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Changing their minds, and their lives: A way out of poverty in Philadelphia

Episcopal Community Services uses brain science to fight poverty in Philadelphia. It is part of a trend in human services and health care to rely on evidence accumulated through scientific research.

Aladaya Brinson, left, and Meeka Outlaw pose for a photo at the Episcopal Community Services in Philadelphia, Pa. Friday, August 21, 2020. Both women are participating in an antipoverty program that is designed to help them get out of poverty by changing the way they think. The program is based on brain science showing that the stress of long-term poverty damages the very parts of the brain needed to overcome poverty.
Aladaya Brinson, left, and Meeka Outlaw pose for a photo at the Episcopal Community Services in Philadelphia, Pa. Friday, August 21, 2020. Both women are participating in an antipoverty program that is designed to help them get out of poverty by changing the way they think. The program is based on brain science showing that the stress of long-term poverty damages the very parts of the brain needed to overcome poverty.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

Aladaya Brinson spent her childhood and youth moving with her grandmother from one housing project to another, from South Philly, to North Philly, to Southwest Philly and then back to North Philly, where the 29-year-old now lives.

Brinson didn’t feel poor during what she called her “tour of project homes,” but now recognizes that she and her extended family lived under the constant stress of “survival mode.”

Growing up in poverty, it’s hard to see a way through the tunnel,” she said. “Even just getting a proper education, going to school every day, that is hard when you’re trying to make sure you live to see tomorrow.”

But now Brinson sees a way to a better life, thanks to her participation in a program called MindSet run by the nonprofit Episcopal Community Services. MindSet, modeled on a program developed in Boston, uses coaching to help participants think more clearly and work through a succession of discrete goals, so they can change their circumstances in lasting ways.

The model is based on scientific research showing that long-term poverty damages those parts of the brain that enable individuals to overcome their plight by thinking about the future and making well thought-out choices. It is part of a trend in human services and health care to rely on evidence accumulated through scientific research instead of intuition when designing programs to aid the poor.

That doesn’t mean there’s a quick fix. Episcopal Community Services plans to support Brinson for five years, not just with coaching, but also with regular workshops on financial management, health, and other topics. Plus, the nonprofit will match her savings $2-for-$1, giving her the chance to have up to $10,000 in the bank at the end of the program.

“I just hold Mindset near and dear to my heart. It has done a lot of things for me. It has opened a lot of doors, cleared my mind so I can see myself being in a greater position than where I am now," said Brinson, who has participated in Mindset since its start in January 2019. She remains unemployed, but only because COVID-19 delayed her start at a job that could lead to a career.

The program marks a significant shift for Episcopal Community Services, which is independent but has links to the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania and is marking its 150th anniversary this year. The nonprofit has long provided traditional services to help poor people, including a homeless shelter and workforce development, but recognized four years ago, under a new executive director, that those efforts were not solving the problem of poverty.

“We’re in the maintenance game. We maintain people in poverty. And by the way, that’s what a lot of agencies do. And look, that is vital. You keep people alive,” said David Griffith, the new executive director, describing the way the nonprofit traditionally operated in a city with the highest poverty rate — 24.5% currently — among the nation’s largest cities.

Fighting poverty is a perennial agenda item for Philadelphia politicians, including the current City Council, which in March, before the coronavirus pandemic upended the world, introduced its Poverty Action Plan with the goal of lifting 100,000 Philadelphians out of poverty by 2024. The Inquirer reported last week that Councilmember Maria Quiñones Sánchez hopes to finish that plan by December, starting with at least $20 million, to pilot and implement strategies.

Griffith, who came to Episcopal Community Services in 2013 after a career in business, wanted to steer the nonprofit — founded in the 1870s as the Philadelphia Protestant Episcopal City Mission — toward work that would bring about long-term change in the lives of the people it serves.

“How do we get out of maintenance and get into the change game? How do we help people change their lives?” That’s what Griffith wanted to know.

A new way to fight poverty

The search for a new way to tackle poverty led to Boston, where Economic Mobility Pathways for a decade has been practicing what it calls mobility mentoring. The model ditches traditional case management, which involves a social worker or case manager doing things for the participant and telling them which hoops to jump through.

Mobility mentoring starts by evaluating individuals in five areas of life — family stability, health and well-being, financial management, education and training, and employment and career — and helps them set realistic goals in all of them, with the ultimate target of achieving a living wage. In Philadelphia, that requires annual income of more than $63,000 for one adult and two children, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology living wage calculator.

Episcopal Community Services’ version of the coaching methodology costs $15,000 a year per participant, including the savings match, officials said. Each annual cohort has about 30 members. The program is privately funded from the nonprofit’s own resources and donations.

Economic Mobility Pathways, known as EMPath, said in its 2019 Impact Report that graduates of its five-year mentoring program increased their annual income to $47,000 from $16,000 when they started.

While mobility mentoring was inspired by science, it hasn’t yet undergone the gold standard of scientific testing, a randomized controlled trial. That involves randomly assigning individuals accepted for the mentoring program to a group that gets the intervention or to one that doesn’t and then monitoring the two groups to see what happens after a specified period of time.

Sometimes things that appear to work when comparing before and after are found not to make a difference when tested. That’s what happened when the Camden Coalition subjected its highly touted program to reduce the number of times chronically ill, impoverished individuals went to the hospital.

EmPath has designed a randomized controlled trial, but needs to raise money to implement it, said Nicki Ruiz de Luzuriaga, the group’s vice president of institutional advancement. “Unfortunately, these things are much harder to fund in human services than they are in health care.”

Even without definitive proof that mobility mentoring works, dozens of nonprofits around the country have adopted it. Some government agencies, including Washington State’s Department of Children, Youth, and Families and New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services, have adopted the model or approved its use for government-funded services.

Locally, the Achieving Reunification Center, which receives money from Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services to help reunite parents with their children in foster care, wants to start using the EmPath model in January. Philabundance, a large hunger-relief organization, is working with Episcopal Community Services on ways to implement coaching in its longer term food security efforts.

Soneyet Muhammad, director of workforce and economic inclusion at Drexel University, said MindSet impressed her because it meets people where they are.

“It provides resources and directly, individually coaches people to self-advocate, to determine their own path. That path can be riddled with obstacles, but there’s always somebody there to help nudge you along," said Muhammad, who funnels job- and career-seekers to nonprofits around the city.

Starting from different places

Meeka Outlaw, 41, entered MindSet at the same time as Brinson, in January 2019, part of the first cohort of 30, but from a much different position in life.

Outlaw has a bachelor’s degree, in criminal justice administration, and a job as a neighborhood advisory coordinator for the nonprofit Diversified Community Services, where she helps people who are behind on their real estate taxes or their mortgages get free help from the city.

But her pay is below a living wage for her and her 10-year-old son. That figure is $53,000 for an adult and one child, according to MIT. Her annual pay is $42,000, she said.

The night she saw an advertisement on Facebook for MindSet, she said, “what caught my eye about the program was I’m sitting here with my bachelor’s degree and thinking, ‘This can’t be life.’” She felt stuck, even though in 2016 she started working toward her teacher certification at Eastern University.

Outlaw described herself as a terrible procrastinator. Her MindSet coach has helped her break large goals, such as paying off student loan debt or fulfilling a daunting teacher-certification requirement, into smaller chunks, she said.

Brinson, who has a daughter, 8, and a son, 4, found her way to MindSet through St. Barnabas Mission, an emergency shelter for families in West Philadelphia, where she ended up after her grandmother died. Brinson and her children had to leave her grandmother’s Philadelphia Housing Authority residence.

Now living in the housing authority’s James W. Johnson Homes along Ridge Avenue near 25th Street, Brinson fulfilled the first goal she set since joining MindSet. That was to become certified as a peer specialist, which she described as a coach for people with co-diagnoses of drug or alcohol addiction and mental illness.

Then the pandemic struck, delaying the start date for the job she had landed at Citizens Acting Together Can Help Inc., a Philadelphia human services nonprofit, known as Catch, which provides mental-health, drug and alcohol, and services.

Meanwhile, Brinson is ensuring that her children, especially her daughter, who is older, are exposed to things she missed out on growing up, such as how to properly use banking services.

“When I go to the bank," Brinson said, "I take her with me, so she can see this, so she can see this at a young age, and get taught this at a young age.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at