Thursday, May 31, 2007

In my ideal world...

I think if I would've known more about the Peace Corps when I was in college, I probably would have joined up.

After college, while living in Boston, I was exposed to City Year, a city-wide version of Americorps. I could barely afford to live in Boston...and I wasn't there for City Year never became a possibility for me. But I loved getting on the train and seeing all of the khaki pants and red jackets that branded City Year members at every turn. I loved participating in City Year's Serve-a-thon right before I moved.

Throughout my years at Central Dallas, we have had Americorps members here and there. This year, Central Dallas wrote its own grant to obtain hundreds of CDM Americorps members and partner with many other non-profit organizations to place members throughout the city in service positions.

This week, I have had the opportunity to help train not only our CDM Americorps members, but also Project Transformation's Americorps members. I was so impressed and amazed at the diversity of both groups!

I had been assigned to facilitate a portion of our Urban Experience. My goal was to challenge the group to think about their words, actions, and attitudes and how those things impact others...before they begin their summer of working in urban communities all across the city.

The most exciting part of the training was the opportunity to engage a group of diverse people in conversation. How often is it that Black, White, Asian, Hispanic, rich, poor, private school, public school, gay, and straight people really talk to each other? How often do we really seek out the opinions of people who may be different than us?

Not often enough, in my opinion. It can get uncomfortable.

By the end of each day I was exhausted, but energized. Several continued their conversation with me, as well as with each other, after my session was over.

I was impressed with their critical thinking and challenging questions and statements (to me and to each other). Their willingness to listen to and learn from each other gave me hope.

In my ideal world these conversations and seeking understanding without judgment...with people unlike ourselves...will continue.

Monday, May 28, 2007

What our future holds

Saturday evening, as we all got together for our pastor's anniversary dinner, I got a chance to see and talk to Fredrick.

He's home from Lamar University for a couple of weeks before he goes back to begin summer school and resume working. He only gets the chance to come home a few times each year because Beaumont is about 5 hours away.

As I watched Fredrick, I sat in awe.

Fredrick has been a part of Central Dallas Church since he was around 7 or 8. When Fredrick comes home, he blends back in as if he never left...except he has left...and he will be a junior at Lamar in the fall.

Not long after Fredrick arrived at the dinner, six little boys (all under the age of 7 and all cousins...but not related to Fredrick), came racing to the front door and tumbled into the community center. The boys chose their table nearly before their families even got in the door. Fredrick joined the boys. I don't recall him being asked to sit with them or to watch over them, but he did. ...Bathroom trips...dinner supervision...Fredrick was on the job. Afterward, he followed them to the games in the recreation area and hung out with them while they played.

I don't know that Fredrick realizes the impact of what he did and continues to do--from persevering through college challenges to role modeling for young children. He does it naturally and effortlessly. Whether he realizes it or not, I know he is making an impact.

I look forward to the day when some of the kids Fredrick has inadvertently mentored are in the same place he is...and turning around to mentor other kids just like Fredrick did them.

Friday, May 25, 2007

No room to be a teenager...if you're an immigrant

There is no room to mess up if you are an immigrant. The consequences are high.

My friend, Monica, who I wrote about on March 11 and March 13, was 5 years old when she came to the United States. She lives and understands U.S. culture. Yet now she faces the possibility of deportation to Mexico because of the mistake she made to attend a senior skip party. (How many of us have skipped school...or tried some point in time??).

I recently watched an Independent Lens documentary that focused on Cambodian refugees who had escaped their country, fleeing to the United States with their parents at the young age of two or three. After getting involved with the wrong crowd or making a bad choice as a teenager (many were forced to live in low-income, high crime areas due to their poverty here in the United States...which made good choices all the more challenging), they now wait, with much consternation, for their name to come up for deportation to a country and a culture they have never known....even if they had grown into productive, community-oriented adults.

Is it reasonable to expect that teenagers won't make mistakes?

Even teenagers in the most comfortable and safe neighborhoods make mistakes. Teenagers who were born and raised here make mistakes. But they are allowed that luxury.

Many immigrant children have grown up here from a very young age and have been enculturated into this country...not excluding the mischievousness, and sometimes wrecklessness, of American teenagers. Yet immigrant teenagers are expected to be perfect or face deportation.

These teenagers are Americans, for all practical purposes, who are being forced to return to an unknown country...a country with different music, different lifestyles, different customs, different language, etc.

There has got to be a better way.

Thursday, May 24, 2007


Community is not houses, programs, or buildings
Even though these are necessary ingredients
Community is the spirit of the people
People being people
Connecting the pieces

Brian Joseph

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

"I keep to myself"

Stereotypes about "the projects" create a vicious cycle. They are hurtful to the people who live there and create a fear and distrust for those who don't. Not all of those stereotypes are true. I'm not saying "the projects" are a glamourous and safe place to live...much to the contrary. But what I have learned is that despite the stereotypes, there are many good people who live there.

As I have visited with people in Turner Courts through the years, I have met some really neat people. As we talk, they invariably say, "I don't want any trouble so I keep to myself. I stay inside." Some have told me that the moment they were assigned to Turner Courts for housing, they cried for the first week...or sometimes month. They stayed with friends or family to avoid it as long as they could.

Contrary to popular belief, the residents aren't excited and content to live in "the projects." They don't enjoy the fighting, the shooting, or the break-ins. They want their children to be safe and get a quality education. They want to make enough money to move out.

The problem I see is that community has broken down. The fear and distrust (sometimes perpetuated by and such...from the outside and sometimes perpetuated by a few troublemakers on the inside) keeps the good people I've met from knowing (and trusting) one another.

My friends/co-workers...the people who run our After-School Academy here in Turner Courts...are working toward changing that through their involvement in the community, their leadership, and their friendship. Each one of them told me the same thing when I interviewed them for their current job, "I don't want any trouble so I keep to myself. I stay inside." Now that they are connected to each other and working toward connecting with the community, they are hearing the same thing from other residents.

As Wyshina and I interviewed for our new cook position, we both chuckled when every single one of them said the same thing, "I'm just a person that doesn't want any trouble so I keep to myself. I stay inside." I was so glad Wyshina was there. She reassured each one of them that she, Chanel, Sylvia, and Ms. Fields lived in Turner Courts and understood their concerns. She told each of them that our current staff had all felt the same way. She encouraged them to join them at the After-School Academy...whether or not they got the job.

Building community takes time. The process is slow. Building trust is not easy. It will happen, though. Their refusal to give up and their desire to make it all work inspires me. I look forward to and thank them for allowing me to be a part of their growing circle of friends.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Kudos to the parents

I often talk about the kids and how amazing they are. I still believe that. They really are amazing! But, as I attended Kashia's ballet yesterday, I was reminded that behind every great kid is often a great and dedicated parent.

For the last four or five years, Kashia's mom, Chanel, has enrolled her four children in our After-School Academy. Chanel works hard to see that her kids have every opportunity to learn new things. She makes sure they are committed. She makes sure they show up. She makes sure to attend their performances and their competitions. She makes sure her fees are paid...even when it stretches her budget.

I'm guessing there are a lot more "Chanel's" out there than we realize. I often hear schools complain because of lack of parental involvement. While I do see some parents who aren't very actively involved in their child's life, I wonder if a big part of everyone thinking that low-income parents aren't involved in their child's life has to do more with 1) our definition of parental involvement, 2) the stereotypes that we let society feed us about low-income parents, and 3) the availablility and affordablility of resources that are interesting to the kids (not TAKS tutoring!).

The longer I know Chanel, the more I find out about how much time and effort she puts into her kids...and helps out with other people's children as well. If I were to just judge Chanel on what I see on the outside, I would never have guessed that she makes sure Kashia has a ride to ballet (Chanel doesn't have a car), makes sure Kendell is entered in our chess tournaments, makes sure to purchase her child's art at the art show so she can display it on her wall at home, throws a neighborhood birthday party for each of her kids, takes care of her friend's baby while her friend is at work, and so much more.

Do people make negative judgements about you based on your surroundings and your neighborhood? Do you wish they knew more about you? Do you realize you have so much more to offer than what people expect of you?

I encourage you to get to know the "Chanel's" around you. Your life will be better because you did. I know mine is.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Art Showcase...TONIGHT!

Art Showcase
Southside on Lamar
1409 S. Lamar
Dallas, TX
5:30-7:30 p.m.
dress: Business Casual
hors d'oeuvres, "wine" (sparkling cider), cheese, and fruit will be served

I don't know why I didn't think to put this on here earlier, but anyone who is interested in seeing what amazing things happen at a small After-School Academy in a housing development in South Dallas, please come out to our Art Showcase this evening!

The kids' framed art (water colors and pencil drawings) and photography will be on display and up for bidding at our Silent Auction that raises money for our After-School Academy. The kids (as always) have done an amazing job. It's interesting to look at their photographs and wonder what they were thinking as they took the picture.

Please come out and join us! Help us celebrate and congratulate the kids on a wonderful job this year.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Wish I had my camera

I've got to start bringing my camera into my office! I sit upstairs by a window and every once in a while I see some pretty neat stuff.

Today as I was working, I heard the sounds of a small child. As I looked out my window I saw a man on his bike riding in front of a small child on a bike with training wheels. The man seemed to be going rather slow, pedaling in a very measured way. I assumed they must be on an afternoon stroll and he didn't want to get too far ahead. The more I watched, I saw the child's bike jerk as if something were pulling it. As I looked closer, I realized that the man had tied a rope from his bike to the little child's bike, perhaps so she could learn to ride. As the man made a u-turn with his bike, he slowed to a complete stop so as not to topple the child.

It made me smile to watch the child being pulled by her dad/uncle/friend of the family...whoever he was.

I know there are many stereotypes of our inner city communities. And I'm not going to lie and say that none of them hold water. I know there are drug houses, absentee fathers, addicted mothers, and so much more.

But I also know there are moments like these.

Moments of joy. Moments of normalcy. Moments of quality time.

I have no idea what role that man plays--where he works, if he works, where he lives, if he is consistent in the lives of his children...I have no idea. But I know that was a special moment.

I wish more people had the opportunity to see those "special moments." I wish people wanting to change our inner cities would observe first...before going in with new programs and new ideas. I'm not saying there doesn't need to be change. I just wish we worked harder on tapping into and building on the community that is already present in our inner cities. We might discover some interesting dynamics that are already at work. We might discover that our best bet is to listen to, learn from, and partner with the people who are already there.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Living on Food Stamps

Are you up for a challenge?

The Austin Food Bank has provided one: Live for a week on Food Stamps.

Think it's easy? you go. You have $21 for the entire week.

Yep. $1 per meal.

Though I'm sure the Austin Food Bank has done their research, I didn't want to post anything that I didn't know for sure. So, I called a friend of mine who receives food stamps and, sure enough, she and 3 of her kids receive $432/month. That's $3.48 per day per person...or $1.16 per meal (so Austin was a little off).

I thought about accepting Austin's challenge. I know I probably should. But, as I looked at their sample menus for eating a healthy diet on $1/meal, several things went through my mind. 1) It's going to take a lot of time to plan my meals in order to make sure I'm within budget, 2) The food they suggest isn't exactly creative and flavorful (there's not much room for flavor and creativity when you're on a tight budget), 3) There aren't enough calories and sustenance to provide me with enough energy to exercise, and 4) It's never going to fill me up!

Congressman Lloyd Doggett and U.S. Representatives James McGovern and Jo Ann Emerson have posed this challenge to all U.S. House members and citizens across the country. The Food Stamp Challenge is part of a push to increase the value of the Food Stamp benefit as part of the 2007 Farm Bill, which Congress will begin debating at the end of this month.

If you try it, let me know how you fare.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Watching the lightbulb go on

Is there anything sweeter than watching the the gears turn and the lightbulb go on in a child's head as they grasp something new?

If you don't believe it's possible to see what goes on in a child's head, sit and watch a child for a while.

It's part of the reason I do what I do. I love watching a child learn!

Too often people have low expectations of kids--young kids, inner city kids, rural kids, special education kids. I once had an assistant principal tell me that a 10-year old who couldn't read must've "reached his peak." I refuse to believe that anyone can "reach their peak" at 10 years old!

I have learned that kids rise to whatever expectations the people around them set for them...whether it's a 5-year old learning about photography or a child with Fragile X developing higher language skills due to his equal involvement in an after-school program.

ALL kids have something to offer. ALL kids have more to learn. Let's be careful not to deny them (or us) the privilege of seeing how far they can go.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

We've come a long way...or have we?

The Civil Rights Movement completely fascinates me--the boldness and courage inspires me while the hatred and abuse horrifies me.

When I travel to different cities, I try to carry my book of Civil Rights sites with me so that I can visit the places in the city where monumental events took place (despite the sighs and rolling eyes of my fellow travelers).

One place I've always wanted to visit is Central High in Little Rock. Even though I went to college in Searcy, AR and was only 45 minutes away from Little Rock, I knew very little about the Civil Rights Movement until post-college when I began to educate myself on the issue. (One of the best memoirs I ever read was Warriors Don't Cry, the story of Melba Patillo Beals' experience integrating Central High in 1957 and what the students endured behind the closed doors of the school.)

However, when I read this article in the New York Times about Central High's heated school board meetings, Whites versus Blacks, the nostalgia waned.

Yes, what the Little Rock Nine did was amazingly selfless and courageous. Because of their perseverance, we are an "integrated" society. But have we really moved beyond living side by side?

While we may be able to mingle with each other today, as the NY Times article demonstrates, many of our issues are still split right down racial lines. It seems to me that it may have something to do with the fact that we don't seem to want to listen to each other...and even if we listen, we don't want to hear. Everybody's too busy trying to be right.

What would happen if we put as much effort in to working toward communication and understanding as we do in proving how right we are?

Saturday, May 05, 2007

"Use another word, please"

Ever hear the phrase, "That's so gay!"...or how about, "He's such a retard!"? I could go on with racial terms as well, but I think you get the point. Every once in a while I hear phrases like that being tossed around casually. Though it's not usually adults who I hear saying it, I don't often hear adults stopping it either.

I don't believe people really think about...and maybe don't care...that those phrases are offensive to people of those groups. When I hear someone say something like that, I often ask them what they really mean. All too often, the derogatory term is often used synonymously with words like "stupid."

Though it's one thing to correct our own behavior (and something we don't always do), it takes even more courage to gently correct others. However, a group in Springfield, Oregon has figured out a way to do this...inspired and initiated by a student who simply turned to another fellow student one day and said, "Use another word, please."

After coming up with the idea to do a school-wide campaign, the racially diverse group of freshmen, sophomores, and juniors took time to do preliminary research seeking to discover how widespread the problem was. After creating tally sheets and monitoring disrespectful language for two weeks, they noted 80-90 racist comments, 30-40 sexist comments, 30-40 able-ist comments, and 50-60 homophobic comments.

Recognizing there was a need to address the issue, they launched their campaign by creating buttons and posters and designed a pledge that had to be signed before receiving a button.

Since the campaign started, one teacher noted a decrease in the number of fights at school. District data supports his observation: suspensions went from 318 during 2004-05 to 142 in 2005-06. Suspensions for fighting dropped from 86 to 38, and suspensions for defiance from 176 to 11.

It's amazing what consideration for each other can do. So next time you hear a disrespectful comment, how about kindly saying, "Use another word, please!"

Friday, May 04, 2007

Strategies for poor children (?!?!)

I received the following from an educational listserv I'm on that sends out different discipline and classroom tips every week. I have gotten something out of almost every email he has sent, but I am completely offended by this one!!! Although I agree with most of the strategies he proposes at the end, he makes some awful judgment calls and assumptions that seem to be completely out of ignorance!!

I plan to respond to him...hopefully in a much cooler, calmer, and collected way...and would be very interested in some of your reactions.

1. I doubt that most of us will understand Generational Poverty….I’ve worked with it for over 20 years, I still am puzzled by the challenge of families to overcome it.

I first met generational poverty at the Nashville Union Rescue Mission. I worked and spoke with men—men were the primary homeless ones a few years ago. Now it’s entire families. Carl Resoner taught me to believe that given enough skill, training and hope, any family could pull out of poverty. I still believe that is true.

Why do the Poor Resist Change?

Generational poverty is like an old shoe. It works, feels comfortable and the fear of breaking free from the known is challenging. Even if it doesn’t exactly fit, it is a normal kind of pain. And they have done it for years.

Some Poverty Rationales:
1. If I work more, my spouse will work less.
He may quit his job. Answer: Everyone should have the skills to support themselves. As you become older, you don’t know they will be there to support you.

2. The kids need me, I can’t work.
Answer: When all of your kids are in school you have about 6 hours per day when you can be away from them developing yourself—and to work.

3. My feet hurt, I can’t work.
Answer: Physical problems may limit where you can work, but there are places for almost anyone who wants to work.

4. I’m getting an education on-line.
Answer: There are some good places to get an education, but human interaction and learning to deal with all types of people is a real education. That education helps you in the workplace.

Some of the things that still puzzle me about it are:
1. The lack of skills that kids have … This year I’ve struggled with many kids with bathroom issues; Controlling and handling these problems independently. Many use these problems to gain adult attention and to find their identity.

One need of kids in families of poverty is: Healthy Attention: Getting attention for being productive. The kids follow these predictive Roles:

Sometimes that identity as a LOST CHILD; the kid that is known by simply being out there, but so quiet that no one knows they exist. They find themselves in music, books and on-line. They are simply invisible in many of our classrooms.

Sometimes it’s the Class Clown Role: Oops I’ve pooped in my pants again. OH MAN, How could I do that? I must be so silly. Well that’s just the way I am.

Then there is the Scapegoat Role: OH Man Why Are YOU blaming me? I can’t help it. Shut up and leave me alone.

Whatever the Role: Bathroom Problems on a Regular Basis can Challenge an Entire School

The Child Denies it- “No I didn’t do that”; Then the teacher demands that the child go and change their clothes or get help. Some things can be ignored, these can’t.

[Yes I am well aware that bathroom issues can be related to sexual abuse and yes you should rule that out.] But for many kids of poverty; it’s simply an issue of:
1) Lack of Training—the expectation and the skill are missing;
2) A way to keep their power—you can’t tell me what to eat, when to eat or when to eliminate. That’s my choice! Try and make me do it your way.
3) An Oppositional Reaction to and adult’s demands: They try and make them, they resist.

2. I must go home now!—We always study the Payoff of the Behavior. What does the child get out of it? That is more important than what’s done. Getting to go home when they have problems is not usually a good option.

Some kids will do anything to go home, including bathroom problems.

Bumper Sticker I saw: A Bad Day at Home is Better Than a Good Day at School. Need I say more?

So the question is: What’s your response or non-response to the behavior?
1. It should be a planned, predictable response.
2. It should include everyone that deals with the child
…so there is no gap in information.
3. It should include a therapeutic response—by that I mean it should make the child responsible without shaming or blaming.

Give Up ON… Knee Jerk Reactions:
1. Trying to make them go to the restroom on your schedule. Power struggle to follow, stay tuned.
2. Bribing them; This is a power issue; you’ll look weak if you bribe them.

Instead Try: Offering Choices You can Accept!
1) Making the parent accountable. They will usually dodge that role with a passion. They must provide clothes for the child; while encouraging them to stay in school.
2) Avoid any element of shame or blame for the child. Any element of shame or blame will likely stop behavioral change.
3) Show that accountability and taking charge—offers the child increased responsibility and power. Eating, sleeping and eliminating, all are power issues. Show that behavioral change equals more personal power…it’s sold. Here’s how to buy these choices.

Let the child help make the plan…with all power issues; the Child must be part of the plan from square one. You can define the boundaries, but the child must see it as his/her plan.

What are your reactions?