Finding Strength in Our Differences: How We’re Building a Community of Anti-Poverty Advocates

Empower Missouri is an organization with a storied history and deep roots in Missouri.  Founded in 1901, we’ve been advocating for the people of this state for over 120 years.  The organization has operated under four different names, under at least a dozen Executive Directors, and through the leadership of hundreds of board members and staff members across generations. 

I have been serving as the Executive Director of Empower for a little over 18 months now.  In that time, we’ve grown our staff from four to nine and our board from five to eleven. This means we’ve had a constant infusion of new ideas and perspectives joining our team, and we’re constantly tweaking our approach to our work as a result. I often get questions from partners, legislators, and community members about how we make decisions regarding organizational strategy, key relationships, and policy positions, so I thought I would take this opportunity to share four of Empower’s guiding principles. 

Principle #1: First and foremost, Empower Missouri is an anti-poverty organization. 

When we are approached about working on a new policy initiative, the first question that we ask ourselves is “Does this issue have strong implications for people currently living in poverty or make it more likely that poverty will increase across the state?” If the answer is no, we are highly unlikely to take a stance on the issue. In the past, Empower Missouri sometimes leaned into work protecting the rights of groups who are underrepresented in our government and our society. Today, Missouri is lucky to have a number of other advocacy organizations who focus on these issues, and we value their work. People living in poverty are likewise very underrepresented in our government, and we are proud to carry their voices to the capitol. Due to the nature of intersectionality, we are often working very closely with organizations whose core purpose is to represent other underrepresented groups. However, every organization must have guardrails to avoid mission creep, and, today, our primary litmus test is evaluating the implications for people living in poverty. 

Principle #2: We are strictly, fiercely nonpartisan. 

At Empower Missouri, we know that poverty isn’t a partisan issue. Every single legislator in Missouri has constituents who live below the federal poverty line, and we believe that each of those legislators has an important role to play in ensuring that every Missourian has an opportunity to thrive. We are part of a dying breed of organizations that work across the aisle to find solutions that bipartisan coalitions of legislators can support. This spirit of bipartisanship used to be highly valued by legislators and voters alike. While we are living in a moment where it is often more popular to be partisan, we strive to promote the value of bipartisanship to all of our partners. As President John F. Kennedy once famously said, “what unites us is far greater than what divides us.”

Principle #3: When it comes to anti-poverty work, we are eager to build a bigger tent. 

We know that legislators come into their roles with a diverse set of experiences, values, and perspectives that guide their work. We might agree with a legislator on some issues while vehemently disagreeing with them on others. We refuse to let these disagreements stand in the way of us working with those legislators in the future. It is not uncommon for us to be very aligned with a legislator on criminal justice reform but fairly oppositional when it comes to affordable housing, or vice versa. We reject the notion that if you don’t agree with 100% of a legislator’s positions, you shouldn’t work with them on anything. We believe that anti-poverty work is too important to exclude key potential allies because we are not in lockstep on every issue. Our core value of respect means that we work to understand the perspectives and lived experiences of others, seek common ground even when difficult, show compassion, and believe in each other. 

That being said: there are lines we will not cross. We do not work with legislators who engage in violent behavior. We don’t believe that there is any place for those individuals as leaders in our state. We also will not work with legislators who habitually mislead the public on policy issues. It is one thing to have a difference of opinion or a different set of values when it comes to shaping public policy; it is another to repeatedly and knowingly share false information to further one’s own agenda. While we welcome collaboration with individuals with differing ideas, beliefs, or opinions, there are a handful of bad actors in our government, and we choose to steer clear of those individuals. 

Principle #4: Shared motivations are not a prerequisite for doing good work together. 

Empower Missouri’s work has always been driven by a deep belief in equity. Today, equity is one of our core values. We believe that much of the poverty across our state is driven by racism, classism, and unchecked capitalism. We recognize the invisible barriers and privileges built into our social structures and the way they show up in the lives of our neighbors. With this knowledge, we work to remedy inequities through systems change.  Many of our partners share this motivation. Some do not– and that’s okay.  Empower Missouri is not a religious organization, and yet we work with many individuals and organizations who are guided by their faith to similar end goals. We believe that powerful change can be accomplished through coalitions of individuals and organizations who came to the table for different reasons but are united through a shared vision. Our core value of community means that we find strength in our differences, internally and externally. 

I hope that this provides useful insight into our work. I’m always happy to chat with any partner (current or potential!) who has questions about our framework, and I’m grateful for every single person who is committed to building a future of food security, affordable housing, and a fair criminal legal system for all Missourians.

2 Responses
  1. Stephen Zegel, LCSW-MO

    Thank You So Much for this Very Well Written Profile-History-Mission of Our Organization! I came to St. Louis in1967 to attend the MSW program at SLU; I was deferred from the Vietnam War draft at the Federal Center downtown on day after Labor Day, 1967; so I came to St. Louis and SLU to be enlisted in the War on Poverty! In 1965 (Jan-Dec) I was a VISTA Volunteer with training in Baltimore and service at the Catoctin Job Corps Ctr in Catoctin, MD, a mile and half from Camp David! An Outstanding Experience, My 2nd Yr practicum at SLU was with HDC in the Yeatman area. I lived for 6 years in Laclede Town (69-75); from May ’69 to Sept. 73 I was Director of Youth Services at Plymouth House in Carr Square Village, working with youth in Carr Square, Vaughn High Rise, and Pruitt Igoe! We had the successful Public Housing Rent Strike!
    In 1973 I went to the Montgomery-Hyde Park NAC for 2 years (where the Griot Museum is now) and in 1975 from 1986 was ED at Nursery Foundation of St. Louis, 1916 N. Euclid! I have continued to do social Work and am currently (re)employed part-time at Employment Connection in midtown StL, across from vacant Laclede Town! I have been with MO Ass. for Social Welfare and Empower MO (wear the shirt often) for years. A Very Proud Member! Thank You again for letting me tell a little of my professional life story and continuing in our mission to bring Equity and Equality to Our Community and Society, especially in St. Louis, MO!

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