Day of Impact 2019

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Spokane County United Way brought hundreds of people together in one day to experience and discuss issues our community faces around financial stability, educational opportunity gaps, and racial equity.

Attendees were divided into two experiential learning groups. One group participated in a Racial Equity Training where they “walked” through what systemic racism is and the impact it has on our community today. The other group “walked” through a poverty simulation. People experienced what it feels like to live pay check to pay check; a reality for 38% of families in our community. These families are known as ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed). ALICE families are often only one unexpected dilemma away from being homeless.

Spokane County United Way works to provide compassionate and holistic solutions for our community’s most pressing issues.


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Excelerate Success

Excelerate Success staff Michaela Brown and Lesley Crane work to ignite sustainable social and systemic change by leveraging community voice and power to identify and confront opportunity gaps. Through individual and collective transformation, they work to create learning spaces that honor the unique identities and lived experiences of every person.

Read what ALICE Challenge participants had to say last year in an article written by Avista staffer Jae Ham:

“Everyone is so frantic, and they know it’s just a simulation,” said Michael Truex, construction project manager at Avista and ‘General Employer’ in the United Way ALICE simulation. “In 15 minutes, they are returning to their normal lives. The people who actually live this don’t have that luxury.”

I was invited to observe the ALICE (asset-limited, income-constrained, employed) simulation that United Way (UW) was hosting. As the simulation was nearing its end, the tension, chaos, and distress were becoming palpable. But so was the need for community unity.

I didn’t know what to expect, and based on the reactions of the participants, neither did they.
An overview of ALICE
The object of ALICE is to immerse each person into the reality of what life just above the poverty line but below the basic cost of living is like, because according to stats UW shared with its audience, on average 38 percent of our region lives that reality every day. That’s no small number.
Participants learn personally and experientially rather than strictly by taking in information abstractly. The ALICE simulation assigns each participant an identity, replete with name, age and an ALICE family unit and then gives each family a limited income, set of possessions and a realistic litany of life-sized obligations and circumstances. These can include work, school, childcare, job loss, transportation, unavailability of benefits due to being above the federal poverty line, etc. The general chaos inherent in life is then peppered in in various ways to keep it as realistic as possible. Being robbed, receiving unexpected assistance, or even knowing how to access and utilize available resources can be the difference between a family making it through another month or losing their grip on the mortgage.
Each ALICE family progresses through four 15 minute segments. Each 15 minute segment represents a week of what life is like in the experience of an actual ALICE family. The simulation is based on situations commonly observed in the lives of people who cope with this kind of poverty and UW and SNAP stresses that the simulation is an experience, not a game.
The experience
An impression began to form upon me as I meandered through the chaos of people scrambling to meet their respective challenges and to take care of their ALICE families. The tone of conversation was one of just trying to survive. Here are a few examples of what I heard from ALICE participants:
“Do we need to fill our prescriptions?”
“What? She said she paid that! I’m gonna get her.”
“Sometimes we have to do what we have to do.”
“They were super happy to go to jail because they got fed.” 
“Our family has only $6 of wiggle-room in our monthly budget. I need $3 for school supplies tomorrow. It’s going to be tight.”
Sherry Bentley, accounting analyst at Avista shared her experience: “I stood in lines, only to run out of time and have to return home without being helped. My 17 year old son had to support our family with his part-time job. I had to tell my daughter “no” when she asked for $5 to go on a school field trip. I felt like a terrible mother! Even though it was a simulation, I actually felt my heart rate increasing with each hardship, and I felt physically stressed, trying to figure out how I was going to support my family.” 
Avista’s Amanda Ghering, campaign development associate on loan to UW, stood in line to apply for assistance. She was participating as a 42-year-old man named Albert Aber and remarked “I’m about to lose my house.”
One ALICE participant was approached by an in-simulation police officer and subsequently arrested under suspicion of multiple attempts of robbery. “My kids aren’t eating and I can’t get a job. I’m trying to take money from someone.”
In fact, petty crime was more common than you might think. Avista’s Cody Myers, construction services tech in Coeur d’Alene, had a unique experience in his ALICE family role as a 10-year-old boy in the Chen family. “It’s crazy how little our family could get done. I guess I didn’t realize how much of a struggle it is. Mom works all day, dad lost his job but has to pay bills and my 16-year-old sister is always out with her boyfriend, leaving me to take care of our eight-year-old brother. We were bored so we started hanging out with this older kid who taught us how to sell drugs.” Prior to this, Mr. Chen, the in-simulation father of this ALICE family had a good job and the family enjoyed a fairly comfortable life. More than once I heard it stated that this kind of poverty is always one step away from becoming the reality for many families, but that it takes many more steps to get out of it. Some, perhaps, never do.
This is where United Way steps in
Spokane County United Way is working to create long-term solutions to improve education, income and health to fight poverty. They focus on increasing high school graduation rates, financial stability of families and on decreasing domestic violence, child abuse and neglect rates. A family in the simulation is considered to have survived ALICE conditions if they kept their home secure, utilities on, school-age children in school, made loan payments, didn’t scrimp on the food budget and responded appropriately to unexpected and miscellaneous expenses.
When it was over, the participants and their hosts held a debriefing session to highlight insights that had been valuable as a result of their experience. A scant few ALICE families had improved their situations, one or two had even managed to secure housing whereas they had started out living in a shelter.
Rest assured, ALICE families who improved relied on resources like the ones UW makes available to real people in no-win situations, helping them to break the cycle.
Scott Phipps, senior IT systems analyst for Avista said “…there was no time for self-improvement. I didn’t find a way around that. It really makes you think.”

Click here to take an online ALICE Challenge.