Maurice Miller proves those in poverty are social solutions, not problems

Like many Ashoka Fellows, Maurice Miller’s journey to becoming a leading social innovator was influenced by his efforts to conquer adversity. He was the child of a poor, immigrant, single mother, and when his sister moved out with a boyfriend at age 16, his mother was devastated.

Miller’s mother dedicated her life to making sure he made it through college. But shortly after he graduated from UC Berkeley with an engineering degree, his mother fell very ill.

To prevent her son from having to spend the money he would earn as an engineer to support her, she took her own life. The loss was devastating.

Soon, Miller left engineering behind and focused his energy on social work. Frustrated by the shortcomings of traditional poverty alleviation programs, Miller met with then-Mayor of Oakland, Jerry Brown, to talk about how they could combat poverty if there were no barriers, rules, regulations, or funding limitations.  It was an original approach that encouraged Miller to test the notion that the people best positioned to help the poor were the poor themselves.

He looked for groups of friends who were willing work together to improve their lives, inspired by the historical examples of ethnic groups that had banded together to improve their livelihoods, such as the African American townships that were built after slavery.

Mayor Brown and Miller agreed to test another principle: no advice whatsoever would be given to the participants. All decisions were theirs to make, and theirs alone; any staff who gave advice about financial training or avoiding predatory lending would be fired.

This radical approach was risky, but their ultimate goal was not providing services or increasing incomes, it was to learn. This innovative work earned Miller an Ashoka Fellowship in 2011.

By placing those in need at the center of the solution, and empowering them to make their own decisions, Miller, like many other social entrepreneurs, treats those—who many would dismiss as charity cases—as the real social change champions. Miller’s organization, the Family Independence Initiative (FII), works with people based on their demonstrated initiative rather than on need.

FII gives people at the lower end of the income spectrum access to capital and support so that they can take the initiative and steer their own path out of poverty.