Michelle Rhone-Collins has long been drawn to advocacy work as a way to build meaningful relationships and empower others. It was while setting up health clinics in rural North Carolina as a college student that she realized that this was what she wanted to do with her life. “I saw the passion and determination that existed,” she says. “People have these stigmas about poor communities—you’re lazy, you’re deserving somehow of the circumstances you’re in—but it was quite the opposite. There was such a fire that I felt like this is something that I need to be involved with for the rest of my life.” And she hasn’t looked back since. Rhone-Collins has done everything from directing an environmental day camp to helping young people tell their stories through hip-hop. Most recently, she’s overseen the launch of the L.A. branch of LIFT, a community-based non-profit that works to break the cycle of poverty.
We asked her to answer our L.A. Woman questionnaire.
How LIFT works:
We work to build an authentic relationship between the advocate, who is a volunteer, and the community member. Part of that is really about it being a self-driven process. We know the many systems and issues that people are bumping up against—housing, employment, healthcare, legal services. There isn’t a way that all of the volunteers are going to be trained on all of the intricacies of all of those systems, so a lot of the relationship is, “Let’s find out together. Let’s think creatively.” We’re sharpening our focus to work with families with young children, because we know that if we provide stabilizing efforts for parents, it exponentially increases the likelihood that the children will have an increased income, be able to go to college, and get the jobs that will change a generational cycle.
Proudest moment as executive director:
I’m proud that LIFT has grown because of the integrity of the work that we’re doing. Community members are telling others to come here because they’re going to get seen and heard. We’re concerned with how we’re impacting each person’s life, but we’re concerned on the macro-level as well. What are the changes in policy; the changes in practice; the changes in perception that need to happen? How can we be used as a laboratory for how things need to be operating on a larger level?
L.A. simultaneously has one of the highest concentrations of wealth and one of the highest poverty rates in the country, highest costs of real estate and rates of homelessness, and stressed educational systems that do not adequately prepare low-income communities to be able to enter that market. The incredibly resilient and resourceful community members we work with have dreams for a safe home and living-wage employment so that they can provide opportunity for their children, but, more often than not, it is a dream deferred.
How working in L.A. has factored into your success:
There’s a sense of creativity and innovation here that helped as we opened up the new office. And then, of course, there’s a lot of need. I think the geographic landscape of L.A. matches with LIFT’s ability to be a connector. It’s hard for people to know what’s available, because L.A. is so huge. And, in many ways, the demographics of L.A. today is where the country will be tomorrow. So the New York adage may actually be more appropriate for L.A.—if something makes it here, it can make it anywhere. This has had implications for LIFT in being able to test the viability of replicating this important model, but also for other needed policy innovations.
Starting LIFT from scratch in a new city and being able to make an impact in peoples’ lives relatively quickly. I mean, it’s only been four years, and we’ve really gained trust, not just from community members, but also from funders and other external stakeholders.
Where you go from here:
There’s a great amount of work to be done to figure out the best approach to help families. We’re not stopping until we’re able to figure it out.