Friday, September 28, 2007

Should we speak out?

I had a meeting this week that I wasn't too thrilled about. A man wanted to meet with me to present some Bible curriculum they had written.

I know. You would think I would be thrilled. After all, I work for a ministry, right?

I wasn't.

It wasn't so much about someone calling to ask me to present a Bible curriculum. It was the conversation around it. "We have a curriculum that works well for inner-city children. It's not written like curriculum for other children. There are more activities so that inner city children will understand. The curriculum is written for 'unchurched' children."

I could feel my blood start to boil.

It always bothers me when people outside of our urban communities make assumptions and generalizations about what our kids are capable of and what will work for them when they've never even been to our community. It bothers me that people feel that curriculum needs to be "dumbed down" so that our urban children will understand.

I went ahead and scheduled the meeting and took Wyshina and Keilani so that they could maybe provide a more rational opinion than what I was able to give at that point.

Once I got there, looked at the curriculum, and listened to a different man present the curriculum, I began to form a different opinion. It looked well-written (more than I can say for most other Sunday School curriculums I've seen). It seemed to be an engaging curriculum that seemed to tap into multiple styles of learning, which I like. The man who presented the curriculum didn't talk about simplifying it for inner city children or anything like that...

...until the end.

"It's written for 'unchurched' children," he explained.

My temperature started rising again.

He went on to further clarify, "It doesn't assume anything about anyone's knowledge or Biblical background."

I know there are times I should probably keep my mouth shut. But there are other times I think too many people keep their mouth shut when they should speak up. This was a time I felt the need to speak up. So I did.

I explained that a curriculum that doesn't make assumptions about where someone is in their knowledge of the Bible is fine. A curriculum that has more activities and hits more multiple intelligences to engage children is fine. However, saying that it's written for "unchurched" kids who probably wouldn't understand "other" curriculum and taking it to the inner city is making a big assumption about kids in the inner city! I explained to the two men that our kids aren't "unchurched." I'd say at least 95% of our kids, or better, are children who go to church, have gone, and/or know their Bible.

I went on to explain that our After-School Academy offers programs like ballet, chess, science, digital photography, etc., because our kids are perfectly capable of doing things just like "other" kids, given the opportunity. We don't have to change the curriculum for them. We just have to offer it, expose them to it, and teach it. If we do our job of teaching it well, they catch on to it just fine.

Years of watching volunteers come in for a day or a week to "evangelize" or "educate" or "do good" without even getting to know anything about the community except what they have seen on the news or read in the paper...and then never coming back after they've "evangelized" our neighborhood really bothers me. Using our urban neighborhoods and the people in them as "service projects" makes my temperature rise.

I have to give him credit. Whether or not he noticed my irritation, at the end of our meeting the man thanked me for making the comments. He was kind about it and seemed open to the critique. I'm not sure how he will proceed, but I do know he listened and heard what we were saying.

I am working on maintaining my cool in these situations so that I can explain how demeaning their words are in a way that they hear without tuning out. As I work on myself and my own approach, I have realized a couple of things. 1) Most times the people who are making the comments have never even thought about how those words would sound if they were the ones living in the inner city and someone was talking about them. 2) People who make those comments are often people who do not look like people in the neighborhood and they are often selling their idea to other people who look like them. Their "pitch" changes when they have to sell their idea directly to someone in the neighborhood. 3) Comments that assume something about people and/or a community perpetuate to others a stereotype that doesn't come from first-hand knowledge of the community. 4) The only way people from outside of the neighborhood are going to learn the impact of their comments is if someone points out the offensiveness of their comments. People don't have a reason to change until someone challenges their assumptions and stereotypes.

Besides, staying silent tells them we agree. Our silence says their assumptions must be right.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Site #2...up and running!

It's happening...we're expanding!!

As of yesterday, Sept. 24, we officially opened our second After-School Academy! After a lot of brain stress over the last few months of wondering how we would pull it off, what people we needed to talk to, how to not duplicate what is already happening in Roseland, not being sure about how to recruit kids, etc., we finally just stepped in the waters and are waiting for them to part.

It's been almost 13 years since I started doing after-school programs. Back then, there were no expectations. Kids weren't part of my job (I ran the food pantry); I simply invited kids into my home. Larry, my boss, helped me acquire two Compaq computers from a friend of his who worked for the company. I purchased educational software, anonymous "friends" gave book and supply donations, and a friend from Discovery Toys donated educational toys. The kids played, created, wrote poetry, and cleaned up before they went home each evening.

We decided to make it a Central Dallas effort after that and built on our partnership with O.M. Roberts elementary to have the after-school program in their computer lab, then, eventually moved it to the Central Dallas building on Haskell. The after-school program remained small and somewhat hap-hazard. We had no big funders to be accountable to. Kids were just little people we believed in and, therefore, we took action to do what we could. Looking back, despite the fact that we had no annual reading assessments, no monthly outcomes reports, and not even a real "program," it provided kids with an alternative. It was community. And we had fun. Every blue moon, I still get calls or visits from some of the kids who used to come to my apartment.

Ten years ago, Central Dallas began working in Turner Courts and my "job" became focused on South Dallas. I started with what we had...two or three kids each evening who may or may not stop by, who didn't care for my attempt at structure, and some of whom, quite frankly, were bullies to the other kids. But each year we set the expectations a little higher until we now have a program in Turner Courts with 30 kids (you should see it! It's packed this year!) and 5 on the waiting list...some of whom are accepting our abbreviated option of participating in just the extracurriculars until they can get moved up on the waiting list so that they can also receive homework help and participate in the educational centers and such.

Yesterday, Keilani (our Children's Educational Coordinator at Roseland) opened our second site. We had 3 kids. Very sweet. Very polite. They have now been enlisted as the leaders who will help us teach any new kids that arrive the structure--greet new faces, eat snack, do homework, participate in centers, attend class. Today we are supposed to have two more new faces in the program. We are collaborating with Turner Courts so that both groups will have a variety of opportunities--chess, science, art, Kids Comedy College, music, technology, etc.

I must admit, at first three kids in a program where we were hoping for 15 to start and 30 to max it out, was a little disappointing. However, looking back on the history of our After-School Academy, I realize that we simply began. We didn't wait for the Big Bang to take place where everything--supplies, kids, equipment, and kids--showed up at our doorstep. We simply began with what we had...and we have grown!

At the Roseland After-School Academy (located in the Central Dallas Church), our walls are pretty bare, our supply closets are still empty, our numbers are small. But what I like about our After-School Academy is that it's not the numbers that matter, it's the people. I like to call it the "ripple effect." People make a difference with people who make a difference with other people who make a difference with other people, and so on.

How do we make that difference? We work with the families and offer something that is valuable to them...we listen to what they are telling us about what they want for their children...we expect excellence because we know the kids are excellent...we believe in the parents as important to their children and our community...we partner with the families...and we offer our best because we know our kids (and their families) are worth it.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Community conversations

As I dropped Checo off at his house yesterday, he commented, "Janet, we have the best conversations!" I had to smile. All the way to his house we had discussed the reasons behind recycling, how it affects the environment, and why more people don't recycle.

Checo is not unusual in his interest in issue-driven conversations. Johnas, a 20-year old, began a conversation with me about the NPR commentary that I was listening to in the car one day. Teenagers used to come to my home to watch documentaries from the civil rights era and would discuss and relate it to their lives today. Monique, a 22-year old, and I always have deep conversations about race and community issues.

I find that many people in our urban communities, teens and adults alike, become passionate when engaging about issues. I wonder if people and programs who come into the community to evangelize, provide parenting classes, do community clean ups, etc., did more to engage people about the issues, maybe people wouldn't have to be bribed with food and prizes to come to the meetings. Maybe people in the community would feel like partners instead of passive recipients and would begin initiating their own programs and projects based around their own needs using the assets they have within the community.

Last week, during our staff development meeting for the After-School Academy, we had a session where the group made observations and discussed what they would want for their ideal community. I found the discussion very insightful. Despite the negatives, there is a sense of community.

Wyshina: I moved from down here two weeks ago. And just not being able to walk out my door, walk over to Sylvia’s house, and ask her what she’s cooking today, see Lori walking to the store and say, “Hey, what’cha’all got going on?” I just miss the community. Not the negative things. Of course not the negative things. But I miss being in the community. I mean, I still work here and I’ll still be able to see the people because I know the parents who are still going to have their kids in the program but then I don’t get to see this girl who lives on the corner, “Hey! You still working at the After-School Program?” I won’t be able to see her. I miss that conversation.

Carla: I think it also shows that people who may live in poverty don’t have poverty lives.

Keilani: Even though it’s a lot of negative stuff going around…I think the friendships you have here and the bonding here outweigh the negative. I think that’s what we put in our drawings. That’s why Sylvia put the bar-b-que grill. You know, put some meat on the grill and have some neighbors come over and talk.

As the staff discussed and drew what they wanted in their community, they came up with things that are very basic, yet many of which don't exist in our urban communities:

What do we want for our community?
  • Library
  • Park
  • Community Center
  • School
  • Crosswalk
  • Police Department
  • Access Gate

  • Assigned Parking
  • Greenery
  • Houses
  • Kids are outside
  • Community gatherings
  • Manicured lawns
  • Security patrols


Is that too much to ask?

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Quote for the Day

Despite my extreme revulsion to Dr. Laura's radio programs, I really liked this quote on my Starbucks cup:

Many people search blindly for the "meaning of life." What they don't seem to understand is that life does not have meaning through mere existence or acquisition or fun. The meaning of life is inherent in the connections we make to others through honor and obligation.
~Dr. Laura Schlessinger

Friday, September 14, 2007

Sometimes you have to know "the rest of the story"

Growing up, whenever we were in the car at a certain time of the day my dad would flip through the stations to find Paul Harvey. I can still hear Paul Harvey saying, "and now you know...the rest of the story. Good day!"

I recently learned "the rest of a story" from one of our college students:

On the phone, he refused to tell me why he wasn't in school. He had his reasons and I "wouldn't understand." But he did agree to meet me to take care of some stuff.

Once we met up, the story gradually came out:

He was living with his sister, who was taking care of the bills. His life was working out just fine. He was working and going to school. He was doing so well that he received a few promotions at his job. He decided to buy a car. Life was manageable...until his sister lost her job. All of a sudden, he was faced with paying the rent and all of the bills in addition to his own. However, recognizing the importance of having a roof over his head, he did what he had to do...he used his credit card. Recognizing he needed more income than output, he began seeking more hours, more jobs. He was quickly falling behind. By the time he got the three jobs that he now works, he was already too far behind to easily catch up.

His sister is now working again, but still not able to pay all of the bills. He continues to work his three jobs to help with the bills, pay on the credit card, make car payments, and handle any other bills he might have. Unfortunately, having three jobs doesn't leave him time to attend school. He estimates that he will have everything back in order in 8-9 months. Unfortunately that means he will probably be out of school for an entire year.

He had no semblance of a smile on his face when he told me, "Life sucks."

I have to agree with him.

Injustice sucks.

Poverty sucks.

I'm beginning to think poverty is a cruel joke, set up to make people think if they work hard enough they can get out. It seems like the only way to get out is to have someone adopt each person in and take care of all of their financial needs until they get out on their own. Who wants to be taken care of by and become indebted to someone during the time of your life you're supposed to be gaining independence??

I had to tell him how much I admired him. I know where he was and what he was doing 7-8 years ago. The guys he used to hang out with are in and out of jail. Somewhere along the line, he made a decision to make a change. He's been a very impressive young man ever since. When he had time, he would always help whenever I called.

Now, there's nothing I can do. He's going to have to dig himself out. There simply aren't enough individuals to help straighten out people's financial situations so they can get back on track and start afresh. And no one wants to be someone's charity case. People just want to make their own living. Unfortunately, working doesn't always mean that you can make a living.

Through all of this, I pray that by the time he gets out of debt, his motivation to complete college won't have waned.

And now you know....the *rest* of the story.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Success...without my help

I'm sad, disappointed, and somewhat perplexed today.

I get excited about kids going off to college and am amazed by their perserverance and determination. I know they have so many dreams that they want to fulfill. But the complexities of poverty seems to keep getting in the way.

While some of the young adults I know are continuing to perservere in their college education, I have talked to three in the last few weeks who are not, for various reasons--all financially related.

Situation #1: Student decides to go to a private school. As she gets ready to enter her senior year, she can now no longer find no one to co-sign for her loan (because each semester she exhausts all of the loans that can be received in her name). She refuses to go any "less" of a university and insists on completing her private school education. Therefore, she is not enrolled in school this semester.

Situation #2: Student is going to a community college where financial aid takes care of his college expenses. Last semester he ended up dropping a class or two because the promotion he took at his job and the money associated with it became more important. This semester he is not going to school. He says it's financial, but refuses to tell me more.

Situation #3: Student is going to a 4-year university. He failed a class last semester. He said it wasn't like he didn't try, but the class was very difficult for him. Because he failed that class (in addition to getting low grades previously as well), financial aid would not pay for his classes this semester. They have told him he needs to sit out a semester.

I'm sure there are more situations...some that I don't even know about yet. Part of me is frustrated because they refuse to listen. I know that each of them have (or had) cell phones. I know that one bought a car and a "system" to go along with it. I know that one has an addiction to Jordan tennis shoes and always has nice, new clothes. I know that one works minimal hours, even when on school breaks.

Each have told me in so many words, "You don't understand," and none of them will explain to me what I don't understand. Each of them have decided that they will work this out on their own. I wonder if they play on the fact that they know "you don't understand" bothers me. I realize I don't understand their life--what it has been or what it is. But I also know that I have learned something about saving and spending money. I have learned stuff about how the financial aid system works.

I have read and heard what people say about how important "things" are to someone who hasn't had the opportunity to have a lot of "things" throughout their life. As people have told me, maybe it's easier for me to give up "things" because I've always had them. I know that each of the three I mentioned have had to go without things and make difficult decisions on what they get/don't get. I also know that each of them have contributed to making bad loans to friends and family with money they receive from financial aid.

I worry about them. I worry about their decision to buy shoes or pay for $50-$75/month cell phones and not understanding that every little bit they spend on "things" takes away from the money they need to survive, pay for college, etc. I worry that they will "make it," but that they will continue just "getting by." I worry that their "getting by" now will result in them becoming one of the statistics who don't ever complete college. I worry that the times I have helped them financially because I wanted them to have similar opportunities and access as other kids has really just been a bottomless pit that hasn't done anything to help...and may have even done some harm. They aren't like all of the other kids; their obstacles are often greater...but not impossible.

I don't know that there is any way I can help them because they will no longer allow me in. They don't always like what I have to say so I guess that's why they have decided they will figure it out on their own.

I hope and pray they do. I hope that their decision to figure it out on their own doesn't result in them being stuck in an endless cycle. I hope they go to wise people to find the answers they need. I hope they choose to access the many resources available in our communities, offered by so many non-profits (free classes such as budgeting, home-buying, scholarship opportunities, etc.--from what I've seen, most people often *don't* access these classes even when they say it's something they want and need...I have yet to figure out why.).

Recognizing when and how to let go.... boy, that's difficult.

Success is so much sweeter when it is accomplished without outside help. I pray that they succeed according to whatever standards they have set for themselves. I pray that they will ask for help if/when they need it. I pray that I will accept whatever they decide and will recognize the balance of pushing them and letting go.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Who does "doing good" benefit?

Ever look around and wonder how the people around you have so much and wonder why you have so little?

People always seem to have enough money to eat out, buy name brand clothing, have a cell phone, go to the movies, give their kids everything they ever wanted, and give their friends nice gifts. I can't figure it out. I'm a single person with no children. My frivilous expenses consist of the minimal cable package, Starbucks once or twice a month, and a few books from 1/2 price books. Yet, those "frivilous" expenses and my basic bills pretty much consume my entire paycheck.

So, how do other people do it?

From what I have finally figured out about some of my friends, there's a simple and bad debts. Or in the "best" situation, they make credit cards payments each month (to the tune of 19% interest or more) or they have payday loans or buy at places like Rent-a-Center (to the tune of 40-500% interest...don't believe me?? I didn't either until I checked it out myself.)

I admit, sometimes I envy people who go out to eat every night and don't have to cook. I envy people who have someone come clean their house and take care of their yard. I have twinges of jealousy when people get bi-weekly pedicure massages.

The bottom line, though, is that many people are caught up in our culture of keeping up with the Jones's. Unfortunately, as we're trying to keep up with the Jones's, what we don't realize is that the Jones's are buying everything on credit and digging themselves deeper every day by paying sky high interest rates...all the while, their monthly income stays the same.

Our desire to have what everyone else live the life everyone else does...keeps many people from ever getting ahead...and these days I'm feeling like I contributed to it.

Over the years I have a long list of bad loans I've made that were never repaid. In my mind, I was doing the "Christian thing" by lending people money. As I have begun to understand more about sub-prime mortgages, predatory lenders, payday loans, and credit, I'm beginning to think that my "good heart" and "good intentions" actually hurt the people I intended to help. Hmmm...I wonder if "good intentions" are actually un-Christian because they benefit me rather than the recipient??

Perhaps if I would've said "no" to some people over the years the person would've had to think about figuring how to stay within the limits of what they already had. Yes, it's true that many people have jobs that don't pay them a livable wage. Then again, some people don't have jobs (and aren't trying). By lending them money that they don't have, doesn't that create a "rob Peter to pay Paul" situation for them *if* they choose to pay me back?

I am amazed at how some people juggle their bills on the limited money they make. However, I also recognize that within whatever salary we make, we all have "extras" that we could do without--caller ID, cable, Starbucks, iPods, etc.

Finances are tricky. Everyone wants to keep theirs secret. My personal opinion is that we need to get financial literacy and general business classes into the high schools. But, until that happens, maybe the best strategy (rather than loaning people money they can't return) is to work with banks and non-profits to ensure that there are plenty of opportunities available for all kinds of financial literacy classes. Maybe these could be a start:

  • Balancing a checkbook and creating a budget

  • Saving up instead of paying out (to rent-a-center and payday loans and such)

  • Planning for retirement

  • Considering purchasing a car or a home?...don’t forget about the extra expenses that go along with it

  • Planning for my child’s college education…the best way to save and receive financial aid

  • Understanding the college loan process

  • Beginning the process of cleaning up my credit

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Predatory lending works for some people

I promise to change topics, but making the college process difficult for the people who are just trying to get ahead really bothers me.

The latest article about the college loan scandel in the New York Times, Reeling in the College-Bound, affirms my beliefs and position on student loans. It bothers me that they prey on those of us who don't know and don't understand the process...and they have no qualms about doing that. I suppose it has something to do with the fact that they once needed loans and now they're offering loans, making lots of money, and no longer need it doesn't matter to them what happens to the people on the other end.

The beginning of the article focuses on a man who spends most of his time on his yacht that he bought with a portion of his fortune earned through the pioneering the student loan industry:
"But his knack for numbers allowed Mr. Meyers to unearth riches by marketing loans to college students who needed financial assistance after they had exhausted less expensive options offered through federally subsidized loan programs."

I'm always surprised and appalled that people can feel absolutely no guilt or remorse for capitalizing on other people's misfortunes.

What can you do about it? First of all, if you know a kid planning on college and you have a good relationship with them, pass this information along. Second, if you have some good insightful information about the whole loan process...which ones have high interest rates, how you can tell, how to be sure you're signing up for cheaper, federal loans first, etc., PLEASE contact me and help me understand!!! Me leading these kids through the college process is like the blind leading the blind. The only difference is that I ask more questions and am more skeptical. But when it's all said and done, the loan is signed no matter what...because the goal is getting into college...and you can't do that without money!