Saturday, December 29, 2007

Congratulations, Sylvia and Bernard!


Ms. Sylvia has been asking me to go see her new house since they first found out they were getting it a couple of weeks ago. Things kept coming up and I had never gotten around to it...even when she invited me over for dinner on Christmas day.

Now that I'm done traveling for the holidays, I asked if I could swing by. She eagerly said, "Of course!" and promptly invited the rest of our staff so we could eat, play cards and just hang out--such a gracious and welcoming host...but that's just Ms. Sylvia.

She had shown me pictures of her house from her camera phone. She has talked and talked about how beautiful it is. Still, nothing prepared me for how wonderful her home is! It's brand new! It's a great size for her family of Sylvia, her husband Bernard, and the two kids. It has an awesome laundry room, a two-car garage, big rooms, bathrooms, and closets, and an amazing front and back yard. If I weren't so happy for them, I'd be completely envious!

I've had my fair share of frustrations with the Dallas Housing Authority (DHA) and their upkeep (or lack thereof) in Turner Courts. But I must say, if this is what all of their Family Self Sufficiency homeownership program participants receive (and I believe it is), I am very impressed.

On their website, DHA explains their FSS and Homeownership program like this:
Family Self-Sufficiency: The Family Self Sufficiency (FSS) program assists DHA clients in developing personal objectives, enabling them to become economically independent. Case managers work with clients to develop long-term goals such as pursuing higher education, job skills training and homeownership. More than 30 FSS families purchased homes in 2004, and nearly 50 in 2005.

Homeownership: DHA is moving families to homeownership through its Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) Homeownership and Resident Opportunities for Support Services (ROSS) programs. The HCV Homeownership program allows first-time homebuyers to use vouchers towards the purchase of a home. The homeownership division holds ongoing seminars with clients, vendors, realtors, investors and property owners. Topics range from qualifying for a loan to financing and credit repair to fair housing practices.
Sylvia and Bernard are taking every opportunity to be wise and knowledgeable homeowners and I am SO happy for them!!

I loved everything about their new home. But although their home is wonderful on the outside, Sylvia and Bernard make it even more beautiful because of who they are and what they bring to the inside.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

And how did you spend your Christmas holidays??

It's amazing what connections can be made at Starbucks! (ok...well, maybe that's an excuse. :) ).

A couple of weeks ago I met a friend of a friend for coffee. We both had similar desires to see kids get into college and be successful. From that meeting, we planned a College Prep Day. As I talked to parents and invited teenagers, I was pleasantly surprised at the number of teenagers who said they were coming.

I was quickly disappointed when I called to confirm with each of them the day before the event. There were many different reasons..."I forgot"..."My daughter's sick"...

Then the day of the event..."My brother went to work with my dad"..."She had to watch her younger sisters and brother because her mom had to work."

I get frustrated when people have opportunities, literally in their back yard, yet they don't take advantage of those opportunities. I also get frustrated when people have to do things because they don't have money like kids in wealthier families...like go to work with their dad or watch their younger siblings...and are unable to take advantage of opportunities.

The great thing, though, was that as some people were backing out, the ones still coming asked, "Can I bring a friend?" Plus, some kids I'd forgotten to remind...and forgotten were coming...showed up right on time.

By the time we started this morning, we had 11 middle and high school students and 6 college students (all who have been involved with Central Dallas in the past and were there to volunteer).

The teenagers asserted themselves as they did introductions:

Wrote resumes:












Thought about what to write in their essays:









Learned how to mind map:










Smiled:









Created their own mind map:










Talked about their college experiences:

Overall, it was a great day!

There may have "only" been 11...and they may not have been from Turner Courts (well, a couple of them used to live in TC)...but there were 11 students there *and* 7 college students who have been where those 11 were.

Besides, I've learned that 1) you've got to start before you can build something and 2) it takes time to build trust and rapport...especially for something like college...when most people go into neighborhoods like Turner Courts assuming that kids just need to "stay off the street" and wouldn't be interested in college or academics. I also know that every person was there because of that relationship and that trust and rapport that's been built...and started with many of them at 2 or 3 years old!

I'd say we're off to a good start. Anyone interested in helping me keep it going?

Friday, December 21, 2007

Stand for children!

Going home for the holidays can be a lot of fun--seeing friends and family you haven't seen in a while...eating great, home-cooked meals...playing games...watching football... and then, invariably, some conversation related to politics creeps in.

It's always nice to know the facts...AND to be able to communicate those facts to others. The Children's Defense Fund has come up with a great way to help us out during the holidays:


Survive the Holidays and Stand for Children!
We started off 2007 with a New Year's resolution for Congress to act to provide comprehensive health coverage to the more than nine million uninsured children in America. Although we've made some progress this year in bringing this issue to the forefront of the national policy debate, we've still got a ways to go before our country is a place in which no child is denied the right to a healthy start in life.
To help us reach this goal, we need your help! The holidays present a perfect opportunity to discuss with your friends and family the importance of children's health coverage as you gather around the dinner table. To help you in your discussions, we've prepared a Holiday Survival Guide that will help you to respond to any misguided (albeit well-intentioned) friends and family members!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Lessons in Success

I've been on vacation for the last week...and will blog about that soon.

In the meantime, when I got back last night, I was welcomed with an amazing article in the Dallas Morning News in the Sunday paper (12/16/07), Points section. It’s even better if you read it in the huge spread in the paper with all of the color photos, but these links are great if you missed Sunday's paper.

So many of you have contributed to our After-School Academy in some way or another--monetarily, emotionally, prayerfully, etc. Your presence and/or your support in whatever way you offered it has helped make the program what it is today. Thank you!

We have high hopes of what can happen...not just for the 31 kids who attend the After-School Academy, but for all of the kids they represent...as we move forward and work toward changing the "system" that families battle on a daily basis. With the amazing people that exist in Turner Courts and other places like it, I have no doubt it can be done!

Article:
Colleen McCain Nelson: Lessons in success

Video:
Lessons in Success video

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Seek out the assets, not the deficits

Spend a little time in an inner city neighborhood. Talk to the people. Get to know people. I would bet after getting to know them you would find out that they rarely talk about what they don't have or what obstacles they have overcome. Instead, they focus on their hopes and dreams for themselves and their children.

Before living and working down here, I didn't get it either. I visited the inner city to do "mission trips." I loved leaving after a day or a week knowing I had "made a difference." I liked hearing the stories of huge turnarounds. I wanted to hear how tragedy turned into some big success story. I wanted to know how this or that organization or person had done something good for people. I wanted to hear about heroic efforts. It made me feel good.

But living and working here is much different.

I have known some people for years before finding out that they were sexually abused as a child or that they were once homeless. I've known kids who have grown up in crack houses and some who raised themselves because their parents weren't willing or able to take care of them. Most of these things were learned inadvertently. The kids knew I knew, the adults knew I knew, but we rarely ever talked about it. It was life. It was reality. We didn't need to dwell on it. They didn't want to dredge up their past...or present...situation for some woman who wouldn't understand what they were dealing with. They did, however, need access to resources so they could move forward.

That's what Central Dallas is all about. People are valued because they are people. I don't have to know their "story." I do, however, want to know where they are headed.

In the After-School Academy, we talk about "noticing" kids. We seek out areas in which they demonstrate talent or interest. We tap into the potential we see. It doesn't matter how much adversity they have or haven't faced. Our concern is for their future.

  • I have no idea how much "adversity" Jordan has faced. What I do know is that he is very observant, that he is quick to pick up technology and that he thinks a lot and processes what he is learning.
  • I have no idea what "adversity" Kendell has faced. But I know in 2nd grade he became a great chess player and did an amazing job developing those skills.
  • I have no idea what "adversity" Kashia has faced. But I know she is a very talented ballerina and I know that even though she has moved from Turner Courts, her mother continues to keep her connected and continues to enroll her in ballet.
It's the same for the parents...or others in the community. We don't ask...or need to know...all about their past and how many trials they have faced. If they want to confide in us, they will, but that is their choice. It's not something I probe for.

  • I have no idea what "trials" or "adversity" Sylvia has faced, but I know she is an amazing person with amazing people skills, which is why I hired her to run our computer lab. Because her job requires her to supervise the computer lab, she has sought out and taken advantage of computer classes and is constantly learning new things so that she can teach friends and neighbors in the community.
  • I have no idea what "trials" or "adversity" Ms. Haynes has faced, but I know she utilizes the computer lab every time the doors are open and, with the help of Sylvia, learns something new every day about how to utilize the internet. I know that having that resource available has allowed her to have knowledgeable conversations with her grandkids because she now utilizes the internet just like they do!
The "story" isn't that people have overcome adversity. The "story" is that resourced neighborhoods and communities provide opportunities for people to achieve and develop the capacity that already exists in these communities.

Our job is to ask the question, "What do you want for your family?" (and think about what we would want for our own families) and then seek out the resources needed to connect people with they want in order to raise their children in a safe and healthy environment...whether that be a reasonably priced grocery store, lighted streets, job readiness training, academic preparation, adequate policing, etc. That's what I want for my own community. I should expect no less for an inner city community.

Instead of sensationalizing people's lives, we need to do our part to build relationships, find out what people in the commmunity want and need, assist with the resources in whatever way we can, and recognize that with the right resources and with ongoing relationships and support, people can and are moving toward their future.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Moving forward...Creating a plan

I like learning new things. I like "a-ha!" moments. I like figuring out how things work.

My latest "a-ha!" moment started when one of the college students came to me explaining that in order to get back into college, he would have to pay for the entire semester without help from financial aid. I already had the feeling that was going to happen.

After the semester had started this fall, I noticed he was hanging out in Dallas an awful lot. He finally explained to me that he wasn't going to school this semester because he had failed some of his classes and his GPA had dropped below a certain level. He tried to explain to me that the school counselor had told him if he just sat out this semester, his financial aid would be reinstated in the spring. From an experience with another college student, I knew that wasn't right, but he chose not to listen when I explained that he would have to pay the school before he could continue. (Don't kid yourself if you think that our government's money is flowing freely to students! If students don't perform, financial aid does not continue paying for the classes!)

So, he sat out a semester and, sure enough, when he went to enroll for this spring, they told him in order to re-enroll, he had to pay for the entire semester himself. They explained that once he paid his expenses and proved himself by doing well in classes, his financial aid could be reinstated for the fall.

But that's not my a-ha moment.

After visiting with his counselor and finding out that he was going to have to pay for classes all by himself, he called to ask for advice and help in figuring out how to get the money to pay for next semester. I asked him how many hours he planned on taking this coming semester. He said 12 or 13. I suggested he go back to his counselor and create a plan for the rest of his college career. Once he had the plan, I suggested he write a letter of appeal to the scholarship he had received but had to return because he didn't go to school this semester.

When he called after his afternoon meeting with the counselor, he was somewhat shocked and a little disappointed, "It's going to take me two more years to graduate!" In order to graduate in two years, he will need to take 17 hours for a couple of semesters. This information didn't surprise me. Actually, after watching him set out semesters and take classes back and forth at El Centro and Texas A & M-Commerce, I was actually surprised he could get out so soon!

Although he was disappointed, HE HAD CREATED A PLAN!!!! He knew the plan and he knew what it would take to graduate. He could see light at the end of the tunnel. And because he had a written out plan, he recognized what kind of effort it will take to make it there. He wrote his appeal letter to the scholarship fund (this is an excerpt):

I made things a lot harder for myself because I didn't take care of business in the beginning. I know it is imperative I make a budget and stay with it. I plan on getting a job on campus, this way I know for sure my work schedule will not conflict with class and study time. Here is a estimate of what it would cost me to attend Texas A & M University in Commerce...

Tuition 2,068.00
Room & Board 2,870.00
Books 495.00
Total 5,433.00

In case there was a delay with employment opportunities, I have been doing what I can to put funds aside to go towards my education. I will also continue applying for other scholarships. I know that there is no grantee I will get the full amount of the scholarship I'm applying for, but I would be extremely grateful for any amount that is granted to me.

Somehow that led to my a-ha moment. I've been working with these kids to get them into college...and it IS happening. They are getting in. They are going. But I've never really thought about the fact that they don't have a plan on how to get out and what to do when they finish. After talking to Terrance, what I realized is that many are just taking classes. It's almost like we've created a mindset that being in college has become the end goal. It is progress though. When I first came to Central Dallas we were working on moving them from a minset of being in high school to graduating from high school. Now we're moving from the mindset of being in college to graduating from college. I'm encouraged by that. ...but I also recognize that we have to move quickly so we don't lose kids along the way.

Terrance is a great guy. I have seen his frustrations and his determination. I'm sure there will be more frustrations. But he is hanging in there. I know he can get there. Some days it takes more effort and energy than others to convince him of that. However, I am looking forward to a few years from now when I will visit the 45th floor of some office building and have to go through his secretary to see him sitting behind his mohagany desk in his suit and tie making business deals.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

It's the little things...

Traffic was pretty bad on my way to Oklahoma. At 2:00 in the afternoon, I sat in lines of traffic just trying to get out of Dallas. Then, when I got to the Indian Nation Turnpike they only had one lane open that made change. Since the toll was $1.75 the majority of the cars on the freeway didn't have exact change. So, we sat...in line....waiting. In addition, there was a lane coming from another highway that fed directly to the toll booth line. More waiting.

As I got closer to the toll booth, a little Honda truck came up from that other highway. I held back so he could merge in. As I pulled up to the toll booth the guy taking the money paused, smiled and said, "The guy in front of you said you let him in! He paid your toll!" I think it pleased the guy at the booth as much as it pleased me. What a nice gesture!

I smiled. I started thinking, "Wow. I wonder what kind of nice gesture I could do for someone else to make them feel that unexpected kindness." It's amazing how an unexpected gesture of kindness can change one's mood so quickly.

I have so much to be thankful for.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Taking time to listen to parents

The following opinion column was brought to my attention recently:
We have to tackle education's urban crisis

Here is my commentary to Ms. Creighton's opinion:
Contrary to Ms. Creighton’s belief, at the Turner Courts housing development in South Dallas, it became clear to me that parents cared about their children as nine out of the twenty-one families (including two fathers) of our After-School Academy filed in for the monthly parent meeting. (One parent who usually attends was at the emergency room with her son; another, who is pregnant, is on doctor-ordered bed rest. Four others had never missed a meeting before this evening and continue to be in constant contact with us as they utilize our computer lab during the day, pick up their children, attend a job skills program we are offering, or simply speak when we see each other in the neighborhood.)

During the meeting, the After-School Academy coordinator Wyshina Harris, a parent and a former resident of Turner Courts, started the meeting off with reminders, then moved on to discuss an experience she had at her daughter’s middle school where her daughter was sent home for wearing brown knee socks and brown plaid shoes with her khaki pants and white shirt uniform. Her 11-year old daughter was accused of dressing like she was “going to the club” by one of her teachers. Wyshina explained that she had used the internet, available at the After-School Academy, to figure out how the official dress code (which does not mention the color of socks or shoes a child must wear) and then register a complaint against the school for being more concerned about her child’s socks and shoes than her education and against the teacher for making an inappropriate comment to her child.

Wyshina went on to explain hers and Sylvia’s frustration with the local elementary school when they tried to visit. She explained that the school has called both of them several times for discipline issues related to their boys, but when they went to visit unexpectedly in hopes of checking in on their children, they were told they needed an appointment. Wyshina used the internet, once again, to go online and fill out a volunteer application. Since the school would not allow her in as a parent, she decided volunteer so that they have to let her in. For the parents who don’t work during the day or work in a flexible job like she does, she encouraged other parents to do the same.

Sylvia shared another experience she has been having, explaining that last year she visited the school to get her son tested so that she could know how to help him. After visiting the school weekly for two months, they finally did test him, diagnosing him with ADHD. She took him to the school health services building to see a counselor two times a week until the summer when the counselor’s schedule did not work with her own. She then found out that the counselor had moved to a different center. She believes she must now go through another referral process to get him back in. However, her frustration also lies in the fact that despite his behavior issues, his teacher assured Sylvia performance was not a concern. However, after receiving his Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS) in October of this year, at which he scored “below average” in every subject, she is now being asked by his current teacher why she didn’t hold him back a year.

These testimonies prompted other similar stories—positive and negative. All nodded when a parent started talking about her fear and concern about living in the “projects.” Parents began describing how they had made the best of the situation by keeping their children indoors until they found ways to get involved in a way that was safe for their family. One lady coaches cheerleading in the community and has a high school son preparing for college. Another parent explained how she wanted the best for her kids as well and asked for information about how to enroll in GED so that she can eventually go into the field of nursing. One parent took Sylvia up on her offer to enroll in a job skills class that will be offered in the community. Resources were offered and connections were made.

The meeting that was scheduled for one hour went 15 minutes over.

What’s the difference between Turner Courts, Flower Mound, and Shelby’s freshman biology class? After talking to a number of parents who live in the inner city (those who attend the meetings and those who don’t), the problem I find is that their voice is often disregarded. When they do make attempts to be involved, they must jump through hoops and often must miss hourly-wage work. Getting their child the help s/he needs is exhausting and, despite their attempts, often futile. A learned helplessness often results.

We need to celebrate the ambition of these parents who continue to do what they can to get their child the help they need, despite the disparaging remarks of people who have never taken the time to get to know the families, their situations, and the obstacles they have to overcome on a daily basis.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Same truth, different perspectives


Perspective.

For those of us who are in the mainstream culture, I've noticed that we assume our perspective is no different than anyone else's. We assume and proclaim that "facts are facts" no matter who presents the story.

However, despite what we want to believe, perspective and life experience affect our views. We each look at things from a different angle...and oftentimes these "angles" depend on our skin color, the neighborhood where we grew up, and the socioeconomic structure of our family.

As I watched a short documentary on the Jena 6 done by a Black filmmaker, I was reminded of this all over again.

Let me confess, I didn't rally behind the "Jena 6." I was horrified that students would hang nooses from a tree and that, in 2007, there is still a place that is designated for "Whites only"...I was disgusted when the news came out that Black students were arrested for a scuffle with White students and the White students were just slapped on the hand for hanging nooses from a tree... But I also heard the "fact" that there is not any legal way to punish the hanging of a noose and the "fact" that there is legal punishment for someone who beats a person nearly unconscious (which was why I heard Mychal Bell was not being released).

Though I understood the larger point to be made (i.e. justice), I was troubled by the way it seemed people were getting together from all over to defend and demand the release of Bell, who has committed "battery" crimes in the past. I continued to hear of other "facts" that I couldn't reconcile as "right." I heard the district attorney's comment, "I'll take your life away with the stroke of a pen," but I also read that the D.A. wasn't talking just to the Black kids, but to an entire school assembly. There always seemed to be reports that "legitimately" justified the actions of the White students, the White D.A., and others. Though I didn't believe it because they were White, I know unconsciously that's probably at least part of the reasons the justifications seemed to make sense.

On the other hand, the momentum for the Jena 6 rally that grew primarily out of the Black community, but also from many others as well, seemed to be presented in more of an emotional way, without a lot of "facts." Was that because there were no facts or was that more about the way it was presented in the media??

And therein lies the problem.

The person who crafts the messages gets to decide how the story is presented and that message is rarely presented by the people who are directly and intimately involved.

It is true that facts do not change. However, what does change is which facts are chosen and how they are presented.

The questions change...

the people chosen to be questioned change...

the images presented to the public change...

and, therefore, the message changes.

The message from the media or well-intentioned people looking in could be trying to present the "facts" as accurately as they know how, but the voice of the people speaks much more truth and eloquence when the message is crafted by those who are directly affected.

Unfortunately, a message spoken by the people is often challenging to find. And to immerse ourselves in something that doesn't directly affect us or our family is often seen as time consuming and takes us out of our comfort zone.

However, I believe we need to make that effort. Perhaps if we made more efforts to do things like that, we would begin to know people and understand how hanging nooses are just as violent a crime as kicking someone when they're down.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Moving forward




What an amazing group of women! For the last four days, 13 women from Turner Courts attended a job readiness program (see more at Sylvia's blog: http://www.lovethyneighbors.blogspot.com/).

Each day, the women talked. They talked about ways to approach job interviews, appropriate attire, things to say. But they also bonded with each other. Despite the fact that all of the women live in Turner Courts, many of them didn't know each other. They bonded as they talked about personal issues and discovered things about each other.

As I inquired about their experience, one of my friends explained that it really helped them get to know each other. She spoke of one lady (I'll call her Scheree) who she had seen around at the After-School Academy. She explained to me that, at the beginning of the class, Scheree was very quiet and said very little. By Thursday, however, she was completely different. She had a sparkle in her eye, a smile on her face, and she made comments during class.

Though I didn't see Scheree in the class, I talked to her after class yesterday. Her eyes lit up as she told me about the class. She explained that the classes were really helpful because, at 30, she's never had a job before and never knew about things like how to dress, what to say, and how to interview.

Today was their last day. When I walked in around 1:00, I immediately inquired about the cake sitting on the table, hoping someone had brought it for snacks. Sylvia excitedly explained that I should've been there an hour earlier. All 13 participants had gotten together to bring a spread of food that looked like Thanksgiving! ...broccoli-rice casserole, catfish, fried chicken, cornbread, salad, peach cobbler, and much more. (I was very happy to find out there was still some left so I could get a plate! :) )

As I watch what is going on at the After-School Academy and the Educational Outreach Center, I see a strong community just breaking out of it's shell. We still have a ways to go, but the energy and excitement is palpable.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Don't be impressed

Last week, Beverly DeBase, a reporter with the Dallas Morning News, called to say she had stumbled upon our After-School Academy (ASA) blog (http://www.ourasafamily.blogspot.com/). She was impressed that our elementary-aged children were blogging and had some pretty interesting entries. She wanted to write a story about blogging and the up-and-coming potential that blogging creates in our children.

Beverly came to visit last Friday, which was a scheduled "Service Day" for the kids. As the kids walked around Turner Courts cleaning up, she walked alongside them and talked to those who had started blogging this summer.

When they came back, Beverly sat down with me and asked, "So did they write those blog entries?!" She explained that the children she walked with didn't seem extremely focused and were very nonchalant as they talked to her about blogging. I confirmed that all of the entries were either typed or dicated by the students. Each child involved this summer and each child in our ASA's current technology class knows how to sign on to the blog. If they are too young to type or struggle with their spelling, we ask them if they would rather "dictate." Many of them say yes. Others want to do it on their own. (Look at the blog. You can tell the difference. :) ). If the child is dictating, we may ask questions to spur their memory, but every word typed is verbatim what the child said.

What Beverly seemed somewhat surprised about, and what I hadn't thought about before, is that, to them, talking about blogging is like talking about the football game they watched on TV. It's just another conversation. The kids really don't look at it as some skill that is unusual. It's perfectly normal to them.

I love that our kids are blogging...and taking pictures...and using digital voice recorders...and doing podcasting/audio blogging...and learning to document. I love all of that. But you shouldn't be impressed. Other kids in more resourced parts of our nation are accessing technology regularly in their homes and classrooms and, as a result, are doing amazing things at a young age. Our kids in Turner Courts are no different as far as talent goes. It's just that now they are getting to learn what's out there and actually use it. Where they are right now is not impressive. It is just normal for the world we currently live in. However, keep your eye on them. I have no doubts that what they are learning now is going to lead to great things on down the line!

See Beverly DeBase's article here:
For South Dallas school's children, blogging is elementary

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Finding the gaps and figuring out how to fill them


Today I filled in for Sylvia at the Educational Outreach Center for a couple of hours. During those two hours I got "nothing" done...nothing in the sense that I didn't get to check a single thing off of my list and actually ended up adding to my to-do list.

But getting "nothing" done is actually the crux of my work. It's very hard to explain this to funders.

While I was getting "nothing" done, I met a lady who came in to use the computers. She had signed up for the job skills class Sylvia is recruiting for. As we started talking, she explained that she is 25 years old. She has two boys. She hung out with the wrong people in high school and ended up with a criminal record (a misdemeanor) that has something to do with money. Though she was 17 when it happened, it still affects her ability to get jobs. She is looking for clerical work (because of her current abilities) but has thought about nursing. The more we talked, however, she admitted to me that her real dream and desire is to work in early childhood education and own her own childcare center. We discussed Eastfield (Dallas Community College), which has a great childhood education program that ultimately feeds into Texas A&M-Commerce. I really believe she will move forward with her desires.

Talking to her reinforced my thought that we need someone who works specifically with people (young teens, seniors, and adults alike) to encourage, provide information, guide, and support the people wanting to further their education. Some people aren't sure how to go about it, don't have correct information, or just fear failure.

As I continued to do "nothing," another lady came in. I would guess she is in her 50s or 60s. She was trying to find someplace that can teach her to read. She explained that she has "graduated" from LIFT (an adult literacy program at the public library) and is now reading at something like a 3rd grade level. She moved on to the Lincoln Instructional Center...only to find out this year that Lincoln wanted/needed the classrooms and, thus, cancelled the program. We started calling around...Dallas Reads...closed, Mary Crowley Academy...closed. Other programs claimed to offer reading and writing, but they were GED programs. This lady said she is not ready for GED yet.

Where are the programs that can help people learn to read??? I am going to continue to look for adult literacy programs but it seems like they are pretty much non-existent. How can someone improve their situation if there aren't places that can help them???

This is a gap that needs to be filled. She is not the only person I know who cannot read. She is not the only person who has the desire to learn. I hope we can find a way to fill that gap. Our friends deserve that.

While we continue to look for programs and explore opening a program ourselves, I am hoping to find some software that we can install on our computers so that my new friend can continue to move forward. (If you know of any quality adult literacy software, please feel free to offer suggestions!) But while computer software is a good band-aid, people need personal connections.

Today I was able to connect with people. The people I connected with helped me understand and discover some things that I hadn't realized before. Listening to their wants and needs will, hopefully, lead us to developing relevant programs for the community.

Nothing got checked off of my to-do list today. But, in my opinion, things got done.

The National Adult Literacy Survey found that 21 percent of American adults had Level 1 literacy skills, and 27 percent of American adults had Level 2 literacy skills. While there are no exact grade equivalents, Level 1 literacy is generally defined as less than fifth-grade reading and comprehension skills, and Level 2 is generally defined as fifth through seventh grades reading and comprehension skills. Although many Level 1 adults could perform tasks involving simple texts and documents, all adults scoring at Level 1 displayed difficulty using certain reading, writing, and computational skills considered necessary for functioning in everyday life. Almost all Level 1 adults could read a little, but not well enough to fill out an application, read a food label, or read a simple story to a child. While most of these adults are not considered "illiterate," they do not have the full range of economic, social, and personal options that are open to Americans with higher levels of literacy skills.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Changing the definition of "normal"


I love having the top-floor, corner office with a window and a view.

Ok...if you must know the truth, my "office" is actually a re-done bedroom in an apartment, complete with used, mis-matched office furniture. I'm just happy I have a window.

My window looks out over Turner Courts, a housing development in South Dallas.

Today I looked up to see a police car drive through...with a second one following him. Two police cars usually mean something's happened. I watched them stop and park in the middle of the street, behind a row of parked cars. It was only then that I noticed the third police car that was pulled into a parking spot and a police officer handcuffing a guy. Seconds later, a fourth police car came around the corner to offer assistance. Nothing big or dramatic happened as far as I could see. After he was handcuffed, they frisked the man. I can only assume they put him in the car and took him away. I don't know. I stopped watching after that.

Although there were a few people who came out of the woodwork to see what was happening, most people continued walking to their destination with no more than a glance his direction.

While sitting in this office, I have witnessed drug raids, car chases, seen arrests, watched people fight, and heard gun shots. It doesn't happen every day, but it happens enough that it doesn't surprise me or seem abnormal. Like the other people, most of the time I just continue walking.

Who deserves for that to be their "normal?"

As I gazed out my window, I wondered what goes through kids' minds when they grow up seeing young and old men arrested. What do they think as they look around at the run-down buildings? What goes through their mind when they see the guys hanging out on the corner? I wondered what kinds of things they know about and deal with consciously and sub-consciously.

I wonder how what children see and hear impacts what they believe about themselves and their community. I wonder how it impacts their definitions of "normal."

I also wonder what we, as a society, are doing to make "normal" any different for the kids and families in places like Turner Courts. There are things we can do. Like ...calling our Congress members to pass the SCHIP bill, encourage them to increase funding to 21st Century learning programs, voice your support for drug rehabilitation and treatment for drug offenders in prison...consider hiring ex-offenders...vote for increased funding (and dare I say *equitable* funding) for low-income schools. Each of these provide little effort on our part, but make a big difference in the lives of people in low-income neighborhoods.

Help us change the definition of "normal."

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Food for thought

Food for thought this Sunday morning from Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller:

"We started reading through Matthew, and I thought it was all very interesting, you know. And I found Jesus very disturbing, very straightforward. He wasn’t diplomatic, and yet I felt like if I met Him, He would really like me. Don, I can’t explain how freeing that was, to realize that if I met Jesus, He would like me. I never felt like that about some of the Christians on the radio. I always thought if I met those people they would yell at me. But it wasn’t like that with Jesus. There were people He loved and people He got really mad at, and I kept identifying with the people He loved, which was really good, because they were all the broken people, you know, the kind of people who are tired of life and want to be done with it, or they are desperate people, people who are outcasts or pagans. There were others, regular people, but He didn’t play favorites at all, which is miraculous in itself." Pg. 47


(Talking about watching a woman receiving food stamps):
"I realized that it was not the woman who should be pitied, it was me. Somehow I had come to believe that because a person is in need, they are candidates for sympathy, not just charity. It was not that I wanted to buy her groceries, the government was already doing that. I wanted to buy her dignity. And yet, by judging her, I was the one taking her dignity away.
I wonder what it would be like to use food stamps for a month. I wonder how that would feel, standing in line at the grocery store, pulling from my wallet the bright currency of poverty, feeling the probing eyes of the customers as they studied my clothes and the items in my cart: frozen pizza, name-brand milk, coffee. I would want to explain to them that I have a good job and make good money.


I love to give charity, but I don’t want to be charity." Pg. 84


"One night Rick showed up sort of beaten-looking. He had been to some sort of pastors reception where a guy spoke about how the church has lost touch with people who didn’t know about Jesus. Rick said he was really convicted about this and asked us if we thought we needed to repent and start loving people who were very different from us. We all told him yes, we did, but I don’t think any of us knew what that meant. Rick said he thought it meant we should live missional lives, that we should intentionally befriend people who are different from us. I didn’t like the sound of that, to be honest. I didn’t want to befriend somebody just to trick them into going to my church. Rick said that was not what he was talking about. He said he was talking about loving people just because they exist—homeless people and Gothic people and gays and fruit nuts. And then I liked the sound of it. I liked the idea of loving people just to love them, not to get them to come to church." Pg. 135

Friday, November 02, 2007

DREAM on, my friends!

This week, the DREAM Act didn't quite make it past the Senate floor. It was close, but wasn't enough.

I'm not quite sure I understand the fear and repercussions of allowing immigrants drivers licenses and legal stays here. And I REALLY don't understand preventing children who didn't choose to be here from getting an education and working. I think it has something to do with, "If we allow it for the people here now, people will continue bringing their kids over here illegally knowing that we'll give in eventually." I don't know if that is the rationale or not. But I would like to dispel some myths.

Myth:
Immigrants don't pay taxes. Immigrants pay taxes just like we do...on income, property, sales tax at the store, and anywhere else we all pay taxes. Even undocumented immigrants pay income taxes, as evidenced by the Social Security Administration's "suspense file" (taxes that can't be mathced to workers' names and social security numbers), which grew $20 billion between 1990 and 1998. (National Academy of Sciences, Cato Institute, Urban Institute, Soc. Sec. Administration)

Myth:
Immigrants send all their money back to their home countries. In addition to the consumer spending of immigrant households, immigrants and their businesses contribute $162 billion in tax revenue to U.S., federal, state, and local governments. (Cato Institute, Inter-American Development Bank)

Myth:
Immigrants take jobs and opportunities away from Americans. The largest wave of immigration to the U.S. since the early 1900s coincided with our lowest national unemployment rate and fastest economic growth. Immigrant entrepreneurs create jobs for U.S. and foreign workers. (Brookings Institution)

Myth:
Immigrants are a drain on the U.S. economy. During the 1990s, half of all new workers were foreign-born, filling gaps left by native-born workers in both the high- and low-skill ends of the spectrum. Immigrants fill jobs in key sectors, start their own businesses, and contribute to a thriving economy. The net benefit of immigration to the U.S. is nearly $10 billion annually. As Alan Greenspan points out, 70% of immigrants arrive in prime working age. that means we haven't spent a penny on their education, yet they are transplanted into our workforce and will contribute $500 billion toward our social security system over the next 20 years. (National Academy of Sciences, Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, Federal Reserve)

Myth:
Immigrants don't want to learn English. Within 10 years of arrival, more than 75% of immigrants speak English well; moreover, demand for English classes at the adult level far exceeds supply.

Myth:
Today's immigrants are different than those of 100 years ago. Today's foreign-born population stands at 11.5%. In the early 20th century it was approximately 15%. Today's immigrants face the same challenges and discrimination as back then. Every new wave of immigrants has been met with suspicion and doubt yet, ultimately, every past wave of immigrants has been vindicated and saluted. (U.S. Census Bureau)

Myth:
Most immigrants cross the border illegally. Around 75% have legal permanent (immigrant) visas; of the 25% that are undocumented, 40% overstayed temporary (non-immigrant) visas. (INS Statistical Yearbook)
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The DREAM Act would provide an opportunity for U.S.-raised students to earn U.S. citizenship. The DREAM Act would allow certain immigrant students to adjust their status to that of a legal permanent resident on a conditional basis for six years based on the following requirements:
  • Age. Immigrant students must have entered the U.S. before age 16.
  • Academic requirement. Students must have been accepted for admission into a two or four-year institution of higher education or have earned a high school diploma or a GED at the time of application for relief or served in the U.S. armed forces for at least 2 years.
  • Long-term U.S. residence. Students must reside in the U.S. when the law is enacted. In addition, those eligible must have lived in the U.S. for at least five years preceding the date of enactment of the Act.
  • Good moral character. Immigrant students must demonstrate good moral character, a defined term in immigration law. In general, students must have no criminal record.
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One of my friends, an 18-year old, goes to court on Monday. He was brought here by his parents when he was a young boy. He did not make the choice himself. He knows the United States as his home.

He is facing deportation. ...to a country of which he is unfamiliar.

Although we have hope that the DREAM Act will continue to move forward and, with all of our efforts, eventually pass, I am not sure if it will be in enough time to keep Jose from being deported.

I am anxious for Monday morning and knowing that whatever happens Monday will likely be the same fate of my other friend, Monica, later this month.

Please pray for justice.

Monica has said she will accept whatever happens because she knows that her fight now, no matter what the outcome, will help others behind her.

Sounds like Martin Luther King, Jr. to me.

Much love, Monica and Jose. I'm behind you all the way!

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Food...for "needy" people only

Let me preface this blog by saying that I'm not criticizing Central Market for their Feast of Sharing. The flyer I receive simply provoked a thought that I needed to process and I thought might be worth sharing.

I received this email this morning:
Central Market's Feast of Sharing!
This FREE event promises to be a wonderful evening for those in our community in need of a hot meal, fellowship, information and fun.

Feast of Sharing will be held NEXT Wednesday, November 7th from 4:00pm - 8:00pm at Fair Park – Centennial Building.

Our mobile kitchen will pull into town on Monday and cooking will commence. Over one thousand volunteers have registered to help on the night of the dinner. We are preparing to serve 10,000 meals to those in need. Everything is falling into place – the only thing left is make sure folks know about the Feast of Sharing and are encouraged to attend!

Please continue to share information about the dinner with everyone you know who would benefit from this opportunity. Anyone in need of food and friendship should be encouraged to attend. Parking is free at Fair Park and free transportation is being provided from 8 locations around the city – see the attached flyer for details.

In addition to the sit-down turkey dinner, there will be live entertainment, including gospel choirs, a jazz ensemble, vocalists and a band. The children’s activity area will feature arts & crafts, games and a bounce house. A shower/laundry facility will be on site for our guests to utilize. Many social service agencies will also be on hand to provide information about various resources available throughout the community.

We look forward to this year’s Feast of Sharing being a successful start to a yearly tradition. Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any questions, or if you need additional flyers, posters or information. We appreciate your support.


First of all, let me encourage everyone to attend...and pass the word along to others you know. It looks like a great event!
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Here's my question.

As you read about the Feast of Sharing, did you immediately plan to attend? ...or did you think more about how you could volunteer to help the "people in need?" ...or did you just think about what great things people in Dallas are doing for those "less fortunate" in the community?

As I read about the event, I wanted to be a part of it. But I read that it was a "free" event for those "in need." Because it is "free" to people "in need," I knew I probably wasn't the person they were targeting. I wondered what kind of looks I would get from those serving if I went anyway...as a recipient.

I thought of our Central Dallas Pumpkin Festival last weekend that was such a great community event for EVERYONE...no matter your status in life. It was an event for our ENTIRE community...rich, poor, single, married, kids, families, old, young...to come together and enjoy each other. There were no ulterior motives of doing anything for the "poor people" around us. It was just a fun event to bring people from all walks of life together. If you walked over to the Pumpkin Festival, I'm guessing you would have had no idea who was poor, rich, or anything in between.

Does it strike anyone that when we say an event is for those "in need," it promotes an us-verses-them mindset...and an expectation that all of the people "with" stand on one side (the serving end) while all of those "without" stand on the other side (the receiving end)?

I forwarded the email to some of my friends who are more "in need" (financially speaking) than I am so they could either choose to go or pass it on. I received an email back saying, "Are you going to this? I think I am."

When I got the email, I thought about how crazy and patronizing it would sound for me to email back and say, "No, I'm not going. This event is for people in need."

So, I decided. I'm going. I'm going to sit at a table with my friends and enjoy the festivities.

Whether you are "in need" or not, I would encourage you all to attend. Let me know if you plan on going and I'll look for you. I'm sure we will have a great time.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Valuing the family??

How much does our society truly value and promote the family structure?

I've been trying to fill out paperwork for the state to show we are not a daycare provider. We need this exemption in order for us to receive free snacks for the children.

I don't think we are going to qualify.

Their rules don't match with what what our program is about:

1) The program will not collect compensation for its services.

2) Children participating in the activities are free to join or leave the program at will. If the program provides transportation from school, children may choose whether to use the transportation from school and when to leave the program and walk home without adult supervision.

3) The program must require all parents to sign a statement allowing their children to come and go at will from the program.

Although I'm not opposed to organizations who don't collect any compensation, we do. We only charge $5/month, which is extremely minimal compared to what we provide. Quality after-school care costs money. We want to provide that quality and we want parents to feel they are putting their child somewhere that is worth paying money for. Although their financial commitment seems minimal, the percentage and amount of their income makes it just as significant as wealthier people paying good money for their children to have extracurricular programs. Free often implies that people must accept and be grateful for what they are given. Because our parents are financially committed, they have a right to complain if they want but, more importantly, their commitment and our conversations with them allow them to shape the direction of the program.

The second and third rule are particularly disturbing to me. I can't imagine wanting my child to be a part of a program where I have to sign a paper saying my 5-13 year old child can decide whether or not s/he goes home without adult supervision. Our program is a place parents can enroll their child and *know* that s/he won't be running the streets when mom isn't looking. If enrolled children don't ride the van from school, we talk to the parents. This assures us and the parents that their child's safety is primary to us. By coming straight to the program, we (and the parents) know that their child will get his/her homework done along with the support s/he needs. For a parent who is working, this provides a feeling of comfort. For a parent who may not seem concerned about their child's whereabouts, this allows us to initiate conversations with the parent and build a relationship that has often developed a heightened awareness of their child's activities.

Because of our contradicting "rules," I'm not sure if we will receive the free snacks.

Regardless...

I know what we offer to the parents is a valuable service that isn't available financially or in proximity. I know I have no desire to compromise our commitment and assurance to the families that we will provide a safe, supervised, educational place for their children and will not release them unless the parent/guardian says it is ok.

Friday, October 26, 2007

I don't like being hungry!!

Monday was World Hunger Day. I was unable to participate in the Central Dallas Ministries' challenge to "share in the pain of my neighbors who must daily struggle with hunger" on Monday so I committed to a different day...yesterday.

I realize people in poverty don't get to choose the day they have to deal with hunger like I did, but even though mine was calculated around my schedule it was important to me to "share in that pain" by fasting for the full three meals.

How did it go?

As my stomach growled while making my morning pot of coffee, I kept wanting to reach for one of my homemade blueberry muffins. My instinct was to eat. I had to keep reminding myself that there was nothing to eat (at least not for that day). I decided to drink more than my usual 2 cups of coffee. I figured coffee is free in most businesses, has some flavor, and could be used as my filler during the day.

Lunch was going to be a little more difficult. I had heard my co-workers planning a pizza party. Though it was a free pizza party, I thought about how many things like that aren't free. Most times everyone is asked to chip in a few bucks. What if I didn't have those few bucks? Or what if I had a few bucks but knew I needed to save that money to put toward a bill or to buy food for my household later? I wouldn't want to be in a situation where people took pity on me and paid my portion. Nor would I want them to feel sorry for me because I wasn't eating.

I began to strategize ways to avoid the lunch so I didn't feel uncomfortable while I was there.

I'm not sure if the pizza party actually happened. I knew they were planning it, but I didn't get the final word on it so I didn't call to ask. By avoiding the situation I could always claim ignorance later and explain that I never got the final word on time and place.

I was happy to have meetings planned all day. I was hoping the meetings would keep me busy enough that I wouldn't have time to think about eating. I thought about how difficult it would be to sit at a desk (or school) all day trying to work and feeling my stomach growl.

I found some spiced tea at work. It was warm and somewhat satisfying. I drank a bottle of water, but I wanted/needed some substance. I needed some flavor. I drank a diet coke. Sodas usually fill me up for a while.

By about 8:00 as I was heading home, I kept thinking to myself, "Ok. I've experienced. I get it. People are hungry. I'll just go ahead and eat dinner and still donate the money." But I wanted to force myself through.

When I got home, I suppose I cheated a little. I made a cup of hot chocolate...with milk. I thought about the fact that not all people have milk in their refrigerator...nor do they probably have hot chocolate sitting around. But I also thought about the fact that people without money often make and eat whatever they have available. They purchase cheap foods that store well. Cheap foods that store well and are easily accessibly are usually processed items like chips, ramen noodles, canned soups. Things that are filling, but not necessarily nutritional. Things like my hot chocolate.

As I tried to write this blog around 10:45 last night, my hunger kept shifting my focus. Even though I pretty much knew what I wanted to say, it wasn't working. I was tired and I wanted the hunger to go away. Maybe I could have pressed on with just one of the factors, but with both of them working against me I decided I'd just go on to bed. I knew that would make the hunger pains go away.

The problem, though, is that I knew I could wake up the next morning and my cabinets would be full and I would be able to eat again. I'm guessing that magic doesn't happen overnight in most households.

I woke up this morning and my hunger had subsided. I wasn't ravenous. It was just another day. Yet, as I poured my cereal, in my mind I was thinking...I hadn't eaten in 24 hours so, now that I can, I'll pour myself an extra big bowl to make up for yesterday. I quickly realized how crazy that was. Pouring myself a double portion was not going to make my hunger go away from yesterday...nor was it going to make me any less hungry today.

I wondered if people who are forced to miss meals think like that--once something is available...especially if it's free food at an event or something...I wonder if they pile up their plate thinking some of the same thoughts that went through my mind...except maybe they don't think about how that large portion doesn't make the hunger go away forever.

I don't know what people think. I don't know how children feel. The only time I've ever been hungry for a long period of time was by choice. I'm glad I did it, but I also realize that...

Poor people don't have that luxury.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

CDM's Pumpkin Festival


Saturday, October 27
12 to 8 p.m.
West Village in Dallas
Click here for directions.


Please forward this email to your friends!

All events are FREE!
Pumpkin Catapult
Gourd Bowling
Hoppity Ball Races
Treasure Hunt
Football Fling
Family Pumpkin Carving
Scarecrow Stuffing
...and more!

Plenty of Great Food
Rockin J's Bar-B-que
Crustacean Cafe
Ben & Jerry's
Starbucks
eatZi's
GAMES - MUSIC - FOOD - PUMPKINS!

Live Music
noon: Superstar Express
1:00 pm: Texas Gypsies
2:00 pm: Shanghai 5
3:45 pm: Kelci Paige
4:45 pm: porterdavis
6:15 pm: Fingerprints

Other Activities
12:45 pm: Bob Baird and his amazing harmonica
2:15 pm: Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat
3:00 pm: Costume Parade

It's going to be lots of fun!! Come join us!


Monday, October 22, 2007

No more nooses

Everyone I know agrees that racism is wrong. We express our incredulity when something overtly racist happens.

However, what I keep noticing is that it never seems to be skinheads or KKK members who commit these horrendous acts. It's always the average "Joe"...people who could be (and probably are) our next door neighbors, our relatives, our friends.

The Jena 6 incident has become the latest, most widely publicized display of racism. Nooses were hung from a tree to send a message that it was a "Whites only" tree. I've heard differing stories as people argue why it happened, who did it, who should be punished, and how. But the bottom line is that nooses were hung. A non-verbal message was sent out to the community. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what that message was. Just the other day I read another article about a noose being hung on a black professor's door. Noose on Door at Columbia Prompts Campus Protest .

I think we give ourselves too much credit when we think that we (or other people we know) don't participate in racist, sexist, homophobic, et al, behavior. If we really examine what we say or what's being said around us, what are we saying...what are we doing...that covertly encourages this kind of behavior? What do our words, actions, and attitudes say to our children and the other people around us?

I heard a story once that talked about life and racism being like a people mover (you know...the conveyor belt things in the airport to get you from point A to point B without a lot of walking). Our society is like standing on a people mover. Though we may not be actively walking with it, if we're standing on it and not intentionally walking backward against it, we are still moving with it. I think that's hard for us to accept. We want to think if we are not walking with the crowd, we show that we are against it. Unfortunately, that's not true. The people mover takes us right along and moves us with the current.

It takes a lot of effort and energy to walk in reverse on a people mover. Similarly, it takes a lot of effort and energy to work against racism...sexism...homophobia...classism...et al. How much effort and energy are we willing to put toward walking backward through the crowd?

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Kids amaze me

It doesn't matter where you go, all kids are amazing!

I wish we all took more time to watch and listen to kids. They're so fascinating...and they have so much developing talent that goes unnoticed, is stifled by adults, or is prevented from developing due to limited opportunities and resources. When given the opportunity, it is amazing to watch their gears turn while their little brains work and their natural talent kicks in.

Eden, my friend's daughter, is 6 years old and an absolutely precious little girl. As most kids do, Eden asked if she could take a picture with my camera. I was completely fascinated as she took hold of the camera and immediately began positioning her brother and I as if we were in a studio.

"Put your head down a little. ...No, the other way. Good. No, you moved! Put your head like this (positioning her brother's head)." She then stepped back and looked through the viewfinder to ensure proper composition.

Not quite there yet.

"Put your arm around Miss Janet." (moving her brother's arm around me) "Now, Miss Janet, you put your arm like this." (moving my arm the way it needed to be). She stepped back again to check things out with her photographer's eye.

She went on to reposition us several times, tilting our heads, moving us so that we weren't too horizontally aligned, scolding her brother about squirming, and composing us in a way that seemed to rival many photographers I've known. Her mom said she'd never taught her any of those skills.

Eden ended up taking some great close-up shots that I will gladly keep in my photo library. She's only six. Fortunately for Eden, she is in a family that can and will help her develop whatever passions and talents she chooses.

Unfortunately, some kids have more opportunity than others to develop their amazing abilities. Directly or indirectly, we will benefit from whatever talent Eden chooses to develop. Directly or indirectly, we will benefit (or suffer) from whatever talents we choose (or don't choose) to help develop in our children who don't have the same resources as Eden.



All kids are equally amazing. They are ALL worth our time, money, and effort...no matter where they live or who their parents are.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Injustice doesn't take a vacation

I love vacation. But not for the same reason people often encourage me to go on vacation. I used to have friends who wanted to take me out or invite me to different events so that I could "get away" from the inner city. I never understood that. I like being around the people I'm around. When I do go away on vacation, I always end up missing something...a bar-b-que, a quincenera, a kid's ballgame...that I would've liked to have been a part of. My reasoning for going away is so that I don't feel the need to meet a deadline and no one can call me for a work-related question, not because I feel the need to "get away from" the people. I still take those phone calls, because the kids, the parents, people I live around, are my friends.

Funny thing...and what the people who try to get me to "go away for a while" don't realize...is that the stuff the frustrates me the most...the mindsets...the covert racism...the problems I want to alleviate...are displayed (and frustrate me) no matter where I go.

As I sat in a quaint little french cafe in Colorado Springs yesterday, the lady behind the counter started up a conversation with a customer. It wasn't a private conversation. Anyone in the cafe could hear them talking:

Cafe worker: “We had a Polish girl who used to work here. Her brother worked at a hotel.”

Customer: “Yeah, we have a lot of Polish people who work at our hotel. Polish people are really nice people.”

Cafe worker: “Yeah, they are. This girl was really nice. I really liked her. I like Polish people.”

Customer: “I used to live in a Polish neighborhood. They are really nice people.”

They continued their conversation about “nice Polish people” for another minute or so. The conversation wasn’t unkind or derogatory in any way. In fact, it was much the opposite. I know they meant well.

But, it made me wonder why we feel the need to make comments about how nice a certain group of people are...as if we assume that they are bad or rude or mean people and then are surprised when they are actually nice.

In spite of the fact that I have a hard time believing a Polish person would have appreciated that conversation and in spite of the fact that the two ladies talking probably didn't initiate the interaction with their Polish co-workers and neighbors, I am glad it happened. Interaction with people often changes our preconceived notions. Problem is, most of us rarely make the effort to interact with people unlike ourselves.

It reminds me of the Polock jokes I heard (and told) as a kid. I never thought of them as hurting anyone. Instead, I thought of Polocks as an imaginary group of people. A group that really didn’t exist. I wonder how I would feel if someone talked about me as if I didn’t exist?

Discrimination, inequity, and injustice is everywhere. There isn't (and shouldn't be) a way to vacation from that battle.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Learning how to value self

Campaign for Real Beauty



Community solutions


Last week I struggled. Struggled with the decision of how four pre-teen boys should face consequences for their actions. I realized that just as a young child doesn't grow up thinking, "I want to be a drug dealer who runs from the police," a parent doesn't raise a child hoping that he/she will do things that warrant them going to a juvenile detention center.

After reading this article, Troubles Mount Within Texas Youth Detention Agency, I am glad we came up with a different solution for the boys who stole the money from the After-School Academy.

After talking to their parents and some wise friends, we decided that we would all (each parent and their boys) go to Smokey John's for Bible study. Smokey hosts a Thursday night Bible study (Warriors for Christ) in his restaurant that primarily focuses on formerly incarcerated men and women. Even though a couple of the boys who stole the money from the After-School Academy denied having any part in stealing the money (despite the fact that they were there and were wrestling over some of the money that was stolen), everyone involved was required to attend.

Only one of the parents showed up (which was disappointing and somewhat frustrating...but not unexpected) and only three of the boys went (which was also frustrating, but considering that the fourth one's attitude would probably have changed the dynamics in not such a positive way, maybe it was good he didn't go). The ride there was somewhat irritating listening to each boy complain, laugh at the situation, and demostrate a cavalier attitude.

Once at Smokey's, Chuck and Conrad (both formerly incarcerated, I believe), sat down with me, their mom, and the boys and began a conversation. I was amazed at the boys' attitudes changed and I was amazed at their rapt attention. I watched the one sitting by me (the one who insisted he shouldn't be there because he wasn't even involved...except for wrestling over the money...which he didn't end up with) lean in closer to catch every word. Chuck and Conrad both talked to the boys, but also asked some thought-provoking questions. Although the boys gave pat answers about how what they did affected them and their community (taken directly from our talk on the way there), it was obvious that they were taking in what was being said.

Though we didn't get to stay the whole time due to yet another family situation that arose while we were there, I was pleasantly shocked when we walked out and all three boys asked, "Do you do this every week?? Can we come back?" I assured them they were more than welcome to come as often as they liked.

Do I think that one night and that one talk solved the problem, changed their thinking, and their actions will be angelic from now on? I'm not that naive anymore.

However, I did notice some things that I think are extremely important to note.

1) Chuck and Conrad were men (one White, one Black). Maybe it was just the fact that they were men. Maybe it was because they had been down the path of prison before. Maybe it was because at least one of them looked like them and could talk their lingo. Maybe it was just because they were gentle and kind, but firm about the consequences. I think it was all of the above.

2) "I'll come. Why not [come again]?! This is better than the projects." (as stated by the kid who "wasn't involved) Some kids recognize that having alternatives keeps them out of trouble. But positive alternatives have to be available (which there are none for teenagers right now in Turner Courts).

3) No matter how genuine and ready-to-change they might be at that moment, it takes a lot of work to help them see their good intentions through. On the way home, I mentioned that I was taking kids on a college trip the next day. Two of them were very excited and said they wanted to go. In that short, 12 hour time period, they either lost motivation, changed their mind, or decided they had better things to do, but they never showed up. After knocking on their doors, one was still asleep and the other didn't answer the phone or door. Maybe something came up. I don't know. I never heard from them (and, yes, they have my phone number). I know this is an uphill battle. It takes a lot of time and investment. This wasn't the first time they have gotten in trouble and, unfortunately, I'm sure it won't be the last. Somehow we need to find ways to support kids who are so easily caught up in the negativity surrounding them.

Despite my frustrations with the parent and the fourth child not showing up, I am still glad we didn't involve the police. I'm definitely not above calling the police, but I wonder how much the juvenile justice system prevents future negative behavior or actually perpetuates it. These boys need adequate solutions as to how to deal with real life situations. I don't know that an over-crowded, under-staffed facility that just maintains the boys' existence and often results in violence and other negative behavior within can offer them that.

Today, I choose to focus on the one parent and the three boys who went to Smokey's and seemed genuinely impacted. I choose to think that at least a seed was planted even if they don't choose to nurture it right now. Life choices are ultimately theirs. But I do believe that in order to raise the chance of making good life choices, we (as a city, a community, a society) have to provide intense support and multiple opportunities for them to be able to make those choices.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Who does the city really care about?

For the last couple of weeks I have noticed an upsurge of police patrolling in my neighborhood. You would think that is pretty impressive considering the Dallas Police Department is understaffed. The Southeast division (my area) covers 96-square miles and consists of three of the highest crime neighborhoods in the city (why they don't split those up so that police in other areas with less crime could help, I have no idea!). But this month, the city has devoted a very large number of officers to our neighborhood. From the number of police around these days (I believe I saw 5 on my very short, less than 1-mile drive home the other day), you would think that I would feel safer, more protected, and we, as a community, would feel more valued.

Au contraire.

For three weeks in the fall, Fair Park (which is within walking distance from my home) is the home of the State Fair of Texas. Police are everywhere...inside, outside, and around the fair. My uneducated, but probably very accurate guess is that it's the city's attempt to make outsiders feel safe enough to visit and spend their money.

That's where I feel slighted. Yes, there is more protection around here lately, but it's not protection *for* us, it's protection *from* us!

The people I see getting pulled over are not the people going the wrong way on a one-way street (which happens VERY often...as they boldly drive straight at me until I frantically blink my lights or dodge them) or the ones crossing two lanes of traffic, making the locals screech to a halt as the fair-goers have just found an open parking lot.

I would like to see the police statistics of my neighborhood for the three weeks of the fair. I would guess crime has gone down. I've heard the guys talk before. The ones causing the most problems go somewhere else when "the block is hot" and the police are around. I would guess that's the case right now. I would also like to see the statistics for the offenses people have been pulled over for. I would guess it has less to do with the people attending the fair and more to do with minor offenses committed by the people in my neighborhood.

I would like to feel like my neighborhood is safer because the city cares. But the gunshots I've been hearing at night (after the fair shuts down) and the cars and the people pulled over during the day tells me that although the city cares about crime, it cares more about protecting people from my neighborhood than protecting my neighborhood from crime.

Monday, October 08, 2007

In the midst of struggle

I don't have answers. I don't have solutions. I don't know if the decisions I make result in positive, negative, or neutral outcomes.

I hope.

I pray.

I struggle with my decisions.

My head hurts....my heart hurts.

What is the best way to deal with a 12-year old (and some accomplices) who stole money out of a locked box at the After-School Academy (ASA) while the room was being used by another resident to throw a party?

All four have each been enrolled in the After-School Academy at various times throughout their life. This isn't the first time they have caused problems. But how can we help make it their last?

The good news is that one of their parents called to tell Wyshina (our ASA manager) what her son had relayed to her. She then called the parent whose son supposedly popped the lock and encouraged her to call Wyshina, which she did. It is nice to have people in the community who trust us enough to tell us what's going on. But what do we do with that information???

Do we report it to the police and press charges?...and then deal with the fact that these parents who were honest enough to call us would then be given a 30-day notice of eviction?

But if we don't report it, how much longer will these 12, 13, and 14-year old kids continue? How far will they go before they end up venturing into the wrong place, committing the wrong crime, and ending up in jail, prison, or possibly dead?? The lump rises in my throat as I write this...because it's reality here.

These types of decisions completely disable me. I sat at my desk with a blank stare. I finally left to go get a cup of coffee just so I could drive in silence and think. I came back with no answers.

God, how long do I have to cry out for help before you listen? How many times do I have to yell, "Help! Murder! Police!" before you come to the rescue? Why do you force me to look at evil, stare trouble in the face day after day?
~Habakkuk (The Message)


My heart was/is still heavy. I want to know the right thing to do.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Saddled with debt and expected to prosper

Why is it we think that tightening the screws on people will somehow make them recover? In actuality, I believe it does just the opposite.

It wasn't until I started talking to people who were getting out of jail that I realized serving a jail/prison sentence doesn't make you "free" when you're done. Instead, once you get out, you continue to have to make weekly visits to a parole officer (sometimes for years later), along with paying monthly fees...despite the fact that you have no job and you now have a record so most people won't hire you.

From what I've heard from parolees, most of them aren't given support by their parole officer. They need leads for viable jobs, guidance, etc. Perhaps the parole officer has too many on his/her caseload...but the other big problem is that few people are hiring ex-offenders.

Last year, a job fair for ex-offenders was highly promoted. After it was over a man came in my office looking for employment. I mentioned the job fair. Very bitterly, he explained to me that only about 2 people showed up to offer jobs. Wrongly, I doubted his sincerety. Later, however, I heard that, sure enough, only 2-3 businesses had showed up to the tune of over 200 ex-offenders looking for jobs.

Still believe that ex-offenders don't want to work?

There are many other issues that exist with the prison system...a major one to me being that we spend more to house prisoners than we do to try to educate them while they are still children...which would often prevent them from going to prison.

Ted Koppel presents more about this tonight on the Discovery Channel. You can go here and click on Inside Prison Exclusive Video to see a preview of what he will be talking about. Click on the heading of this post to read a New York Times Opinion article on the debt that one has after coming out of prison.

Monday, October 01, 2007

They said, "It can't be done"

Several people told me, "It won't happen. The people in Turner Courts won't take advantage of a computer lab."

I don't buy into comments like that. If something is of value, people will take advantage of it. If it doesn't fit their need or they don't get anything out of it, they won't come. But, sure enough, during the month of August, 29 people accessed the daytime, adult part of the Educational Outreach Center (EOC) 73 times. During September, 23 people accessed it 42 times.

People come in each day to look for jobs, read their myspace page, make flyers, or just explore and learn about the computer and the internet.

The EOC is not one of those fine-tuned programs run by a high degreed person who has decided to take a pay cut to "do good" and "teach" people in the inner city; it's much better.

The daytime adult portion of the EOC is run by Sylvia, a resident of Turner Courts who, she will tell you herself, has a limited knowledge of computers. It doesn't matter. She is amazing. She has enrolled in a computer class at CDM's Technology Learning Center so that she can utilize what she's learned in the EOC and assist other neighbors with questions they might have.

As a result of some of the things she's learned, she creates a weekly newsletter and distributes it to the community, which is probably part of what is drawing more and more people to the EOC and to the After-School Academy.

She is working on a blog that she will use to tell what is going on at the EOC. She is also planning to make the blog accessible to the community so that they can post entries as well. It's just getting started, but you can see it at http://www.lovethyneighbors.blogspot.com/.

The EOC is a very organic effort with the hopes of providing a a place for "community" to develop.

Ms. Haynes is part of our community. She's there nearly every day the doors are open. Her regular visits started by having cups of coffee with Sylvia. Now she's a regular internet surfer. I have even seen her giving other residents "tours" of the EOC.

Why does Ms. Haynes come to the computer lab? "To have conversations with my grandkids." "So you email them?" I wondered. "Oh no! Not yet," she explained. She went on to tell me she comes to surf the internet so she knows what her grandkids are talking about, so that she can have conversations with them about the internet, and so that she can seek out upcoming DISD events she knows her grandchildren will be a part of. She told me because of the access to the internet she was able to find out about and attend one of their events she wouldn't have known about otherwise. How cool is that?!

Now that the EOC is up and running and doing well, I know outside people (not the neighbors who utilize the center) are going to start wanting "programs." I wonder we often don't feel something is successful unless we have filled people up with our knowledge.

If anyone has the urge to "programatize" the EOC I really hope they will think of Ms. Haynes and realize what she is getting out of the EOC just as it is.