From Vision to Action

Jesse Conrad & Michael Saccocio

152 pages, aha! Process, Inc., 2013

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Paying the Homeless to Stand Outside Your Business: Schenectady Bridges Project Turns Poverty Upside Down

Interview with Michael Saccocio, conducted by Jesse Conrad


Michael Saccocio is executive director and CEO of City Mission in Schenectady, New York, which has taken the lead in a movement to implement Bridges Out of Poverty (Payne, DeVol, & Dreussi-Smith, 2006) concepts in a variety of helping organizations in the broader Schenectady area.


Jesse Conrad: What made you decide to develop and implement a new strategy?

Michael Saccocio: We’ve always been focused on a need to see transformed lives, and from those transformed lives we can work toward a transformed community. We’ve come to understand that the only way to make the transformed community sustainable is that the folks themselves have to be the leaders of it. We were saying, “Maybe we’re trying too hard to be the leaders ourselves, and we need to reverse that by giving folks we’re working with an opportunity to participate and be on the team. We give them ownership, they’re the leaders of the team, and we can be on the team.”

I started reading Bridges Out of Poverty, and the biggest thing that broke through was how much we didn’t understand. We were vulnerable to thinking we were experts because many of us had spent almost our entire careers working with people from poverty, so you kind of assume that you know everything there is to know. Bridges materials and trainings really got us to better realize that there’s a lot we didn’t understand, but from that understanding, a whole new strategy could emerge in which our folks were being trained to be leaders and to really be part of community transformation and change.

I’m not sure, in terms of physics, if you can have twotipping points, but we had an in-house tipping point and a community tipping point. In-house, as we embedded Bridges constructs, things started working. One of the participants was in drug court at the time, living at the mission, and the judge called us and said, “I’ve never seen such remarkable transformation in an individual.” The judge challenged her to get Supreme Court approval in New York State to bring Getting Ahead to drug court participants. She made two presentations to two New York Supreme Court judges. I had the privilege of driving her there and saying a few words. Right off the bat that flip—where she was becoming the leader and I was on the team—she was leading it, and by virtue of her testimony, we got permission to start offering Getting Ahead classes to Schenectady City and County drug court participants, and that’s still going today.

The second tipping point was in the community. We were getting enough successes in-house that we decided it was time to share it with our collaborative partners in the community, and everywhere I went, people who had great hearts to help people in poverty but also great struggles and probably great frustrations, they experienced continuous aha moments. I came back from that saying, “There’s a universal quality to these trainings.” So the tipping point was when we decided that this needed to be a communitywide movement.

Because the mission has been in the community for more than 100 years, we had good relationships, but I think the open door was not just the fact that people knew who we were, but really that I could share these concrete victories—and everybody wanted in. That led us to submit a grant to the Schenectady Foundation. They gave us a $21,000 grant in 2011, which gave us the resources to offer genuine two-day Bridges Out of Poverty trainings for staff members. In 2011 we trained 144 staff members from seven participating agencies in Schenectady, including City Mission.

It wasn’t that the number 144 is stunning, but we were able to connect seven moving parts and get them to commit to learning and embedding the Bridges ideas. I learned it’s much more valuable to make sure there’s a diversity of agencies represented, even if that slows you down in terms of generating numbers. One of our partners is Ellis Medicine, the only hospital in Schenectady County. If we had worked solely with them, we probably could have trained 200 people just through them, but we really wanted to get everybody on board.

JC: What was the most valuable resource you discovered and utilized in the process of getting started?

MS: People who were excited about it really became the lead resource. It’s great that CEOs and vice presidents are committed to this, but the biggest breakthrough was that front-line people who had the training went back to their worksites and started developing new policies and models based on what they learned in that Bridges training.

A great example is Ellis Medicine’s dental unit. They worked with Schenectady Head Start and created one day a month that would be reserved for Head Start students without appointments. So now the Head Start people know that, on this day of the month, we fill up the van with kids who need dental work, we literally just show up, and they make it work for us. And Ellis is now considering expanding that concept to other parts of the hospital.

What’s really going to make this become a tipping point communitywide is that the front-line folks are becoming the innovators, the inventors, the creators of systems change.

JC: What kinds of results are you seeing?

MS: I’ll give you one example that has really stemmed from Bridges. Our downtown went through a decline, where the downtown became nearly vacant, boarded-up buildings everywhere you looked. Because the property got cheap downtown, a lot of social service agencies moved their offices downtown. That’s where the cheapest rents were and where the bus lines are, so the downtown got increasingly populated with folks coming from poverty.

A group called Metroplex committed to a revitalization of downtown Schenectady about 10 years ago. They’ve been highly successful, and one key to that is Proctors Theater, a 2,700-seat theater that used to be a venue for vaudeville, and as Proctors has grown, they’ve seen in the last 10 years new restaurants, hotels, and businesses open up nearby. A genuine revitalization of downtown.

Okay, so what’s the problem? There are still these social service agencies smack dab in the middle of downtown, and often those two don’t mix well, right? A new restaurant opens, and folks are coming in next door for mental health treatment. At City Mission we are almost on the main block, and we have a 100-bed shelter for men, women, and children. So that is a pretty tense reality, and I understand the issues involved. Long story short, as it was evolving into an either/or battle in downtown Schenectady—we’re either going to have economic development or we’re going to be populated by folks in need of social services—the mission staff was getting trained in Bridges concepts, and we led a movement to adopt a third way. It’s not either/or, not either economic development or helping people in need. We can do both, and ideally the people in need are becoming stakeholders in that economic development.

So here’s what we did: We worked with Proctors Theater and created the Downtown Ambassadors Program. City Mission residents who have been through Getting Ahead training go out every night there’s a show and greet the guests that are coming in. They have uniforms and flashlights, and they help people across the street, direct them to parking, get them to restaurants, hold the door open—it’s really like a sidewalk concierge service. This went so well that the economic development agency offered to pay our people if they’ll continue doing this. So now Proctors has a contract with us, and other businesses nearby want ambassadors to work in front of their businesses, so what we have in Schenectady is the top businesses holding fundraisers to generate money to get more ambassadors. I like to tell people, and Bridges has been a big part of this, that downtown Schenectady may be the only urban center in America where the businesspeople are paying the homeless to stand in front of their business and greet their guests.

JC: That’s a really interesting solution. Finding that third way that doesn’t displace people is incredibly impressive

MS: Thanks. What we realized was—and this was the great breakthrough—we realized we had to teach our folks who became ambassadors what the rules of the middle class are, what the rules of the theater are, what the rules of restaurant life are. Here was the Bridges breakthrough: Although it was very easy for them to learn the rules of the middle class, the fact that they also knew the rules of poverty was an extra benefit for them out there because when issues did come up that were more poverty-based, they knew how to deal with them.

As we implemented the ambassadors program, we thought, well, our folks will get it started, and then they’ll hire students from Union College and let them do it. But do you know why they don’t? Because our folks are in a sense bilingual: They can learn the middle class stuff, but they know the rules of poverty, and that is an asset for them. And that’s right out of the Bridges playbook, that these rules aren’t wrong, they’re just different. It’s all about understanding the context, building on people’s strengths, so the Bridges material has really been a catalyst and an accelerator. And the ambassadors program is something that’s off the charts. Now we’re talking about creating healthcare ambassadors in the hospitals and health centers.

We have them go through a training that really teaches the hidden rules of middle class. But then maybe they’ll encounter someone who’s been drinking too much, or someone who’s passed out in the cold, or someone who’s just disoriented, and they immediately go into action. They know how to get them help. So I think they’re very proud that both parts of their background are now a resource that they’re taking with them into this job.

JC: Talk a little bit about some key lessons you’ve learned.

MS: The main lesson is twofold: First, you can train people and equip them, but then you have to give them the latitude to be innovative at ground level. There’s a tendency with organizations where they train and then choke the life out of it. Bridges isn’t going to work like that. You have to train and then empower people to be creative.

Second, I’ve learned the training can never end. It’s like exercise: You’ve never worked out once and for all. The Bridges concepts are so different from the way we’ve always thought, that for us, even after several years of using them, there’s still an almost reflexive retreat back to what is comfortable and familiar. Bridges to me is like exercise in your workplace. You have to do it every day. If you do, you will love the results. If you think you can coast along using the momentum from prior trainings and that will carry you, I think there’s going to be disappointment.

With the Bridges constructs we’re really bringing new voices to the table. You’re changing the way you’ve always done things, you’re giving a much bigger voice to folks who are receiving services, you’re granting leadership to them, you’re losing some control yourself, and that’s hard work. The results make it all worthwhile, but you have to stay intentional about working with these concepts every day and keeping them fresh in your mind.