident and wanted the F.I.I. staff to recommend a lawyer. “The first thing we do is push it back to her and her community,” explained Lim Miller. “We asked, ‘Are there other people you know who have had car accidents? Do you know any of them who got an attorney and were successful?’” The woman couldn’t think of anyone. After a while, she said, “Oh, I babysit for an attorney! And he’s always feeling guilty because he comes home later than he says he will.” She decided that she could ask him for a referral.
I found it really interesting that the program encourages people to think rigorously about the architecture and contents of their social networks in a way that surfaces resources, options and opportunities, and personal conduits to them. It seems that an organization like F.I.I. could serve as an institutional “Lois” of sorts to those poor in part by virtue of isolation.