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Washtenaw United: Ypsi-based 'Friends In Deed' working to tear down systemic barriers to escaping poverty

Sarah Thornburg
Sarah Thornburg
Friends In Deed
Sarah Thornburg


Lives in Ypsilanti. Married with 3 daughters and 2 grandchildren. Army brat. Undergrad: BA in Political Science from the University of Alabama in Huntsville. Master’s in Public Administration from UM Rackham Graduate School. 11 years as Executive Director of Friends In Deed. 5 years at the Salvation Army of Farmington Hills. 10 years experience in different roles at NASA. Passionate quilter with an addiction to fabric.


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU's Washtenaw United. And I'm David Fair. There are a good many among us who have felt the financial hardship of the pandemic as we steer into what most believe will be a full-blown recession. There's also too many in our community who were living in poverty well before the economic slowdown. In our ongoing exploration of equity and opportunity on Washtenaw United, we wanted to learn more about available resources for those struggling to stay on their feet. The Ypsilanti-based organization Friends In Deed is one of those resources. Its stated mission is to help people in need and to build community to end poverty. Our guest today is Friends In Deed executive director Sarah Thornburg. And thank you so much for checking in with us today, Sarah.

Sarah Thornburg: Thanks, David. Great to be here.

David Fair: We've talked before, but I do kind of want to set a baseline for our conversation today. You have a two-track approach to the manner in which Friends In Deed concentrates its mission. What are those tracks?

Sarah Thornburg: Well, you just said it in our mission statement. We help people in need and build community to end poverty. We fill in the gaps in the social safety net here in Washtenaw County by providing for emergency financial crises not covered by other organizations, things like utilities shutoff and water shutoff--the list is so long--storage for homeless, work clothes for people in need who are getting new jobs, lots of transportation issues, car repair, car insurance, tires, all kinds of things like that. And also, free furniture, free beds and cribs, that we provide for families and individuals in Washtenaw County. And then, the second part is building communities in poverty. This is primarily focused over the last five years in our Circles program, which works with families to help them set goals and fulfill goals by creating relationships in the community to lead their families out of poverty. The work that has me talking to you today--the Poverty Reduction Collaborative work through United Way--is building on to that.

David Fair: Well, Friends In Deed has been around for about 35 years, and the last 11 or so, you've been at the helm. And as we begin to enter a new phase, a new program, can we assess whether there's been any progress in combating poverty or the widening gap in income disparity and a pandemic economy that made it worse?

Sarah Thornburg: I would love to tell you that we've seen great progress in the reduction in the poverty rate in Washtenaw County and indeed throughout the country. But the reality is it hasn't changed. In 1964, President Johnson in his inaugural address declared a war on poverty. But the reality is there's not been a statistical change in poverty since then, despite billions and billions of dollars being spent to help people who are experiencing poverty. The actual number of people who live in poverty has not changed very much. So, you know, we've had temporary help through the pandemic for families, but those things are going away. And they didn't change people's poverty level either. They just helped them to weather the pandemic. So, not to be a Debbie Downer, but I really will tell you there hasn't been much change over these last five decades or more.

David Fair: Well, perhaps, there is more reason for optimism. Washtenaw United and our conversation with Friends in Deed Executive Director Sarah Thornburg continues on WEMU. As you mentioned, the next phase of combating poverty through community building at Friends In Deed is being called the Poverty Reduction Collaboration. It seems clear what the goal of the project is, but how is it going to work?

Sarah Thornburg: Well, the first thing that I want to say about the Poverty Reduction Collaborative is it's going to be a system that holds accountable for reducing poverty. The system that we have in place and that has been in place for these many, many years has really been a management system. And, again, that's important. Helping people who are in poverty to stay alive and stay fed and stay housed is critically important. But it's managing the system of poverty, managing the symptoms of poverty. And what the Poverty Reduction Collaborative, like the Circle Program, says is we need to be held accountable for getting people out of poverty and not accepting that 15%, approximately, of Washtenaw County residents live in deep poverty, and that there's an additional 20% on those that don't know where the next paycheck...if they're going to make it to the next paycheck. And that's almost 30% of our population living financially unstable. And we just have to say that we're not going to accept that, but then we have to hold ourselves accountable to the goals. So, that's kind of the big picture. But how it's going to work is we're taking a little slice of that poverty management system, the nonprofit system, and putting together a collaboration of seven local nonprofits who are committed to looking at their own system and involving people in poverty, seeing them as the experts, and coming up with new programs to pilot within our agencies to break these sticking points that are keeping people in poverty.

David Fair: As simple as that seems, calling on the expertise of those experiencing poverty, it still almost feels like a new and innovative idea. How did that come about?

Sarah Thornburg: Well, I mean, part of it was just recognizing a lot through our work with Circles that even though we've been working with people in poverty for a long time, I have been for over 20 years, we're not the experts. You know, that was kind of a light bulb. Who are the experts about poverty? Is it academics doing research? Is it those of us in nonprofit? No. It's the people who live in poverty. So, the Poverty Reduction Collaborative is going to do exactly that. We're going to get these nonprofits banded together to do this. They're going to get the people that they serve--or some of the people they serve--together. And we are going to ask them, "Where are you getting stuck? What are the problems we're seeing in the nonprofit system? What are your ideas for fixing these solutions?" Because what we want to be in is a space where we're co-designing and co-creating solutions with the people who are actually the experts with the people who are experiencing the situation of poverty. And that may sound simple, but it is not the way that poverty has been addressed in the past.

David Fair: I was going to say, through all your work, there is a lot of institutional and community knowledge there, and yet, there's a level of humility that needed to be recognized in order to move forward, so that you can learn through the collaboration of things that perhaps weren't under consideration.

Sarah Thornburg: Yeah, I think there have been for many, many years the mindset that people with resources and education know better. And the reality is that's not true, because, you know, I was a single mom for a while early in my life, and I wasn't paid that much at that point, but I was not in poverty. You know, my parents were always there for me with resources. I had a degree. I was moving forward. And even though for a temporary time, I, you know, went back on the economic scale. That was not my trajectory. It wasn't what I was raised in. And if you think about families of generations who have lived in poverty, the wealth of knowledge they have about those systems and what worked and what doesn't have to be where the nuggets of solution are going to come from.

David Fair: Once again, you're listening to Washtenaw United. We're talking about the work to help those in need and the ongoing effort to end poverty in our community with Sarah Thornburg. She is executive director of Friends In Deed. Now there are people from all walks of life that do experience poverty. But when we talk about the systemic barriers to escaping poverty, we have to factor in race. Government and social programs, as you mentioned, are designed to manage poverty, not eradicate it and functionally deal with it. So, what do you hope to take from this program and implement as ideology and methodology that can kind of start to change those systems?

Sarah Thornburg: Well, one thing I really appreciate is that our county, specifically, but, you know, even across the country is finally the recognition that racism and poverty are hand-in-hand--that we have an overrepresentation of people of color below the poverty level because of the inequities and inequalities that have historically existed in our country. And, until you recognize that, it's hard to say, "Okay, how can we right those wrongs? And how can we look at our system to find those things and try to address them?" And I see us doing that in Washtenaw County in the criminal justice system and in this work and working toward alleviating poverty. I just really appreciate, I will say in the past, a lot of funders in Washtenaw County have focused on funding the symptoms of poverty, which that's important. You have to put money on helping people find housing and be food secure. But now, led by the United Way, the Ann Arbor Community Foundation, and the Office of Community and Economic Development, all three are focusing on poverty, race, and trauma, recognizing how those three things feed each other. And this is our piece--to look at poverty and how we can create new solutions to getting people out of poverty.

David Fair: So, there's this collaborative of seven nonprofits that are going to do work. They're going to include and make the expert voices those who are experiencing poverty. What level of interest are you receiving from those who will then be charged with learning from you, taking the information, and actually making the social, governmental, and political changes needed to create those greater opportunities for reducing poverty?

Sarah Thornburg: Well, I'll tell you, the closest partnership we've had so far is with the United Way of Washtenaw County. They have provided funding for this work and in other systems change work through the Justice Fund that just started this year and follow on to this initial part that we're going to be doing with the Poverty Reduction Collaborative and what we're going to learn from these nonprofits and people in poverty is then to take it to a wider, all stakeholder, community-wide convening system where we can then bring in employers and other people who we know are going to be key to reducing poverty. And the United Way has really endorsed that idea and agreed to be a partner in that sort of second phase of this work. And I know that as we move on in the next year, as we're putttin in the Poverty Reduction Collaborative into effect, that we will find other partners. Right now, the United Way is our biggest champion.

David Fair: Well, I think that has set a baseline. It sounds like we'll need to talk again in a year and see where we've come and where we still need to go.

Sarah Thornburg: That sounds great.

David Fair: Thank you so much for sharing with us today, Sarah. I appreciate it.

Sarah Thornburg: Thank you, David. And I appreciate so much everything that WEMU does locally to raise nonprofit and social service issues through this program and so many others.

David Fair: That is Sarah Thornburg. She's executive director of Friends In Deed and our guest on Washtenaw United. For more information on Friends In Deed and the work Sarah and the organization are doing in our community, visit our web site at WEMU dot org. I'm David Fair, and this is 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti.


Friends In Deed

WEMU has partnered with the United Way of Washtenaw Countyto explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area. And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services. It is a community voice. It is 'Washtenaw United.'

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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