Combatting poverty through collaboration – Bridges of Sublette County

By Robert Galbreath,
Posted 5/10/23

“If you want to rent a hotel room in Pinedale, if you want to get gas, if you want to buy groceries in this town, somebody in poverty is making that possible for you,” said Johnson. “Somebody in poverty is cleaning that hotel room. Somebody in poverty is working at that gas station. Someone in poverty is behind the counter or stocking shelves at that retail store.”

What: Bridges of Sublette County hosts the Breaking Barriers and Building Bridges Community Workshop, featuring special guest speaker Suzie Johnson-Smith from the national Bridges Out of Poverty organization.

When: Friday, May 19 from 8:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m.

Where: Sublette County Library’s Lovatt Room.

Breakfast, lunch and materials are provided. Please RSVP to 307-360-3910.

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Combatting poverty through collaboration – Bridges of Sublette County


SUBLETTE COUNTY – Pinedale resident Sheena Johnson grew up in what she describes as “generational poverty” – a grinding, persistent lack of resources that most late-20th century Americans took for granted.

“There is a mindset in generational poverty that this is where you’re at, this is where you’re always going to be,” said Johnson. “There’s no getting better. You are born into it.”

Johnson’s father was a Renaissance Man when it came to the mechanical world, able to “jimmy rig” a car engine or build a house out of whatever parts and supplies happened to be available. A resourceful trader, Johnson’s father managed to provide the basics for his family.

He struggled to hold down a permanent job in the formal sector, however, stretching the family’s limited resources. Utilities like electricity or hot water became “luxuries” rather then necessities. Completing homework under the faint glow of a kerosene lamp was next to impossible. Effort spent refueling the wood stove or boiling water for bathing ate into time for schoolwork or breakfast. The absence of reliable transportation placed participation in extra-curricular activities out of reach.

Johnson’s father never filed a federal tax return, rendering applications for financial aid to attend college useless. No annual contributions to Social Security meant no benefits from the program.

“We wanted out of poverty, but we had no clue how to get out,” Johnson said. “You keep failing, and you think, ‘My dad was right. I’m stuck here.’”

While living in Pinedale in 2021, Johnson made the decision to attend an 18-session workshop titled “Getting Ahead in a Just-Gettin’-By World,” hosted by a nonprofit called Bridges Out of Poverty of Sublette County. The group started to refer to itself as Bridges of Sublette County.

Johnson graduated the Getting Ahead course and now works as a manager at Moosely Mailboxes and More. In 2019, Johnson joined the Bridges of Sublette County board of directors and currently serves as chairperson, advocating for those who grew up in generational poverty.

“I had never been to a board meeting (before Bridges of Sublette County),” Johnson said. “Board meetings weren’t something people in poverty even think about. That’s something rich people did in their spare time. Now I’m the voice of generational poverty on the board.”

The private sector steps up

Poverty is an intractable problem in the United States. An article printed in The New York Times on March 9 asked why poverty “persists in America?”

Despite 50 years of human progress, including the elimination of diseases like smallpox and the invention of the Internet, poverty remains an issue with “no real improvement,” the article stated. Federal and state initiatives introduced by politicians on both sides of the aisle largely failed to make a significant dent in the number of people living at or below the federal poverty level.

Poverty stubbornly insists on hanging around, affecting communities in the United States with varying degrees of severity. Sublette County is no exception.

“If you want to rent a hotel room in Pinedale, if you want to get gas, if you want to buy groceries in this town, somebody in poverty is making that possible for you,” said Johnson. “Somebody in poverty is cleaning that hotel room. Somebody in poverty is working at that gas station. Someone in poverty is behind the counter or stocking shelves at that retail store.”

As the public sector fumbles to rectify poverty, the private sector is stepping in.

In 1996, Ruby K. Payne, a CEO and author, founded a publishing and consulting company called the aha! Process. Payne has a PhD in education, leadership and policy studies from Loyola University-Chicago, and she wrote the 2006 book “Bridges Out of Poverty: Strategies for Professionals and Communities.” Payne coauthored the book with Phillip E. DeVol, an addiction counselor in Ohio and former executive director of an addiction treatment center and Terie Dreussi-Smith, a write and consultant.

Bridges Out of Poverty’s answer to poverty emphasizes “building resources” through a collaboration between individuals, private-sector businesses, communities and schools to create a “successful, sustainable future,” according to the organization’s website. The goal is to build bridges between people of all socioeconomic backgrounds in a community.

Bridges Out of Poverty extolls self-motivation. Rather than offer a handout, Bridges provides tools to help people understand the roots of poverty and develop 11 “essential resources” to thrive financially, emotionally, mentally, socially and spiritually.

“A lot of people think that if we penalize (people in poverty), they will change,” said Johnson. “Or if we incentivize or threaten them, they’ll change. But none of that works. The motivation to change has to come from inside.”

Bridges Out of Poverty has grown into a nationwide initiative, with workshops and local grassroots organizations cropping up in places from Syracuse, N.Y., to the University of California–Davis campus and Sublette County.

Local organizations retain plenty of latitude in programming. Bridges of Sublette County used grant money to launch its own initiative to create a community resource coordinator position to help Sublette County residents navigate the maze of state and federal resources. In 2022, Bridges hired Maura Williams to the position.

A holistic approach

The term “poverty” can be a loaded word, carrying political and cultural baggage. Defining poverty poses a challenge. The federal Department of Health and Human Services assigns income thresholds to determine eligibility for specific programs and benefits. In 2023, a single mother raising two children would need to make an annual salary of less than $24,860 to qualify as living in poverty.

Bridges Out of Poverty takes a more holistic approach to describe poverty.

“Poverty is definitely not just about income,” said Sarah Murdock, co-chair of Bridges of Sublette County. “It’s a mentality. We define poverty as the extent to which an individual lacks resources.”

These 11 “essential” resources are “varied,” said Murdock, and include financial resources, social capital and support systems, physical, mental and emotional health and spiritual wellness.

Murdock helped found Bridges of Sublette County with Jackie Downie and Donni Toth in 2017, driven by her Christian faith.

“I follow Jesus, and his heart was for the poor,” Murdock said. “So much of what he said and did leads me to want to help people who are struggling.”

Murdock approaches Bridges from an entirely middle-class perspective.

“Personally, I will never understand what it is to be in poverty,” Murdock said. “Even today, if I lost everything, I would still have my work history, my family members, my college degree. I will always have those resources, and because of those things, I think differently (than people in poverty).”

The perceived cultural gulf between people of different socioeconomic classes can exacerbate poverty, Murdock explained.

“Hidden rules” exist between classes that determine access to crucial resources. Members of the upper socioeconomic classes tend to draft society’s laws and policies, Murdock said. The institutions that enforce or enact these laws and policies are typically managed by people in the middle classes, she added.

“The middle class has certain hidden rules that we operate by, like showing up for work on time, saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ – things we all know because we grew up with them,” said Murdock. “Someone coming from a lower class, who has their own set of hidden rules, bumps up against middle-class institutions and gets in trouble because they don’t understand how things work or don’t understand how to communicate or act.”

The “Getting Ahead” workshops offered by Bridges of Sublette County educate students – or “investigators” – to identify hidden rules and master the language that previously served as a barrier to resources. The intent is to bridge the chasm of understanding that exists between socioeconomic groups to create healthy communities, said Mehgan Isaacson, a member of the Bridges of Sublette County board.

Since 2021, Bridges of Sublette County has graduated 22 investigators from its Getting Ahead program.

Getting Ahead courses are led by a facilitator, Isaacson explained. The classes avoid a lecture-based presentation style in favor of open discussion where the students and facilitators both learn and teach through their diverse life experiences, Isaacson added.

The Getting Ahead workshops empowered Isaacson to attend Pinedale Town Council meetings where affordable housing was discussed. Bridges instills the confidence necessary to break down perceived barriers to exercising one’s voice to drive change.

“Every (Getting Ahead) class has had a graduate move on to a committee, a board, or volunteer,” Isaacson said. “It’s very cool to watch that blossom.”

Allies in staying ahead

Bridges of Sublette County board member and businesswoman Michele Costello stumbled upon the organization. She attended a Bridges workshop designed to improve employer-employee relationships and address retention in the workplace.

The hidden rules for a successful middle-class life – hard work, punctuality, respect – were drilled into Costello. Her parents operated businesses in Big Piney. Costello graduated college and became a schoolteacher in Pinedale for 15 years before transitioning into business.

Costello described the Bridges Out of Poverty workshop as an “eye-opening experience,” one that helped instill more compassion for her employees, some of whom struggle with poverty.

“That day, I walked away saying, ‘Holy Cow – poverty is a far bigger issue than not paying bills,” Costello said. “You can’t just say to someone, ‘Pull yourself up,’ because that could pull people down to an all-time low. I learned that through my role as a business owner, my businesses are more successful if my employees have been educated and are receiving support in the 11 (essential) resources.”

As a Bridges of Sublette County board member, Costello finds herself in both a teaching and learning capacity. She describes the last three years she has served with Bridges as an “intense experience.”

“I learned that I’m struggling with some of the essential resources myself,” Costello said.

Building better relationships between employers and employees is a “constant conversation,” Costello said.

“There needs to be education on both sides,” Costello explained. “This is about building a bridge between classes.”

Costello believes that access to the 11 essential resources highlighted by Bridges Out of Poverty are basic human rights.

Obtaining the tools to access these resources is an ongoing process. Bridges Out of Poverty recognizes that the learning continues beyond its Getting Ahead workshops.

“It’s not a fast process – a Mickey-D’s drive-through,” said Isaacson.

Bridges of Sublette County offers “Staying Ahead” workshops to graduates of the Getting Ahead program. The Staying Ahead courses serve as monthly “check-ins” for students, Isaacson added. Classes allow people to “dive deeper into specific subjects” and are taught by community members, Isaacson said.

One Staying Ahead course led by Sue Holtz of Proactive Rehabilitation and Fitness covered nutrition and exercise, said Costello. Chelsie Martin, owner of A Painted Pony, taught a workshop on business.

Costello also serves Bridges as an “ally,” meeting with a graduate at least once a month to provide knowledge and guidance.

Allies can be anyone in a community with the understanding of the “steps to have a successful life,” Isaacson said.

“Allies walk beside you and point you in the right direction,” Isaacson explained. “(Getting Ahead) is frustrating at times. You get to a point where you just want to stop. An ally is what kept me going and encouraged me to keep pushing.”

Bridges of Sublette County is working to expand its ally program. Serving as an ally is a time commitment, and finding allies is a “struggle” for Bridges organizations nationwide, said Murdock.

Taking the time to help others in the community is a universal responsibility, said Costello.

“Poverty is a problem that affects every single aspect of our community,” Costello added. “It is important to avoid isolating ourselves and others. These are times to gather and create bridges rather than barriers.”

To learn more about Bridges of Sublette County, along with information about programs and becoming a workshop participant, ally or partner, visit or contact board member Lori Joyner at 307-323-8011.