This is an excerpt from reporter Scott Johnson's blog, which focuses on the effects of violence and trauma on the community.

Oakland made national headlines this week with the announcement that Maurice Lim Miller, a Bay Area native and longtime advocate for the poor was honored with a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant of $500,000.

It's a tall order to live up to the "genius" moniker. I admit I was skeptical when I first heard that Miller had devised a novel way to "help" the poor. After all, how many times have we heard about this or that new program that promises some revolutionary new approach to lift the poor out of their depressed state? Too many. And though Miller is now free to spend his small fortune as he sees fit, one expects that people will be watching closely to see just how novel his approach really is.

What struck me, however, in reading about Miller's approach was what a fine and narrow line it treads between compassion and, for lack of a better term, tough love. This, I think, is the true "genius" of Miller's vision. His Family Independence Initiative gathers people in tough circumstances together and urges them to devise solutions to their own problems. Yes, they receive small sums of money when they achieve small goals -- this would be the compassionate, helping hand side of the equation. But they are also urged -- one is tempted to say forced -- to consult with each other and, more importantly, with themselves, about whether their own choices are improving their lives or making them worse. This is the tough love portion.


Advertisement

Participants in his program have to strive -- for jobs, for health, for savings, for self-esteem -- and they reward themselves when they meet goals they have set for themselves. What is absent here, you'll notice, are the overlords of the nonprofit world, the adjudicators of people's self-worth. In Miller's vision, we help each other forge our own destinies. If it takes a village, he seems to be saying, then let us be the village, with all that entails.

All too often in our highly politicized world we are tempted to come down hard on one side or the other of questions that are, after all, too difficult for simple answers. We are either for welfare or against it, for the free market or opposed to it; we care about the uninsured or we are heartless and unfeeling. Most people, and most of the problems we all face, fall somewhere in between these extremes, though you wouldn't necessarily know it listening to the pundits and talking heads day in and day out.

What Miller has done by earning this award has reminded us that the problems out there, as well as the solutions required to fix them, are often subtle and complex and require all of our humanity to solve. This means that sometimes, as Miller himself says, we need to help people when they are down. But it also means that perhaps the best way to help them is to show them how -- in precise, technical and easy-to-understand ways -- how they can be their own best counselors in times of need. As Miller wrote in a column for the Huffington Post, "You know your family and your skills better than we can ever know them. We know you can figure it out and then we will be able to learn from you."

We live in a world where these kinds of subtle approaches get drowned out. Look no further than Oakland where there are, literally, dozens of nonprofits aimed to help the marginalized, the poor and the downtrodden. Some of them work, yes. But many do not. And while the hearts of their staffers may be in the right place, the impulse to "help" the "victimized" sometimes only serves to victimize them further.

On the other hand, there is no shortage of people who seem convinced that any help, any form of subsidy or compassion is an invitation to be duped by people who have learned how to game the system.

What Miller has shown so far -- and what one hopes he will continue to show in Oakland as he puts his half million dollars to use -- is that all of us can be better. We can appeal to our better angels when we need to and try to help when we can. And when those better angels tell us to back away, we can do that, too.

Contact Scott Johnson at 510-208-6429 or scjohnson@bayareanewsgroup.com.