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Down the road from Joshua Station, where my wife and I live, stands the second worst school in all of Denver. Greenlee Elementary School is failing. Last year, after four years of severe underperformance, Denver Public Schools terminated over half of the staff in an attempt to resuscitate it. The challenge for local families is that for most; Greenlee is their only option. This summer, the balance shifted.
A new school put down roots in our neighborhood. A branch of West Denver Prep, an innovative charter school with higher student growth rates than any other school in Denver, came into the community with a flurry. For this expansion branch to survive, the principal needed to fill the seats. And he refused to circumvent the at-risk families in the community. He came to Joshua Station, a transitional housing program home to two dozen low-income families, multiple times to recruit new families to join West Denver Prep.
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Maria and her daughter were one of those families. Maria is a spirited and protective mother and she did not go soft on the young principal when he showed up. She pelted him with tough questions: How do you handle school violence? How tough are your teachers? How do you engage parents? Resiliently, he answered each question with candor and compassion. Maria left the meeting impressed and determined to enroll her daughter at West Denver Prep. She shared that with me proudly.

He came to my apartment three times and answered my questions honestly. Greenlee’s leaders only came after I told them I wasn’t enrolling my daughter there. They tried to convince me not to leave, because my daughter is a great student, but they didn’t fight for us like West Denver Prep.

Maria, a single, formerly homeless mom experienced the privilege of influence in a profound way. When Greenlee was her only option, she had no choice. She had no influence. That school, her only choice, was failing and there was very little she could do about it. She was on the receiving end of a bad gift which she was unable to refuse or return. This is a circumstance which plagues under-resourced, low-income families across the globe.
One of the greatest contributions we can make with our charitable efforts occurs when we shift the balance of influence to those who are historically without it. In the context of microfinance, one of the foremost ways we enrich the lives of our clients is through the provision of influence. Because they are customers, rather than recipients, they have a seat at the proverbial, and sometimes literal, bargaining table. If loan sizes are not flexible enough, interest rates are too high or branch offices are too far from their homes; they let us know. HOPE is a gift they can refuse. On the flip side, we are highly motivated to provide the very best services imaginable. Or our clients walk.
Jacqueline Novogratz, a leading voice in international development, describes this concept by comparing the market to a “listening device”:

If I give you a gift…you would be highly unlikely to tell me what was wrong with it. And in fact, when I visited, you might even put it out on the mantelpiece to make me feel good. That same thing happens with traditional charity. If I ask you to buy something from me, you suddenly become a customer with a big attitude as to what’s right about it and what’s wrong about it… So in that way, the market is a listening device.

When this transition happens, we change from the position of informing the poor about what they need, to adapters and listeners, responding to the demands, requests and influence of those we serve. We can empower and equip women, like Maria, when we open up the doors of influence.