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The Power of Community

By Allison Kooser

This blog was originally given as a speech at the Gallery of Opportunity event in New York City on October 16, 2014. 

Everyone has an elevator pitch. The brief explanation of what they do (and if you are lucky, why they do it) that they can pull out and rattle off at a moment’s notice to anyone who might show signs of interest. I’m no exception. I have a personal one – the story that explains me as a brand. And I have one for Opportunity International, the international non-profit organization for which I work. It often goes something like this:

Opportunity International is in the business of fighting extreme poverty by investing in entrepreneurs who are working hard to build a better life for themselves and their families in over 20 countries around the world. We provide microfinance – small-scale loans, savings accounts, insurance and training – as a tool to empower people working their way out of poverty. What makes Opportunity’s work so unique is that it’s sustainable. Instead of providing hand-outs – which get used up and need to be replaced – we provide a hand up – giving assistance while recognizing the inherent dignity and giftedness of the people we serve.

And the question I often get at the end of this little summary is how? How can we equip and empower people sustainably? How do we create lasting impact? And how do we move the needle significantly and permanently on extreme poverty?

The answer I keep coming up with is community. The power of community – both local and global – makes our work possible.

There is a famous African proverb which says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” And the more I dwell on those words, the more I am struck with how amazing they really are.

At Opportunity, we know how significant this togetherness can be. Our loan clients are quite often new business owners with no collateral and no safety nets. So instead of extending a loan to an individual and hoping for the best, we create Trust Groups – communities of 10-30 people, often women, who encourage and support one another and guarantee the success of one another’s businesses. Loans are extended to the group, and the group is collectively responsible for paying the loans back. It’s a system that necessarily ties a community together and links the success of each individual to the success of the group. And it works – our repayment rate on loans is about 98%.

Consolee is a member of the Umumiro Trust Group in Uganda. Prior to joining her group, Consolee was a widow who knew nothing about modern farming processes. She tried to survive off of her land, but didn’t have enough to send her children to school. Umumiro is a special group – one that concentrates on involving widows and supporting them as they learn to farm. Today, Consolee can afford for six of her children to go to high school – and they are looking forward to attending university. She has grown her farm to 2 hectares and owns a cow. And most importantly, the group has transformed her from an impoverished widow to a successful farmer. This is the power of community.

In Nicaragua, existing Opportunity clients decided that they needed fresh water in their town. They joined together with the local Opportunity bank to devise a plan, and as a town, raised thousands of dollars in skills and labor to put toward the project. Together, they brought water to a village and transformed hundreds of lives. This is the power of community.

Last year, I met Thomas, a school proprietor in Uganda. Thomas grew up in extreme poverty and was forced to leave his home because his parents couldn’t continue to raise him. He ended up in Kampala looking for work, but desperate for an education. Miraculously, he found work with a man that took him in as his child – and who paid for Thomas to finish his university education. Educated, Thomas went back to his community to start a school; at the beginning, he only had six students. He got a loan from Opportunity, equipping him to build an additional building. When I last talked to Thomas, his school had over 800 students. He employed a number of teachers, including several of his siblings. He adopted over 20 orphans from the neighborhood and is raising them as his own. And when I asked how he learned about Opportunity, he told me his friend Evans, another Opportunity client and school proprietor, had told him. This is the power of community.

This is one person succeeding because of the network around him – and then paying it forward. Thomas, Consolee and an entire Nicaraguan village are going far because they refuse to go alone.

Communities create a safety net – empowering you to take risks that might otherwise be unimaginable.

Communities encourage you. They support and inspire and cheer you on – providing a much-needed fan club or sounding board when things get tough.

And communities challenge you. They ask the tough questions that make you better. They motivate you to be the best that you can be.

What’s amazing about these lessons is that they are transferrable.

You are a part of a community. Whether it’s an office or a club or a class or a neighborhood. A church or a team or a family. And you similarly encourage each other, challenge each other and build a safety net around one another. The risks and challenges might be different, but the message is the same. And in the same way a Trust Group transforms the community itself, and the world around it, so too can you.

You and I and all of Opportunity’s clients are part of a global community. And it is this global community that is going to end extreme poverty. Together – supporters, clients, organizations – we can make a difference. But it will require all of us working together to eradicate extreme poverty. Because there is still so much work to be done. Because a community has collective impact – collective strength and power and creativity and resources and voice.

So what will you do as a member of this community?

Because to go far, we must go together. 

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