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January 13, 2013

Progress Village aims to change perceptions of the poor

Progress Village aims to change perceptions of the poor

TRAVERSE CITY — Nikia Parker knows what it's like to live in poverty in rural northern Michigan.

Parker became pregnant at 19 and let go of her dream of joining the Air Force. She struggled for years as a young mother — she lived in a drafty trailer in Buckley and drove long miles to low-paying jobs. And all the time she worried about how to come up with hundreds of dollars per week to pay for day care, rent, electric and gas bills.

"I was constantly in crisis mode," Parker said. "Shut-off notices. Who do I know who has a space heater?"

Parker finally clawed her way out of poverty. She went to college, earned a nursing degree, and works as a nurse at Munson Medical Center.

But she never forgets her life back when. She's now laboring with some 20 other people, many of them veterans of poverty themselves, in a grass roots advocacy group to help the poor in the Grand Traverse region.

The group is called Progress Village.

"You can get a chance to feel like you are doing something," Parker said. "Inaction is not going to get us anywhere."

Every month, Progress Village members meet in Traverse City to talk about poverty and what they can do to help. Some in the room are in poverty. Others are on the fringes.

Their biggest mission, they said, is to change public perceptions about being poor, including myths that make them cringe the most: that poor people don't want to work, and would rather live off government assistance programs.

Some people may live their lives that way, they acknowledged, but the vast majority of northern Michigan poor are good, hard-working people who toil at multiple jobs, many of them low-paying. The poor often are buried under layers of other complex social problems.

"It's wonderful to be out there talking to people," said Progress Village member Patty Hanell, who also joined the group to change perceptions about the poor. "There's so much we can do if we just stop and think about what we are doing."

Nearly two years ago the Progress Village team held a public forum for northern Michigan government leaders to teach them about poverty myths versus realities. Many talked publicly at the forum about their own life experiences and the type of daily grind that used to grip Parker and so many others.

Progress Village members tackled politics this past election season, and tried to pin down local political candidates on their positions on issues critical to the poor.

The effort turned out to be a tough lesson in civics and politics: the group was less than successful, so Progress Village changed course and started sending group members to political candidate forums to ask questions in public about a politician's positions on poverty.

"It's advocacy," Parker said.

The origins of Progress Village are traced to the Traverse Bay Poverty Reduction Initiative, a community driven collaborative that consists of local businesses, government and concerned citizens. MSU Extension employee Ranae McCauley runs Progress Village meetings and said she's inspired by what she sees coming from the group.

"Lets fight poverty together; let's not fight the people that are in poverty," said McCauley. "We all have a horse in this race."

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