clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

How Utah is showing the world why faith, self-reliance can combat poverty, create ‘upward mobility’

Church leaders, Utah-based vocational training school highlighted on panel during U.N. conference

Chris Nelson, manager of The Other Side Academy, left, Kimberly Ishoy, with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ planning division of welfare and self-reliance services, Jeanetta Williams, president of the NAACP’s Salt Lake branch, Scott Winship, executive director of the Joint Economic Committee, and moderator Boyd Matheson, opinion editor for the Deseret News, take park in the Interfaith Dialogue at the 68th United Nations Civil Society Conference at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2019.
Chris Nelson, manager of The Other Side Academy, left, Kimberly Ishoy, with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ planning division of welfare and self-reliance services, Jeanetta Williams, president of the NAACP’s Salt Lake branch, Scott Winship, executive director of the Joint Economic Committee, and moderator Boyd Matheson, opinion editor for the Deseret News, take park in the Interfaith Dialogue at the 68th United Nations Civil Society Conference at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2019.
Steve Griffin

SALT LAKE CITY — As thousands of international visitors gather in Salt Lake City to learn ways to build more inclusive and sustainable communities in a time of stark political division, stories of self-reliance and faith-based volunteer efforts to unite together to solve issues like poverty are coming out of Utah.

And those Utahns who see how those approaches actually work in the real world are challenging participants of the 68th Annual United Nations Civil Society Conference to try it in their communities — whether it’s combating poverty or finding a new way to fight prison recidivism.

Take Chris Nelson’s story.

His stepdad was an alcoholic, and he grew up with little supervision. At 12, he began drinking. By his junior year in high school, Nelson had been arrested twice for drunken driving. After high school, he started using drugs, and his life began unraveling.

“For 20 years of my life I was a drug addict,” Nelson said. “On the streets. Hustling for my drugs. Stealing. Robbing. Doing any means I could to get my fix.”

By age 24, Nelson went to prison for the first time after spending years revolving in and out of jail. That cycle continued in prison, until he found something different with the Delancey Street, a vocational training school in California that turned his life around by focusing on building his character and job training first. Six years later, Nelson earned his commercial license and was eventually put in charge of all five of Delancey Street’s moving companies.

Now a Utahn, Nelson manages The Other Side Academy, a vocational training school modeled like Delancey Street where criminals, the homeless and the drug-addicted who have hit rock bottom can get a new chance at life. Rather than focusing on addiction like residential treatment facilities, The Other Side Academy’s two-year program focuses on teaching even hardened criminals how to live a life of honesty, integrity and accountability by working in a moving company — all without subsidy from taxpayer money.

“We don’t focus on the drug addiction aspect of it as much as we do to change that behavior,” Nelson said during Tuesday’s panel, describing how The Other Side Academy’s “senior” students would “call out” the “freshmen” whenever they misstep, from matters as minor as stealing a pair of socks within the house or complaining while on the job.

“How do you make people honest again, have integrity again, be accountable for their actions?” Nelson said. “That’s how we break that cycle.”

Chris Nelson, manager of The Other Side Academy, left, Kimberly Ishoy, with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ planning division of welfare and self-reliance services, Jeanetta Williams, president of the NAACP’s Salt Lake branch, Scott Winship, executive director of the Joint Economic Committee, and moderator Boyd Matheson, opinion editor for the Deseret News, tale part in the Interfaith Dialogue during the 68th United Nations Civil Society Conference at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2019.
Chris Nelson, manager of The Other Side Academy, left, Kimberly Ishoy, with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ planning division of welfare and self-reliance services, Jeanetta Williams, president of the NAACP’s Salt Lake branch, Scott Winship, executive director of the Joint Economic Committee, and moderator Boyd Matheson, opinion editor for the Deseret News, tale part in the Interfaith Dialogue during the 68th United Nations Civil Society Conference at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2019.
Steve Griffin

Stories like Nelson’s came out of a panel held Tuesday at the United Nations conference, where Boyd Matheson, the Deseret News’ opinion editor, moderated a panel focused on “upward mobility,” or the ability for individuals or families to move up in social and economic status.

Alongside Nelson sat Kimberly Ishoy, with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ planning division of welfare and self-reliance services, who has worked in a partnership between the church and the NAACP, taking the church’s self-reliance programs taught around the world and tailoring them for inner-city and minority communities.

Ishoy discussed the importance of using faith-based organizations and community groups to find ways to “lift” people from poverty to become self-reliant while understanding that there’s no “one-size-fits-all” for any one community.

“I think that as a society often we look at problems as individual problems, like if we were to pass a homeless person on the street, we think, ‘Well if they had a job they wouldn’t be homeless,’ or ‘If they weren’t on drugs they wouldn’t be homeless,’” Ishoy said. “Well in reality, if it were that simple, we would have resolved the problem by now.”

Ishoy told, for example, of how “prevalent” payday loans have been in poor societies and “how predatory” they can be on people desperate to make ends meet, only to trap them in deepening poverty as the loans and high interest rates pile on. Ishoy said her team helped people learn how to “be resilient” when faced with challenges using faith to inspire them to solve their own issues.

Ishoy said that work is possible when communities and organizations work together, rather in silos, and are willing to “learn” from each other to find the best way for each case.

“We have the desire to help others ... to erase poverty from the world and ease suffering for the world,” Ishoy said. “We can transform the world together if we would just learn from each other. ... We are the people that will be loving and hugging the next generation of world leaders.”

Michal Mlynár, permanent representative of Slovakia to the United Nations, left, listens to Sister Sharon Eubank, president of Latter-day Saint Charities, during a panel discussion on “Enhancing the Role of Civil Society to Monitor Implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 11” at the 68th U.N. Civil Society Conference at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2019.
Michal Mlynár, permanent representative of Slovakia to the United Nations, left, listens to Sister Sharon Eubank, first counselor in the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Relief Society general presidency and director of Latter-day Saint Charities, the humanitarian arm of the church, during a panel discussion on “Enhancing the Role of Civil Society to Monitor Implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 11” at the 68th U.N. Civil Society Conference at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2019.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Earlier Tuesday, Sister Sharon Eubank, first counselor in the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Relief Society general presidency and director of Latter-day Saint Charities, the humanitarian arm of the church, discussed during a different morning panel how the church encourages communities — including impoverished communities — to prepare for natural disasters, even if that means saving a single spoonful of rice in a jar from every meal.

“I’m convinced every person can do something at a small scale, but it has to be scaled to their ability,” Sister Eubank said.

But there’s a unique challenging facing political and religious leaders these days.

Scott Winship, project director for the Joint Economic Committee of Congress — a body that started the Social Capital Project, a multiyear initiative to investigate the nature, quality and importance of Americans’ relationships — discussed how research suggests trust in religious and political organizations are diminishing in the U.S., and how American culture is changing, with less emphasis on religion and family, diminished engagement with neighbors and less volunteerism.

“People are really tightening their social circles,” Winship said, suggesting that’s due to social media and the ability to prioritize friendships over relationships with neighbors. “

That shift is isolating communities and individuals more, and is resulting in the opposite of what a civil society represents, he said.

“It sounds like it’s a call for all of us to widen our social circles,” Ishoy said. “We’re all part of this great human family. We are literally brothers and sisters to each other, and we all need to welcome the call to open your social circles more.”

Matheson closed the panel with a tidbit about Utah history, telling of how Brigham Young in 1856 issued a call to fellow members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to help two groups of pioneers stuck in the snow in the plains of Wyoming, “children crying, their limbs stiffened by the cold; their feet bleeding and some of them bare to the snow and frost.”

Days later, the rescue party reached the pioneers and helped them to Salt Lake City, “to a city they had never seen but into a community where they belonged,” Matheson said.

“And still today all over the world there are millions of our brothers and sisters who are stranded, disconnected from opportunity,” Matheson said. “It us up to all of us, everyone in this conference, to go and bring them in.”