Wednesday, September 30, 2009

What do you want to do before you die?

Wow...powerful stuff. See Shawn Williams' write-up here. Then watch the video:

Monday, September 28, 2009

Bringing books to our urban community

Katrina Hobbs has been dynamic since she was five years old. She was probably dynamic before then, but I didn't know her before then.

When Katrina was little, she and her sister, Lewanna, attended our summer Kids Kamp program. While other kids just showed up to attend, Katrina and Lewanna would go home in the evenings and turn cheers and chants into songs and activities and bring them back for us to do at Kids Kamp.

Katrina's family lived in Roseland Homes and attended J.W. Ray Elementary. They would always bring reports of winning different oratorical contests and straight A's on their report cards.

As they got older and moved to different neighborhoods, I didn't see them as much, but they still stayed in contact. Both sisters went to Townview Magnet and were determined to become educators so they could effect children's lives like their teachers had for them.

Katrina has now come back to Roseland to run the Roseland Library/Bookstore. She loves that she gets to work with kids on their reading. I love her excitement. She's doing storytime with the kids, but just today I watched her working with two boys on their rhyming words.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Digital Connectors...the wave of the future

I keep telling people that every day I become more and more impressed with the 20-something age group. They are innovative critical thinkers who know and utilize technology and want to change the world. And so many of them are on the path to do just that!

Tameshia is an African American Studies AND Latin American Studies double major. She has taken some time off so she can save up to finish her last year at school. Though I am definitely encouraging her to go back, I'm extremely glad we have her and want to find ways to keep her!

When we interviewed Tameshia for the After-School Academy position, she was very open about her passion and desire to change the world. I could tell it came from the very depths of her and was in no way a passing phase. We want people like Tameshia on our team!

Tameshia started off as a part-time Americorps member working in our After-School Academy, but because of her amazing skill and love for technology, we quickly advocated for her to run our evening Digital Connector program for the teens.

You can see an example of her work by going to the After-School Academy blog and see how she's now added tabs and redesigned the background.

When I asked Tameshia if she would be interested in being the instructor for the Digital Connectors program, Tameshia said she would. Because she's a fairly quiet person, I had no idea how excited she was. After walking out of my office and getting partially out the door, she turned back around and came back to say, "I just need to give you a hug! I'm so excited!"

Before we even knew if we could officially hire her, I handed her the 2" binder of the currciulum (on a Wednesday or Thursday). She emailed me that Sunday saying she had read the entire curriculum and had a few questions.

Tameshia has taken it upon herself (again, before we even sure we could hire her) to attend the Friday night and Saturday meetings with the Teen University. None of that is in her job description. She assured me that whether or not she got the position, she would still be more than willing to help. Tameshia believes in building relationships and already has 6-8 teenagers interested in the program. As I type this, she is in a meeting at North Dallas High School presenting it to some of their students.

I can't wait to see the results of the Digital Connectors program. For the last three days, my home internet has been down. I kept thinking, "Soon, I'll be able to hire some of our teenagers from Roseland to fix this for me!!" I look forward to that moment and will gladly pay them to do so!

In the meantime, if you work for a company that focuses on technology, have some connections to help us get the high speed computers and software needed to start the program, or are part of the technology departments of one of the local colleges, let us know! The program starts soon and we'd love for you to be involved as we move forward!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Providing college-focused programs in the inner city

When we began talking about starting educational programming for teens, I was aware of the stories that getting teenagers to come could be challenging. But I also know that so many of our teenagers are eager to go to college and simply don't have the knowledge of how to be prepared and how to get through all of the paperwork. After interviewing Terrence for the Americorps position, I knew he was the perfect person for the job:

After only a week and a half of programming, Terrence is drawing about 13 teenagers an evening. After using my records to count all of the middle and high school students in Roseland, I figured out that is 10% of the teenagers! 10%...and I expect that number to increase! That's significant! What's even more significant is that they are being challenged educationally and they keep coming back!

When I went to check on the program, a girl was sitting on the couch reading what seemed to be a dictionary. When I asked her what she was doing, she rolled her eyes and explained that Terrence made them look up words. Despite the rolling eyes and seeming exasperation, after we chatted, she went right back to looking up more words.

In the comfortable, living room setting, Terrence was sitting on the couch helping another student with geography, while others were working on homework as well.

Off to the side, a group of students had the Scrabble board out and were getting a game started. When I took the picture, they wanted to spell out words to present themselves as great Scrabble players. We decided on "Intelligent Students," as you can see if you look real close.

Over the last week and a half, Terrence has engaged the students in dialogue about education, college, careers, history, and more. They have watched documentaries, practiced interviewing, and practiced speed reading to bump their reading skills up.

Terrence and I met with Raul Hinojosa to plan for our UTD students that will be helping. The rate Terrence is going, he's going to need the extra help. He's getting ready to start engaging them in researching careers and colleges to get them prepared for their future.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Opportunity is underestimated

The Roseland Library/Bookstore was a buzz of activity when I entered. Ms. Anna's class from the After-School Academy was there for their KidzLit reading class. They had finished reading the book and doing their activities and were all browsing the library.

I noticed a low-key rucus begining to take place. I looked over to see Randy rather upset. One of the kids had picked up a book and Randy was afraid he was going to buy it. Miss Katrina intervened, "What's wrong?" Randy, upset, tried to explain, "He's got the book I wanted to buy!!" Katrina calmly explained to Randy, "He doesn't have any money with him today. He was just looking at the book." The other child finished looking at the book and turned it over to Randy. Randy was then able to get his book and pay Miss Katrina at the check out desk. (I believe I heard a sigh of relief. :) )

After his purchase, I realized Randy had already bought three other books that same day.

Randy quickly settled into one of the library tables and began soaking in every word on the page.

The Roseland Library/Bookstore is open for kids, teens, and adults Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday from 3:00-7:30, Fridays from 3:00-5:30, and Saturdays from 10:00-4:00. Miss Katrina facilitates story times and book clubs for kids and teens. All books are available to read in the library or to purchase--25 cents for paperbacks and 50 cents for hardbacks.
In the past, we've given away books to the kids so they could build their library. It wasn't uncommon to see books laying all over the yard outside as kids dropped them in order to run and play and then forgot to pick them back up. Now that we have a bookstore in the community, books are going like hotcakes. And, as far as I can tell, not a one of them gets left behind. Miss Katrina has sold 24 books so far...and we've only been open for 8 days.

1) Charity is not the operative word; opportunity is. Affordability is the issue. Charity can be devalue opportunity. 2) When kids are given the opportunity, don't underestimate. Families want the best for their children and children love to learn. 3) How can we expect kids to love to read when there are no libraries close to Roseland (and many other inner city communities) and bookstores are cost prohibitive?

I am not surprised how the kids are responding. For 14 years I have been engaged with people who live in inner city communities who simply want the same access and opportunity as people in other neighborhoods. When that access is available, people respond.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

After school programs matter

A lot has been happening in Roseland Townhomes this year. At the beginning of the summer, we began working to make the Community Center, Education programs, kids and adult programs, Central Dallas services, and church seamless. Our efforts are working!

We now have a great Parent Academy that meets the third Thursday of every month and focuses on Empowerment, Enrichment, Education, and Employment. We had 11 parents at our first meeting with a powerful presentation from a community organizer on the Rights and Responsibilities of Parents and their interactions with the schools.

Though there is much more that goes on through the Community Center that I can talk about later, my passion is the Education department.

On August 18, the Education department at Roseland was asked to put together programming for a vacant building at Roseland. I had to scramble to get it all in place by September, but as I have figured out through the years, things that are meant to work out always do!

Last Monday we kicked off our programs in Roseland. (yes, that’s with an “s”).

As we have had for 14 years, our After-School Academy (ASA) continues. This year Danielle Evans is leading up the effort and doing a wonderful job. We have three amazing Americorps members--Anna Hart, Phillip Hawkins, and Tameshia Ridge who are helping her manage our 30 kids and numerous classes. The ASA has partnered with Susie Marshall with the Gleaning Network of Texas. She is helping our kids create a fantastic community garden that we are hoping will become a mini-farmer’s market (run by the kids) to the Roseland community. We are also partnering with Shawn Williams of Dallas South News who will be helping our kids become junior reporters, with the hopes/plans of them reporting out on the Dallas South News site in a month or so.

We now have the Roseland Library/Bookstore. It’s run by Katrina Hobbs, Americorps. Katrina is at UTA majoring in Education and has been a part of our programs for 14 years. She’s so excited about beginning to work with kids on their reading. We sell books there for 25 cents for paperbacks and 50 cents for hardbacks. Kids are buying them right and left!

We also have a Teen University run by Terrence Brooks, Americorps. Terrence wants to run his own non-profit one of these days, but I think I might be able to sell him on sticking around for ours once he gets out of school and we can hire a full time person. He’s amazing with the teens. He’s told me some stories of really helping them with their reading and school work and how their resistance is beginning to dwindle. We just received a grant in partnership with UTD that will provide 2-4 college students to work with the teens on homework, college preparation, and career research. We’ve got some great plans!

Finally, we received a grant from One Economy in conjunction with CTIA and Comcast (you may hear about it…they are making a national announcement during the week of Oct. 5). It’s a Digital Connectors program. Tameshia, who also works in our ASA, will be running the program. Tameshia is our “Queen of Technology” and is extremely excited about teaching the teens. The program is for 14-21 year olds and focuses on several skills. Technology is the big focus, but they also has a leadership, financial literacy, and service component. Through the program, the teens will become certified by Cisco Systems to be able to rebuild computers. They will also be creating a mobile app and be creating videos throughout the program. I am so excited we were chosen to be a part of that and can’t wait to see what happens once the group mobilizes and becomes technology point people for the Roseland community.

Whew! So…please! Come visit us!! Great things are happening and I would love to show you what they really look like!

More to come.... :)

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Make the f-stop sharpen the bright spots

I often get frustrated and discouraged by the way we have to report data in order to receive funding. The images we must present is that our community is desolate and desperately needs someone's help in terms of money, resources, or man power. Though there are definitely needs, I prefer to look at the hope, the possibilities, and the capacity the community has to offer.

If you're much of a photographer, you know the way a camera can focus on one point and blur the background in a way that creates a very crisp image in the foreground. I love that feature. In our inner cities, though, I feel like the camera of our media, many of the volunteers, and the funders changes the focal point. Instead of creating the crisp image of smiling kids, glimmers of hope in their eyes, hard-working parents, and moments of community and blurring the desolation in the background, the lens of most people's cameras change the focus.

The funders, volunteers, mission groups, and media often want to blur those images listed above in order to make the crisp image the person doing a drug deal, the trash, the dilapidated houses.

It's not that we don't have all of that in our community. We do. But it's what you choose to focus on that makes a difference. Focusing on the positive images doesn't mean we can't see the trash. We see it every day. When we are forced to dwell on it is when the discouragement and complacency sets in. Why are we forced to focus on *our* successes *to* the community instead of being able to focus on the determination and great families and how they prosper once provided with the missing resources in a community that's void of computers, job training, quality education, etc?

As a photographer, my focal point is going to be the bright spots in the community. The background will continue to be there and continue to be a negative mark on our communities until we change our f-stop to make the foreground (not the background) images sharper.

Good article that complements this theory: Faces in the Rubble

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Creating connections...role reversal

To give our college students extra moral support, I used to go visit each of them at their respective colleges each year.

Unfortunately, my workload has increased at the same rate as the number of college students, it seems. So, it's been harder to take the time to visit.

Last week, I was supposed to meet with a recruiter from Texas A & M-Commerce. I seized the opportunity to meet with him in Commerce so I could go visit some of the students.

I forwarded the email, letting them know I'd be in town and inviting them to lunch. I immediately got a response from Lewanna. "You know Luis?! What are you guys meeting about??" Turns out, Lewanna (junior, Education major) and Bridgette (graduate school, Higher Ed Administration major) both work with Luis!

After a text conversation with Luis during lunch, Bridgette and Lewanna took me on a golf cart tour of the new buildings on campus (Kristina, freshman music major, had to leave).

When I meet people at the university or in a college program, I try to introduce students to them. I want them to know people and have the same connections I do. This time, however, it was my turn to let them connect me. As we talked at lunch and as I stood with Bridgette and Lewanna when I met Luis, it was obvious how well-respected they were within the administration department.

I'm a networker. I love making connections. This time, the roles were reversed. Bridgette and Lewanna connected me instead of the other way around. I realized that my credibility probably rose with Dean Holley and Luis when they found out I knew two of their best student workers.

Thanks, Bridgette and Lewanna!

Monday, September 07, 2009

Discovering meaning in the health insurance debate

A few weeks ago I injured my knee while working out. I really enjoy working out so the injury has really frustrated me. While it's healing, I've had to slow down my workout and find alternative ways of exercising.

As I swam laps in my friends pool, I allowed myself to be frustrated with my situation. Yet, as I swam, each lap created a new thought in my head...

I'm swimming laps in my friend's pool. How many people have friends with pools they can go to when they need alternative exercise? How many people do I know who had swimming lessons as a kid and can even swim?? And then if they do have a friend with a pool, how many have gas and transportation to get to that pool?

Then I started thinking...

Truth is, I can afford to pay for a monthly gym membership to keep me healthy...which is how I got hurt in the first place. How many of my friends can afford a gym membership? Not many. Because I can afford that monthly cost, I am able to keep my stress level (and my weight) down. Exercising helps me feel better about myself...about life...about situations. Exercising makes me want to eat better to maintain that good feeling.

Then I started questioning the intelligence of my actions...

Is my knee really healing right? Maybe I should have gone to the doctor. No, that would've been a $30 co-pay and they would've probably sent me to another doctor for x-rays, which would've been another $30. That's too much money. But I guess the reality is, I have health insurance and I have the choice to go to a doctor. Though it's expensive, it's a WHOLE lot cheaper than the visit would be without insurance. many people don't even have that option and opportunity?

Which led me to also appreciate the job I have...

Wow...what if I had a job where I had to stand all day...and didn't provide sick and vacation days many of my friends in the service industry?

My knee isn't 100% yet and I'm still irritated that I can't workout at the level I'd like. But I also realize that many people don't have all of the opportunities and benefits I do. I think of this as I listen to people lament over the fact that a change in insurance my not allow they or their children the care they have had (which I don't believe will happen).

I wonder if they realize that so many people have never had the care that they and their children have. I wonder if they realize (or care) that while they're so adamant about maintaining privatized care for themselves, they are advocating that *some* people and *some* children don't deserve what they do. They are advocating to shut them out of that opportunity to be healthier...which ultimately affects all of us.

Because of my knee, the health insurance debate has a little more meaning these days.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Who are mission trips for?

Bob Lupton does amazing urban ministry in Atlanta. He has a way of saying things I want to say, but he seems to always add a little twist that creates a profound challenge to my thinking.

Honorable Marketing
August 2009

Cheerios just got a black eye. For as long as I can remember, those little round “O”s have been a breakfast favorite of both children and adults. Kids have spelled words with them in their cereal bowls, moms have carried baggies of them in their purses for snacks, dads have shoveled down spoonfuls as they hurried out the door on the way to work. In recent years these nutritious, fiber-rich, toasted 100% whole grain oat delights have boasted an amazing ability to lower bad cholesterol. I believed them. Who wouldn’t believe in Cheerios? Then some whistle-blower or competitor cried foul and the Federal Trade Commission took a close look at these health claims. Cheerios may be nutritious but no longer can they claim to lower cholesterol. They got caught doing false advertising.

Is it buyer beware or do we want government watchdogs checking the validity of our marketing practices? Frankly, I’m glad there is some ethical standard in our society that attempts to maintain a modicum of honesty. Can you imagine living in a culture where you could believe nothing that you read or heard? What chaos! I’m disappointed in Cheerios. I wish their advertising were as wholesome as their 100% whole grain oats. But I’ll keep eating the little “O”s for breakfast. And I’ll also keep taking my cholesterol pills.

The Federal Trade Commission, an independent agency of the U.S. government, is charged with keeping American business free and fair. Included in its many responsibilities is “to prevent the dissemination of false and deceptive advertising of goods, drugs, curative devices, and cosmetics.” False claims, whether by Cheerios, car dealers or snake oil peddlers, when detected are subject to public exposure, penalties and immediate corrective action. The FTC has jurisdiction over a broad spectrum of activities but there is one realm it cannot penetrate — the church. The church-state barrier offers protection against government intrusion into the practice of organized religion. Of course, one would expect that, since the Judeo-Christian traditions are foundational to the ethical and moral codes of American society, the church would be the last institution in need of ethical policing.

Certainly the church is not without its flaws. The moral failure of church leaders is legendary. The media feeds off such scandal. Yet, in spite of the damage caused by the occasional fall of religious leaders, the church as an institution strives to preserve and protect high standards of conduct. Though its members, and too often its leaders, fail to measure up to its high ideals, the church remains the primary guardian of moral and ethical values. It may wrestle with controversial issues of the day such as gay marriage and abortion, but it does so in pursuit of a moral high ground.

But there is one area that seems to have eluded the ethical scrutiny of the church. Churches from the left to the right, high and low, share the same blind spot. Perhaps it’s because the practice is so pervasive or because the claims seem so spiritual. But if the FTC were to shine the spotlight on the marketing of missions, the expose would be, well, perhaps not damning but certainly embarrassing. Take a look at most any promotional package for a mission trip and you will get the distinct impression that lost, starving, forsaken people have their last hope riding on the willingness of Christians from the US to come and rescue them. The pictures are heart-rending — a close-up of a child’s sad face, a tin-roof shack beside an open sewage ditch, an old woman struggling under a load of firewood sticks. The emotional call goes out for the “healed, trained, empowered and Spirit filled teens to be missionaries to the world.” Such experiences promise to touch lives, change the world, and have a dramatic, life-changing impact on those who will sacrifice their comfort to go. For a week!

Can we be honest? Mission trips and service projects are important. For lots of reasons. But the truth of the matter is that dropping into a strange culture for a week or even two creates far more work for the local leadership than it’s worth, except for the money and gifts we leave. And those gifts more often than not do more long-term harm than good. As one local leader told me: “They’re turning our people into beggars.” Much of the work we do is make-work — painting a church, digging a foundation, leading a summer Bible school — all work that could and should be done by locals. “Our men need the work,” a seminary president once told me as we discussed the impact of US mission trippers in her impoverished country.

But this treatise is not about the downstream impact of mission trips. Some ambitious young reporter seeking to make a name for himself will sooner or later handle that expose. This is about the dishonesty in our marketing of these trips. Our “people-are-dying-and-you-can-save-them” rhetoric may be effective spin to lure young people (and older as well) into signing up but we know that only on rare occasions is this actually true. Yes, there are Katrinas. But the overwhelming majority of our mission trips are to places where the needs for development are far greater than for emergency assistance. And development is about enabling indigenous people to help themselves, not doing the work for them. Development is much longer term, calls for professional expertise and planning, requires lending and investing — not the sort of things that lend themselves to a typical short-term mission trip.

I am not saying that mission trips don’t have value. They do. Great value. They open up new worlds, new perspectives, new insights. They expose us to fascinating cultures, connect us with new friends, allow us to experience God at work in surprising ways, inspire us, break our hearts, build camaraderie among traveling companions. Any one of these benefits might well justify the time and expense. But isn’t it time we admit to ourselves that mission trips are essentially for our benefit, not for the benefit of the ones our marketing material portray? Would it not be more forthright if we called our junkets “insight trips” or “exchange programs”? Or how about Kingdom adventures? Do we really need to justify our journeying to exotic lands under the pretense of missionary work? Religious tourism would have much more integrity if we simply admitted that we’re off to explore God’s amazing work in the world.

I know we have to have good reason to justify spending the kind of money we do on mission trips. US churches spent well over $2 billion (that’s with a “b”) on them last year. This is not at all inconsistent with our normative pattern of church spending, however. We typically spend upwards of 95% of church budgets on ourselves anyway. So to admit that mission trip expenditures are primarily for the spiritual benefit of our members would not be out of line, that is if we feel justified spending that percentage on ourselves. But that’s a discussion for another time. Our subject here is marketing with integrity.

So how do we capture the imagination, the compassion, of a younger generation if not by appealing to the tenderness of their hearts? Come to think of it, it was the story of fatherless children that drew me into urban work nearly 40 years ago. I wanted to make a difference. That was a powerful motivator. So maybe “touching lives” and “changing the world” is appropriate rhetoric after all. It certainly appealed to my compassionate side and it played at least some part in shaping my call into ministry. The idea of sacrifice was also appealing to me, to offer myself up to a cause of great importance. I wanted my life to count. That was important. But playing to those tender Spirit-sensitivities should be done with great care. Setting up unrealistic expectations can lead to discouragement. Portraying false representations can lead to cynicism. Is it not enough to simply say “come and see” and then allow the Spirit to do the touching and surprising?

Here’s my bottom line: the Kingdom doesn’t need our hype. The Kingdom needs people who speak the truth.

Bob Lupton