Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Valuing the family??

How much does our society truly value and promote the family structure?

I've been trying to fill out paperwork for the state to show we are not a daycare provider. We need this exemption in order for us to receive free snacks for the children.

I don't think we are going to qualify.

Their rules don't match with what what our program is about:

1) The program will not collect compensation for its services.

2) Children participating in the activities are free to join or leave the program at will. If the program provides transportation from school, children may choose whether to use the transportation from school and when to leave the program and walk home without adult supervision.

3) The program must require all parents to sign a statement allowing their children to come and go at will from the program.

Although I'm not opposed to organizations who don't collect any compensation, we do. We only charge $5/month, which is extremely minimal compared to what we provide. Quality after-school care costs money. We want to provide that quality and we want parents to feel they are putting their child somewhere that is worth paying money for. Although their financial commitment seems minimal, the percentage and amount of their income makes it just as significant as wealthier people paying good money for their children to have extracurricular programs. Free often implies that people must accept and be grateful for what they are given. Because our parents are financially committed, they have a right to complain if they want but, more importantly, their commitment and our conversations with them allow them to shape the direction of the program.

The second and third rule are particularly disturbing to me. I can't imagine wanting my child to be a part of a program where I have to sign a paper saying my 5-13 year old child can decide whether or not s/he goes home without adult supervision. Our program is a place parents can enroll their child and *know* that s/he won't be running the streets when mom isn't looking. If enrolled children don't ride the van from school, we talk to the parents. This assures us and the parents that their child's safety is primary to us. By coming straight to the program, we (and the parents) know that their child will get his/her homework done along with the support s/he needs. For a parent who is working, this provides a feeling of comfort. For a parent who may not seem concerned about their child's whereabouts, this allows us to initiate conversations with the parent and build a relationship that has often developed a heightened awareness of their child's activities.

Because of our contradicting "rules," I'm not sure if we will receive the free snacks.


I know what we offer to the parents is a valuable service that isn't available financially or in proximity. I know I have no desire to compromise our commitment and assurance to the families that we will provide a safe, supervised, educational place for their children and will not release them unless the parent/guardian says it is ok.

Friday, October 26, 2007

I don't like being hungry!!

Monday was World Hunger Day. I was unable to participate in the Central Dallas Ministries' challenge to "share in the pain of my neighbors who must daily struggle with hunger" on Monday so I committed to a different day...yesterday.

I realize people in poverty don't get to choose the day they have to deal with hunger like I did, but even though mine was calculated around my schedule it was important to me to "share in that pain" by fasting for the full three meals.

How did it go?

As my stomach growled while making my morning pot of coffee, I kept wanting to reach for one of my homemade blueberry muffins. My instinct was to eat. I had to keep reminding myself that there was nothing to eat (at least not for that day). I decided to drink more than my usual 2 cups of coffee. I figured coffee is free in most businesses, has some flavor, and could be used as my filler during the day.

Lunch was going to be a little more difficult. I had heard my co-workers planning a pizza party. Though it was a free pizza party, I thought about how many things like that aren't free. Most times everyone is asked to chip in a few bucks. What if I didn't have those few bucks? Or what if I had a few bucks but knew I needed to save that money to put toward a bill or to buy food for my household later? I wouldn't want to be in a situation where people took pity on me and paid my portion. Nor would I want them to feel sorry for me because I wasn't eating.

I began to strategize ways to avoid the lunch so I didn't feel uncomfortable while I was there.

I'm not sure if the pizza party actually happened. I knew they were planning it, but I didn't get the final word on it so I didn't call to ask. By avoiding the situation I could always claim ignorance later and explain that I never got the final word on time and place.

I was happy to have meetings planned all day. I was hoping the meetings would keep me busy enough that I wouldn't have time to think about eating. I thought about how difficult it would be to sit at a desk (or school) all day trying to work and feeling my stomach growl.

I found some spiced tea at work. It was warm and somewhat satisfying. I drank a bottle of water, but I wanted/needed some substance. I needed some flavor. I drank a diet coke. Sodas usually fill me up for a while.

By about 8:00 as I was heading home, I kept thinking to myself, "Ok. I've experienced. I get it. People are hungry. I'll just go ahead and eat dinner and still donate the money." But I wanted to force myself through.

When I got home, I suppose I cheated a little. I made a cup of hot chocolate...with milk. I thought about the fact that not all people have milk in their refrigerator...nor do they probably have hot chocolate sitting around. But I also thought about the fact that people without money often make and eat whatever they have available. They purchase cheap foods that store well. Cheap foods that store well and are easily accessibly are usually processed items like chips, ramen noodles, canned soups. Things that are filling, but not necessarily nutritional. Things like my hot chocolate.

As I tried to write this blog around 10:45 last night, my hunger kept shifting my focus. Even though I pretty much knew what I wanted to say, it wasn't working. I was tired and I wanted the hunger to go away. Maybe I could have pressed on with just one of the factors, but with both of them working against me I decided I'd just go on to bed. I knew that would make the hunger pains go away.

The problem, though, is that I knew I could wake up the next morning and my cabinets would be full and I would be able to eat again. I'm guessing that magic doesn't happen overnight in most households.

I woke up this morning and my hunger had subsided. I wasn't ravenous. It was just another day. Yet, as I poured my cereal, in my mind I was thinking...I hadn't eaten in 24 hours so, now that I can, I'll pour myself an extra big bowl to make up for yesterday. I quickly realized how crazy that was. Pouring myself a double portion was not going to make my hunger go away from yesterday...nor was it going to make me any less hungry today.

I wondered if people who are forced to miss meals think like that--once something is available...especially if it's free food at an event or something...I wonder if they pile up their plate thinking some of the same thoughts that went through my mind...except maybe they don't think about how that large portion doesn't make the hunger go away forever.

I don't know what people think. I don't know how children feel. The only time I've ever been hungry for a long period of time was by choice. I'm glad I did it, but I also realize that...

Poor people don't have that luxury.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

CDM's Pumpkin Festival

Saturday, October 27
12 to 8 p.m.
West Village in Dallas
Click here for directions.

Please forward this email to your friends!

All events are FREE!
Pumpkin Catapult
Gourd Bowling
Hoppity Ball Races
Treasure Hunt
Football Fling
Family Pumpkin Carving
Scarecrow Stuffing
...and more!

Plenty of Great Food
Rockin J's Bar-B-que
Crustacean Cafe
Ben & Jerry's

Live Music
noon: Superstar Express
1:00 pm: Texas Gypsies
2:00 pm: Shanghai 5
3:45 pm: Kelci Paige
4:45 pm: porterdavis
6:15 pm: Fingerprints

Other Activities
12:45 pm: Bob Baird and his amazing harmonica
2:15 pm: Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat
3:00 pm: Costume Parade

It's going to be lots of fun!! Come join us!

Monday, October 22, 2007

No more nooses

Everyone I know agrees that racism is wrong. We express our incredulity when something overtly racist happens.

However, what I keep noticing is that it never seems to be skinheads or KKK members who commit these horrendous acts. It's always the average "Joe"...people who could be (and probably are) our next door neighbors, our relatives, our friends.

The Jena 6 incident has become the latest, most widely publicized display of racism. Nooses were hung from a tree to send a message that it was a "Whites only" tree. I've heard differing stories as people argue why it happened, who did it, who should be punished, and how. But the bottom line is that nooses were hung. A non-verbal message was sent out to the community. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what that message was. Just the other day I read another article about a noose being hung on a black professor's door. Noose on Door at Columbia Prompts Campus Protest .

I think we give ourselves too much credit when we think that we (or other people we know) don't participate in racist, sexist, homophobic, et al, behavior. If we really examine what we say or what's being said around us, what are we saying...what are we doing...that covertly encourages this kind of behavior? What do our words, actions, and attitudes say to our children and the other people around us?

I heard a story once that talked about life and racism being like a people mover (you know...the conveyor belt things in the airport to get you from point A to point B without a lot of walking). Our society is like standing on a people mover. Though we may not be actively walking with it, if we're standing on it and not intentionally walking backward against it, we are still moving with it. I think that's hard for us to accept. We want to think if we are not walking with the crowd, we show that we are against it. Unfortunately, that's not true. The people mover takes us right along and moves us with the current.

It takes a lot of effort and energy to walk in reverse on a people mover. Similarly, it takes a lot of effort and energy to work against racism...sexism...homophobia...classism...et al. How much effort and energy are we willing to put toward walking backward through the crowd?

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Kids amaze me

It doesn't matter where you go, all kids are amazing!

I wish we all took more time to watch and listen to kids. They're so fascinating...and they have so much developing talent that goes unnoticed, is stifled by adults, or is prevented from developing due to limited opportunities and resources. When given the opportunity, it is amazing to watch their gears turn while their little brains work and their natural talent kicks in.

Eden, my friend's daughter, is 6 years old and an absolutely precious little girl. As most kids do, Eden asked if she could take a picture with my camera. I was completely fascinated as she took hold of the camera and immediately began positioning her brother and I as if we were in a studio.

"Put your head down a little. ...No, the other way. Good. No, you moved! Put your head like this (positioning her brother's head)." She then stepped back and looked through the viewfinder to ensure proper composition.

Not quite there yet.

"Put your arm around Miss Janet." (moving her brother's arm around me) "Now, Miss Janet, you put your arm like this." (moving my arm the way it needed to be). She stepped back again to check things out with her photographer's eye.

She went on to reposition us several times, tilting our heads, moving us so that we weren't too horizontally aligned, scolding her brother about squirming, and composing us in a way that seemed to rival many photographers I've known. Her mom said she'd never taught her any of those skills.

Eden ended up taking some great close-up shots that I will gladly keep in my photo library. She's only six. Fortunately for Eden, she is in a family that can and will help her develop whatever passions and talents she chooses.

Unfortunately, some kids have more opportunity than others to develop their amazing abilities. Directly or indirectly, we will benefit from whatever talent Eden chooses to develop. Directly or indirectly, we will benefit (or suffer) from whatever talents we choose (or don't choose) to help develop in our children who don't have the same resources as Eden.

All kids are equally amazing. They are ALL worth our time, money, and effort...no matter where they live or who their parents are.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Injustice doesn't take a vacation

I love vacation. But not for the same reason people often encourage me to go on vacation. I used to have friends who wanted to take me out or invite me to different events so that I could "get away" from the inner city. I never understood that. I like being around the people I'm around. When I do go away on vacation, I always end up missing something...a bar-b-que, a quincenera, a kid's ballgame...that I would've liked to have been a part of. My reasoning for going away is so that I don't feel the need to meet a deadline and no one can call me for a work-related question, not because I feel the need to "get away from" the people. I still take those phone calls, because the kids, the parents, people I live around, are my friends.

Funny thing...and what the people who try to get me to "go away for a while" don't realize...is that the stuff the frustrates me the most...the mindsets...the covert racism...the problems I want to alleviate...are displayed (and frustrate me) no matter where I go.

As I sat in a quaint little french cafe in Colorado Springs yesterday, the lady behind the counter started up a conversation with a customer. It wasn't a private conversation. Anyone in the cafe could hear them talking:

Cafe worker: “We had a Polish girl who used to work here. Her brother worked at a hotel.”

Customer: “Yeah, we have a lot of Polish people who work at our hotel. Polish people are really nice people.”

Cafe worker: “Yeah, they are. This girl was really nice. I really liked her. I like Polish people.”

Customer: “I used to live in a Polish neighborhood. They are really nice people.”

They continued their conversation about “nice Polish people” for another minute or so. The conversation wasn’t unkind or derogatory in any way. In fact, it was much the opposite. I know they meant well.

But, it made me wonder why we feel the need to make comments about how nice a certain group of people are...as if we assume that they are bad or rude or mean people and then are surprised when they are actually nice.

In spite of the fact that I have a hard time believing a Polish person would have appreciated that conversation and in spite of the fact that the two ladies talking probably didn't initiate the interaction with their Polish co-workers and neighbors, I am glad it happened. Interaction with people often changes our preconceived notions. Problem is, most of us rarely make the effort to interact with people unlike ourselves.

It reminds me of the Polock jokes I heard (and told) as a kid. I never thought of them as hurting anyone. Instead, I thought of Polocks as an imaginary group of people. A group that really didn’t exist. I wonder how I would feel if someone talked about me as if I didn’t exist?

Discrimination, inequity, and injustice is everywhere. There isn't (and shouldn't be) a way to vacation from that battle.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Learning how to value self

Campaign for Real Beauty

Community solutions

Last week I struggled. Struggled with the decision of how four pre-teen boys should face consequences for their actions. I realized that just as a young child doesn't grow up thinking, "I want to be a drug dealer who runs from the police," a parent doesn't raise a child hoping that he/she will do things that warrant them going to a juvenile detention center.

After reading this article, Troubles Mount Within Texas Youth Detention Agency, I am glad we came up with a different solution for the boys who stole the money from the After-School Academy.

After talking to their parents and some wise friends, we decided that we would all (each parent and their boys) go to Smokey John's for Bible study. Smokey hosts a Thursday night Bible study (Warriors for Christ) in his restaurant that primarily focuses on formerly incarcerated men and women. Even though a couple of the boys who stole the money from the After-School Academy denied having any part in stealing the money (despite the fact that they were there and were wrestling over some of the money that was stolen), everyone involved was required to attend.

Only one of the parents showed up (which was disappointing and somewhat frustrating...but not unexpected) and only three of the boys went (which was also frustrating, but considering that the fourth one's attitude would probably have changed the dynamics in not such a positive way, maybe it was good he didn't go). The ride there was somewhat irritating listening to each boy complain, laugh at the situation, and demostrate a cavalier attitude.

Once at Smokey's, Chuck and Conrad (both formerly incarcerated, I believe), sat down with me, their mom, and the boys and began a conversation. I was amazed at the boys' attitudes changed and I was amazed at their rapt attention. I watched the one sitting by me (the one who insisted he shouldn't be there because he wasn't even involved...except for wrestling over the money...which he didn't end up with) lean in closer to catch every word. Chuck and Conrad both talked to the boys, but also asked some thought-provoking questions. Although the boys gave pat answers about how what they did affected them and their community (taken directly from our talk on the way there), it was obvious that they were taking in what was being said.

Though we didn't get to stay the whole time due to yet another family situation that arose while we were there, I was pleasantly shocked when we walked out and all three boys asked, "Do you do this every week?? Can we come back?" I assured them they were more than welcome to come as often as they liked.

Do I think that one night and that one talk solved the problem, changed their thinking, and their actions will be angelic from now on? I'm not that naive anymore.

However, I did notice some things that I think are extremely important to note.

1) Chuck and Conrad were men (one White, one Black). Maybe it was just the fact that they were men. Maybe it was because they had been down the path of prison before. Maybe it was because at least one of them looked like them and could talk their lingo. Maybe it was just because they were gentle and kind, but firm about the consequences. I think it was all of the above.

2) "I'll come. Why not [come again]?! This is better than the projects." (as stated by the kid who "wasn't involved) Some kids recognize that having alternatives keeps them out of trouble. But positive alternatives have to be available (which there are none for teenagers right now in Turner Courts).

3) No matter how genuine and ready-to-change they might be at that moment, it takes a lot of work to help them see their good intentions through. On the way home, I mentioned that I was taking kids on a college trip the next day. Two of them were very excited and said they wanted to go. In that short, 12 hour time period, they either lost motivation, changed their mind, or decided they had better things to do, but they never showed up. After knocking on their doors, one was still asleep and the other didn't answer the phone or door. Maybe something came up. I don't know. I never heard from them (and, yes, they have my phone number). I know this is an uphill battle. It takes a lot of time and investment. This wasn't the first time they have gotten in trouble and, unfortunately, I'm sure it won't be the last. Somehow we need to find ways to support kids who are so easily caught up in the negativity surrounding them.

Despite my frustrations with the parent and the fourth child not showing up, I am still glad we didn't involve the police. I'm definitely not above calling the police, but I wonder how much the juvenile justice system prevents future negative behavior or actually perpetuates it. These boys need adequate solutions as to how to deal with real life situations. I don't know that an over-crowded, under-staffed facility that just maintains the boys' existence and often results in violence and other negative behavior within can offer them that.

Today, I choose to focus on the one parent and the three boys who went to Smokey's and seemed genuinely impacted. I choose to think that at least a seed was planted even if they don't choose to nurture it right now. Life choices are ultimately theirs. But I do believe that in order to raise the chance of making good life choices, we (as a city, a community, a society) have to provide intense support and multiple opportunities for them to be able to make those choices.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Who does the city really care about?

For the last couple of weeks I have noticed an upsurge of police patrolling in my neighborhood. You would think that is pretty impressive considering the Dallas Police Department is understaffed. The Southeast division (my area) covers 96-square miles and consists of three of the highest crime neighborhoods in the city (why they don't split those up so that police in other areas with less crime could help, I have no idea!). But this month, the city has devoted a very large number of officers to our neighborhood. From the number of police around these days (I believe I saw 5 on my very short, less than 1-mile drive home the other day), you would think that I would feel safer, more protected, and we, as a community, would feel more valued.

Au contraire.

For three weeks in the fall, Fair Park (which is within walking distance from my home) is the home of the State Fair of Texas. Police are everywhere...inside, outside, and around the fair. My uneducated, but probably very accurate guess is that it's the city's attempt to make outsiders feel safe enough to visit and spend their money.

That's where I feel slighted. Yes, there is more protection around here lately, but it's not protection *for* us, it's protection *from* us!

The people I see getting pulled over are not the people going the wrong way on a one-way street (which happens VERY often...as they boldly drive straight at me until I frantically blink my lights or dodge them) or the ones crossing two lanes of traffic, making the locals screech to a halt as the fair-goers have just found an open parking lot.

I would like to see the police statistics of my neighborhood for the three weeks of the fair. I would guess crime has gone down. I've heard the guys talk before. The ones causing the most problems go somewhere else when "the block is hot" and the police are around. I would guess that's the case right now. I would also like to see the statistics for the offenses people have been pulled over for. I would guess it has less to do with the people attending the fair and more to do with minor offenses committed by the people in my neighborhood.

I would like to feel like my neighborhood is safer because the city cares. But the gunshots I've been hearing at night (after the fair shuts down) and the cars and the people pulled over during the day tells me that although the city cares about crime, it cares more about protecting people from my neighborhood than protecting my neighborhood from crime.

Monday, October 08, 2007

In the midst of struggle

I don't have answers. I don't have solutions. I don't know if the decisions I make result in positive, negative, or neutral outcomes.

I hope.

I pray.

I struggle with my decisions.

My head hurts....my heart hurts.

What is the best way to deal with a 12-year old (and some accomplices) who stole money out of a locked box at the After-School Academy (ASA) while the room was being used by another resident to throw a party?

All four have each been enrolled in the After-School Academy at various times throughout their life. This isn't the first time they have caused problems. But how can we help make it their last?

The good news is that one of their parents called to tell Wyshina (our ASA manager) what her son had relayed to her. She then called the parent whose son supposedly popped the lock and encouraged her to call Wyshina, which she did. It is nice to have people in the community who trust us enough to tell us what's going on. But what do we do with that information???

Do we report it to the police and press charges?...and then deal with the fact that these parents who were honest enough to call us would then be given a 30-day notice of eviction?

But if we don't report it, how much longer will these 12, 13, and 14-year old kids continue? How far will they go before they end up venturing into the wrong place, committing the wrong crime, and ending up in jail, prison, or possibly dead?? The lump rises in my throat as I write this...because it's reality here.

These types of decisions completely disable me. I sat at my desk with a blank stare. I finally left to go get a cup of coffee just so I could drive in silence and think. I came back with no answers.

God, how long do I have to cry out for help before you listen? How many times do I have to yell, "Help! Murder! Police!" before you come to the rescue? Why do you force me to look at evil, stare trouble in the face day after day?
~Habakkuk (The Message)

My heart was/is still heavy. I want to know the right thing to do.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Saddled with debt and expected to prosper

Why is it we think that tightening the screws on people will somehow make them recover? In actuality, I believe it does just the opposite.

It wasn't until I started talking to people who were getting out of jail that I realized serving a jail/prison sentence doesn't make you "free" when you're done. Instead, once you get out, you continue to have to make weekly visits to a parole officer (sometimes for years later), along with paying monthly fees...despite the fact that you have no job and you now have a record so most people won't hire you.

From what I've heard from parolees, most of them aren't given support by their parole officer. They need leads for viable jobs, guidance, etc. Perhaps the parole officer has too many on his/her caseload...but the other big problem is that few people are hiring ex-offenders.

Last year, a job fair for ex-offenders was highly promoted. After it was over a man came in my office looking for employment. I mentioned the job fair. Very bitterly, he explained to me that only about 2 people showed up to offer jobs. Wrongly, I doubted his sincerety. Later, however, I heard that, sure enough, only 2-3 businesses had showed up to the tune of over 200 ex-offenders looking for jobs.

Still believe that ex-offenders don't want to work?

There are many other issues that exist with the prison system...a major one to me being that we spend more to house prisoners than we do to try to educate them while they are still children...which would often prevent them from going to prison.

Ted Koppel presents more about this tonight on the Discovery Channel. You can go here and click on Inside Prison Exclusive Video to see a preview of what he will be talking about. Click on the heading of this post to read a New York Times Opinion article on the debt that one has after coming out of prison.

Monday, October 01, 2007

They said, "It can't be done"

Several people told me, "It won't happen. The people in Turner Courts won't take advantage of a computer lab."

I don't buy into comments like that. If something is of value, people will take advantage of it. If it doesn't fit their need or they don't get anything out of it, they won't come. But, sure enough, during the month of August, 29 people accessed the daytime, adult part of the Educational Outreach Center (EOC) 73 times. During September, 23 people accessed it 42 times.

People come in each day to look for jobs, read their myspace page, make flyers, or just explore and learn about the computer and the internet.

The EOC is not one of those fine-tuned programs run by a high degreed person who has decided to take a pay cut to "do good" and "teach" people in the inner city; it's much better.

The daytime adult portion of the EOC is run by Sylvia, a resident of Turner Courts who, she will tell you herself, has a limited knowledge of computers. It doesn't matter. She is amazing. She has enrolled in a computer class at CDM's Technology Learning Center so that she can utilize what she's learned in the EOC and assist other neighbors with questions they might have.

As a result of some of the things she's learned, she creates a weekly newsletter and distributes it to the community, which is probably part of what is drawing more and more people to the EOC and to the After-School Academy.

She is working on a blog that she will use to tell what is going on at the EOC. She is also planning to make the blog accessible to the community so that they can post entries as well. It's just getting started, but you can see it at http://www.lovethyneighbors.blogspot.com/.

The EOC is a very organic effort with the hopes of providing a a place for "community" to develop.

Ms. Haynes is part of our community. She's there nearly every day the doors are open. Her regular visits started by having cups of coffee with Sylvia. Now she's a regular internet surfer. I have even seen her giving other residents "tours" of the EOC.

Why does Ms. Haynes come to the computer lab? "To have conversations with my grandkids." "So you email them?" I wondered. "Oh no! Not yet," she explained. She went on to tell me she comes to surf the internet so she knows what her grandkids are talking about, so that she can have conversations with them about the internet, and so that she can seek out upcoming DISD events she knows her grandchildren will be a part of. She told me because of the access to the internet she was able to find out about and attend one of their events she wouldn't have known about otherwise. How cool is that?!

Now that the EOC is up and running and doing well, I know outside people (not the neighbors who utilize the center) are going to start wanting "programs." I wonder we often don't feel something is successful unless we have filled people up with our knowledge.

If anyone has the urge to "programatize" the EOC I really hope they will think of Ms. Haynes and realize what she is getting out of the EOC just as it is.