2020 | Bethesda Beat

A Wider Circle founder launches new charity to combat poverty

Bergel leaving nonprofit he started 19 years ago

Mark Bergel, who founded A Wider Circle in 2001, is leaving to work on a new organization to combat poverty on a national level.

Submitted photo

Mark Bergel, who founded A Wider Circle 19 years ago, has stepped down from the organization to head up The Shared Humanity Project, a new nonprofit dedicated to ending poverty in America.

Bergel started A Wider Circle in 2001 to provide basic need items — including beds, cribs and dishes — and workforce training to people in Maryland and the D.C. area.

The Silver Spring organization started operating out of Bergel’s living room. It has since expanded to serve more than 260,000 people over the past 19 years.

In August, Bergel decided to step down as president and CEO of A Wider Circle. His last day is Thursday.

He has already begun work on a new venture — The Shared Humanity Project.

Bergel and Katherin Ross Phillips, the vice president of research at A Wider Circle, have co-founded The Shared Humanity Project to eradicate poverty on a national scale.

They registered it as a nonprofit and are finding partners and offering Zoom talks to organizations and businesses interested in the cause.

In early 2021, The Shared Humanity Project will launch a National Plan to End Poverty, an interactive website showing the percentage of people who live in poverty and the government efforts to help them. When it launches, people can visit the website to learn what they can do as an individual, business representative or community member interested in combatting poverty.

To fill Bergel’s position at A Wider Circle, the board of directors appointed Senior Vice President Amy Javaid as interim president. The board is embarking on a search for a new president.

Bergel said he is confident the organization will continue to grow without him.

For the past few years, he has thought about leaving A Wider Circle, he said. He wants to help the greatest number of people, and feels he can do more by starting a new organization on a national scale.

The Shared Humanity Project relies on the philosophy that all humans are connected. Bergel explained the rationale behind the organization using the image of a grove of aspen trees. The trees are all linked by one root system.

“All the trees are deeply interconnected,” Bergel said in an interview. “That is how we exist as people. We may see ourselves as one person standing over here and one person standing over there, but there is a connectivity that we don’t see.”

Mark Bergel (submitted photo)

When the website launches, it will show how many people live in poverty in every county in the U.S.

The site will list the number of people who live below the government’s poverty line and the number who live below a threshold the organization sets based on the 50% median income in an area.

Bergel said the poverty line the government determines often does not reflect the cost of living in an area. Even if people make more than the threshold, they might still struggle to afford what they need.

In Montgomery County, any family of four that makes below $26,200 lives below the government’s poverty line, according to Bergel. But by the Project’s standards, a family of four needs at least $72,000 to live comfortably in Montgomery County.

The website has a color-coded map showing how many people live in poverty according to the Program’s standards.

Additionally, the plan includes explanations and overviews of every publicly funded program to address poverty in the U.S., including the programs’ successes and shortcomings.

Once the website launches, these resources will make up the educational portion of The Shared Humanity Project. Anyone also can find information on actions they can take to help people living in poverty.

Bergel said that though the government can provide some assistance, poverty is “a people’s problem.” Like past social movements that prompted government action, action by citizens is a first step in addressing poverty.

“When something is such an injustice, everybody should be up in arms and active,” Bergel said. “This makes it in a way that’s proactive because placing blame isn’t the goal here. Where there’s change needed, let’s all get involved.”

To find ideas for action, the website will have people choose their sector of society — representing a business, an individual, a faith group or another option — and choose an aspect of people’s lives to help. Options include child care and transportation.

Once people make a selection, the website gives them several ideas to help, step-by-step advice and successful examples.

For instance, a business that wants to help its employees with child care would see detailed guides for how to provide employees with child and dependent care benefits and how to implement family-friendly employment policies.

Everyone who logs on will find at least 50 steps to take to help a cause that interests them, Bergel said.

The existing programs and organizations address the “symptoms” of poverty, not the root causes, he said.

For example, if people needs assistance to get food, they go to one location or organization, prove their income and receive help. For help making rent, they have to go somewhere else and again prove their income.

The rules to get aid are confusing — navigating the “fragmented” safety net system leaves people exhausted just from trying to get help, he said.

The Shared Humanity Project will address multiple ways in which people might need help, including financial security and housing.

If people believe in the project’s philosophy that all humans are connected, they will recognize that others’ experiences or challenges are their own, Bergel said. He has pledged to sleep on a couch or floor until everyone else has access to a bed.

“When we let somebody live in poverty, we are actually creating that suffering in our own selves,” Bergel said. “If we saw one another as part of ourselves … then I don’t think we would tolerate people living in the conditions that millions and millions are forced to live in because of their economic situation.”