Thursday, December 28, 2006

Amazing children

I know I've talked about Kashia before, but her passion for life inspires me so much I have to keep going back to her.

Central Dallas is launching a postcard campaign and Kashia was chosen to be one of the kids featured on a postcard. I fell in love with the pictures as soon as I saw them. The photographer captured her so well!

This is a typical picture of Kashia. Offer her a challenge and her finger will go up to her chin in thinking mode. Her wheels will start turning and she will meet your challenge head on...usually surfacing with the answer.
I love this picture with Kashia and her mom, Chanel. Though Chanel really dislikes pictures, I think this offers a great side of Chanel that shows you what kind of mom she is. When I asked Chanel if Kashia could be involved in our postcard campaign, Chanel was afraid they might interview her (she doesn't like talking much either) and take pictures of her, too. Instead of saying no, Chanel told me that she would do whatever she needed to for Kashia's sake.
Kashia is an inquisitive and precocious child. I wonder how many more inquisitive and precocious children we might have...and I wonder how much more Kashia could aspire to... if we offered the most vulnerable and dependent of our society a high quality education, good healthcare, a safe place to live, and the resources they need.

I know there are many more Kashia's out there waiting to be discovered. What Kashia's do you know?

Sunday, December 17, 2006

My Christmas wish...year-round justice

Call me a bah humbug, but I'm not a big fan of Christmas.

I was in the toy department of Target the other day and overheard a couple of White families talking to each other about purchasing gifts for the "less fortunate." The children were pointing out games and toys they liked and their father eagerly encouraged them to get several of each one enthusiastically claiming, "There will be over a thousand kids there!" A few people walked by and inquisitively asked what they were which they eagerly told them of their efforts to purchase items for "less fortunate" children who would be coming to their event.

As the kids perused through the toy aisles looking for toys to purchase and give away, I heard their mom say, "These kids are going to be 'dark-skinned' kids so we need to find some 'dark-skinned' dolls." Something about the whole thing didn't set right with me. I suppose I should give them credit and even commend them for taking into account the "darker skin" of the kids they would be giving toys to. Some people don't even do that much. I know that their intentions were probably good. It still struck a nerve with me. I wondered what their conversation sounded like to the other possibly "less fortunate" or "dark-skinned" people who might have been shopping around them.

After thinking about this scenario a while, I finally realized why all of this hype and giving to the "less fortunate" bothers me.

The people giving the gifts don't know the people they are giving to.

They don't know them before the event, nor do they seek to build a relationship with them after the event.

What happens the other 364 days of the year after Christmas is over?

Are these same people who are "getting into the Christmas spirit" by giving gifts and encouraging their children to "have fun" purchasing the gifts for "less fortunate people" putting the same efforts forth the rest of the year to help raise the minimum wage, hire under-skilled people and train them to have marketable job skills, tutor a child to help him/her grasp necessary concepts, work with someone on a part of the GED they can't seem to pass, or help someone fill out the paperwork and forms needed for them to go to college so that when future Christmas's roll around more families can afford to provide Christmas gifts for their own children?

If Christmas is about Christ, shouldn't we be working toward Christmas (being Christ-like) year-round? What would that look like? Is being Christ-like about charity...or justice?

"Let justice roll down like waters..." Amos 5:24

Saturday, December 16, 2006

It's ok for your children, but not for mine

Inner city Dallas is just like every other inner city across America. Liquor, wine, and beer stores are everywhere! I remember when I went to San Francisco a few years ago how amazed I was that there were so many Starbucks...often located directly across the street from each other. If you've been to San Francisco, imagine that times 10. In South Dallas, there are certain pockets where there are probably 10 or more liquor stores in a one block area. Many of us who live in South Dallas don't want the concentration of these stores in our neighborhood any more than someone in a wealthier part of Dallas would.

Several years ago a law was passed (the article attached to this blog explains more). The law stated that no beer/wine/liquor stores could be built within a 1000 feet of a school. The law, however, grandfathered in the already established stores. Knowing that children walk by these stores every day on their way to/from school and knowing that the more concentrated alcohol establishments in an area can be directly related to the increase in crime in an area, South Dallas leaders have worked and continue to work hard to do what they can to move these establishments out. It is not an easy battle.

Yesterday I attended a court hearing protesting one of the beer and wine stores by the school. What struck me as I was sitting there was the argument of the beer and wine store's lawyer. As the witnesses gave their testimony about what the beer and wine stores do to the community, the lawyer kept refocusing their statements to ask if this particular store could be proven to create the unsafe atmosphere in the area. I could see where he was going. He was trying to keep the heat off of his client by saying that their one liquor store does nothing bad in the community. They are perfectly legal in what they are selling and, he even went on to argue that they are a "good neighbor" in the community because the owners actually keep crime off of their property.

I realize he's a lawyer and lawyer's are supposed to defend their clients whether they believe them to be innocent or not. But I would be interested to know where his children go to school and whether he would want them walking by liquor stores and the people that frequent them every day. Actually, as he argued that Buy and Save was actually a "good neighbor" that keeps crime away, I wanted to challenge him to walk from Pearl C. Anderson to any one of these kids' homes. I would almost bet my last dollar that he, a grown man, would probably be scared and would refuse.

So why is it ok for our South Dallas children to have to deal with that? Don't our children in South Dallas deserve the same healthy environment as any other kid? Or do we pay no attention to it because it because if we don't live there it doesn't affect us and our children?

It's a frustrating battle. I agree that Buy and Save Discount Beer and Wine is not the sole reason there are drugs, crime, and prostitution in South Dallas. However, it is a contributor. We're working to get those "contributors" out one by one.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

After Bible study is over...

Most Thursday nights I end up taking "home" a lady who attends the same Bible study I do. I put "home" in quotes because she is technically homeless. I usually take her to a round-the-clock diner where she gets a cup of coffee and hangs out until someone takes her to the "24 hour Club," a place that provides mats (or a bunk, if you're lucky) to sleep on. She seems to have a male friend or two who she stays with periodically.

Our ride downtown is nearly always the same. We begin by chatting about how much she loves red soda and how she gets her fill of that at Smokey's (the restaurant where our Bible study is held). The conversation then turns to lottery tickets and how much she loves the lottery. Then she always turns to tell me she wants to have "pretty things" like I do. The conversation switches back and forth between lottery tickets and my "pretty things" until we arrive at her destination.

I can handle chit-chatty conversation about red soda. It's a safe topic. However, every time she starts talking about lottery tickets and her enamour with my "things," I get uncomfortable.

First of all, I don't like lottery tickets. They irritate me because I think they're a trap that provides false hope to those who are poor. The promise of possibly being a multi-millionaire, despite the odds, keeps people going back day after day.

I have finally given up trying to convince my friend that she has probably spent way more money on lottery tickets than she has won (or ever will win). I can't decide if she actually spends the money on the lottery tickets or just fantasizes about them. Either way, she knows which ticket plays on what day of the week and she has even informed me about seasonal lottery tickets (I didn't know there was such a thing!). Her obsession with lottery tickets drives me crazy. I never quite know how to respond.

I am thrown off even more when she explains to me (after I try to convince her that lottery tickets are a waste of money) that she plays the lottery so she can have nice things like me. She likes my car. She thinks my earrings are pretty ("and expensive," she is quick to add), even though they are the one of the only two pair I own. She likes the way I dress.

I always try to come up with some good reason for why I have what I do..."I work hard. I saved my money. I didn't buy lottery tickets. I went to college," I tell her. The words seem ridiculous as they come out of my mouth. So much of what I have is because of what grandparents and parents saved for me and what friends have given me. And despite my justification about why I have certain "things," the things I have are a little audacious when I think of what she and many of my other limited income friends have.

I want to justify myself. I mean, come on! Comparatively speaking, I live more modestly than most of the Dallasites.

I tell her it's not about "things." "Things" don't make you happy. But who am I kidding?? If there weren't some type of gratification or ease in having "things," I wouldn't have them! I'm not the one having to beg for rides home from Bible study or having to try to figure out where to stay each night.

I try to explain I have a good job because I went to college. To which she wistfully replies that getting a good education is important, as if knowing that is a good thing, but what good will that do her now that she doesn't have it?

The fact of the matter is that she can't afford even a roof over her head.

I don't know if my friend has ever worked. I'm guessing she may have some type of slight mental illness, though I don't know that for a fact. I really don't know if she is capable of working. My guess is probably not.

So I'm left every Thursday night grappling with the guilt, helplessness, and realization that some people are really struggling in this world with no chance or opportunity to get ahead, even if they want to.

Monday, December 04, 2006

For the benefit of all

Where do our selfish motives and our fears come from?

I read an article in the Washington Post about the current attempts White parents are making to sway desegregation orders so that their children can get put into the best schools and avoid the worst. The "best" schools have AP classes available, multiple opportunities, challenging coursework...and are made up of primarily White children. The "worst" schools have few, if any college-prep, rigorous classes, fewer extracurricular opportunities, and lower expectations for the kids...oh yeah...and are made up of primarily Black and Hispanic children.

Here's what I don't get. These parents who are working so hard to keep their children out of the "worst" schools...why don't they go ahead and put their child in the school and then work just as diligently to fight for the same quality of education and classes at that "bad" school so that all of the children involved can benefit?? Instead, they work overtime to make sure their child avoids the "bad" school...even to the point of enrolling their child illegally in a suburban district and lying to the school about their child's enrollment until their child gets moved up on the waiting list in their own district and is able to attend the school of their (or their parent's) choice.

I suppose I'd be naive to say that I don't know why urban schools don't have more rigor, more AP classes, and other programs that middle and upper-middle class parents want for their children. On the surface, kids in those schools appear to not care...about themselves, their community, or their academic achievements. However, I know that many of these kids, with the right expectations and the right challenge, can far exceed what the schools are currently expecting of them (I've witnessed it!). Think about it, though, that's exactly why many White, middle class parents are working so hard to get their kids in other schools. They recognize that if you put a child in a situation where there is little or no opportunity to grow, they won't! The difference in these White, middle class parents than many of the parents in the area around these "bad" schools is that the White, middle class parents have the money, time, resources, connections, and knowledge of the system to make sure their child gets what they want/need.

If parents who ultimately end up with successful, academically prepared students are making sure they secure those opportunities for their own children, shouldn't we think about what they are seeking out and figure out how to offer it in all of our schools for all of our children?? I have been around kids and "systems" long enough to know that putting a few AP classes into a school is not going to draw the masses of our urban kids. It's going to take time and it's going to take an effort by everyone involved to make sure the kids know about the wealth of opportunities available, can access them (financially and physically), and are prepared for them. This cannot be done by making the opportunities available and then lowering expectations. Our kids deserve so much better than that. We need to make the opportunities available and then work to make sure our kids are prepared for the intensity of those higher expectations.

Look below the surface of what you see in urban neighborhoods and urban schools. The problems aren't the unruly and out of control kids. It's not just the parents or lack thereof of the unruly and out of control kids. The problems run so much deeper. Look at the way the system is set up. Decide if you would want your child to be in those situations. If not, help us figure out how to solve those problems at a systemic level so that every child has an opportunity to be successful.

And realize that the ones who do come out of that system successful are way more extraordinary than we ever give them credit for.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Overcoming the odds

The perseverance, successes, and determination of the kids around me completely amaze me.

About 8 years ago I had the privilege of assisting the coaching of a Ranger Rookie League baseball team for 4th and 5th graders. After we had gathered our team together, not only did we have some budding baseball players (some of whom had never picked up a baseball before), but we also had some good parental support.

One of the parents, Mr. Aparicio, brought water and snacks to every practice we had for the kids. Through those two years of baseball, I got to know the Aparicio's. I was blessed to be invited into their family when they had special events. We discovered their oldest daughter, Kim, and I share the same birthday. When they had Kim's quincenera, I was invited to join in and celebrate; when Oscar (our Rookie League baseball player) had baseball games in high school, they gave me a schedule and when he graduated from high school, I was given one of the coveted tickets. Every once in a while Mr. Aparicio will call to give me an update or invite me to a family event. Though I don't see them often, I cherish those times that they include me.

All-in-all, they are an absolutely wonderful family. They've have worried about their children staying in the local, low-performing public school. They have tried to do whatever they could to get their children into the magnet schools and they support them in everything they do. They push their limits financially so that their children can have the best education.

Their oldest daughter, Kim, will now graduate from SMU next month. She is an absolutely amazing and determined individual. When she was at Townview (high school) she used to tell me about her internships in the ER (in high school!!). She was interested in the medical field. When she went on to SMU she told me about her aspirations to be a dentist. But, most recently, she let me know that what she really wanted to do was be a doctor. On somewhat of a whim, she decided to take the MCAT to see how she would do. Though I don't know if she quite realizes it, she is brilliant. Her scores on the MCAT were such that she could apply to medical school. However, just like I mentioned in my last blog, fear was holding her back. See her email to me:
Hi Ms.Janet
Hope you're doing well. I'm on my last couple of weeks of school. It's a little scary and the whole "too close to the end" laziness seems to be kicking in too. I was wondering if you could send me your address so that I can send you a formal invitation to my graduation. It's December 9th at 7:30 pm. I also have been interviewing at different medical schools. I've interviewed so far at San Antonio, Texas Tech in Lubbock and in the next couple of weeks I'll interview at UT Southwestern in Dallas, TCOM in Fort Worth, and Houston Medical school. I'm still waiting to hear from Galveston and Texas A&M but we'll see if they call or not. It's crazy because I would of never thought I'd be in this position growing up or even a year ago when I had planned to apply to dental school and now hopefully one of the medical schools will offer me acceptance. I had limited myself, thinking that I might not be good enough to even get an interview in medical school until my mentor said that I had too much firepower to not go all the way with this thought and I would probably regret it if I didn't apply to med school wondering "what if". So luckily I listened to someone else and went for it. Now I'm just crossing my fingers to see if it turns out the way I'd like it to. Hope to hear from you soon.
Thank goodness Kim didn't allow her fears to get the better of her. Kim grew up in a low-income area where expectations are often low. Unfortunately, for many kids, the outside world's expectations of them get the better of them and they don't choose to take the risk and do what they have the skills and talent to do. In Kim's case, she stepped out and it paid off:

Hi Ms.Janet
Just wanted to tell you that I got into medical school! I'm pretty psyched. Now I have to pick, which one to go to because I was offered admissions to UT Southwestern in Dallas, UTHSCA in San Antonio, and UTMB in Galveston. They are all great medical schools but now that I have options I don't know where I should go. Well, hope you had a great Thanksgiving, I was blessed with this news and had a good Thanksgiving as well. Hope you're doing well.Thanks, Kim Aparicio
These kids need to be congratulated and supported so much more than they are. The fact that they have overcome the odds is a feat that many of us will never understand.

In a few years, if you're seeking a new doctor, look for Kim Aparicio. I guarantee you she will make a GREAT doctor.

Congratulations, Kim.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Is fear holding you back?

Over the holidays my cousin asked me a question that I didn't have the answer to. She was telling me about their local public school and how students were scared to go there because of the violence. Just recently, she explained, one of the kids had pushed another kid down a flight of stairs, injuring him to the point of hospitalization. She then went on to ask, "You work with Black people. Why do they hate each other so much?"

Despite the fact that I know there's probably some degree of underlying racism in that question, I didn't have an answer for her. In my mind, there is no short answer to that. Even if I had given her the long answer, I don't know that I could explain the oppression, the systemic racism, the self-hatred (often times due to the way the media presents people of color), the poverty, and the difficult family situations that all contribute to this phenomena. The answer is much too complicated...and quite honestly, I don't have an answer--either to refute her question or to affirm it.

Yesterday I had a conversation with a 20-year old I hadn't seen in quite some time. I've watched him grow up since he was about 9-years old. I've watched him change from a sweet, innocent child to an angry, self-destructive young man. I posed my cousin's question to him to which he replied, "I ask myself the same thing."

He doesn't know why he or his friends act the way they do. Once again, I think it's very complicated. But as he explained to me that he was trying to change and do things differently I began to realize that one of the major things that keeps holding him back is FEAR. He's afraid of venturing into the unknown. He told me point black, "I'm afraid if I step out I won't have any friends." That's powerful. And that's real. But it's not unusual. Several other teenagers have told me the same thing, "I'm afraid."

Even knowing that, I still can't say the solution to his fear is simple. We need to be available...we need to be visible...we need to be persistent. But sometimes even that doesn't work. I can't change his thinking...about himself or about the situations around him. Only he can.

I know for me, surrounding myself with good people who love me despite and in spite of myself really helps. Surrounding myself around people who I feel the need to be accountable to helps as well. The love that people show me despite my flaws continues to inspire me. I hope he can recognize that he has people around him who always have and always will love him as well. I hope he realizes that we want him to do better...for himself and for what he has to offer the rest of us. Hopefully that realization will help him conquer some of his fears as he steps out.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Racial insults

I have a friend who believes that racism is just under the surface for most White people--even though we are always attempting to remain politically correct. He insisted one time that if he antagonized me enough I would probably eventually call him a nigger.

I was having a discussion with another friend of mine who informed me that some of the people in my neighborhood try to tell her that I may be nice to her face, but as soon as she leaves my house I'm probably calling her a nigger.

With both friends, I try to insist that those thoughts have never even crept into my mind. I'm not sure how much they believe me.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not claiming to be perfect...I do realize that White people feel free to say things around me, because I'm White, that I know they wouldn't say if a person of color were sitting there. I know I've also said some things that my friends of color (Hispanic, Black, and Indian) get exasperated with and have corrected me on. However, I don't hear or think the volatile racist epithets that it seems my friends seem to assume we're saying. (Though several Black people have told me before that they would almost prefer the overt racism so they at least they know where they stand with us.). The White people I know make assumptions, and therefore comments, about Black people that are based on ignorance due to systemic representations and the way our society has chosen to segregate based on what we have and how we look. When appropriate, I try to share the lessons I have learned about my own inadvertent racist actions with other White people...sometimes they listen and sometimes they don't.

Even though I realize that racism still exists in different forms, I think I'm naive. I want to believe that in 2006, racism isn't volatile...that's it's more about making comments we don't realize are as inappropriate and hurtful as they are. But Michael Richards and Mel Gibson are helping to prove that in 2006 it is still more than unconscious comments. Their comments show me that, just as my friends are saying, these thoughts must be festering deep down inside of White people. Maybe not all of us, but enough of us that it is difficult to know where someone stands on their true feelings about race and ethnicity. Richards' anger and Gibson's intoxication prove my friends' point even more. It's not in our sane moments that we make these comments. It's when our guard is down...when we are least able to control our politically correct facade.

I suppose it's not my job to take on the world and figure out how we all need to deal with ingrained and systemic racism. But I also can't sit back and watch it happen without making an effort to work actively against it.

They say that time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself. ~Andy Warhol

I don't have the answers. All I know to do is to continue putting the conversation on the table and remain open to correction myself.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Respecting each other through dialogue

Last night I attended a film club, sponsored by a local non-profit. The film they showed was about three mothers who had lost their sons to police brutality, yet all of the police officers walked away with no convictions.

Knowing there was a facilitated discussion afterward, as I watched the film I anticipated talking about whether or not people feel that type of uncontrolled police brutality is happening in our communities and, if so, what we can do to deal with it. I thought about the great conversation I had with the Chief of Police of my area and her willingness and openness to admitting that her officers make errors, then our continued conversation about how she is working to deal with those issues. She was honest and did not strike me as a person to defend her officers if they were in the wrong. The Chief and I talked about how that honesty could go a long way in building trust in our community.

Instead, the facilitated discussion was much different than I had expected. The man leading the discussion started off by talking about White "Crackers" with an intensity that I have never heard before. He talked about White imperialism and his disgust with White establishment. As he opened up discussion, other people spoke up with similar comments.

As the only White person in the room, needless to say, I was uncomfortable with the conversation. I didn't know how to respond or react. It didn't seem to bother the people there. They spoke as if I were invisible to them.

I couldn't get the event off of my mind as I drove home. How do I get myself in these situations? The people who invited me don't seem openly hostile toward White people, but it was obvious that there was a lot of anger and hurt in that room. I debated in my mind if I should even be a part of something that seemed to me to promote separatism.

It was still on my mind when I woke up this morning. I talked to a friend of mine who mentioned she had been in a similar situation, but reversed. She was the only Black face in a sea of White people who were complaining about and irritated with Black folk.

I have come to a realization. Maybe attending events similar to that is something I/we do need to be a part of. Yes, it made me uncomfortable. But it also helped me to see the intensity of the pain and hurt that still exists. I need to hear that.

Being there doesn't mean I agree with a separatist agenda. In fact, I am very opposed to that. But how can we ever get to the point of creating dialogue and hearing each other if we don't engage with people who may not have the same ideas as us?

Some of my best relationships have come out of open (sometimes loud and angry) disagreements with people. In the situations I can think of, respect and deep friendship developed when we finally both listened to each other and realized that each person's thoughts and opinions stemmed from their own experiences. Once we realized that, we began looking at situations from each others' perspectives and gained a new respect and interest in each others' thoughts and opinions.

Though I don't believe last night's forum would have been the appropriate place for me to stand up and voice my disagreement with what was being said, being there does provide me with the opportunity to talk to my friends who were there and seek an understanding of their thoughts, feelings, and opinions. Then, if they are open to hearing me, which I have no reason to believe they wouldn't be, it would allow me to also present my thoughts, feelings, and opinions as well. Maybe by placing myself in uncomfortable situations I can have the courage to open myself to conversations that would've never happened otherwise.

My idealism says that it is possible to create meaningful dialogue where we will be able to hear and learn from each other.

Feel free to join in.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Using power for good

Gary has always been one of my favorites. He knows it, other people know it, and I can't deny it. But there are reasons why.

There is nothing I couldn't ask of Gary that he wouldn't do. He knows that I would do the same for him. But what's neat to me is that while I am a resource for Gary (he calls me to ask about anything from relationships to court cases...none of which I am qualified to answer, but he always asks anyway), he has become such a resource to others!

Gary grew up in the neighborhood where I live. Not all of the guys he hung with were good influences. In fact, he nearly didn't finish high school because of his connection with the other guys was always getting him in trouble, in addition to his own smart mouth with teachers who would harass him. I don't think many people expected much out of Gary.

During his first (and only) year in college, he started working at Sam's. As he began working more and more, he didn't have as much time to hang out with the guys. He has never stopped being their friend, though. I admire Gary because he didn't leave the community once he started getting his stuff together. He doesn't look down on people in his neighborhood. In fact, he stays in contact with all of the guys (he just doesn't have as much time to hang out with them anymore), and encourages them to apply at Sam's when he knows they need a job (which he recognizes that many of them do). Then, he offers to use his influence to help them get a position at Sam's. He doesn't just look for any guy, though. He recognizes that he has a reputation (and a job) to protect. If he knows the person isn't going to be dedicated to the job or if he knows them well enough to know they would lose their cool the first time someone says something to them, he doesn't hire them (or influence the hiring of them).

Gary has worked at Sam's for over 3 years now. His personality and charm, along with his dedication and commitment, has moved him up the ranks. They continue to ask him to be a Manager-in-Training (MIT), which he continues to refuse. He doesn't want the stress. (...if only I could say no to inducing stress in my life!). Despite his refusal to do the MIT program, he is still very respected at his job. Gary is in a position to help other people. He has pull. And he uses that pull for good.

Gary has figured out how to use what he has been given to help others.

What are you doing (this question is directed to myself as well) to use your power and your influence to help others?

Saturday, November 11, 2006

The Parable of the Talents

Matthew 25:14-30

This scripture, along with Luke 19:11-27, has always confused me. It never made sense to me why a person who tried to save the money he was given instead of risking it foolishly would be punished. Jesus talks all the time about those who have been given little, yet in this situation he takes from the one who was given little and gives it to the one with the most.

I had an a-ha moment the other day, though.

The sermons I've always heard on these two scriptures preach not in terms of finances, but in terms of the "gifts" and "talents" we've been given. Preachers/teachers always seem to sidestep the finance issue of this parable and make it into something simpler for us to handle. Though I agree that we do need to use the talents and gifts God has given us...I think He expects that of us, I believe we're letting ourselves off the hook easy by applying this scripture only to non-material "talents." I have come to believe that this passage is about exactly what it says. Jesus expected the people to "invest" their money. What does he mean by that?

Over the past few years I've started looking at my Christianity from a Jesus point of view. How did Jesus handle situations? Who did Jesus interact with? Where did Jesus spend his time?

What keeps coming up over and over is that Jesus spent his time with people. Plain, average people. People who didn't have a lot. People who were condemned by Christians as sinners. People "Christians" didn't want to associate with.

I like Jesus' approach. It makes so much more sense to me. He people. There is risk involved when you invest in people. It takes a lot of time and effort and even money, sometimes. The returns don't always come back as you expect. But, as in the parable, when we take those risks, the returns are often greater than we can imagine.

By simply taking our money, our time, our resources, and "burying" a bank, in our own luxuries, within our own comfort zones...we are squandering what Jesus has given us.

"To whom much has been given, much is required."

God asks us to invest. An investment in people--financially, relationally, and spiritually--grows exponentially.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Black Jesus

Click on the heading above to see the review for a new movie that's out, Color of the Cross.

I don't go to the movies a lot, so I doubt that I make a big effort to get out and see this one, but what struck me as quite amusing...and actually pretty the whole idea of it being a controversial movie because Jesus is cast as a Black man.

How do we have the nerve to tell Black people that they need to get past race issues, yet it's us (White people) who are the ones causing an uproar because Jesus is cast as a Black man?! If there were any justifiable uproar, you would think it should be the Middle Easterners getting upset because all of these years we've shown Jesus as a White man with brown hair and brown eyes who reaches out to White children.

Now, I suppose you could argue we were taught to be more inclusive than that. After all, many of us probably grew up singing the song, "Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his site." But "talk is cheap," as they say. Go take a look at your Sunday School curriculum. Look at your Vacation Bible School curriculum. Look who is largely represented.

I have to admit, I haven't looked into Sunday School or VBS curriculum in a few years so perhaps it has changed. In fact, the last VBS our kids went to did have pictures of several different ethnic groups. But Jesus was (and is) always White.

On the way home from church several years ago, one of the kids told me, "Miss Janet, I love you!" I told her I loved her, too. Then she proceeded to say, "I'm supposed to say that." Confused, I asked her why. She explained, "Jesus was White and you're White. So I'm supposed to say that." Baffled about her rationale of loving White people because Jesus was White, I wasn't sure how to approach that. I asked her how she "knew" Jesus was White. She looked at me dumbfounded like it was really stupid for me not to know that! She explained, "Because I see pictures of him!" I explained that we have never really seen Jesus and we don't really know what he looks like. She was undaunted. For the rest of the ride home she explained to me all of the pictures she had seen--in her Bible, in the Sunday School lessons, on the windows in churches, etc. It gets a little hard to contradict a 9-year old's reality--because, despite the fact that Jesus grew up in the middle east and never set foot in middle class, White America, that's exactly who he favors in all of our reproductions of him.

I've always heard that Jesus is all things to all people. I don't see why it should offend us that he is represented as Black (especially considering the reality that he was probably closer to Black than White if we look at where he grew up)...unless we are willing to admit that race IS still an issue in 2006.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Pay increases...Unrealistic or just unwilling?

I had been toying with the idea of writing a blog about the Janitor's strike in Houston, but Larry James beat me to it.

As usual, his post makes some great points and challenges us to connect our actions with our faith. What I also think is interesting are the passionate comments that go along with his post. It always amazes me how upset people get when someone mentions equality for the poor or talks about raising the minimum wage. If that defensiveness wasn't so troubling, it would be almost humorous.

After I read the article on the janitor's strike I began doing a little research in hopes of understanding how much money the executives of the companies utilizing the janitorial services make. The vice president of the Hines company said he “was supportive of health insurance and higher pay for janitorial workers.” I didn't see where it said he was willing to shell out more money to the janitorial services so that they can, in turn, offer increases in pay and health insurance. The cleaning companies say, "the proposal for a 62 percent increase [from $5.25 to $8.50/hour], along with health insurance, is unrealistic."

Considering they only work 4 1/2 hours a day, this amounts to an extra $74.75/week or $3887/year. That's really not much considering Texaco's CEO is making $3.4 million along with $2.8 million of stock options (that information is before the merger with Chevron...I'm sure the salary is higher now). The company itself is bringing in a total revenue of $36.6 billion and a net revenue of $2.1 billion. Is it really "unrealistic" for that corporation to pay more for a cleaning service that I'm sure they couldn't do without? I seriously doubt those executives would want to clean their own offices every evening.

Isn't capitalism based on supply and demand? And don't we pay more for items where demand is high? It seems to me that cleaning offices (or homes or streets or whatever) would justify a higher pay scale because there is a demand...especially these days when people are making so much money and don't choose to clean things themselves. Why do we feel the need to relegate someone to poverty because of a job that we see as "less than" when the services they offer are something we have no desire to live without? Mind you, these workers are not asking for $3.4 million annually. Just a simple $3000-$4000 a year.

So, to all of those corporate executives out there, go ahead and say you don't want to give janitors or cleaning people any more money, but don't tell us there isn't enough money to do it. That argument doesn't hold any water, is somewhat irritating, and, frankly, I feel like it insults our intelligence considering how much money is going in to those companies and how little is trickling down to the "bottom."

I'm glad they are organizing and I hope they can hold their ground until someone takes notice and realizes they are deserving people, too.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Determined (and Impressive) Parents

I've got to hand it to Sylvia, our Children's Education Assistant.

Sylvia is a parent.

She cares.

She wants the best for her children.

She has high expectations for her children.

She has high expectations from the people who educate her children.

Sylvia knows that she has been a good parent to her 2nd grader. She has taught him well. But his little body just does not seem to sit still and stay focused. He is often in trouble. Sylvia is looking for answers. She simply wants to know the best way to help her child.

Sylvia visits her son's elementary school at least once a week in an attempt to get him tested for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). (It is her legal right to do that.) Maybe he isn't ADHD. But she wants to know so that she can move on to other possibilities if he isn't.

Despite her continuous requests, she has gotten no response. She visits the counselor every week and has attempted to get meetings with the principal, but to no avail.

Her perseverance has finally paid off. After about two months of persistence, the counselor finally gave her the paperwork today.

And we claim that parents don't want to be involved?? Should it REALLY take that long for a legitimate request that would benefit the child to be honored??

Do you see why parents might be a little frustrated and might have given up on their ability to impact on their child's education?

My hat goes off to all of those parents like Sylvia who are forcing the schools to stand up and take notice. Keep persevering!

Monday, October 30, 2006

"Because of"...not "in spite of"

As I volunteered at an Education is Freedom (EIF) event on Saturday, I had yet another opportunity to meet a couple of amazing teenagers. The EIF event was set up to give 9th-12th graders short workshops on how to write college application and scholarship essays. EIF had rallied a number of adult volunteers to be on hand to assist the students with their writing process.

Though we were available for any teenager needing assistance, I connected with two girls who were struggling a little with getting their ideas down on paper. As I prompted them with questions about what they wanted to do in life, I received the response, "I don't know," quite a bit. That answer is pretty common in the areas where I work and can be seen as short-sighted. However, the more I talked to my new friend, the more I realized she actually has her plans pretty well thought out. She just didn't realize how thoughtful she had been about them.

My friend had thought about the Navy, National Guard, and college as the next step for her future. She is looking at the Navy because she felt it would provide more intellectual stimulation than the Army, which she felt was more about physical training. She is looking at the National Guard because it will provide her with college funding, something she recognizes she doesn't have right now (and because of her family's financial struggles, she has no desire to take out loans). Her third, and really last, option is college. She recognizes that college provides choices, yet she is afraid of the cost and hesitant because she thinks she needs to know what she wants to do before she enters college (How/why have we led our kids to believe this?? How many of us knew what we wanted to do for the rest of our lives as a senior in high school?!).

She currently lives on her own, is a senior at a DISD school, and works. I hope she gets past her hesitation of applying to colleges. I think too often we convince kids in poor neighborhoods that they can persevere "in spite of" their past. I think we need to change our way of thinking. This girl, and so many others I know, persevere because of their past, not in spite of it. Many of the kids I know have very strong character, a number of survival skills, and they have learned how to make things work no matter what the situation. We should praise those characteristics! I encouraged my new friend to really consider the three options she had chosen and not limit herself to what other people tell her she "needs" to do because of her income status or because of her indecisiveness about a career right now.

I encouraged her to write her essay, keeping in mind how much she has to offer a college. I hope and pray that as she writes, she thinks about how valuable she is because of her work ethic, her ability to raise herself, her desire to attend high school and even go beyond without goading parents, and the fact that she is taking initiative to make something happen post-high school without family guidance...

Every college, every military department, every job should want her for that.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Figuring out Whiteness

I'm hashing out an idea in my mind and can't quite figure it out. Maybe you can help.

Here's the thought:
Maybe people of different ethnicities should remain separate. We each need to work on our own issues separate and apart from each other. Black people need to work on their issues with other Black people. Whites with other Whites. Hispanics with other Hispanics.

Of course, if you know me, you know I don't mean that totally and completely. Allow me to explain.

I attended a lecture series last night where an African-American lady spoke of how the problem with White people isn't that they need to figure out Black people. We don't need to come together with more Black people. We don't need to work harder at understanding how Black people must feel. We don't need to work harder at recognizing that they are discriminated against. Instead, we need to grapple with our own Whiteness. The problem is that we need to figure ourselves out.

What does that mean and how do we do that? I've been working to understand this for a couple of years now...and I'm still trying to grasp the whole concept. On one level I understand it. We (White people) are never going to "understand" Black people...or any other ethnic group for that matter. We are White. No matter what we do, we can never experience what it's like to be a person of color and feel the discrimination they have felt year after year after year. Even the people on that HBO series Black.White. didn't get it. Changing their skin color for a short period of time just made the White man into a belligerant White man with darker skin who then tried to convince the Black man that if he wouldn't have such a "chip" he would realize things aren't really as he perceives them. Side comment: How is it that we (Whites) think so many Black people have these "wrong" perceptions...yet they all say the same thing no matter what part of the country or what area of town they live in. If everyone is saying the same thing from east to west and north to south, doesn't that tell us something???

I also understand that we need to understand our own White power...our own White privilege. We need to recognize it, understand it, and do something about the inequality of it. Our privilege and power is no surprise to people of color but, for some reason, we (Whites) can't recognize it in ourselves. The benefits we receive from the system keep us blind to that. We need to be willing to step outside of our comfort zone and address those privilege and power issues...which will not always win us friends and will actually alienate some who we thought were friends.

But how do we work through that without the help of people of color? Can we do it just among Whites? I'm not sure that we can. We are so blinded by our seat of privilege and power that we need good friends (people of color) who are willing to point out to us where our racial blinders take over.

I do believe that we need to work on our own issues. And I do believe we have a LOT of issues to deal with. (At least it seems like people of color recognize the vices in their communities. I think we're too busy justifying to recognize our many problems...but that could be a whole different blog!). I believe we need to challenge each other within our White group to see things differently, but I also believe we need to have good friends (NOT just acquaintances) of different ethnicities and different socioeconomic groups to help us become aware. We've become so comfortable in our power and privilege role that we can't always see the forest for the trees. We need friends of color to challenge us so that we can go and challenge others. But, WE (Whites) need to be the initiators to educate ourselves.

That's my formulating opinion. What's yours?

Sunday, October 22, 2006

No Healthcare?? Tough luck. Deal with it.

I got a call from one of our college students this past week. Sarah (not her real name) is a sophomore in college. She has always been independent. Sarah was placed in foster care when she was around 9 years old. She was adopted, I believe, around 12 or 13.

Though her adopted mom wanted her to go to college, she did not have a great knowledge about what it took to get her there, nor did she have the money to send her. Sarah took the initiative to figure out the process herself. She talked to caseworkers to figure out what benefits she could get from the foster care system. She filled out paperwork. She made phone calls. She ended up getting in to the college of her choice and actually, through the government/foster care system as well as through the pell grants, she has all of her college paid for (please don't think this is every case...most other students, even with a full pell grant, still need to take out loans and struggle to make it financially through college. Hers is an exception due to her foster/adoption status).

The Spring of her freshman year in college, her adopted mom was diagnosed with cancer and passed away not long after. Right around that same time, Sarah turned19. Though Sarah had received Medicaid up until then, she was no longer eligible once she turned 19. When she attempted to apply as a 19-year old, they told her that because she was in college, there are grants available and she didn't need Medicaid. Huh???? I don't get that. She may have received school grants, but there aren't grants to pay for her dental care! And the money she receives isn't exactly making her wealthy! It's getting her through school. Sarah gets by because she manages her money extremely well.

Sarah's adopted mom had no savings or anything to pass on to Sarah. Though her biological mom and sister are in her life, Sarah is on her own. She takes care of herself completely. Can you remember being 19? Can you imagine being in college and figuring out adulthood and all of the complications of adulthood without any financial support from a parent and without any job-related income? I can't imagine!

When Sarah called me, as always she didn't ask for a handout. Sarah was calling for advice and information about how she could access dental care. She just wanted her eroding filling fixed so she didn't have to take pain medication every day. Out of the two dentists she tried, one was not taking new patients and the other one charged $75 just to assess the situation. She is afraid the procedure may cost hundreds more after the assessment. Sarah just wanted to know if there was a dentist who would accept a payment plan...even though she also knew a payment plan for an expensive dental procedure would probably deplete the money she has saved so that she can pay her own expenses in school (phone, food, etc.).

We ended up working it out so that she can go to Central Dallas's dental clinic hopefully as a walk-in so she will only have to pay the $15 fee. She will have to miss a day of school, but she is in so much pain she is willing to do that.

This whole process has been frustrating to me. She is asking for nothing except necessary healthcare. She is doing everything right. She is budgeting her limited funds. She is attending college. She has applied for an 18 hour/week job to add to her 16 hour course load.

Sarah can't afford a monthly health insurance policy. Even if she did get independent health insurance, I'm not sure that it would help her that much. I've heard those independent policies cost a lot of money and don't offer the benefits that a big company insurance plan could offer.

When you think about whether our country should offer a national health care plan or at least revise what we now offer, please think of Sarah.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Photo Shoot at Fair Park

Recently I met a guy, Dave Herman, who has co-founded an organization called Preservation Link where the goal is, "documenting culture through the arts." I had the awesome opportunity to be involved in one of his initiatives when he asked our After-School Academy (ASA) to be involved in documenting the fair.

As nine kids from our ASA gathered at the African-American Museum, he asked the kids, "What's fun at the fair?"

That was their mission.

Each child was given a digital camera. Each child was sent out to look from the eyes of young and old alike and figure out what is fun for different people.

As we walked around, the future photographers in the ASA asked young kids, older adults, and everyone in between if they could take their picture. If people agreed, they documented their photo by asking them, "What's fun at the fair?"

Kashia Jones, a 3rd grader and a precocious child, absolutely loved the assignment! Dave talks about her in the email below:

Greetings, Janet here are just a few images from our excursion on last Thursday. I will bring all the images by the center this week so the kids can complete writing their captions and then we will put all their work on the web. I had a lot of fun and enjoyed working with your group of young folks...the little sista "Ms. Jones" was just an incredible inspiration for me and the work that I do. We have to continue creating a solid system of support for these young folks as
they matriculate through their community.

Thanks again,

David Herman, Jr.
Executive Director
Preservation LINK, Inc.
214.293-5352 office
214.337-3684 fax

This link ( has some great photos from the day (taken by Dave). Once I get the ones that the kids took, I will post them.

I love knowing people who recognize the immense talents our kids have to offer if only they are given the chance to develop them.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Lessons from the Amish

I received this on my email this morning and thought the message was powerful enough to share:

Published on Friday, October 6, 2006 by

What the Amish are Teaching America
by Sally Kohn

On October 2, Charles Carl Roberts entered a one-room schoolhouse in the Amish community of Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. He lined up eleven young girls from the class and shot them each at point blank range. The gruesome depths of this crime are hard for any community to grasp, but certainly for the Amish who live such a secluded and peaceful life, removed even from the everyday depictions of violence on TV. When the Amish were suddenly pierced by violence, how did they respond?

The evening of the shooting, Amish neighbors from the Nickel Mines community gathered to process their grief with each other and mental health counselors. As of that evening, three little girls were dead. Eight were hospitalized in critical condition. (One more girl has died since.) According to reports by counselors who attended the grief session, the Amish family members grappled with a number of questions: Do we send our kids to school tomorrow? What if they want to sleep in our beds tonight, is that okay? But one question they asked might surprise us outsiders. What, they wondered, can we do to help the family of the shooter? Plans were already underway for a horse-and-buggy caravan to visit Charles Carl Roberts' family with offers of food and condolences. The Amish, it seems, don't automatically translate their grieving into revenge. Rather, they believe in redemption.

Meanwhile, the United States culture from which the Amish are isolated is moving in the other direction, increasingly exacting revenge for crimes and punishing violence with more violence. In 26 states and at the federal level, there are "three strikes" laws in place. Conviction for three felonies in a row now warrants a life sentence, even for the most minor crimes. For instance, Leandro Andrade is serving a life sentence, his final crime involving the theft of nine children's videos, including Cinderella and Free Willy from a Kmart. Similarly, in many states and at the federal level, possession of even small amounts of drugs trigger mandatory minimum sentences of extreme duration. In New York, Elaine Bartlett was just released from prison, serving a 20-year sentence for possessing only four ounces of cocaine. This is in addition to the 60 people who were executed in the United States in 2005, among the more than a thousand killed since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976. And the President of the United States is still actively seeking authority to torture and abuse alleged terrorists, whom he consistently dehumanizes as rats to be "smoked from their holes," even without evidence of their guilt.

Our patterns of punishment and revenge are fundamentally at odds with the deeper values of common humanity that the tragic experience of the Amish are helping to reveal. Each of us is more than the worst thing we've ever done in life. Someone who cheats is not only a cheater. Someone who steals something is not only a thief. And someone who commits a murder is not only a murderer. The same is true of Charles Carl Roberts. We don't yet know the details of the episode in his past for which, in his suicide note, he said he was seeking revenge. It may be a sad and sympathetic tale. It may not. Either way, there's no excusing his actions. Whatever happened to Roberts in the past, taking the lives of others is never justified. But nothing Roberts has done changes the fact that he was a human being, like all of us. We all make mistakes.

Roberts' were considerably and egregiously larger than most. But the Amish in Nickel Mines seem to have been able to see past Roberts' actions and recognize his humanity, sympathize with his family for their loss, and move forward with compassion not vengeful hate.
We've come to think that "an eye for an eye" is a natural, human reaction to violence. The Amish, who live a truly natural life apart from the influences of our violence-infused culture, are proving otherwise. If, as Gandhi said, "an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind," then the Amish are providing the rest of us with an eye-opening lesson.

Sally Kohn is Director of the Movement Vision Project at the Center for Community Change and author of a forthcoming book on the progressive vision for the future of the United States.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Christianity and Diversity????

I'm at a conference for youth ministers this week. There are supposedly about 2500 people attending the conference. I'm staffing a booth for Urban Experience. As I was sitting here today watching people walk by, I saw an African-American man walk by. It dawned on me that that was the very first Black person I had seen attending the conference and I have been here for two days now. There is an African-American girl a couple of booths over and another African-American girl across the aisle staffing a booth. But as far as people walking through, I hadn't seen anyone other than White people except for that one guy. What is all of that about? Why is it that there are 2500 people here and only a handful are anything other than White?

And people say our world isn't still segregated??? Paleese!! Let me allow the benefit of the doubt. Maybe it's just churches that are segregated...but that's even more depressing! I wonder...are there other youth ministry conferences that are primarily targeted toward Blacks? Hispanics? Asians? Maybe there are, but why can't we all come to the same one and why can't that one have something for everyone??

People say that I am too sensitive...that it's more about socioeconomics than race (even if that's true, I still have a problem with that as well, though). They tell me that middle class people are all mixed together and I just don't see it because I choose to stay in my corner of the world in the inner city. I beg to differ. This conference is obviously targeted toward an upper-middle class audience. There are flat screen tvs, multimedia presentations, and ipod, laptop, and overseas trip giveaways. Some groups have rented booths and equipment that cost thousands of dollars. Yet with all of that obvious upper-middle class marketing, there are still no people of color here.

I do agree that it seems suburban communities do oftentimes have a fairly diverse population and I probably don't see that. But if that's the case, what does a Christian conference that is primarily made up of White people say to everyone?? What message does it communicate??
Call me cynical. Maybe you have a different take on things. If so, I'd be interested in hearing.

(ok...just to make sure I'm being fair...since I started writing this I have seen one more African-American guy, one Asian guy, and an Asian couple. In fact, a lady just walked by who may have been Native American. So that's 6 people. ...out of 2500.)

Saturday, September 30, 2006


I had a realization the other day. Quite often, I express my disdain for volunteers who want to come and "serve" our community. However, after thinking more about that, it dawned on me that I actually really like volunteers. We have some absolutely wonderful volunteers.

What I realized was that the expression of my disdain stems from two things:

1) The majority of volunteers want to "serve" on their terms. They will offer their time after 7:00 p.m. during the weekdays or on Saturdays or Sundays. Some even seem to get upset as if we should be appreciative of the time they offer and change our schedule so that we *can* have their volunteer services. Many volunteers explain exactly what they can and will offer, yet when we tell them what we need (i.e. homework help) they decline because it is not what they wanted to offer us. They come with their own solutions in mind without even asking what the problem is and without assuming that we might already have come up with a solution that we need help implementing.

It's almost like offering to volunteer is a way out. When we refuse what they have to offer, they are off the hook. They can then say they have offered and we won't accept it. It makes them look like the good guys. Volunteers and groups have offered Christmas gifts, winter coats, loads of bicycles, snacks for children, programs, etc.

I have said no to a number of these offers. I have had people leave very upset because we would not accept their "generosity." Our kids and families have too much to offer for them to be someone's "service project." If they were to get to know the people I know, they would realize how much someone has to offer. They would look longer term than a one-time Christmas gift that makes the giver feel more special than the receiver. If they got to know the people I know they would realize they have dreams, goals, and ambitions they are hoping to fulfill. One time neighborhood clean ups don't offer that. Offering one-time parties doesn't create partnerships that help them reach those goals.

One-time events offer off-brand bandaids (the ones that don't stick) to the pain and frustration. It doesn't help a teenager fill out a college application and then walk with them through the process year after year getting paperwork, financial aid, college loans, tutors, etc. It doesn't help a parent get the education needed to obtain a job that is meaningful to them. It doesn't help a child learn basic (and advanced) skills so that when he/she becomes an adult, he/she is academically prepared to enter into any field he/she chooses.

2) When people talk about wanting to get volunteers to help, 99% of the time they are talking about getting people from outside of the community where they serve. They don't even think about the capacity that already exists right inside the community.

Though many of the parents of the kids in our After-School Academy (ASA) are not formally educated, they are willing to learn. Through our staff development meetings, we bring in the highest quality college professors, school principals, etc. in order to help us understand best practices in education.

But even without the educational training the ASA offers, the parents are an invaluable resource. The parents who run our ASA have recruited a full roster of kids #1 because they believe in it and #2 because they are running it. The parents and others in the community bond together in a way that people outside of the community would not be aware of because it happens before or after hours--when outsiders to the community are usually in the comfort of their own homes.

(For a few examples: I learned the other day that Sylvia has started a "walking club" with a few of the parents. I hear her warning them that she is going to call them the next morning to get them up so they can walk. She said they have also attempted a pilates class. Wyshina has two kids of her own and knows her neighbor isn't really motivated to read to her own kids so Wyshina invites the kids to her house and they all get together and read books to each other. Keisha and Wyshina dispelled some community rumors and frustrations of parents who thought it was it was unfair to have to pay for an after-school program. When they explained the many opportunities we offer--like chess, golf, ballet, and other great opportunities--the parents became interested in enrolling their own kids. Chanel invited another parent's child over to play because the parent had expressed frustration with the unsupervised children her son was around. 6th graders who were formerly in the ASA are now classroom assistants and some are even helping teach classes.)

We have a lot of volunteers and partnerships in our ASA. Only a few are from outside of the community. We are selective. We believe our community deserves to have people who are committed, passionate, and willing to get to know us, our needs, and our capacities. We do not need to be someone's one-time service project.

If you are interested in volunteering, we welcome you. But, if you are coming in from outside of the community, please think about what it would feel like if someone you didn't know knocked on your door then, when you answered, proceeded to tell you about some program you needed, without ever attempting to get to know you, your family, your needs, your wants, or your abilities.

If you are willing to get to know us, give me a call.

Friday, September 29, 2006

A future teacher making a difference now

Jessica Orogbu is one amazing person. She is currently a sophomore education major at Texas A & M-Commerce. Jessica began attending our University of Values (UV) summer program several years ago. After "aging out" of that program, she came back to volunteer. Her committed volunteering efforts eventually earned her a teacher position at UV. She enjoyed teaching so much that during her senior year she found a job working for a daycare. Though she was making much more money at the daycare, she loved the kids at UV. She took a pay cut during the summer to come back and work with us. She worked with us every summer until going off to college last year.

I tell Jessica all the time that she is my mentor. Jessica did all of her college entrance paperwork completely on her own. She would periodically call me to ask for advice on what to do next, but beyond that, she did all of the footwork. I am amazed by her willingness, her determination, and her leadership toward others. (She also made sure all of her friends got their college paperwork in on time).

Jessica is majoring in Education and is so excited to become a teacher. I am so excited to know that in about 3 more years some lucky kids will have an outstanding teacher leading them! Today I received this email from her that I had to share:

Hello Ms. Janet,

Hey I learned a new thing in Psych 300 that I think could be implemented into summer camp if it gets up and running again. As an afternoon class I was thinking a social skills class. Studies show that one hour of social skills training a week, dramatically improves the behavior of a child.(Psych 300....I love it) But it could go over things as simple as what to do if you see someone drop a $20 bill. Even more helpful teaching children to ask questions. As weird as it seems, She said a lot of children feel that asking questions are wrong. It has to do with as a child when they ask the "why" questions to their parent, the parent response which is usually, "Stop asking questions" or something to that nature, traumatises a child. The child then starts to think that asking questions is wrong. So when they are in school and don't ask questions they fall behind. Which again studies show that if a child falls behind for about one month, their TAKS score is found to be three times lower. I think this class could be good for camp as an afternoon class and it doesn't have to be boring. They can role play situations, watch films, and other exciting things. I guess it shows that the entire time she was talking about this, I was thinking about kids camp. lol. Well just wanted to tell you what was on my mind. I hope you have a great day. I will see you tomorrow and I will not be attending the TREK run but I will come to the banquet. I will call you probaly tonight or tomorrow.


People like Jessica make me excited about the future and the possibilities our children possess. Keep her (and all of the other budding children) in your prayers.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Life's challenges

A couple of years ago I was getting new tires at Discount Tire. The guy changing my tires recognized me. Though his face looked familiar, I wasn't sure where I knew him from. As we talked, I realized the last time I had seen him was at Central Dallas Church when he was probably 12 years old. (Kids change a LOT as they grow into young men and women!). We chatted for a little while and I encouraged him to come back and visit Central Dallas Church. I may have given him my card. I don't remember. I remember when his family was there before--mom, dad, brother, and two sisters--they were all wonderful people who were very involved. I didn't ever know what happened or why they left.

Monday, I had a message on my desk saying Rodrigo Sanchez (not his real name) called. The name didn't sound familiar, but when I called back Rodrigo reminded me who he was. Rodrigo is 22 years old now. He explained that he is really struggling. He said he tried to find our church, but since it had moved to the Washington Street location, he couldn't find it. He wants to "do something with his life." He wants to "get back on track." He thought Central Dallas Church would be a way to start.

Rodrigo began telling me what he's going through right now. He said he's been in "some trouble" but wants to get out of that. When I asked him what kind of trouble, he said he has a problem with drinking. He's ended up with a few assault charges--one was a felony, the other two got dropped to misdemeanors. He talked to me for about 30-45 minutes talking to me about what has happened to him over the years.

He explained that after the first or second assault charge, his probation prohibited him from using drugs. He gave up cocaine and some of the other hard drugs he had been using. When he tried to go back to them, he didn't feel the same so he decided to quit. He has been free from them for about 2 years. However, alcohol continues to be his vice. After the last assault charge, he woke up his sister the next day and asked her to go with him to AA (Alcoholics Anonymous).

Of course, with the felony, he has a hard time finding a job. His mom keeps telling him everything will be ok, but he realizes that unless he does something to change, it won't be. He doesn't want to be like he is. He expressed that over and over again. He's not sure how to get out of doing what he's doing, but he's trying. When he couldn't find the church, he called. He's meeting me this Thursday to go with me to the Bible study I go to on Thursdays, which is primarily geared toward ex-offenders.

He has two kids he wants to change for. I pray that his desire to do things different will continue. I pray that some of the resources I hope to hook him up with will be some that he can fit into and feel connected to. He's young. I know it's hard to try to make such a change when so many around him are continuing down a destructive path.

He's taking the initiative. He's already stopped using drugs. I know he has it in him to change the rest as well. Please pray for him.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Wasteful spending??

Today's headline in the Dallas Morning News: DISD Misused Federal Grants.

My first reaction to this article was irritation.

No wonder our kids in DISD aren't doing well when the principals and teachers are spending money on flowers for their secretaries, playstations for the kids, and cute throws for the teachers...all in the name of "encouragement!"

I do not agree with incentives in the first place. I believe that too many people work too hard trying to buy a child's (and parent's) interest in education rather than making the education process interesting and meaningful enough so that kids (and parents) have internal motivation and incentives to participate.

I think this is especially bad in the inner city. I hear people say all of the time, "That's the only way 'these' kids will want to learn." or, "That's the only way 'these' parents will participate is if we feed them or pay them." I don't buy it. I have a full staff of parents in our After-School Academy. I truly believe they work so hard because the After-School Academy is a meaningful way for them to participate in their child's education. I'm sure it's not for money because they could go other places and get more hours and probably make more per hour.

I wish people would work hard to figure out how to spend that extra grant money on cool, educational things that could pique a child's interest instead of trying to bribe them into attending school by offering them a playstation.

My second thought was indignation.

How could they possibly take grant money allocated for the kids and spend it on employees and themselves??

Yet, I quickly thought of the times that I, too, have wanted to let the employees of our After-School Academy (ASA) know that they are appreciated. Though there are times I purchase things out of pocket, there are times where I take liberties to purchase things using our ASA budget as well. Maybe I, too, should be more careful.

My final thought was about inequity.

I have friends who work for corporations and companies that use incentives and give their employees business credit cards. My friends have been given jump drives (that cost about $60+ in the store) and backpacks designed for laptops. They have been given Treos and Blackberries complete with unlimited text messaging, email, and whatever other amenities are possible. Not too long ago a friend came through Dallas on business and took me to eat. He assured me his company would pay for it and wouldn't mind a bit. We even went up the street after dinner to enjoy ice cream on the company. Several years ago, a friend of mine worked for a large accounting firm in Chicago. He and a couple of his co-workers purchased Bulls tickets on the company's credit card.

Why is it that when a public company provides these "extras" no one says a word? For companies and corporations, these "extras" are so common that I think the employees would probably be offended if they weren't included.

Yet, when someone works with children or in the social service sector, perks are seen as frivilous and mis-spent money. I suppose "civil servants" are supposed to be sacrificial in every aspect of their job and life. A pat on the back should be sufficient.

It is somewhat humorous to me that it is our money being "wasted" in private companies just the same as it is our money being "wasted" in publicly funded companies. We are willing to look the other way in a private company, yet we want to stand up, bang our fist on the table, and demand that they re-think giving our money away to "wasteful" venues when we talk about our tax dollars (especially when what those tax dollars are being spent for doesn't directly benefit us!).

I'm actually not defending DISD. I would like to see DISD's money used appropriately--and I don't think it always has been. DISD has a lot of work to do, in my opinion. But before I jump on the bandwagon of condemning DISD, I have to think through the accusations and realize that theirs may be no different than any company. They're just an easier target.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Each one, reach one









This is what I saw when I walked into the After-School Academy this week.

Jasmine McMillon, an 8-year old who has traditionally been one of our "handfuls" at times, leaned over, wrapping her arms around a 6-year old to help him write his letters.

Kids greeted visitors with a smile, a firm handshake, and a pleasant greeting.

Parents sat with children and helped them with their homework.

Sixth graders, in their new volunteer role, cleaned, taught, assisted, guided, and facilitated.


Tuesday we found out we didn't have as many teachers as we thought we had. We needed a teacher for the 5th grade Book Club group.

You would think that I would have learned by now that the answers are right under our nose.

The solutions are simply in focusing on the capacity of the community.

After stressing over the lack of available adults for about 10 minutes, it dawned that we had what we needed at our fingertips! The sixth graders we had in the volunteer training on Saturday were doing an amazing job in assisting. Now all we had to do was to bump up their leadership role. With the right training, they can be our facilitators!

Jhor-Dai, a sixth grader who has been in the ASA for several years now, agreed to be the facilitator. She is reading the book in her 6th grade reading class. So, not only do we get a teacher, but I know from experience that teaching helps you learn. I'm convinced her preparation for this class through our weekly meetings and her own research can only deepen her knowledge and enhance what she's doing in school.

Clarence, a new volunteer...also in sixth grade, also was a key helper in the class. Jeremy* (not his real name) is in the fifth grade book club but struggles to read even the easiest books. In an attempt to be discreet, I asked Clarence to pair up with Jeremy since we were short on books. The next time I checked on them Clarence was doing most of the reading and they were both discussing. Clarence informed me that he was helping Jeremy with his reading. Without me saying a word, Clarence had recognized Jeremy's struggle without judgment and both were ok with the nature of the relationship.

The capacity is in the community.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006


Children are who they are.

They know what they know.

They bring what they bring.

Our job is not to wish that students knew more or knew differently. Our job is to turn each student’s knowledge and diversity of knowledge we encounter into a curricular strength rather than an instructional inconvenience.

We can do that only if we hold high expectations for all students, convey great respect for the knowledge and culture they bring to the classroom, and offer lots of support in helping them achieve those expectations.

~P. David Pearson, “Reclaiming the Center”

Parents don't send us their worst or least educated children and keep the others at home. They send us the best they've got. My experience is that parents send us (the educators) their children hoping and trusting that we will provide them with skills that will help them be "successful" in life. I don't hear of a lot of parents who intentionally try to sabotage their child's education. Everyone I know wants their child to be bright, smart, and successful. They expect the educators to do what they oftentimes can't. Sometimes they can't because they work too much. Sometimes they can't because they're addicted to drugs. Sometimes they can't because they don't have the education. It doesn't matter what the reason is. We owe the children (and the parents) the best we have to offer.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Excitement creates energy!

Monday we started our first day of training for the After-School Academy. I am so excited about this year! The possibilities in the room were energizing!

I must admit, after losing Rachel Embry, our Children's Education Coordinator of two years, I was sad and frustrated. I knew we couldn't find another person with her level of skills for the amount of money we were willing to pay. Not only had she taken a pay cut to work at Central Dallas, she had gone above and beyond to build relationships with families in the community. She spent more than her 40 hours/week doing things with and for the After-School Academy. I wasn't sure how we were going to find someone else of her calibur.

After thinking about it for a while, I had an a-ha moment. In the past, I've utilized the teenagers from the community to run the programs. Despite what some people said, I believed they could do it. I trained them in educational strategies and held them to a high standard. I expected more of them than many people expect of adults on the job, but the teenagers rose to the expectations and they did an amazing job.

Because the older kids get out of school later than the elementary kids, we cannot hire teenagers to run the After-School Academy. However, we do have parents...many who aren't working at this moment...many who are not formally educated (yet)...many who are struggling to find ways to make ends meet while also making sure they are there for their kids. I had held high expectations for the teenagers and they achieved. I could do the same with the adults!

Wyshina Harris, our new Children's Education Coordinator, was promoted from the Assistant to the Coordinator a couple of months ago. She has done an amazing job! While she was still in the Assistant position, Wyshina began to realize that working with kids and Education was her calling. She has now decided to go back to school to pursue a degree in Education.

Sylvia Harris is new to our staff and new to the program. She has only been in Turner Courts a few months. She came to the office to enroll her kids in the After-School Academy a few weeks ago. I suggested she apply for the Assistant position. After going through the interview process and deciding that she was the right fit for the job, Debbie Moss, our Human Resources Manager, called to extend her an offer. Debbie said she screamed for a minute straight! She was still excited yesterday when we started training.

The excitement and energy around the table was contagious! I know great things are going to happen this year!

As we went around the table telling a little bit about ourselves, Wyshina and Chanel Williams, our van driver, talked about planning to get enrolled at El Centro (Dallas Community College) in the Spring. Both are thinking about becoming educators. Chanel talked about how being a part of the After-School Academy has connected her to other adults in the community. (I mentioned in my last post how people in Turner Courts isolate themselves mentally and physically. Chanel admits to doing the same.) She credits the After-School Academy with leading her to connect with people she said she wouldn't have otherwise. Tajiman Fields, our cook, claimed that she felt like Mama Fields because of the way kids come to her and treat her like she is their parent.

We have a great team. We are building community in Turner Courts. It may have taken a few years to get started, but I can look back and see that growth was taking place all along. I am so excited to see what is yet to come this year!

Friday, September 08, 2006

Power in numbers

I met a wonderful lady in Turner Courts the other day. Our conversation was like so many others I've had with people in Turner Courts.

She has lived in Turner Courts for about 6 months now. However, she explained, the first three months she didn't physically or mentally move in. Instead, she cried every day because she had to live there. Do we actually believe that people who live in the "projects" want to be there?? I have talked to at least three other people in the last month who have said the exact same thing. People don't enjoy being "in the system" and accepting what is handed to them. She, like so many others I've gotten to know, figure out a way to "survive." They isolate themselves mentally and physically in their home in an attempt to stay away from anything bad that might happen.

What I've figured out is that there are quite a few people like the lady I met yesterday. And they are all attempting survival by doing the same thing...staying inside. As a result, they never discover the other good people in Turner Courts who are also doing the "right thing." So, all people ever see are the ones who aren't scared to go outside and start trouble, thus creating the stereotype that all people in housing developments are bad.

The people who live in the housing developments have bought into that stereotype as well. That's what causes the tears. They know they are not bad people, but society has convinced them that "bad" people live in the "projects." Thus, they figure, they are the only one living there trying to do right.

It's just not true!

One of the parents of some children at our After-School Academy told me just the other day that she would've probably never known any other adults in Turner Courts had she not enrolled her kids at the After-School Academy. She, like so many others, said she just kept to herself. She and another parent are now fast friends. I'm hoping that more parents will begin connecting and all of us can begin working toward solutions as a united front.

That is my goal for this school year.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

What are we afraid of?

Maybe I'm crazy (some people I'm sure would vehemently agree!), but I can't understand the reason people fear low-income neighborhoods so much.

Yesterday a man came by our office in Turner Courts to deliver a mail bag to one of the organizations in the office. As he was leaving he half-jokingly mentioned that the guy who was delivering before him told them he deserved hazard pay for having to deliver into that area (Turner Courts).

He chuckled.

I gave him a half-hearted smile and told him, "We're actually pretty nice people."

What is it that makes people scared just by driving into the neighborhood?

I know that, statistically, crime is higher in Turner Courts and other low-income neighborhoods. However, that doesn't mean bullets are flying 24-7. In fact, the majority of times "outsiders" are typically around (usually during the 9-5 day), there isn't much activity.

I've been told that people "hanging out" makes them uncomfortable. Would it make them uncomfortable if there were a bunch of White people "hanging out?" I tend to think the answer would be no. And in my experience, I have never seen or heard the people who are hanging out plotting to attack the first person who drives through.

Some say it's the trash...or the run-down buildings. I've never known trash or run-down buildings to be scary. Depressing...yes. A lack of pride in their surroundings...probably.

Just so you don't think I'm completely oblivious to what's around me, please note that I am aware of the crime and stupid acts that go on. But I also know drive into and walk through Turner Courts every day without incident.

My point is that I believe society has contributed to creating an unhealthy fear of certain neighborhoods--primarily those where the majority of people are darker and poorer. Maybe if were less afraid of people and neighborhoods and actually got to know them, we all could create a different reality.

Our fears create our realities.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Honesty is the best policy

Public high schools and colleges are almost all back in session now. Everyone is back to learning...or are they?

I read this New York Times article and was reminded of all of the teenagers I know who have entered college. Not a single one has entered college without having to take at least one (and often times two or three) "developmental" course their first semester in college.

Who takes developmental courses, in Texas at least, is determined by a score on a placement test. Depending on how high (or how low) a person scores, they will be placed in reading, writing, and math classes. Developmental classes cost money and are required before a student is able to take regular classes in those subjects, but do not count as college credit toward their degree.

My frustration is that elementary and high schools aren't being honest with their students, thus getting them to a level of education that they think they are prepared for, but they really aren't. The kids that I have worked with are often given extremes. Either they are given messages that they can't do or be something (i.e. "You can't read." or "You'll be pregnant by the time you're 16.") or they are given false hopes (i.e. "Sure! Apply to Texas Tech." ...when they are barely scraping by with C's...or "Here's is your 100% on your research paper!" ...that is riddled with grammar errors and wouldn't pass a good 3rd grade teacher's criteria.).

We owe it to our kids to be honest with them! However, with honesty comes some work on our part. No one wants to be told they aren't good at something without love and concern to help them with it. Love takes work. Whoever is willing to speak the truth must also back it up by taking the time to help them improve. With our time-crunched schedules, I don't know how many people are really willing to do that.

Several years ago Mike* (now 20) had just struggled through high school and graduated through an alternative program. His belief was the school kept passing him because they wanted to get rid of him. His theory may not have been too far-fetched.

I was appalled when he came home one day in 11th grade, extremely proud, showing me his research paper with 100% written on the front. His English teacher had given him 100% without any comments or corrections whatsoever. The misplaced periods, mis-spelled words, lack of capitalization at the beginning of a sentence, fragmented sentences, etc. did not deserve a C, let alone a 100%! Although I did talk to the school about the dis-service they were doing to their students, I never was able to find out if that teacher was reprimanded or even spoken to. I was frustrated not just at what was happening to that particular student, but what was happening to all of the students who were led to believe they were doing 100% work.

When Mike entered Community College after nearly dropping out of high school, but finishing through an alternative school, he needed three developmental classes. The college counselor we talked to would not allow him to take any more than those 9 hours. Therefore, his entire first semester did not count for anything except catching him up to where he needed to be.

I have always been honest with him about his academics...often to the point of hurting his feelings (as he has informed me). My goal was not to convince him he was inadequate, but to let him know that others weren't being honest with him and if he wanted to succeed, he needed to work hard because he hadn't been properly prepared.

Though he really enjoyed his first year of college, he did not go back. He does, however, always stay in touch. He calls when he is looking for an honest answer about something. He has also learned that he can be a resource to others. His phone calls often are about trying to help someone else get tutoring for their son or legal help for their brother or dental services for their child. I believe that despite his hurt feelings at times, he wants the truth. He wants to help others with the truth. I think what he realizes is that there is love behind the truth.

I wish our school systems would figure this out. There is a lot of work to do in our schools these days. Giving children inflated ideas about their current abilities will only hurt worse later. We need to be honest and we need to help them work toward the level of achievement of which they are perfectly capable.

*name has been changed