Full Frame Initiative: Small nonprofit creates big change for people in need

  • Katya Fels Smyth, founder and CEO of Greenfield-based Full Frame Initiative, says, “We have to see the problems differently.” Contributed photo

  • Katya Fels Smyth, founder and CEO of Greenfield-based Full Frame Initiative, says, "We have to see the problems differently.”

Recorder Staff
Monday, December 25, 2017

The woman we’ll call Grace was in an abusive relationship that she knew she and her children had to leave, but she faced financial hurdles.

The domestic-violence agency she worked with, the YWCA of Worcester and Central Massachusetts, was set to call shelters around the state and beyond to find the first available beds to get them to safety.

But that standard approach meant a move elsewhere that would likely cost her her job in the area, where she’s grown up, as well as having a very supportive mother nearby to provide child care. It would have also meant disruptions for her daughter by having to leave her middle school and friends.

“She felt really strongly that her path toward healing, toward becoming a survivor and getting through this, would be happening in this community,” said Maggie Nicholson, team leader for the YWCA’s community-based services. While an out-of-area shelter placement would have provided physical safety, said Nicholson, it would have “compromised … her wholeness as a human being, her entire well-being. Her co-workers were emotional resources, and there was the financial stability of keeping her income. She would have lost that community, that financial stability.”

The importance of “well-being” is not just a mushy concept; it’s also the cornerstone of a Greenfield-based nonprofit organization that’s been around on Main Street since 2011, doing work around the country but is almost invisible locally.

The well-being approach in Grace’s case meant having YWCA work with housing agencies to find a subsidized apartment as a priority and doing a lot of safety planning for “no matter what would happen,” Nicholson said. “It aligns really well with our understanding of what domestic violence is: the loss of control for the victim or the survivor. This approach … works really well in empowering survivors to make best decisions for their case, instead of just funneling them into one-size-fits all approach” without de-emphasizing safety. “We’re widening the scope to include emotional health and community support.”

Greenfield-based Full Frame Initiative, with an annual budget of more than $1.5 million and 10 full-time employees, grew out of founder and Chief Executive Officer Katya Fels Smyth’s work as a sexual violence counselor and co-director of a Harvard Square homeless shelter and her founding, in 1995, of On the Rise to help homeless women gain a sense of self-control, choice and connections through shelter, counseling and support services.

She left that organization in 2004 on a two-year quest (with Harvard and MIT’s help) to examine the underlying principles that had worked at that Cambridge-based organization. By 2006, along with Lisa Goodman and Catherine Glenn at Boston College, Smyth developed the Full Frame approach, named for a holistic approach that appreciates how multiple challenges — poverty, addiction, homelessness, domestic violence, hunger, youth violence — often face people being served by programs designed for a target problem.

At On the Rise, Smyth found, “We were basically saying this is a community and a space for folks who are struggling, who’ve found that the way systems and supports are set up is not helpful.” Many had several case managers at various agencies and may have fit well in those programs and were successful, but didn’t feel that way.

“There may be mismatch between how we conceptualize progress in a program and people actually having better, more community-integrated lives, we’d now call well-being,” Smyth said.

Well-being — FFI’s researched approach — focuses on five fundamental needs people share: social connectedness, stability, safety, mastery and “meaningful access to relevant resources.” Without that understanding that programs need to focus on people, rather than on a list of problems, the nation spends $500 billion a year on problem-centered safety-net programs that too often leave “people in the deep end of the deep end,” taking one step forward but two steps back,” in Smyth’s words.

Instead of blaming clients’ seeming lack of motivation to make prescribed changes, she says, it’s important to see what need a behavior fills in their well-being, rather than forcing them to make tradeoffs with their other needs.

Working with the state

Full Frame has been working with a task force of four Massachusetts agencies — the departments of Children and Families, Transitional Assistance, Public Health, and Housing and Community Development — as well as the Interagency Council on Housing and Homelessness and the Governor’s Council to Address Sexual and Domestic Violence over the past five years.

“We start out from a different understanding, stepping back and connecting the dots in research and people’s lived experience to get a very different way of understanding what’s driving some of these problems,” says Smyth. “That leads to different responses.”

Helping states, communities and organizations figure out how they can respond differently is multi-layered, long-term work that has the Greenfield center bumping up constantly against a myth about change, Smyth says: that once we’ve made it, “we have a steady start.” Even with programs that provide a stabilization worker to follow-up, “exactly when we start to withdraw support is exactly when people need more support. It’s not about motivation, it’s about tradeoffs. Any time we make a change, there’s gonna be trade-offs, and we make the change when we think the trade-offs are going to be worth it.”

Sustaining those changes — as difficult and sometimes risky as uprooting people or parenting completely differently from the way they were parented — is even harder than making the change in the first place, she emphasizes.

The trade-offs that Smyth says “we force in our systems because we don’t actually know how to listen, how to incorporate in what we’re doing, can actually leave people worse off for their involvement in the system, not because of malice of intent or malpractice. Everybody’s acting with the training and according to what they thought would be best for someone.”

It turns out that changing personal and family situations and changing the way state and private human-service agencies respond are not all that different. Both take time, patience, understanding, to change and sustain change.

“Some of this is about asking different questions and listening differently. It’s about saying, let’s look ahead. Let’s think with you about what the costs of change are going to be, because that might mean we’ll take a different action. We’re supporting them and setting them up for success, not doing what feels like, and is, a bait-and-switch. We have to see the problems differently.”

She adds, “It’s not an accident who has more and less access to well-being: people of color, with different gender or sexual orientation are all folded into a master algorithm that shovels you into a constant obstacle course of barriers or a nicely repaved paved road. The folks ending in systems are the ones who started with the least access to well-being, and they’re put into systems that move them backwards.”

Full Frame looks for partner agencies and systems that are willing to look at change because they realize the isolated systems aren’t working effectively. It looks for “champions” within those agencies — “that supervisor, that court officer, that judge, (who can) bring everyone else along — in shared commitment to making a new framework work. And it looks for critical opportunities when the system is being overhauled anyway.”

During the Deval Patrick administration, Smyth says, “I was on the governor’s council to address sexual and domestic violence, and I had the opportunity to address a ‘systems integration committee’ looking at what are the greatest barriers domestic violence survivors face getting what they need. There were conversations around table: ‘What if this were a common language at our agencies?’”

At the time, Lt. Gov. Tim Murray had been chairing various committees on addiction, veterans, homelessness, and sexual and domestic violence, Smyth says, and “He said, ‘This is crazy: everybody’s having the same conversations.’ He gathered the state agencies together and said, ‘Start working together.” Despite turf wars and federal regulations that seemed to make the common approach impossible, he insisted, “If you step back, we’ve got to be able to do this together.”

The result was the state’s Integration Task Force, which continues rethinking areas of assessment and “what it would actually mean for policy across agencies to engage with families around well-being assessment, how we can work on not forcing tradeoffs on people, and what that would look like.”

When it came time for the state to rebid its sexual- and domestic-violence services contracts, totaling $400 million over 11 years, a core principle in the procurement was advancing well-being, “which is a huge step … in terms of saying we can’t just focus on short-term safety and assume that’s always going to get people to well-being” says Smyth, noting that the groundwork had to be in place for that principle to be built into the policy framework.

Even though “it’s very deep work, it’s messy and it’s complicated (and) a long arc,” Smyth — who’s seen some of the most profound changes in Missouri’s child-welfare and court systems — says, “It’s super-exciting. There are infinite numbers of applications. It’s all about finding the partners who are going to work with us. If it’s about us going out and trying to change folks, that doesn’t work. If it’s about us offering something that helps crystalize thinking, that helps translate that thinking into acting, and from there demonstrating what happens when we act differently, to bring peers along, that’s how we can end up with a pretty small nonprofit that can create pretty big change.”

On the Web: youtu.be/s8yZRS3PWio