Sunday, January 31, 2010

Niesha--Actress and Play Director

The South Dallas Cultural Center is a fairly small theater that, depending on the event, seats probably around 100-200  people (Don't quote me on that...spacial estimations were never my strong point!). Every seat allows great access to a good view and close proximity to the stage. I saw that their Soul Children's Theater would be performing Tales of the Mouse this weekend--a great opportunity to take children with me.

Niesha (9) and Tatiana (6) were chosen to go from the After-School Academy. As we drove to the play, I asked them if they'd ever been to a play before. "No," both responded. I asked what they thought a play was. (Tatiana explained a play was what you did when you go to the park. :) )

At the beginning of the play, Mr. Harold (the director) informed the audience there would be audience participation and everyone needed to help. He then immediately asked for volunteers. I was surprised when Niesha raised her hand (albeit a little hesitantly) on the very first opportunity. Mr. Harold called Niesha and another child to the stage to lead the audience in a call and response exchange.

Once she sat down and the play started, Niesha settled in. She never fell asleep, but she was leaned over and somewhat curled up in the chair. Though she didn't look bored, she wasn't on the edge of her seat either.

Toward the end of the play, they asked for volunteers again. This time Niesha was quick to raise her hand and become a part of the interactive play. She was asked to engage in a tug-of-war on Elephant's side as he pulled against Hippopotamus. I was happy that she felt comfortable enough to engage with the actors on stage. However, I must admit my total surprise and elation with what happened after the play.

After the curtain call, actors allowed the audience to take pictures and hold some of the props (like the spear and mask). As Niesha held the spear and after the picture was snapped, she transformed into the role. She began creeping along the side of the stage...just as they did in the play. She started repeating the lines verbatim. I laughed and told Mr. Harold I think he had just lost his role in the play.

A few other kids joined in, including Niesha's sister and some of the actors from the play. Niesha began directing people (including the actors!) to, "Stand here," "You're supposed to move like this," "You say this when you walk," "You're supposed to run that direction!" I had laugh. Not only was she repeating the play and the actors movements word-for-word, she had begun directing the director!

Never underestimate what new experiences can inspire in a child...and never underestimate what a child takes in when you least expect it.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Don't quit being disappointed

I just received a message from one of my staff saying yesterday was a sad day for her. While doing some service work, $220 was taken from her purse. She explained that she had already cried over it and had decided that someone else must have needed it more than she did.

I know it must've hurt. She works for Americorps (a domestic peace corps)...which means she is getting paid very little...and she is saving up for school so she can go back in the fall. She oversees one of our programs and teaches students in another one. She works more than overtime making sure everything is absolutely wonderful for the students. I know because I get emails and messages from her at 2:00 a.m. while she's thinking about lesson plans, posting to the blog, or dreaming up ways we can do cool technology things with the kids.

I know how she feels. I, too, have had things taken from me. I explained to her that each time it's happened to me, it is no less devastating or disappointing to me. It disappoints me because I expect so much more from people. It always bothers me that my stuff is gone...but I think it bothers me even more so when I think about who might have taken it.

It bothers me because I know the people who make the decision to take something that isn't theirs are hurting. Some are working very hard and still don't make enough money to provide for their family. Others have grown up in neighborhoods where drugs offer an escape and end up sucking them in and consuming their lives. Often times, whether it is the first or second reason, it is the kids who suffer. The kids are the ones left without adequate food, basic healthcare, and proper supervision, not to mention the wants and desires they have to be the way society presents every other kid in America.

It makes me sad because I know stealing doesn't make them bad people. Survival is hard...and often causes people to hurt those they love. I've heard too many stories from kids who are now adults to believe that surviving as a kid in poverty is easy. On the other hand, over the years, I have gotten to know kids who may have little of nothing, but you could leave $1000 on the table in front of them and they wouldn't touch it.

As I read Michael Eric Dyson's April 4, 1968: Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Death and How it Changed America, something Dyson wrote about Martin Luther King, Jr. stood out:
If he [King] had given up on the American dream he would have stopped being disappointed in white America.
I am glad I continue to be disappointed. I am glad that it makes me sad when something bad happens. To stop being disappointed, sad, and hurt when something bad happens in our communities implies that change can't happen. And I refuse to accept that change can't or won't happen.

I will continue to hope, to teach, to inspire, and to work toward change...not just in the community...because that is just a symptom of what is really wrong. Change must be made throughout a larger system. And I know that one of these days, whoever took the $220 will be part of creating that change with us.

Note: Michael Eric Dyson is going to be in town tomorrow evening to speak for the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture symposium.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Inclusive Leadership Award for 2009

This is to show appreciation for a person who leads with the people and for the people in a way that engages all of the people.

Cory Booker
I don’t remember the first time I heard about Cory Booker, but I remember being fascinated by him when I heard he became the Mayor of Newark, NJ and moved into a housing development in the city. Beyond that, I cannot remember what else attracted me, but I was truly intrigued.

This year, I began following Cory Booker on Twitter. Yes, he’s the mayor of Newark and I’m in Dallas, but I reviewed his tweets before following him and found that they always offered something interesting—whether an inspirational quote, a challenge to do community service, or an update on the community night patrol Newark has instituted to decrease crime.

What impressed me even more, though, was that, as the Mayor, he was right there in the middle of everything. He wasn’t just trying to inspire others to fight crime, help their neighbor, or pick up their trash. His tweets asked people to participate *with* him in the Night Patrols, shoveling snow when the weather got bad, and pulling people over to make them pick up their trash when they threw it out the window of their car. Just in case you might think it was his press secretary suggesting he was doing all of these activities, he has responded to people assuring them that it is him sending the tweets and his youtube videos posted along with his tweets set him right in the middle of people dancing (or trying to) and doing funny interviews with people. His twitter comments demonstrate his belief that all people, all faiths, and all ethnicities are valued.

I’m not impressed by arrogant or self-promoting politicians; however, I get the feeling that Cory Booker isn’t like that. Newark has over 281,000 people, not a huge city by any means, but it Booker’s accessibility, personability, and humility makes me think that Newark is a small town, much like the town of 707 where I grew up. I get the impression that Booker is simply a person who went off to prestigious schools but has made a choice to use his knowledge, education, and influence to improve a small city of 281,000. His willingness to initiate activities and engage in the activities himself is a novel idea that it has drawn national attention. I have hopes that more mayors and people across our nation will be led by his influence and begin engaging on a personal level with the people they serve as well.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Amazing Graduate Award of 2009

This is to celebrate the determination of an amazing graduate who uses education as a stepping stone in life.

Jessica Orogbu
I’ve now known Jessica for eight years or more. I met her when she was first in foster care and then was adopted by her foster mom. While in foster care and as an adopted daughter, I watched Jessica work hard! She became the overseer of her adopted brothers and sister, who were also in the same foster home as she was and were adopted at the same time as she was. As the oldest, she was expected to get up at 4:00 a.m. to ensure they were all dressed and taken care of before they all went to school. In the evenings, Jessica often cooked dinner and cleaned the kitchen before getting time to do her own homework and prepare for school the next morning. Yet, through all of that, I never once saw Jessica have a bad day or be in a bad mood. Her positive attitude was absolutely amazing and admirable.

As a senior in high school, Jessica began applying for college. She would call me to seek help in the process. She was the first in her family to go to college and wasn’t sure of how to make it happen. But, unlike other teenagers who would call me, Jessica would simply ask, “What do I do next?” and would proceed to make the phone calls, fill out the applications, and complete the entire process on her own.

It was through her phone calls that Jessica found out that being in foster care for so long actually had a benefit. The foster care system would pay for her schooling. Since her biological mother and her adopted mother were both unable to help financially, this became very crucial knowledge for her. In her research, she also found out that the foster care system would continue to pay for her schooling all the way through her doctorate if she went straight through. From that moment, Jessica determined that she would get her doctorate.

In college, Jessica worked a part-time job at the Boys and Girls Club, while also being a nanny for a family, while also taking 18 hours in school. The engine of the car she bought to get her to and from work burned out. She didn’t know what to do…but she managed to work things out. Her adopted mom died of cancer. During the same semester, she turned 22, which meant she was unable to access Medicaid anymore. It was then that her mouth started hurting with excrutiating pain. She could not find a reasonably priced dentist in Commerce and had to come to Dallas. She found out she needed all kinds of procedures, none of which she could afford. She managed to take care of one or two, but still needed a root canal. One of her professors told her she would have to drop the class if she missed one more day of class (because she had already missed for her mom’s funeral). Instead, she managed to get some antibiotics to clear up the infection and she persevered. I still don’t believe she’s been able to take care of the root canal to this day because of her hectic work schedule of two jobs and 18 hours of coursework.

This year, Jessica completed her bachelor’s degree in Education. Through her college career, she struggled over and over again with her math classes. But, she never once looked back. Jessica had set her goal to become a teacher and there was not a single obstacle that could stop her. She is now engaged to Reggie and will be married in July 2010. Here amazing qualities have secured her a job as a permanent sub in Greenville for the spring semester, a truly coveted position in this day and age where jobs are hard to come by. She will begin her master’s program at Texas A & M-Commerce’s branch in Mesquite as soon as the spring semester starts up. She will commute back and forth from Greenville now and is hoping to find a teaching job in Dallas in the fall.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Ambitious Leader Award of 2009

The Ambitious Leader is one whose determination and spirit pushes one to fulfill their goals. Two people I've gotten to know this year deserve this award.

Tameshia Rudd-Ridge
Like Terrence, Tameshia was originally hired to teach in our After-School Academy. However, two weeks before the programs started, we were told we had received a grant for a Digital Connectors program. All we had to do was have an instructor. Having an instructor was a daunting task considering that the grant didn’t pay for a full time person, besides the fact that the instructor had to be someone who knew technology and had a relationship with the teens in the community.

Luckily, during Tameshia’s interview, we had asked her how she felt about technology (thinking in terms of our After-School Academy). Her answer stuck with me. “Oh! I am the QUEEN of technology!” Partly because of that answer, we hired her on and gave her a technology coordinator title so she could begin helping us get our After-School Academy better equipped and ready to do technology projects. Knowing this information, I was able to advocate for Tameshia to be a full-time AmeriCorps member and oversee the Digital Connectors program as well.

The interview had allowed us to get a glimpse of the ambitious leader that she was. Tameshia has ambitions and desires to do amazing things…and none of her ambitions are small accomplishments. Law school, a humanitarian, diplomat, philanthropist, entrepreneur, visionary, non-profit founder, president, nobel prize winner, educator, and having multiple degrees are some of the things on her to-do list. Since, at 23, she’s already completed some of these, I know she’s on her way to finishing the others as well.

Fabiola Perez
As happens with many of the kids, teens, and young adults I meet, I met Fabiola through her boyfriend, Gustavo. I found out Fabiola wants to be a teacher so I instantly tried to recruit her. Unfortunately for us, she was working another job and didn’t have the time to dedicate to the After-School Academy as well.

Through different conversations, I discovered that Fabiola is undocumented and has different struggles because of that. I tried to connect her with different resources whenever she asked, though I didn’t feel I was able to be that helpful.

At the end of the summer, Fabiola needed help and guidance again. She was determined to go to UT-Austin, but once an undocumented immigrant student moves on to a four-year university, expenses are higher and cost often becomes a barrier. Besides that, fear was setting in as the school began to ask a lot of questions. Knowing what had happened to other friends and family when people start asking questions about immigration status, Fabiola got scared. But her determination to reach her goals caused her to persevere.

Before I could ever get back to her with a resource I’d found or information I might have discovered, Fabiola had already moved forward. She was not disabled by her fears. Quite the contrary. I believe her fears propelled her. She utilized resources, calling people she knew could help guide her in the right direction and quickly following up on their advice.

Through my different conversations with her, I found out that Fabiola is an extremely determined person with a variety of interests in putting her stamp on the world, much like Tameshia. In a few years, she will be a great educator who I look forward to having in our school systems. But she does not intend to stop with her bachelor’s degree. Fabiola is determined to get a master’s and doctorate and move into the role of a principal or a dean.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Demonstrative Courage Award of 2009

This award goes to someone who has pursued a goal and persevered in the face of fear or uncertainty.

Jeanette Desser
Quiet and meek are not usually the top characteristics I look for or gravitate to in a friend. Yet, this year I found myself being more and more impressed with Jeanette. We are both enrolled in Shaolin Kung Fu, a very aggressive, combative martial art.

As we both advanced in our belt level, the contact became more aggressive, leading us to hit harder, stay focused longer, and even grapple on the ground in situations that, though set up to be safe, can rattle even tough guys. When we first moved to this level, I saw Jeanette as delicate. She rattled easily and allowed her emotions to take over quickly. However, throughout this year, I have been impressed…and even a little intimidated…by the way she has taken hold of what she is learning.

I have gained a lot of respect for the way she obviously thinks through the strategies we learn and then works to apply them when sparring. I admire the way she perseveres on the mat. Though it is obvious that fear takes over sometimes and she would like to stop, she continues. Because of her determination, she has improved. Immensely.

Courage is an admirable quality no matter what. However, when someone is quiet and meek and takes on an aggressive sport, that courage and determination becomes much more admirable.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Young Wonder Award of 2009

This award goes to a person who has demonstrated outstanding achievement before the age of 25

Terrence BrooksA seminary student at Dallas Theological Seminary, Terrence applied for our AmeriCorps program. When we first interviewed him, we only had positions in our After-School Academy for elementary students. I knew he would be a great role model and figured he would adapt to teaching young children. However, before our programs started, we were given space in a new building that we were able to open up as our Teen University.

Because of Terrence’s experience working with college students at Huston-Tillitson and because of his future interest of starting his own non-profit program, I thought he would be the perfect person to run our Teen University. I couldn’t have been more right.

At 24-years old, Terrence works 30+ hours a week (in addition to his full time class load at DTS) with the 6th-12th graders in the Roseland TownHomes housing development. He has a personality that connects him with people. His determination to inspire success in the young people he works with is contagious, so much so that though the teens grumble, they continue to look up words in the dictionary at his direction and they continue to watch the “educational movies” that he brings (and have even challenged people, “How is this movie going to be educational?” when people not so aware of the process have come in). The students even arrive at 5:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning to go on college trips.

However, Terrence is not just a fun person that the teens love to be around. Terrence holds them accountable and has high expectations. He forces them to face consequences for bad choices and then proactively challenges them to think through their decisions.

Most recently, Terrence connected with a group of middle school boys. The boys started coming at 10:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning to create a set of rules and consequences, take a typing test, and follow Terrence’s more stringent rules that he has for younger students. He noted that these younger boys are his new focus since he has already set up the structure for Teen U and has Brittany, Dranoel, and Jeffrey in place to oversee it while he focuses on the younger ones.

Terrence is an up-and-coming leader who has already come up. What he will inspire in the teens and how he will develop a college-focused program is something I excitedly await to see.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Protecting the Powerless Award of 2009

Larry James
Though it has been a long process, Larry has fought over the last few years to ensure homeless citizens have a place to lay their head at night. He battled different community groups who have no desire to be around the “untouchables” of our society. His efforts to convince people to see the good in people, some who are mentally ill, past criminals, or just down on their luck, were oftentimes fruitless…and even resulted in him being banned from some community group’s meetings. The comments on newspaper articles and blog posts demonstrate how vile people can be toward certain groups of people. Yet, Larry continues to fight.

After many months…and even years…of fighting, his dedication is paying off. The Central Dallas 511 Akard building is now moving in people. Fifty of the 200 apartments will be dedicated to formerly homeless residents, much to the chagrin of many.

I admire Larry’s persistence. I admire his determination to ensure people who don’t seem to get a voice in our highly political city are being heard. I admire his deep love for people and the fact that he can always find what’s good in someone…and that he uses every ounce of his “power” for that individual…and that individual…and that individual. He sees each person as an individual, not as a group. I like that. Not only for the people who are homeless, poor, and underserved, but I like that he treats me as an individual, finds the good in me, and demonstrates his love and caring for me as his employee over the last 14 years.

It is through Larry’s love, dedication, and commitment, he not only advances the cause of human rights, but inspires others to do the same.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Community Crusader Award of 2009

A Community Crusader is a person who creates solutions to a local problem or social issue. This year I feel two people deserve this award: Susie Marshall and Shawn Williams.

Susie Marshall
Though I met Susie several years ago when we took the kids to pick blueberries in Gainesville, TX, I have found Susie to be an extremely dedicated friend to the After-School Academy. She began working with us more consistently during the 2008-2009 school year where she committed to coming once a month to teach the kids gardening lessons. By the end of the school year, Susie was stopping by the ASA randomly and helping out. This summer, she started working more diligently to help develop a community garden within Roseland. Susie stuck with us as DHA wavered back and forth and/or completely ignored our requests to utilize the grassy, fenced-in space behind the ASA.

When the approval finally came, Susie was ready. She had already been teaching the children about gardening. She had been growing little seedlings inside and doing what she could. The approval allowed us to get into the gate and begin plowing up the garden. But Susie ran into another roadblock. The dirt was so hard that it couldn’t even be tilled.

The set back didn’t stop Susie. She researched “lasagna gardening,” gathered a group of teens from the Lake Highlands youth group, and they came out to work with our summer program kids to layer the garden with leaves, soil, and mulch. Shortly thereafter, the garden was planted and things began to grow.

In the fall, Susie continued. Though she is still only “scheduled” to come every other week to the After-School Academy to teach about gardening, she is there at least once a week and sometimes more. She has mentored a few of the kids so that they are now considered “garden apprentices.” Because of Susie, we have seen young gardeners like Ladaysha and Niemen develop.

The partnership is not finished. Mid-semester, Susie started a second garden so that we could have rotating crops. The goal is to eventually get the kids working on their own and to possible rent out plots to neighbors in the community so that they can have their own space to garden.

Shawn Williams
I met Shawn last fall at the Democratic National Convention. Strangely enough, he and his friend, Brian, were walking one way while I, and my friend, Pam, were walking another. As was the nature of the friendliness of the convention, everyone spoke to each other, if only to say, “hi.” It was when I overheard my friend introduce herself to Brian and Brian returned the greeting by saying, “We’re with Dallas South Blog,” that I became very interested. “I read your blog!” I exclaimed. How strange that I should randomly meet people in Denver that I knew about but had never seen when in Dallas.

I found out it was Shawn who actually did the writing on Dallas South’s blog. I was there as a blogger as well. So while I unabashedly threw myself at politicians asking to take pictures of them to post on my blog, Shawn calmly sought out people he noticed and asked for interviews and made some amazing connections. After an amazing week in Denver, Shawn and I returned to our lives in Dallas, but remained friends. That was in August of 2008.

Even though we remained friends, I never expected the phone call I received that asked me first to be on his advisory board, and then moved me to the board of the new endeavor he had decided to start, “Dallas South News.” I was honored to be asked. 1) Because I knew how composed he was when scoping out and interviewing people, 2) I knew how crazy I had looked throwing myself at all of the politicians and was sure he must think I was a nut case, but most of all 3) Because his new endeavor was focused on getting the news to the people, by the the form of citizen journalists.

As Dallas South News developed and continues to develop, Shawn has offered and is very committed to come weekly to our After-School Academy to teach a Junior Reporters class for our 3rd-5th graders. Over a single semester, I have been so impressed with how quickly and easily the kids have picked up interviewing skills, learned how to use the Flip video cameras, and taken to the reporting. Even some of our toughest kids have shown some amazing growth being in the class. I have also been impressed with Shawn’s ability to engage them. I love that he is very methodical (yet very flexible) about his approach and, unlike me, is patient and teaches them one thing at a time, allowing them to grasp skills.

When Shawn first started coming, I would ask, “How did class go?” to which he would reply, “It was all right. They still need a lot of work.” To which I would grow frustrated. I wanted the kids in our After-School Academy to be awesome from day one! Each time I expressed my frustration, Shawn would explain to me, “If they didn’t need work, you and I wouldn’t need to be here. Of course they’re going to need work.”

I so much appreciate Shawn’s attitude. Shawn deserves this award because of his determination to not just expect, but that he is willing to go out and teach and equip a new “crew” of people to be a part of Dallas South. But through our friendship, Shawn has also taught me a lot about being gracious toward people with good intentions. He teaches me patience with the learning curve that some of our kids have been placed on. His patience with my questions and frustrations about our society helps me to see a bigger picture. It is his ability to see that bigger picture that I think is what has allowed Dallas South News to come into existence and what I believe will help Dallas South News to grow into something bigger.

Shameless plug: We need your help to make that dream grow…and to continue to equip more Junior Reporters and Citizen Journalists so that our under-represented communities can become more represented as we move forward. Please consider helping by becoming a $10/month supporter. Sign up here.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Championing Children Award for 2009

Carla Ranger
This year, Carla Ranger stood up. She faced an entire school board of powerful people and demanded better for our children. She challenged their decision to create longer term limits that would benefit themselves. She spoke out so much that she lost her job at the Community College, though that was said to not have been related. The community rallied together and fought for Ms. Ranger until she was given her job back at the Community College. Though she could have let pride stop her from returning, Carla (and, yes, she has given me permission to call her that) seems to have a bigger goal in mind—the quality education of our children. She returned to the Community College.

Carla came to speak at our first Parent Academy meeting in Roseland TownHomes. She was passionate and she connected with the parents. Despite the obstacles she’s faced this year, she continues to be a voice for the children. From the short time I’ve been around her this year, I know that her words are not hollow. She will continue to stand up. She will continue to be a voice for the children. She will continue to fight for what is right…even if it means risking her own livelihood. Though I like to think of myself as courageous, Carla Ranger helps me believe even more so in what I’ve always known--our children deserve to have someone bold enough to fight for their rights.

Friday, January 01, 2010

End of the year awards

One of my Christmas presents this year was The Awe-manac: A Daily Dose of Wonder.

Unbeknownst to my friend who bought it for me, my mom used to pick up the almanac for me faithfully every year and I would read it cover to cover. This Awe-manac is written in a similar format, but provides many journal prompts.

The prompt for December 31 was to create your own criteria and write about "End of the Year Awards."

The next few entries will be dedicated to those awards. The awards may not be to people you know or have even heard of, but I believe we each have people in our lives who are important and deserve to be recognized. My next entries are to a few of those people in my life.

If you so desire, I would encourage you to write your own. And if you feel like it, I would love for you to post yours to the comments section. Here are my the categories I will be posting over the next few days so you can be thinking, writing, and preparing to post.

Oh...and just fyi...I stole some of the categories from CNN's Heroes award and then made up some of my own. Feel free to do the same.

    Championing Children: Commitment to the welfare of young people

    Community Crusader: Creating solutions to a local problem or social issue

    Protecting the Powerless: Advancing the cause of human or equal rights

    Young Wonder: Outstanding achievement by a person 25 or under

    Demonstrative Courage: Pursuing a goal and persevering in the face of fear or uncertainty

    Ambitious Leader: Determination and spirit that pushes one to fulfill their goals

    Amazing Graduate: Determination to use education as a stepping stone in life

    Inclusive Leadership: Leads with the people and for the people in a way that engages all of the people