People connect immediately with Joy Bivens because she is them—a child of poverty, a college graduate, an entrepreneur, a top executive, a mother and someone who cares deeply about others. That's what makes the director of Franklin County Job and Family Services the perfect person to lead the county's fight against poverty.

The lobby hubbub at Franklin County Job and Family Services’ Northland Opportunity Center washes over a couple who stands, hesitant about which desk to approach, on a Monday morning in July. The man has recently lost his job, and he and his female partner, her face drawn and tense, need help to avoid eviction. Dozens of other county residents wait in orderly rows of chairs: mothers and their toddlers; a set of women, sisters maybe, with dirty faces; seniors with walkers or canes; and people wearing dreadlocks, hijabs and Buckeyes T-shirts. A diminutive woman with a long, dark ponytail comes through the front door with a baby in a stroller and pauses, looking around, until Joy Bivens approaches her. “Spanish,” the woman says quietly. “This lady needs a translator please,” Bivens calls out to a man at one of the desks. Turning to the couple, after a brief conversation she ushers them upstairs to the appropriate queue. They look grateful, even surprised, at the warm welcome.

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She hasn’t been a caseworker for years, but the director of Franklin County Job and Family Services still has it. She rubs elbows with the region’s leaders these days, but she can solve customer issues with the best of them. In a profession constantly facing people abandoned by a society that too often blames them for their ills, workers who sometimes can do little to ease clients’ pain tire and leave for better jobs. Not Joy Bivens. She couldn’t be more at home than in a place where she has the continual chance to help people.

“We should deliver better customer service than a 5-star hotel,” she says later. “People aren’t coming here because they want to. They’re coming here because they’re in crisis.”

Bivens, 44, almost didn’t apply for the job. After a time as COO and then interim director of the county agency providing residents Medicaid, cash assistance and food vouchers, she was unsure the position was for her. But as a national search wore on, the deadline to apply nagged at her, keeping her awake close to midnight on New Year’s Eve 2015. She got out of bed and by 11:59 p.m., she hit send on her application. “What took you so long?” the recruiter said when she called Bivens the following week.

“She’s not your typical executive, she is not your typical high-level government employee,” says Kenneth Wilson, Franklin County administrator and the person who hired Bivens in the director role overseeing an agency with 635 employees and an $89 million budget. “She has a level of passion that is tough to measure. She just is so tuned in. She really sees the people behind the work.”

When she became director, during an executive staff meeting one day, Bivens put a chair in the middle of the room, “and she said, ‘This is the person that isn’t in the room. This is our customer, the person we always have to think about with all our decisions,” says Bart Logan, who Bivens promoted from a communications role into one leading policy. In just a few years, Bivens has taken the department through a massive software overhaul; gone door to door making sure publicly funded childcare centers stay open; made caseworkers available at eviction court; and made improvements to customer service at the agency, which serves 350,000 clients a year. Franklin County Commissioner Marilyn Brown calls Bivens “one of those rare leaders—and we’ve got a couple at the county—that are just the special leaders that are going to get the [most difficult, most important] work done.

“She’s smart. She’s innovative. And she cares so passionately about this community,” Brown says. “More than anybody I’ve ever met, she cares so passionately. She’s lived it, she knows it. And she wants to make life better for people.”

We can’t keep doing the same thing

Smart, open, progressive, growing: After struggling with what many called a “lack of identity” through much of the early 2000s, Columbus has become a region of superlatives. It’s been named by various national publications and rankings as a best city for startups, for Millennials, for affordability (though that’s changing), for college graduates and more.

But the region’s high marks aren’t all in measures we can be proud of. While we enjoy record low unemployment, the poverty rate hovers around 16 percent. Franklin County is No. 1 in the state for eviction filings. We have one of the highest infant mortality rates in the country, and black babies die at two-and-a-half times the rate of white babies. An oft-cited 2015 University of Toronto study found Columbus is one of the most economically segregated cities in the nation, with impoverished neighborhoods and wealthy ones split apart. And there’s a wide gap spanning where Central Ohio’s low-income workers can afford to live and where they work, challenging transportation systems.

The status quo won’t do.

“We’ve done great work in the region, the community is thriving, but things are not going well for everybody. And our directors and the commissioners realized that,” Brown says. “[We] recognized: We can’t keep doing the same thing.”

In 2018 the county called together leaders from the government, nonprofit, faith and business communities to develop a plan of action. A consultant was hired for $262,000 to produce “Rise Together: A Blueprint for Reducing Poverty in Franklin County,” released in June and detailing conversations with 200 members of the community, many of them in poverty, that drove the plan’s 13 recommendations and 120 action steps.

Joy Bivens led the efforts.

“Joy and her team really stepped up in a big way,” Brown says. “And this was in addition to the work they do every day for our residents. This was additive work … I don’t think she’s slept in a year.

“Joy is that transformational leader that can really get this going under her watch,” Brown says. “People listen to her. She has integrity. She’s sincere. She has the ability to corral people’s attention. Her whole career, her whole life, is on her face. She’s so real.”

There were no hugs

Even through everything they dealt with as she was growing up in Hamilton, Ohio, Joy Bivens’ family never went on public assistance. When she was about 9 years old, her mom fell ill. Divorce sent her into a vortex of depression and mental illness serious enough to land the family in homeless shelters. When there were no beds, they slept in the car, a coupe.

At one point when Joy was about 10, they lived in a motel.

“And then one day, this is one of the things I will never forget, we were in this motel. And she gets a knock on the door. And there’s a police officer, and they said they would take [Joy and her sister] away and my mom, they restrained her and pinned her down.”

Foster care was nightmarish. “They were very big on discipline. So if you didn’t eat bread on your plate, their method of discipline was always to beat you. So I went through a year of, you know, no one sat down with me to do my homework. There were no hugs. There was [no one saying] ‘Everything’s gonna be OK.’ ”

The children’s home came next. Kids of all ages were mixed together, from elementary through 18-year-olds. “You’re exposed to all types of stuff. It was all types of craziness going on,” Bivens says. “And that is where I learned how to fight. I mean, I could be 11, you could be 18 … we are going to fight. So it was something else.”

During the years of separation, Bivens says she always knew she would be reunited with her mother. And she was. Her mother felt better, the family stabilized, and Bivens was able to concentrate on the thing that kept her going through the ordeals: Education. She was a member of the homecoming court at Hamilton High School, and with the encouragement of her beloved sixth-grade teacher, a nurse who mentored Bivens, her stepmother and a tight-knit group of girlfriends who aspired to go to college, Bivens enrolled at Capital University, where she excelled studying nursing healthcare administration.

She married an attorney who shared her drive to help others, and after some time raising her daughter, she took a job as a case manager for Franklin County Job and Family Services. She later launched a home health care agency with a business partner and served on the Whitehall Board of Education and several other community boards. Today, Bivens’ daughter, 21, is a senior at Hampton University and her son, 18, has enrolled in North Carolina A&T State University. She is compelled to pay that success forward, visiting the Franklin County Juvenile Detention Center every Sunday with her husband to support the children there. In accordance with their faith and their abiding commitment always to share what they have, more times than she has counted, the Bivenses have opened their Whitehall home to young people in need. At least 10 of them have stayed on a semi-permanent basis, Bivens says. But there have been so many shorter-term guests, their names and faces have escaped her memory.

“I was in a grocery store, and this kid was like ‘Miss Bivens.’ And I didn’t even know who he was. And he said, ‘You don’t remember me, do you?’ And I was like, ‘No.’ He had a uniform on. And he said, ‘I slept on your couch and you kicked me out. And that was the best thing you could have done for me because I joined the military.’ ”

We gotta deal with racism

In early June, Bivens stood in the Brewery District offices of the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission before the 30-some members of the poverty plan steering committee—influential leaders from the nonprofit, business and faith communities—and challenged them to set aside their egos and work together closer than ever before. “This is the people’s plan,” Bivens said. “We’re holding meetings in Westerville, Whitehall, Reynoldsburg, on the South Side, at the Columbus Urban League—this is their plan and we want them to have ownership in it.”

She continued. “We could increase the minimum wage to $30 an hour, but when you look at the data, you won’t solve it. Whether it’s 60 years ago, 50 years ago, 30 years ago, 20 years ago, there’s something fundamentally wrong when the same people keep falling behind. And we can create wonderful programs ... but we got to call it what it is: We gotta deal with racism. We gotta deal with implicit bias. And we all have it. We do.”

Throughout their conversations with the 200 Franklin County residents over the past year, the refrain was the same: People were experiencing racism. In employment, in housing, in life. Research included in the Blueprint to Reduce Poverty by the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity bears the same mark. Low-wealth Census tracts are associated with minority populations.

“We had no choice but to say it, but we saw it. The data was clear. Race is the main factor that comes into play when we’re talking about people in poverty,” Brown says. In response, central to the efforts to reduce poverty in the county is training by the Racial Equity Institute for certain county employees, community organizations, business leaders and more. For any measure of success to be reached, lots of different people need to take the training, Wilson told the group when the plan was rolled out. “It is not a process where you give up 16 hours of your time and you’re done,” he says. “It’s going to be at a minimum an 18- to 24-month process in this community to really talk about the issues that impact the daily lives of residents as it relates to race. We’re looking for this to be a level of conversation that has never occurred in Franklin County.”

The business community is “all in” on the work to reduce systemic poverty, Brown says. “The reaction was amazingly positive. That is a testament to Joy meeting with people in business community. And when I did a fly-in with the [Columbus Partnership] folks to [Washington, D.C.] right after we announced the blueprint, that’s all they wanted to talk about.”

Several years ago, there were disjointed efforts to address the broad topic of poverty, says Alex Fischer, CEO of the Columbus Partnership. But there wasn’t really anyone leading the effort. This time around, “we were very pleased to see the county and the commissioners raising their hand,” he says. The group of area CEOs will share its offices for a proposed “Innovation Center,” which will be staffed by three people charged with driving efforts around expanded access to childcare, increasing employers’ engagement in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty and job training.

The center will be guided by a council led by Trudy Bartley of Ohio State University and Matt Habash of the Mid-Ohio Foodbank. The county will spend $2.5 million and seek matching dollars from private sources.

Other pieces of the poverty work include increasing the minimum wage for county employees to $15; a reform of the cash bail system; addressing senior housing concerns; and a proposal to invest an additional $65 million to spur affordable housing.

“As Joy was pulling together her game plan, she was very strategic. She knows what needs to be done,” says Donna James, a community advocate and friend who has watched Bivens develop as a leader steeped in empathy. “But rather than get caught up in what she thinks, she was really deliberate in making sure she understood the need from the perspective of the people who would be impacted.”

James says endurance is key to making a difference—“Once this starts to not stop, not grow weary of it”—and so is continued funding from members of the business community.

Indeed, the narrative among business leaders has shifted, Fischer says. “In part because of the tremendous success we’re having economically. If we’re going to be the great American city of the 22nd Century, we’ve got to be a city that is prosperous for everyone ... and very intentionally working on [our] challenges.”

Bivens has a special, enthusiastic way of relating to people, he says. “I admire and appreciate that skill set, maybe selfishly, that Joy has to bring different groups together … not in a spirit of competition, but in a spirit of collaboration. It’s a really powerful leader who has the ability to bring people together in that way.”

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Q&A

Joy Bivens can still remember the way her classmates looked at her the day her teacher asked her why she always wore the same pants. It’s one of the experiences that fuels her work alleviating poverty today in Franklin County.

What grade were you in?
“It’s hard to remember what grade … but I think fourth grade? I had some challenges because I moved around a lot. Like, I could be enrolled in school in Hamilton one day, and the next thing I’m enrolled in school in Kentucky, then I’m enrolled in school somewhere else … not just [between school years, but] within 30 days. 45 days. I wore the same thing every day. You’re homeless, so you’re not going to have a lot of clothes. I don’t think [this teacher] likes me. I don’t know why … [maybe because] I was there for the lunch and a breakfast. She calls me up in front of the room, and she says ‘I want you to tell the class why you wear the same pants every day.’ And I said, ‘Because I’m poor.’ And I sat down in my seat. And you know, kids are so mean. They would act like they were not allowed to talk to me. There was always a leader because it’s a bullying thing—you don’t talk to the girl who’s poor.”

There was recently a Columbus Dispatch story in which people questioned whether the Franklin County poverty plan is realistic. What do you think about that point of view?
“I think that everyone is entitled to their opinion. But, you know, is it realistic? I think that if we do nothing, then nothing is realistic. So why not develop a plan where we have a roadmap, and why not shoot for the stars and hopefully we’ll touch the sky? We’re trying to help people, and here is a plan that has been delivered. And the fact that there is a plan, so that we are moving versus being stagnant and sitting on the sidelines, is a good thing.”