‘Life on the Edge 2’: Engaging All of Kitsap County in the Fight Against Poverty

In 2012, an intensive simulation asked Life on the Edge participants to consider what life is like for Kitsap County’s poor.

What does it feel like to live on the edge of poverty?

That’s the question that Kitsap Credit Union’s Cathy Brorson asked in May 2012 during an intensive, interactive simulation at “Life on the Edge,” a day-long discussion designed to challenge community members’ perceptions about — and response to — poverty in the community.

The impact of the simulation was dramatic. Participants talked about immediately feeling stress and panic, about feeling isolated and frustrated, helpless and anxious. They talked about a lack of social connections, and about a general mistrust of a system that should have been there to help them.

And they vowed to take action: to encourage more coordination between agencies, for example, or to be more flexible with policies. To ask more questions, be less judgmental, act with integrity.

“By the end of the day, people left the event more compassionate, ready to listen first, to gain more understanding,” Brorson says. “It was a very personal journey that stirred a variety of emotions for every participant.”

On March 12, Brorson will take that journey to the next level.

“Life on the Edge 2,” which is scheduled from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. at the Kitsap Conference Center in Bremerton, will move beyond inspiring personal change to engaging the community in identifying priorities and creating the kinds of programs that can sustain change. Information about the event is available from Brorson at 360.662.2153 or cbrorson@kitsapcu.org; to register, go to www.kitsapfoundation.org.

The day will include a ‘State of Housing’ address from Kitsap County Commissioner Linda Streissguth, a Resource Fair, break-out sessions and a panel discussion about the issues facing people who are living on the edge. Brorson will then compile a report that will help inform the decision-making process for a Poverty Alleviation Project — a partnership between the Kitsap Community Foundation, United Way and the Suquamish Tribe — that will invest $1 million toward alleviating poverty in the community.

“I’m not focused on the money,” says Brorson, Kitsap Credit Union’s outreach coordinator, “but more on identifying the priorities and ideas for how it might best be distributed and utilized within the community. Granted, the funding will actually bring it to fruition, but the collective engagement of the community is what will sustain change.”

On the eve of Life on the Edge 2, Anthem asked Brorson to talk about the impact of poverty on Kitsap County, the lessons learned from the first Life on the Edge, and what she hopes to accomplish at next week’s event.

Q: How do poverty and homelessness impact Kitsap County?

About 9 percent of Kitsap County residents and 19 percent of Bremerton residents live in poverty. In 2013, 4.5 percent of students attending classes in the Bremerton School District were considered homeless. This year, 487 people stood in line to take part in the annual Project Connect, a six-year, one-stop services venue for those who are homeless or low-income.

Poverty and homelessness issues affect every facet of a community, and Kitsap is not unique. I think what people miss, either by choice or just ignorance of the issues, is that poverty affects everyone.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Life on the Edge, and how did you think it could address the issues of poverty and homelessness?

“Too often, our assumptions and judgments are made without all the facts. That’s what I wanted to change.”
— Cathy Brorson, Kitsap Credit Union

As a Credit Union Development Educator, I wanted to do a project that was relevant and meaningful. I created Life on the Edge out of a desire to change people’s perception of, and response to, poverty.

Through my work with various community organizations, boards and committees, I found that it was common for people to make assumptions at first glance. For example, we see a homeless person sitting on the curb and, with some distain, we think, “Why doesn’t he go get a job, or get help, or (fill in the blank).” Too often, our assumptions and judgments are made without all the facts. That’s what I wanted to change.

Through Life on the Edge and the simulation exercise, people quickly realized that their responses — more often than not — were wrong.

Q: The original event focused on individual responses to poverty and homelessness. How has that played out?

One outcome of Life on the Edge was a list of action items, or personal commitments, that attendees could begin putting into practice that day. But it’s evident that those were all just symptoms of greater problems — not the real issues. By paring that list down to a few key concepts, I hope to address the real issues at Life on the Edge 2. For example: How do we successfully marry the structure of regulation with the precarious, emotional needs of someone in poverty at a moment of crisis?

Life on the Edge attendees have shared with me how the event affected them and how they’ve changed, or how they’ve applied what they learned. One lady actually found herself having to navigate the system to help her elderly grandmother receive medical care and housing. She was living the simulation exercise in real life. What she experienced in the simulation prepared her for how best to deal with the agencies, regulations, frustration, etc., and helped her navigate the system successfully.

Q: This year’s event is different though – more of a community focus. Why the shift?

You have to motivate the individual to change first, and the balance of education and the emotional upheaval of the simulation at the first event were the right tools to bring about a significant shift in people’s thinking. But at Life on the Edge 2, it’s about more than just personal change. It’s about moving beyond oneself to true communication and community collaboration for change. My intention is to light a passion to change the community through personal engagement.

Q: How will input from Life on the Edge 2 be used to inform the $1 million Poverty Alleviation Project grant?

Evicted, with nowhere to go: How, Life on the Edge asks, can the community better respond to crises in its members’ lives?

Our panel (which will include Dr. Michelle Reid, superintendent of the South Kitsap School District; Dr. Scott Lindquist, director of health for the Kitsap Public Health District; Steven Strachan, chief of police for the Bremerton Police Department; and other community leaders) will look at some of the key things that people need in order to get out of poverty — things that will keep them farthest from the edge, such as a stable income, education, job readiness, etc. We’ll ask questions about dealing with intergenerational poverty and explore ways to break the cycle. We’ll talk about setting priorities and how best to distribute this new funding source.

All of this will be compiled into a report that I’ll prepare following the event. In addition, Bremerton Kitsap Access Television (BKAT) will film the event for two, 2.5-hour broadcasts. The Kitsap Community Foundation, United Way and Suquamish Tribe will then filter through our feedback and glean what they need to assist them in their decision-making process.

Q: How do you personally envision the money being used to alleviate poverty and homelessness in Kitsap County?

My community is already doing so many great things to address and combat poverty, homelessness and housing issues, but I know we can do more. Oddly enough, I haven’t really thought about what I myself want to see in terms of specific programs. I guess I’m not set on any specific outcome as far as where the grant money ends up.

My focus is more on engaging the community as a united force to make those decisions. It’s about going beyond ourselves and our own motivations to say, “What’s best for all?” That’s what I hope our outcome is.

For more information about Life on the Edge 2, contact Cathy Brorson at 360.662.2153 or cbrorson@kitsapcu.org; to register, go to www.kitsapfoundation.org.

Questions? Contact Gary M. Stein: 503.350.2216, gstein@nwcua.org.

Posted in Events.