Consultant and author Philip Devol helps people understand the psycho-social dimensions of poverty

—by Paul M. Kubek and Matthew K. Weiland

Highlands, TX—Phil Devol wants everyone to know that if you are going to help people get out of poverty, you must include representatives from all economic classes—the wealthy, the middle class, and the poor—in the process of planning and implementing services. Each has mental models (perspectives and experiences) that contain knowledge to contribute to the solution. But, first, this knowledge must be communicated effectively and understood by everyone at the table. That's where Devol can help.

Devol is an author, consultant, and trainer at "aha! Process, Inc." in Highlands, Texas, which has developed a method for helping people from all economic classes discover and share their mental models for solving the problem of poverty. "aha! Process" also trains service providers how to use this method in their communities. Devol has been consulting on poverty issues with organizations and communities since 1997. He is the author of two books (see sidebar). Prior to joining "aha! Process," Devol was the director of a substance-abuse treatment organization for almost 20 years.


Devol was a keynote speaker at the Center for Evidence-Based Practices' Annual Ohio Supported Employment Conference 2009, which was held in Columbus in March. He also presented at several of the event's 30 workshops. Devol sat down with us after his presentations to provide an overview of his plenary and to describe how he helps cultivate understanding among people who are trying to ease the burdens of poverty. He also shared some insights about how Supported Employment (SE), the evidence-based practice, fits into the equation.

Plenary Overview (3m 25s)

In his work with "aha! Process, Inc.", Devol uses structured workshops to facilitate communication among people in poverty and people in the middle class who operate social-service organizations. The conversations give everyone a common language—a basic tool for positive, skillful change.

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The Disconnect between Service Agencies and People in Poverty (2m 2s)

Middle-class service providers normalize their beliefs, assuming that everyone else, including people in poverty, think as they do. Here's a solution for this disconnect: Look at poverty through the lens of economic class; invite people in poverty "to the table" to plan and design service programs.

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Exercise 1: "What My Life Is Like Now" (1m 26s)

Each of us carries mental models of our own life—our struggles, fears, hopes, and dreams. Devol encourages all participants in the "aha! Process" to tell stories about their experiences by drawing them out, literally, on paper. Learn how one woman illustrates the stress of her poverty—kids, bills, job 1, job 2, job 3, car repairs.

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Exercise 2: "What My Future Story is Going to Be" (3m)

This woman also drew pictures that represented "the way out" of poverty for her, which included buildings to represent a local community college, dollar signs to represent a household budget, and a bank and umbrella to signify a savings "for a rainy day." These goals should become the outcomes of her services.

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What is a Mental Model? (1m 25s)

Mental models are faster, more skillful forms of communication that help people cross lines of economic class. Mental models are engaging, because they are drawn on paper as images or verbalized as stories.

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Consumers on Organizational Boards (1m 52s)

Many organizations are required to include consumers as members of their planning boards, yet their roles are often nebulous. With the "aha! Process" approach, consumers become active participants and, thus, educators about practical solutions.

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Crossing All Class Lines (50s)

Rather than stoking class differences and divisions, Devol and his colleagues at "aha! Process, Inc." seek to unite people from all economic classes in the effort to relieve and eliminate poverty. Each class has a different mental model that contributes to viable solutions.

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Rethink Your View of Poverty (1m 44s)

"aha! Process, Inc." makes presentations to people in the middle class who work in service organizations, encouraging them to change their mental models of poverty. Service providers are invited to enroll in "aha!" training workshops to become facilitators who invite people in their communities "to the table" to plan and implement services.

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Staff Development In Poverty Training (1m 48s)

"aha! Process, Inc." also teaches people from service agencies to become trainers in the "aha! Process" so they can facilitate change within their organizations. It's a high-impact strategy for enhancing the understanding of consumers in poverty and for creating an internal system of staff development.

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Working with People Diagnosed with Mental Illness (1m 52s)

Devol tells a story of working with a diverse group of people in poverty, including those with mental illness and other disabilities. Members of the group learned about each other and, thus, learned to respond more constructively to symptoms of disabilities.

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Synthesizing the 7 Core Principles of SE (3m 6s)

Devol examines the connections between his work at "aha! Process, Inc." and the seven core principles of the evidence-based Supported Employment (SE) model (click here).

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Supported Employment (SE), the evidence-based practice, was created and is studied by researchers Deborah R. Becker, MEd, CRC, and Robert E. Drake, MD, PhD, and their colleagues at the Dartmouth Psychiatric Research Center at Dartmouth Medical School.
They have provided leadership for national implementation of SE via the Johnson & Johnson-Dartmouth Community Mental Health Program. The State of Ohio and the Center for Evidence-Based Practices at Case Western Reserve—through its Ohio SE Coordinating Center of Excellence initiative—are participating in this national project.

Paul M. Kubek, MA, is director of communications and Matthew K. Weiland, MA, is senior writer, producer and new-media specialist at the Center for Evidence-Based Practices at Case Western Reserve University.