As the founder of a nonprofit that supports low-income families, Maurice Lim Miller has built a model that is in part a product of his own family experience.
Lim Miller and his sister were raised by their single mother, a Mexican native with a third-grade education. When her children were still in grade school, she immigrated to Palo Alto where she worked two jobs while she pushed her children to pursue an education.
Lim Miller eventually graduated from UC Berkeley, but his sister became pregnant at 16 and was in an abusive relationship. Given his mother’s vision and dedication, Lim Miller wondered why their paths diverged so drastically.
“My mother sacrificed everything for her children,” he said. “But she was able to get only one of us out.”
Lim Miller’s search for answers led him to found the Family Independence Initiative in Oakland in 2001. The nonprofit aims to alleviate poverty in low-income communities by organizing peer-to-peer support groups.
In the Family Independence Initiative, low-income families living near or under the poverty line are recruited through church, school and community contacts. Participants talk about their aspirations and challenges within a group of supportive friends. The group members meet and help each other attain their goals.
Lim Miller’s mother, Bertha Miller, was a formative influence as he created the model for his organization. When he was in graduate school, she developed serious health problems. He was prepared to become her full-time caregiver, but she didn’t want her son to forfeit his education for her. Lim Miller said she took her own life to keep him from sacrificing his future.
He earned a master’s degree in arts in design, also at UC Berkeley, but his mother’s death led him to rethink his career plans. He began teaching construction to gang members with a San Francisco nonprofit, Asian Neighborhood Design.
“I needed to understand why things didn’t work out for us here in America,” he said.
For the next 22 years, he worked for Asian Neighborhood Design, which focuses on architecture, community planning and employment training for disadvantaged individuals. Each year, the nonprofit trains up to 60 people in construction and carpentry. In 1981, Lim Miller was named executive director with a staff of more than 100.
As he worked in the trenches of social services, Lim Miller didn’t see much progress in what had been deemed “the war on poverty.” He saw children of those he had tried to help suffering from the same problems as their parents.
Lim Miller studied history for answers. He researched the immigration patterns and employment histories of various ethnic groups: Irish, Polish, Cambodian, Laotian and Vietnamese. He found that populations that helped each other survived best and built assets for following generations.
In 1999, Lim Miller received a call from Jerry Brown, then the mayor of Oakland, who was frustrated by social welfare programs in his city that he didn’t see bringing long-term results. Brown referred to the system in place as “poverty pimping,” meaning that most programs created jobs for middle-class professionals without helping those in need.
Brown asked Lim Miller to propose a solution without worrying about cost or regulations. Two weeks later, Lim Miller pitched his idea: Listen to those in need, and support them in their quest to change their lives.
“I suggested we pay families to provide information to us about what would work for them,” he said. Brown, a staunch believer in self-sufficiency, was taken with Lim Miller’s innovative approach.
His approach also won accolades from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which recently awarded him a $500,000 fellowship.
Known as the MacArthur “genius” grants, the awards are given to individuals who show exceptional creativity in their work and the prospect for more in the future. The no-strings-attached monetary award is given out over five years.
The foundation is one of the largest private philanthropies based in the United States, awarding nearly $300 million annually through various programs. Earlier this year the Center for Investigative Reporting, parent organization of The Bay Citizen, was one of the recipients of the MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions and was awarded $1 million.
The Family Independence Initiative is not a traditional social services program. There are no social workers and no case managers. It’s a model that works the same way Weight Watchers does, said Lim Miller, emphasizing accountability and peer support.
Participants are paid to fill out a monthly questionnaire on a computer that the organization supplies to each family. They report income, savings, children’s grades and spending, but also provide less numbers-driven information, like whether they helped others, organized neighbors to clean up the street or enrolled in a credit mending program.
The initiative pays each participant an average of $160 per month as it collects information about which actions are effective.
Usually, Lim Miller said, change occurs when one person sees a peer do something new.
“When the first Salvadoran family in Oakland bought a house, it changed that community,” he said. Previously most immigrants from El Salvador sent savings back to their native country.
“You can’t program that kind of change,” he said. “Social networks play a role in low-income families, just as they do in middle-class families.”
Lim Miller sees unlimited potential in the Family Independence Initiative approach as it eschews dependency. Personal savings among participants in the program have increased 181 percent over a two-year period; monthly incomes have risen 18 percent during that same time. Children’s grades have improved. Members have bought houses, enrolled in college and started businesses.
Lending circles and microeconomies have been born from the groups. Currently, 1,500 people are being tracked with the organization’s staff of seven.
Mia Birdsong, a vice president at the initiative who has worked with Lim Miller for four years, said his approach can narrow the gap between the working poor and the middle class.
“Maurice’s vision is not to replicate FII everywhere; it’s to change the way this country looks at working-poor families and bring back economic and social mobility in order to rebuild the middle class,” she said.
Being tapped as a MacArthur Fellow has put more pressure on Lim Miller’s already busy schedule, but he is grateful for what he acknowledges is a major achievement.
“It’s a great recognition of my work, but it is also a recognition of my mother’s work,” he said.
“My mother didn’t seek charity,” Lim Miller said. “And we don’t offer charity. What we do is give people a chance to rise to what they themselves define as success.”