Helping others through innovation

Mark Bergel, Ph.D., founder and CEO at A Wider Circle, discusses how his non-profit works through an entrepreneurial approach to help over 26,000 people in pove...

In the D.C. region, poverty still chokes a huge number of citizens, and the bottom fifth of earners have almost no social or economic mobility. To understand what one area nonprofit is doing to bring dignity into the lives of impoverished peoples, we spoke with Mark Bergel, Ph.D., founder and CEO of A Wider Circle.

ABERMAN: Well, let’s start by sharing what A Wider Circle is, and what you’re trying to do to solve a really big social problem.

BERGEL: Sure. A Wider Circle is a 501c3 non-profit organization, grassroots in nature, and what I mean by that is, we rely on a lot of volunteers, and we’re not heavily government funded. Although, we’re open to all kinds of funding. But in truth, we work on the ground every day. So, we serve about 26,000 people a year right now, and we get to know them, some folks we get to know really well. And I started the organization honestly because I was just embarrassed and sick and tired of seeing people living in conditions that are unacceptable, certainly in a region where there is so much abundance. There’s no way we should have people so many living in such scarcity. That’s just a lack of connecting to one another, and a lack of prioritizing those with the greatest need.

ABERMAN: I think that, as is often the case, people do things where they’re angry about how things are happening, and they provide their own energy, and that’s what I think when I think about entrepreneurs. Do you think about yourself as an entrepreneur?

BERGEL: I do. I certainly did when I started the organization. I built it to be an entrepreneurial nonprofit, which is to say, not encumbered by a lot of policies or bureaucracy, but to allow my team and I to move toward outcomes with with an eye on what’s working and what’s not working. And whatever is not working, once we’ve given it enough time, then let’s just change it. And really more to the point, an organization that will be able to listen to people we serve, and adapt, and change our programs based on what they express as the needs they experience.

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ABERMAN: What kind of services do you offer these 26,000 people?

BERGEL: Sure. Most people, about 16,000 of those folks, get their homes furnished by A Wider Circle; which is, they come to us, about 20 families a day, after having woken up that morning in apartments where they maybe have a possession or two or three. Most don’t have beds, dressers, tables or chairs, and we give them everything, from beds, dressers, tables and chairs, to sheets and towels, dishes, pots, pans, lamps, coffee tables, couches. You name it, they get all those items for free, because again, we live in a region where there is so much, and nobody should have to be living in that kind of scarcity. And it’s a little Maslow’s hierarchy at that point, right?

If we really are trying to help folks get back into the workforce, for example, or to have greater longevity in school, for another example, then we need to make sure they have a stable, dignified home in which to live. Without that, it’s hard to do anything else, even if you give them a great class, unemployment skills, or employability skills, or technical skills. If they go back and they’re living in a home where they have to sleep on the floor, or four people share a bed, it’s hard to implement even the greatest knowledge you may learn in a particular day.

ABERMAN: You know, it’s funny. I was recently overseas in Italy, as it happens, and I was really struck, as I was sitting there, that… Luxury. You know, whether it was a really tasty piece of food, or a piece of furniture, or whatever, luxury is something that wasn’t seen as being given to rich people. It was just table stakes that everybody should have something in life that delights them. And I wonder, is that what you’re really getting at? That ultimately, you’ve got to democratize dignity before you can actually have democracy? Does that make sense?

BERGEL: It’s a great phrase. And I think your point is well made, that it’s really about everybody having a chance, equal opportunity. And it’s been said so many times, but the number one reason the people we serve, the people with whom I speak every day, are in poverty, is birth, and a lack of economic mobility in the lower fifth of our country. There’s pretty good economic mobility in the top four fifths. Right, you see a lot of movement up and down, but in the lower fifth, you don’t see a lot of movement up and out of poverty. Poverty is often a life sentence. And so, this is not a charity I run, it’s a social justice organization. And to your point, I think that the main goal is, again, to make sure we provide opportunities for everybody. That’s the only thing that makes sense.

ABERMAN: Before we came on the air together, one of the things that we were talking about, which I really want to get after, is this idea that it’s so easy in our community to ignore people in poverty, because they’re not like us. You say that there’s not much social mobility, so many people don’t know impoverished people. Doesn’t that ultimately create the problem you’re trying to solve?

BERGEL: It not only does that, but it also informs our programming. And I mean by that that we tried to create greater connections. We bring people together who don’t normally connect, whether it’s an individual who’s had success in the workplace becoming a job coach, a volunteer job coach, for somebody who hasn’t had that kind of success. We try to make those kinds of connections. We are a whole, right? We are a part of the same social organism, and we live our lives as if we’re very different from one another. But we’re not very different from another. We are highly interdependent, not only interconnected. And so, the fact that we let people live in poverty leaves a void in our own lives. And I don’t know if we all feel it, but I think we do feel that at some level, that void of having people suffer so much when it’s unnecessary to do so.

And I think that that makes us whole when we connect to others, and make sure that, again, everybody has a chance. And this is not rocket science. Poverty is solvable. The only reason we don’t solve it is we don’t have the will. No matter what we say, we don’t have the will. If we had the will, we would make sure we solved it. If your kid lived at the corner of, well, let’s just pick any corner that’s a dangerous impoverished corner. You would not stand for it. My guess is that you would make sure either your kid got out of there, or that corner got safe. And the answer is to make those corners safe.

The fact that we allow ourselves to live in our nation’s capital, and say, oh, that’s a bad neighborhood, stay out of that neighborhood, that’s ridiculous! Why is there a bad neighborhood? Somebody is living there. So, you staying out of it doesn’t do any good for society. What does good for society is making sure there’s not a bad neighborhood. And the way you create those neighborhoods as safer and more positive places to live, is bringing resources, and making sure everybody who lives there has opportunities

ABERMAN: And making sure that, ultimately, they’re as real as the person down the street from wherever somebody lives.

BERGEL: Yeah, I think that’s right. There’s no other, and this otherness, even in the social service sector, we have a lot of silos, and a lot of territorialism, and we need to get past that, and work as one integrated whole. Because that’s truly how we exist, so we might as well live that way.

ABERMAN: Well, Mark, I really appreciate you coming on today. I admire your work at A Wider Circle, and I appreciate you taking the time to share some of your work with us today. That was Mark Bergel, Ph.D., the founder of A Wider Circle.

BERGEL: Thanks.

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