Tuesday, February 22, 2011


Thanks to Carrie for posting this in her comment...and thanks to all of the teachers out there who do these things on a daily basis.

Monday, February 21, 2011

CityWalk, Director of Community Life

I used to wonder what I could possibly do if I weren't running after-school programs. I have done it for so long, I've never been quite sure what other skills I might have. With my new job responsibilities, my opportunity has come to test out the knowledge I've gained over the years of working in Jubilee Park, Turner Courts, and Roseland Homes.

After it was understood that the education department would soon be ending, I was presented with the opportunity to become the Director of Community Life at our CityWalk@Akard initiative in downtown Dallas. Though I was still grieving the idea of losing what I loved (the education programs), I tried to wrap my head around this new opportunity.

It wasn't until I got my feet wet and started working at Akard this past week that the realization and acceptance set in of just how exciting my new job will be.

Some research might be in order...and if you'd like to understand more about CityWalk, you can read some of Larry James' blog posts on CityWalk HERE. (you may want to start from the bottom and read up so you'll understand the whole initiative).

CityWalk is made up of a variety of people...all who have to qualify based on income. CityWalk takes a Housing First approach. The objective is to work with people on setting and achieving goals. I am excited about that, but I also see it more as an opportunity to engage the entire community in an endeavor to become an ideal community...a community where formerly homeless, mentally ill, single parents, married couples, college students, children, White, Black, Hispanic, and Asian, can not only live together, but begin to engage each other in conversation, watch out for each other when arriving home from work late at night, providing good role models to other peoples' children, and all-in-all creating an amazingly healthy community.

My job will challenge me to combine everything I know about education, social work, and health disparities and utilize my experiences with each.  The job does not come without it's challenges. Think of a horizontal community much like where you may live and put everyone together in a vertical building in much smaller apartments with very close proximity to their neighbors. This can be challenging with even the most problem-free situations.

So, along with learning the technical aspects of what I will be doing, my week has been full of highlights.

  • After meeting Mr. Simpson and Mr. Solis, I could swear they are shadowing my every move as I see them walk through the halls and go from floor to floor chatting with people and moving about the high rise, always with a smile and a greeting.
  • While standing at the elevators, a very tall (about 6'5") young man walked off the elevator immediately out-stretching his arms and coming directly toward me with a very excited greeting a a huge smile. It was Jazz, one of my "kids" from our University of Values summer program about four years ago.
  • A Sunday afternoon art class for kids where three girls sat completely engaged in creating abstract art...and then listening to two of the girls (5th and 6th grade) have a conversation about their favorite artists, how the Eiffel Tower was built, their love of going to the Dallas Museum of Art, their knowledge about positive and negative space, and their general love of the art and music.
  • Meeting Ms. Carey, who is very interested in having an arts/crafts room and classes for adults and who also wants the Rainbow Days classes for her three year old.
  • Attending a Friday evening Crime Watch meeting with about 20-30 residents who engaged in the conversation and seemed very interested in creating a safer vertical community. 

I have much more to learn. This is all new to me. I am currently reading about Atul Gawande's approach, looking into the Common Ground initiative in New York, looking at YWCA's financial literacy classes, and thinking about a new "neighboring" concept that will put all of our volunteers and residents in horizontal relationships that are full of reciprocity. Stay tuned for more information and updates!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Changes at CitySquare in the Roseland Community

Fun times with new, lasting friends
We have and are going through some changes at CitySquare. Due to different funding constraints, along with figuring out the best way to move forward at CitySquare, I am sad to say that we will no longer have an Education Department, which also means that after school programming as it currently exists will be different as well.

Field trip to Texas Discovery Gardens
On May 20, 2011, the educational programming in the Roseland will come to a close. As many of you know, this has been my heart and soul for the last 13-15 years. My heart and passion for the kids will continue. The great thing about building long-term relationships with people is that they don't end...even when there are gaps in between the times we talk and see each other. I know I will continue to stay in contact with many and will probably end up running into some when I least expect it.

Though we were never really able to get the funding we needed to take the education programs to the level I would have liked, I am continuously surprised and humbled by the responses I get from kids (who are now older) that spent time in the program as well as tangential people who I never realized were so impacted by the program.

After I sent out an email to several friends, former volunteers, staff, etc, I received this response:
Thank you for the summer, Ms. Janet. My time with the [After School Academy] forever changed the way I look at things, how I think about life. Thank you for not giving up on some white country boy who had no idea what he was doing (still has no idea what he's doing, but he manages). The support from you and Danielle and the other teachers was just mind boggling, and I'll never forget any of it. I pray for the kids everyday and I hope they are growing in leaps and bounds. If you see them around tell them Mr. Chris hasn't forgot about them and that he's thinking of them.
Tasting new fruits and veggies
I met with a former staff member yesterday who was truly upset about the program going away because of how much she learned from being a part of it. As we talked, we discussed how the education program was always focused solely on the kids. I was always very adamant about the program being completely about the kids and pushed the staff to make their programming great. I didn't ever want the staff to think it was about them. I didn't want them to sit back while one of our kids fell through the cracks. But what I always knew was that our program was very much about the staff. The effects of the program had a dual effect.

Creating "wind turbines"
I received a very upset text message from a parent once she heard and, as I explained over text, she asked, "Is there something we could've done differently?" and when I explained to her that we were hoping to get a different organization to take our place she asked, "So is [the next group] gonna be the same as you do? I really need you guys."

Though we're all struggling with this decisions, what I've learned happens is what I call the "ripple effect." Over the last 15 years, there is no telling how many kids, teens, and adults have been involved in our education programs. Hundreds...maybe even close to a thousand. Some have stuck around longer than others. Some have been volunteers, some staff, and some participants. Because I stay in contact...or come back in contact...with many of them, I hear different stories about how they have continued their life as influenced by the program.

Of course, these "ripple effects" are extremely hard to track and really have no way of being put into an outcomes sheet that makes it fundable. As people have gone on, they may have moved to a different part of Dallas or even a different city or state. Yet I have talked to many of them who have gone on to work in or with non-profit organizations, major in education, work with kids, or just interact with their neighbors using ways and methods and structure that they learned within our Education Department. As they take this to Houston, Commerce, Fayetteville...as they transfer their knowledge of kids and families into the jobs where they work, etc...as they challenge their new employers to expect more of the kids...they influence a whole new set of kids.
Our weekly farm stand: low cost fresh produce

Though I am sad that our era of working solely and directly with kids is ending, I have a great peace about me knowing that what we did continues way beyond May 20, 2011. The Education Department will not end. It will continue. It will continue through the work and the relationships of Chris, Gary, Jessica, Rachel, Tiffany, Tameshia, Terrence, Danielle, Katrina, Deshaumbra, and so many others. That makes me happy. That makes me proud.

I will let you know what I will be doing in the next post.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Back On My Feet. Do something you love!

Charity is something we feel the need to do. It's a good thing. Most of us have been taught to give back so we try to do what we can. When our church has a service day, we fall in line to pick up trash, visit the elderly, buy someone clothes, or paint a room. It is a project. The project lasts an hour...maybe a day...and we have completed a good deed. Service projects have quick results. When large groups come together, things that have been sitting on the back burner get done...quickly.

But I think we need to examine why service days work. Why are people willing to wake up early on a Saturday morning, go out and do the service projects? Is it because they have a deep desire to make a change in a community that isn't their own? Perhaps. However, I believe the stronger power lies in the group of people who are gathering together. People are willing to get up because their friends and family members have also said they would get up and go.

We are human. We know that any serving we do may allow us to get to know some new people, but we also know serving with a large group of people allows us to spend time with friends...friends who, our busy world, we don't get to spend enough time with. Service becomes a win-win situation. Spend time with people we enjoy while helping someone else in the process.

Anne Mahlum has gone a step further in that paradigm though. Anne Mahlum understands that gathering a group of people together has powerful results. But she has approached it a different way:
Anne's relationship with running began when she was 16 as it was her way of dealing with the unexpected situation of her dad's struggle with a gambling addiction, which tore apart her family. While Anne could never find a way to help her dad, she found her own answers in the life lessons that surround running, such as taking things one step at a time and learning the value of being on difficult roads. 10 years later, Anne's running had led her past a homeless shelter on 12th and Vine in Philadelphia where she began to develop a friendly, sarcastic rapport with some of the individuals staying there, who reminded her of her dad. During one morning run she realized that running could benefit them in the same way that it helped her and she felt in some way she could vicariously help her father by helping them. 
Anne found her release through running. She began to heal through running. Anne began to think that maybe that release and healing could be the same for other people as well. Anne founded Back On My Feet.

I attended the Back On My Feet breakfast yesterday and was truly inspired. I know the power of discovering a sport that you truly love. It challenges me mentally, physically, and spiritually. It strengthens my self-confidence as I progress beyond what I ever thought I could. It takes me away from stress, frustration, self-doubt...if only for an hour or two. All people should have the opportunity to know that feeling.

Back On My Feet didn't start as a program. It started long before the organization ever began. Listening to Anne speak, it was obvious that Back On My Feet was never her "service project." She simply was doing something she loved and wanted to invite other people in to join with her in something she had found liberated her.

Maybe we should all look at service differently. Instead of seeing others as our service project, why not figure out what we love to do and invite people to be a part of what we love? Service projects end. Doing something we love doesn't.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Tweets that make me smile

Snow/Ice Day #5.

It's the 5th day Dallas ISD has taken in the last two weeks and I'm loving every minute of it! I curl up in my chair, put my computer on my lap, and journal...while checking tweets periodically.

This morning as I went back and forth between Twitter and writing, I noticed a tweet in my timeline that said, "I gt 2 get da hang of this.......idk wht im doin......." I didn't recognize the name and there was just the generic egg that Twitter shows when the user has no picture.

I moved on.

A few minutes later, I checked Twitter again. This time I saw another tweet from the same user:
@onji1908 hey im hayzul's nd monteyvion's mom nd i js wnt 2tell u u r doing a great job thx for all u do
That tweet created my a-ha moment. It's Kim! Her kids are in our After-School Academy! I smiled...and am still smiling...for two reasons:

First, the tweet was from a parent in our neighborhood directed to the principal of the school. That's huge! It's huge because this is a new principal. It's been a while since the principal of the school has had any kind of relationship with the community. For a parent to make her first tweet a shout out to the principal is HUGE! Nice job, Ms. Brown!

Second, it tells me what can happen when our parents and communities have access to technology. Technology bridges gaps in so many ways.

Thanks, Kim, for making my day.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Daddy King

This snow/ice week may not have been the most productive work week I've ever had, but it sure has been good to have the time to just "be." For some (and even for myself in the past), sitting in the house for four days would have driven them absolutely stir crazy. This week, however, I have been able to write, cook, and exercise. It felt good. As I re-discovered things I enjoyed doing, I came across a link a friend sent me. It was from The Story on NPR. It was broadcast on MLK Day, but instead of being about Martin Luther King, it was mostly about his father, "Daddy King," as they called him.

I've done a lot of research on the civil rights movement. I've learned a lot about very influential people who are never mentioned in our history books. Yet through all of that, it never occurred to me to think about the parents of the man who made such an amazing impact.

A Summer with the King Family — The Story from APM

Now I want to know more.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Ghetto Life: 101

Every once in a while I am approached by someone who wants to understand more about the inner city from the perspective of someone who lives here. They ask me if I can provide them with a family who would be willing to allow a reporter into their home to talk about food insecurity. They want to know if a child would be willing to provide a day-in-the-life report in hopes of getting a better picture of their life with gangs. Or they may want a mom to talk about her frustrations of trying to get a job with no childcare.

I want people to understand the environment, families, educational system, and why things work or don't work for people in poverty. Yet, every time I am approached, my defenses immediately go up.

My experience with the press hasn't always been good. I learned the hard way that the whole context of what you say isn't always put in the writing. Reporters have an agenda, an angle. They work to fit the story into their angle. As a result, the story becomes one-sided and often, for people in my neighborhood, reflects negatively on the people in the neighborhood. Therefore, a lot of my friends and neighbors turn away from those "opportunities" and often look at me with skepticism when I even approach them about it.

I get it. I mean, really, who wants their dirty laundry aired? I don't see a lot of press reports on upper class white families whose children become addicts because their work-a-holic parents hire nannies and they never have any real connection with their own children. Instead, when a drug epidemic breaks out in the suburbs, I see generous concern for students who have turned to drugs. There becomes an outpouring of support, counselors brought in, and attempts to weed out the drugs. Situations in either community are extremely sad, but similar situations are approached very differently depending on the neighborhood.

I do think people need to know about and understand the reality our kids in poverty face. I want to tell people if they really wanted to know, they should spend some time in our neighborhood. They need to be a part of our day-to-day for a while. I think they would find that some things aren't near as scary as they've been presented and other things are just as heart-breaking. Unfortunately, I've learned that convincing someone to hang out in our neighborhood for a while is pretty futile.

I wish people could see and understand the joy along with the sorrows. I wish they could meet Ron, who grew up on my street and comes back every once in a while to check on my elderly neighbor, who has also been here for most of her life. I wish they could know my friend who mows my lawn periodically when he knows I'm too busy. I wish they could feel the pain of the losses we've experienced to shootings, mental illness, diabetes, cancer, and other preventable actions and diseases. I wish people outside of our neighborhood could see how pain is embedded in the system.

There are some people who have become a part of our programs...and they have come to know the joys and the sorrows. We love, together. We hurt, together.

When I listened to this NPR segment, it reminded me of how real and powerful reports from people experiencing the system can be. But even as they explain, it took a lot of courage on their part to hold the tape recorder and get the information from their community.

After listening to the NPR segment (below), you may want to listen to one of their original pieces. If you want to know what "ghetto life" is like, listen to these two young men. They may have done the piece in 1993. Unfortunately, not much has changed in our urban areas since then. You may have to sign up for a subscription for the second audio piece (PRX » Piece » #50 - Ghetto Life 101), but it's free and I guarantee you it's worth it. Take a listen...

PRX » Piece » #50 - Ghetto Life 101

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Dallas Ice Storm--Day 2

I haven't had to work for two days! Or maybe I should say I haven't had to go into the office for two days. Even if there were crucial things I needed to get done, at times like these I can work from home.

While having two days of ice makes me very happy, I realize it becomes a very painful and scary time for my friends and neighbors who don't have the luxury of being able to work from home. I don't mean the icy conditions become scary (although that is true as well for those who are out and about). I mean the businesses who shut down for a day or two hurt the income of our friends and neighbors who depend on hourly wage jobs. A day off for them can't be made up elsewhere. They are simply out of that day of pay.

That bothers me. Most of my friends who are working hourly wage jobs are barely making ends meet as it is. They struggle to pay their rent and put food on the table. Loss of a day...or two...of pay can be quite serious--besides the fact that many of them have kids who are at home instead of at school during this time...which means more mouths to feed with less money.

So, when I heard my neighbors spinning out in their driveway trying to leave for work, I went to see if I could help. A little preposterous, I know. Besides the fact that I'm much smaller than the two grown men who were already pushing, the ice on the pavement made it impossible to even stand up while pushing!

It was a challenge in problem solving. We tried putting cardboard under the wheels, pouring Purex on the pavement (I have no idea why...but someone had seen it work somewhere!), pushing the car sideways...but nothing worked. Instead, the car had gotten out far enough to have its tail stuck in the middle of the street. My neighbors needed to get to work. The processing plant where they work keeps going, even in ice...and I'm sure they couldn't afford to miss another day.

We were about to give up when we saw a police car headed down our street. I'm not sure what DPD's role is on a day like this, but I knew the officer so he stopped. My neighbor had gotten the car back in the drive and seemed about to give up. After a few minutes of chatting with the officer, I asked if he would mind taking my neighbors to work. Again, I'm not sure if that's even allowed. I could tell by my neighbor's hesitation that they weren't too excited about being in a police car driving through the neighborhood. It doesn't look too good in my neighborhood if you're in the back seat of a police car. But, they needed to go to work. So they agreed to the police chauffeur. I'm sure they got to know the officer on the way there. All three people are good people.

Maybe this snow/ice day was a good thing. Sometimes a situation where we have to depend on others provides an unexpected opportunity for both sides. We haven't always had the best police experiences in my neighborhood. I would guess that their ride with Officer Wright probably did more to help police/neighborhood relations than any kind of patrolling could ever do.