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Burk Tower: Oshkosh poised to turn the tide on poverty - December 8 2015

OSHKOSH, WI - If you've been in and around Oshkosh during the past decade or so, you probably have noticed things are changing.

Our community looks different. The university area is practically unrecognizable after numerous renovations and new construction.

Our downtown looks inviting. There are constant social and cultural activities at the Grand Opera House, convention center, hotel and other great establishments. You see people walking and biking along our riverfront. During the summer, boats line docks near the downtown with people taking advantage of our great recreational resources, entertainment, shopping and dining.

Ten years ago, this was a vision, maybe even just a dream.

While visible changes happened, our community also was making changes from within. Our community leaders came to recognize the power of collaboration. And those individuals lead by example, setting the stage for partnership at all levels throughout our community.

We have a track record that other communities can learn from on how to create change by building a shared vision and working toward common goals.

Our success in collaborating to solve community problems in Oshkosh, and throughout Northeast Wisconsin, has attracted the attention of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI), an internationally recognized consulting group looking to affect social change.

IHI has offered consulting support for a regional poverty reduction movement at no cost to us. Added to this is an investment from the Basic Needs Giving Partnership - a collaboration bringing together the U.S. Venture Fund for Basic Needs; the J. J. Keller Foundation the community foundations in Oshkosh, the Fox Valley and Green Bay; and other community donors - to cover training expenses to help us build our own capability to systematically improve upon existing programs and services that will lower our poverty rate.

This is a tremendous opportunity. And through the Foundation's Tackling Wicked Problems learning experiences over the past two years, we believe our community is in an ideal position to take our collaboration to a deeper level and create meaningful change.

Why a poverty reduction initiative? First, the poverty rate in Winnebago County is trending in the wrong direction, despite the unemployment rate moving in a favorable direction. Did you know that the county's poverty rate has doubled since 2000? Meanwhile, after a spike in unemployment during the 2009 Great Recession, the unemployment rate is normalizing.

Second, poverty is a common thread in many current efforts to strengthen our communities and quality of life.

We believe that reducing the number of people living in poverty will translate into stronger schools, healthier neighborhoods, lower unemployment and underemployment rates, healthier people, less crime and a better quality of life for everyone.

Despite millions of government and philanthropic dollars targeting the root causes of poverty, we have not yet seen a turning point.

It has become clear that it is going to take a new approach for us to change the tide of poverty.

This is an exciting opportunity for our community to learn from globally-recognized experts, from other communities in Northeast Wisconsin and from each other.

The Foundation's role is to proactively address significant issues in the community. We have a history of pulling people together, building consensus and developing resources to make a vision for our community a reality. We look forward to learning along side community members as we take on this wicked problem.

On Dec. 15, we are pulling together people from the community - including businesses and nonprofits, education and government, religion and health care and community advocates - to learn more about this opportunity and the needs in our community. Anyone can participate. Register online or call the foundation at 920-426-3993.

Burk Tower is Interim President and Chief Executive Officer of the Oshkosh Area Community Foundation, a nonprofit charitable organization serving the residents of Winnebago County, Waushara County, Green Lake County and Ripon.
 

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