Wednesday, May 27, 2009

From symphony to brass band jazz

The last few days have been filled with music.

On Friday, we ended our After-School Academy with a fun, interactive performance with the Inner City All Stars jazz band.

Thanks to the City of Dallas's Office of Cultural Affairs, we were able to bring this group to the ASA as a finale performance. They worked with the kids on Mardi Gras masks then pulled out their instruments and put on a New Orleans jazz performance--first in the ASA, then outside for the whole community to hear.

It was neat watching people come outside to tap their feet and move to the beat. The music was so fun, you just couldn't help yourself!

After taking a few kids to the symphony the night before, I was just sure they would be so excited to hear more up-beat music. So, as the band was playing I leaned over to Monteyvion and asked him, "So, which do you like better, today or last night?" Monteyvion wrinkled up his forhead in a very perplexed expression like I had asked a really crazy question, "Both!" he told me without a moment's hesitation.

I don't know why I should have thought any different. I, too, like variety.

I don't have any video of the symphony we attended (you can listen to Nathan from yesterday's post to get an idea), but I do have the jazz band.

Click on the videos below and get ready to move your body and tap your feet. It was a great time!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Making music

I know it can be frustrating being a teacher, but what an amazing profession!

Teachers have such an opportunity to impact children and completely change their perspective on life. It was obvious that the three orchestra/band teachers at Lang have done just that with quite a large group of kids. Somehow, they have made orchestra cool for lots of kids--boys and girls alike.

Mrs. Poquette-Drews, Mr. Covey, and Mr. Woods deserve lots of accolades. What an amazing ability to teach kids how to play an instrument, concentrate, work in conjunction with others, and so much more.

Nathan is one of their students. I've been asking Nathan all year to tell me when his orchestra concerts are. It took him all year, but tonight was the night: Lane Middle School Spring Orchestra concert.

I went, not because I'm a big orchestra fan, but because I am a big Nathan fan. However, I must admit, I truly enjoyed this orchestra concert.

Turns out, Nathan's a cello player in the advanced orchestra! He never told me he was in the advanced orchestra!! I'm so impressed with what he's learned and continues to learn. Last year he played the viola. But I believe he has found an instrument he likes even better. I think next year we'll get to hear an even more advanced cello player. I'm so thorougly impressed and proud.

Check him out here:

Monday, May 25, 2009

Happy 50 years!

This weekend I got to celebrate my aunt and uncle's 50th wedding anniversary. Just about a year ago, we celebrated my parents' 40th wedding anniversary. In this day, both of those are truly significant milestones.

It was great being with my family. This weekend was really special because it caused me to watch and reflect. In my family, there is always lots of laughter, smiles, and hugs. It's easy to spend time with each other. Each person in my family has a little bit of goofy in them; all have a sense of humor.

I value the fact that my cousins and I have such great examples of parents who have been together for such a long time. Our parents are examples of people who are down-to-earth, kind, and generous.

It is because of my aunt and uncle and my mom and dad that I still believe a faithful, real, and positive marriage and family is still possible.

It is because of them that I believe it is important to be kind and generous to those around us. It is because of them that I have learned to laugh and love.

Congratulations, Charley and Ona....and THANK YOU for 50 years!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

We need more Carla Rangers!

I recently met Carla Ranger, a Dallas school board member, at a function held at the African-American museum for the annual Children's Book Fair. I introduced myself and briefly told her what I do with kids and teenagers. Though we were whispering off to the side while the event was going on, I sensed there was something I really liked. She immediately invited me to connect with her so that she, in turn, could connect me more intimately with the community college district and I let her know I would email her.

After that meeting, I began hearing, noticing, and paying more attention to Carla Ranger. I noticed she was sometimes the lone person speaking out against some of the DISD board practices. She was standing up for the children. She was fighting back...even when it wasn't the easy or acceptable response.

I then ran into her again at an Education and Advocacy meeting. It was a Friday evening. She there to attend...not to assert herself or defensively point out various school practices (which has seemed to happen from some of the board members or DISD administrators I know). She was there to listen and hear the parents and community members talk. Though she was willing to speak when pushed by people who obviously respected her tremendously, it was obvious that was not her intent in attending.

After the meeting, I listened to her talk to other people at the meeting who were obviously familiar with her and she with them. She was interested in gaining more information about current issues...even though she seemed to be overwhelmed with information and struggles that were going on in the district. And still, by the time I spoke to her she remained completely open and eager to help with anything that would help move the children and the district forward in a beneficial way.

As I talked with her, heard about her on the news, and talked to friends about her, I gathered that she seems to be a soft-spoken, but very outspoken, person. In this current era of Dallas politics and defensiveness, I found that to be extremely refreshing and encouraging.

I, too, think it's important to speak out. There are too many injustices in this world that either get overlooked or covered up. There are times that I speak out in a way that people agree and other times the things I say start a fire storm. I feel very blessed to work at a place where I don't have fear that my words will result in retribution against me.

Unfortunately, it seems that Carla Ranger didn't and doesn't have that. See, Ms. Ranger works (worked) for the Dallas County Community College District. The two times that I spoke with her, Ms. Ranger expressed her love for the community college system we have here in Dallas. We were planning on working to get our teenagers more acquainted with the community college as an option for post-secondary. Evidently, her critiques during the school board meetings have now inadvertently resulted in the loss of her 20-year position there. See her blog post here.

I am very disappointed that the powers that be are trying to silence a courageous woman who is speaking out with the children in mind. Too few people seem to do that these days. Too many are concerned with the political repercussions and continue to be "status quo" or in their own self-interest to protect themselves and those around them without concern for the precious children who are suffering at the hands of our broken system.

I'm not sure what can or should be done in this situation but, for the sake of our children, I know we need more Carla Rangers...not less!

Monday, May 18, 2009

Reversing environmental decline

I try to be conscious of the environment.

I wouldn't say I'm completely green. When I want to fight mosquitos in my back yard, I go to the products I know...which usually aren't necessarily environmentally healthy. When I purchase hair care products, I buy what I like and what seems to work.

But I try.

I go behind people and shut off lights. I have my blue trash can beside my regular trash can and make sure everyone who comes to my house recycles...and try to encourage it even when I'm not at my house. Most recently I have taken up composting (still not sure how to do that, but I'm working on it).

So as I watched Bill Moyers and Daniel Goleman talk about Goleman's new book, Ecological Intelligence, I was listening for new tips.

He mentioned two sites that can help us find safe, healthy, and green products:
Good Guide and Skin Deep--both very helpful to see what we're actually buying...tells if the ingredients are linked to cancer...and offers other products that are less toxic. I never knew so many were related to cancer!

As he talked something else struck me. He talked about suntan lotion and how the ingredients in suntan lotion wash off in the water and is killing the coral reefs.

This struck me. A few years ago I went to Jamaica with my environmentalist cousin. She had been in the Peace Corps there and was very disappointed when we returned to find the coral reefs nearly non-existent. As we talked, she spoke of the Jamaicans not taking care of their land and how the trash in the water has hurt the ocean life.

But now I wonder...Is it really the Jamaicans that are hurting their own ocean or is it the tourists? We know tourists go there for sun and beaches. In fact that was another discovery we made on her return. I posted about it here. There were huge monstrosity hotels that had taken over the locals' beaches. I'm not so sure it's the Jamaican's fault.

As Goleman points out, there is a hidden cost to our "stuff" and the things we want and think we deserve. The coral reefs in Jamaica are dying. The landfills in our own United States are probably full of junk McDonald's happy meal toys that kids only like for the moment they open the plastic packaging.

Are we all really thinking about what our own selfishness can do and is doing? And how can we make a concerted effort to turn this around?

The really cool thing about Good Guide is that you can two really cool things... Once you go to a product, you can click on the "contact this company" button and tell the company why you're not buying their brand anymore, or why you are now buying their brand. Secondly, you can also inform all of your friends as to why you've just done that.

Not all of us take the time to look at these things...but for those of us who do, I think once we start making the information more accessible to others, being more green might catch on and companies will look for ways to become more green to satisfy their public.

Hopefully we can begin reversing the rapid evolution of environmental decline.

See the Bill Moyers segment here:

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Free to be Me

Valuing people.

I think that's very important. Each of us have our quirks, our idiosyncrosies, our faults.

"...gotta couple dents in my fender...gotta couple rips in my jeans...tryin' to fit the pieces together, but perfection is my enemy...on my own I'm so clumsy...but on Your shoulders I can see...I'm free to be me...and you're free to be you."

Very comforting to know Someone has great plans for us no matter who we are...

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Because of the joy

A couple of weeks ago I was pondering the meaning of life. It wasn't a thoughtless question. I really wanted to know.

As I watched Grey's Anatomy tonight, I had an a-ha moment. (yes, strange way to find the meaning of life)

There was one point in the show where the doctors had faced a lot of disappointment...loss of a patient...failure...watching people make choices that didn't seem in their best interest... and as a result, they gave in to the disappointment...

"I hate this job sometimes..." "I don't know why we do this..."

At which point, Dr. Bailey took them to a room and showed them a little boy, bald after his surgery, but smiling. The parents were hugging. Happiness. Genuine relief.


It was then that I realized my purpose. Sometimes it is to experience joy and sometimes it is to offer it. outweighs the disappointments...the hurts...the pain. It counters the nay-sayers.

My joy is found in seeing Gustavo come home from his first year at UT-Austin...a tough year where he felt very overwhelmed at times...but watching him say, "It turned out good," and knowing that he now knows he can do it.

I experience joy when Katrina comes home from her first year in college and texts me to say, "I coming home next week. I'm ready to help you with whatever you need."

Or when Bridgette texts to say she is graduating with a BS in Psychology and invites me to celebrate with her after the graduation.

Joy is when Chuckie, whose family hasn't seen him in 5 years and didn't know where he was, comes through the food pantry and a family friend, community member, and volunteer gets his information so she can help his family re-connect with him...and then I got the first phone call telling me what happened.

Joy is not always that big. Sometimes joy is just found in the random phone call from a 24-year old I've known since he was a kid that asks, "Can you go online and look up a graduation date? I want to attend my friend's college graduation." But sometimes it's much seeing someone get a second chance at life.

My life is full of joy. Sometimes I cause it. Sometimes I experience it.

It's not always at the exact moment I want. I, too, have been known to say, "I hate this job sometimes." Sometimes that pain, hurt, and disappointment can feel like too much.

But, for some reason, the little moments and the big successes provide enough to tell me that I am exactly where I need to be.


Monday, May 11, 2009

Recognizing the presence of adult illiteracy

Adult illiteracy plagues our society, yet it is a problem that we are often unaware that exists. Each year I meet or hear about a handful of adults who cannot read, many of whom have graduated from high school.

The adults I know learn to function. Some may find jobs that don't require reading; others may manage by living off of governmental assistance, too ashamed to seek out a job and be exposed.

The solution may seem evident: take classes and learn to read. However, it is not always that simple.

Recently, we worked with a grandparent who is raising her grandson. After much talking, encouragement, and coaxing, she got the courage to enroll at the only adult literacy program we could find in Dallas...only to be told that there was a long waiting list. We were then asked to see if we could provide volunteers who could teach reading.

After finally moving up on the waiting list, she was assigned a volunteer tutor. Yet, after only a month, the volunteer tutor decided not to tutor any more. The change and inconsistency was too much for the grandparent, who simply stopped attending instead of re-orienting and starting over with another volunteer.

Adult literacy...and so many other social programs...are too important for us to leave to volunteers. Volunteers can be a great asset to an already existing program, but their jobs, families, and other time commitments often take priority over their volunteering ability. The people and the services that use volunteers need more consistency than a volunteer can offer.

A newly released report "Basic Reading Skills and the Literacy of the America's Least Literate Adults: Results from the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) Supplemental Studies" produced these key indings:

* Seven million adults, or about 3% of the adult population, could not complete even the most basic literacy tasks in the main assessment and were given the supplemental assessment.

* Nearly 1 in 5 adults in the nonliterate in English group had a high school diploma or GED. Among them, more than half (representing roughly 600,000 adults) had earned their high school degree in the US.

* For those for whom Spanish is a first language, a delay in learning English is associated with low basic reading skills. Those who learned English before age 11 had basic reading scores similar to average native English speakers (97 words read correctly per minute); however, for those who learned English after age 21, average scores were 35 points (or about one-third) lower. Due to the correlational nature of these data, it is impossible to make causal attributions, i.e., to say that a delay in learning English causes low basic reading skills.

* Adults who took the main literary assessment were able to read, on average, 98 words correctly per minute (wpm), in comparison to 34 wpm by those in the supplemental assessment.
We cannot leave volunteers to solve the ills of our society. If we are truly serious about the impact and if we truly believe that raising all people up to their potential is important, we must commit to dedicating consistent funding and ensuring quality. Volunteers should be an augmentation of a successful program...not the program itself. The people who take the huge step of courage to enroll in these programs deserve that. If our society is to become healthy, we deserve to have people who are able to work to their capacity.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Class Matters

If you have never been to the Central Dallas Ministries' Urban Engagement Book Club, you really should try it. Every month Randy Mayeux discusses a book that focuses on a social justice issue that challenges us to think of our society differently. There's no need to read the book beforehand. He does that for us and provides the important talking points of the book.

Today's book was Where We Stand: Class Matters by bell hooks. bell hooks has been a favorite writer of mine since grad school. She's so blatantly honest about what she sees and knows.

One of my favorite quotes today:
For so long everyone has wanted to hold on to the belief that the United States is a class-free society--that anyone who works hard enough can make it to the top. Few stop to think that in a class-free socity there would be no top.
She has a point.

And people who live within this "class-free" society that isn't so class-free have obstacles to making it to the top.

As I drove back to my office today, I couldn't help but think about my 10 years in Turner Courts in far South Dallas. In a city of 1.3 million people, the small section of the city where I worked had absolutely no places to eat, shop, or work other than the two small corner stores that offered over-priced groceries and greasy burgers and fries at the back counter.

During the book club, Randy pointed to the video that I posted yesterday where I pointed out the one grocery store that serves all of South Dallas. The Dallas Observer reported on this a couple of years ago stating that the South Dallas Minyards serves over 30,000 people.

What I wish could've been included on that video was the reaction of the Fortune 500 lady I took into the South Dallas Minyards. In South Dallas, we always talk about how things are over-priced, but I'm not one who memorizes grocery store prices so I figured I might be over-exaggerating. But before I had a chance to say anything she exclaimed, "These prices are high!!" She confirmed my suspicions.

Would someone please explain to me why the lowest income neighborhoods have the highest prices?? I wonder if more people like this lady took the time to visit low-income neighborhoods and were forced to face the reality that in neighborhoods that average less than $10,000 annual income, the prices can be up to 50% higher (so that you believe me...a tub of sour cream in an Allen Kroger was 99 cents, compared to an Albertson's close to my house that was $1.79).

Class Matters.

Not only does it matter, it creates situations that have allowed our society to exploit the most vulnerable. Is that the kind of society we want to live in?

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Dreaming of a healthy community

What does it take to make a community healthy?

Why are inner city neighborhoods run-down and crime-ridden?

Who are the people in those neighborhoods and how are they affected?

So often, businesses, non-profits, people of faith, and others come into our neighborhood to try to "help," but they often don't ask the questions that would help them understand the community before deciding what they want to do. A couple of months ago, a fortune 500 company came in and did just that. They decided they wanted to do something, so they asked.

As several of us from Central Dallas and the community they are hoping to impact came together, they asked questions and they listened. As we talked, I noticed that they had blank notepads and they wrote. There was no preconceived agenda on their sheet of paper. They simply asked a question or two and let us talk.

The people around the table voiced honest concerns. We talked about people who come to "do good" but never last. We talked about our friends and neighbors who have become victims of circumstance because of a failing school system, lack of businesses in the community to provide jobs, absentee parents because they ride the bus for hours to get to a job and can't be home for their children, absentee parents because they have turned to crime, hopelessness yet also a tight-knit community who knows each other and supports each other. We told them about the good that isn't often seen by the general public. We talked about the frustration and cynicism caused by people outside the community who don't understand and don't take the time to understand.

They listened.

Though the meeting was like no other I've ever experienced, I remained cautiously optimistic and hesitant, not wanting to be naive.

But they came back again. They talked about what we had said. They quoted people who were in that initial meeting. They remembered the names of individuals who spoke.

But more than that...they had taken our words, thoughts, and feelings to their company as wisdom from the community. They saw us as players on their team. They then combined that with all of the intellectual and innovative capacity in their company and came back with more ideas.

I was blown away.

What struck me was the amazing possibilities that can happen when the capacity and knowledge of an low-income, urban, informally educated community comes together with the power, resources, creativity, and formal education of a company that has the power to do something. The solutions to the very complex problems of education, jobs, health care, food insecurity, child care, and so many others, become much less daunting. And all it took was for a small group of people to come together and genuinely listen and be willing to act on what they heard.

I continue to tell them, "I'm still cautiously optimistic." But each time they come back, they continue to gain my trust and confidence.

Hopefully soon the entire project will go "online" so that everyone can know what is happening. But for now, here is a video they produced to help people understand what they are beginning to understand: