Check Engine Light

The week after Father’s Day is a terrible time to talk about your Dad’s failures, but I think my dad would agree with me on one of his: he did a terrible job teaching me about cars. To be fair, my mom didn’t do any better. I got my first car the summer after my sophomore year of high school. One weekend during my junior year of COLLEGE I was visiting my dad in Houston when he randomly asked, “When was the last time you got the oil changed on that car?” “Never,” I said. “What’s an oil change?” And so it came to pass that five years into car ownership, and after a quick and LOUD lesson on the purpose and desired frequency of such, I got my first oil change.

That afternoon, driving in the middle of traffic on Loop 610, I noticed the red “check engine” light in my dashboard had flickered on and was now glowing steadily. “Good grief,” I thought. “I just got my oil changed. There must be something wrong with that light.” So, I kept driving…until I started hearing a horrible banging sound coming from under the hood. By the time I negotiated my way through a half dozen lanes of traffic and off of the loop…well… that little car was never the same. Evidently the oil-changers hadn’t put the oil filter on correctly. Evidently that’s important to do.

My mistake in this situation was that I thought there was something wrong with the light when it was far more likely, and more concerning, that there was something wrong with the engine.

To some extent poverty rate is the “check engine” light on a community’s economic engine. Ours in Waco is glowing brightly. It’s tempting to believe that there’s something wrong with the light – that there is something wrong with the people who find themselves in the situation of poverty. On a case-by-case basis it is pretty easy to find evidence that seems to support that theory if you are looking for it.

When you look at the overall percentages, however, it seems more likely, and more concerning, that there is something amiss with our economic engine. Our poverty rate of 30% is more than double the rate for the United States (14%), and 13 percentage points higher than the Texas rate of 17%. Our close neighbor Temple has a rate of around 13%. It doesn’t seem likely that we have double the percentage of people with something wrong with them. Why would we? We need to be careful not to convince ourselves that the problem is the light when it’s really the engine.

 

 

You have the right to speak to an attorney…

If, like me, you learned most of what you know about the law from watching TV, you may be familiar with the words, “You have the right to speak to an attorney… If you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be provided for you at government expense.” It turns out that only applies in criminal cases, not civil. Did you know that? I didn’t. I’ve never had to think about it. Lack of access to competent legal counsel for civil issues is one strand of the tangled web that makes it difficult for people to escape poverty.

Imagine this situation: You are living in a run-down apartment and your faucet has been leaking for two weeks. The sound of the sometimes dripping, sometimes streaming, water is driving you crazy and the waste is costing you money. Your landlord keeps “not getting around to” fixing it. You decide, logically enough, not to pay your rent until he fixes the leak. Bad idea. It turns out the law is not on your side. If you don’t pay your rent, you can be evicted, even if your landlord is negligent about repairs. But, you don’t know that, so out you go.

You don’t have the money to pay the deposits on a new place, so now you and your kids are “couch surfing.”  While this is going on, your daily routines are shot to pieces, and you start showing up late to work and not in the best of moods…a few cross words with your boss later and you find yourself being written up, or worse yet, fired from your $8.50 an hour job. All this drama has your kids upset, so school is not going well…on and on it goes. A little timely, competent legal advice might have averted this particular crisis.

All of us are better off when more of us are avoiding these kinds of problems, but what can be done about it?

I had lunch Monday with Kent McKeever from Mission Waco Legal Services and Sheryl Swanton from Lone Star Legal Aid. They opened my eyes to this and many other situations in which people with little or no means get into jams with our system of civil laws. These kinds of situations are the impetus behind the “First Monday” legal clinics being offered by McKeever’s group. The clinics offer people with limited income the opportunity to ask the one or two questions that might make the difference between solving a problem and touching off a downward spiral that can have bad effects for months or years to come. Please help spread the word about these clinics; support them financially; volunteer your time to help if you are able; inform yourself about this issue, and most of all keep your mind and heart open to the folks who find themselves needing this service.

The web of challenges in which people with little income are often entangled is complicated and frustrating – legal jams are just one possible strand. If I were caught in such a web, I’m certainly not sure I would be able to extricate myself without a little help – could you?

************

 Mission Waco First Monday Legal Clinics – First Monday of each month. 5:30 pm – 8:00 pm, Mission Waco Meyer Center, 1226 Washington Ave., Waco, TX 76701 – Appointments are not required but are strongly recommended. For more information call 254-296-9866, ext. 214 or email kmckeever@missionwaco.org. The website is www.missionwacolegalservices.org.

 

 

 

Two Generations of Home Ownership

Salome Ibañez walked into my office on January 28th and asked to buy our newly renovated house on N. 13th Street. On February 28th he sat down with Mike Stone at the title company, signed closing documents, and took the keys to his new home. Salome took a month to accomplish what most of my clients prepare for over several months or several years.

Salome is the son of a Waco Habitat homeowner on North 15th Street. The ease with which he bought his home is the fruition of the hope that those of us who work as housing advocates long to see come true. We hope that the children of homeowners are more likely to become homeowners themselves, making homeownership an achievement that produces generational stability and wealth for both families and communities.

Salome walked into my office already credit worthy, demonstrating a history of responsible behavior with loan repayment. He had a chosen a house with a sales price that was affordable for his monthly budget, reflecting his willingness to match aspirations to sustainability. Salome’s biggest “problem” was that he and his wife earned too much income to qualify for down payment assistance programs. But of course, Salome was prepared for this hurdle; he and his wife had enough savings to cover the down payment and closing costs on their own.

Throughout Near North Waco, houses built by Waco Habitat for Humanity and Waco Community Development stand side by side. Our two organizations share a dynamic partnership in promoting homeownership and revitalizing neighborhoods. And now there are two generations of our homeowners living a block away from each other, each in their own right making this neighborhood a great place to live!

This week’s ALW blog is by Gabriela Gatlin, Housing Counselor at Waco Community Development Corporation. It was first published in the Waco CDC newsletter. If you are interested in blogging occasionally for Act Locally Waco, please let me know.  Email AshleyT@actlocallywaco.org.  

 

 

Bridges out of Poverty: Sometimes you have to care enough to do it wrong!

“If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” – G.K. Chesterton

In last week’s blog I introduced you to a fascinating company, Cascade Engineering in Grand Rapids, Michigan. According to a 2003 article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Cascade’s CEO, Fred Keller, “…doesn’t think that the role of business is to focus only on economic success, especially at society’s expense, and then just ‘give back’ charity to the community. He believes in ‘doing something good and then making it good business,’ looking for win-win outcomes for Cascade and society together.” One of Cascade’s most obvious ways of walking the talk regarding Keller’s philosophy is their highly successful “welfare-to-career” (W2C) program which boasted a 97% employee retention rate in 2012. High retention rates are good news for both the employees and the company, but the news wasn’t always so good at Cascade.

The company’s first foray into welfare-to-work back in 1991 was an abysmal failure. They recruited ten welfare recipients. Within two weeks all ten had quit or been fired. Even more embarrassing, they discovered the van they had provided to help these employees get to work was being used to make liquor runs! Cascade’s next effort in 1995 was no more promising. They worked out a program with Burger King where prospective employees could work at Burger King for six months to learn basic job skills before transferring to higher-paid work at Cascade. Not one single participant made it through the program.

That’s a frustrating start! How many of us would’ve given up? Instead, Cascade used these “stumbles” as learning opportunities. They kept trying and learning and improving until they developed the winning program they are using today. Along the way they gained insights that benefit not only their W2C employees, but all of their employees, and their company as a whole. (Read more about it in the article.)

We should study exemplary programs like the one at Cascade and learn all we can from them, but even if we copy these programs down to the last jot and tittle, chances are they won’t work for us on the first try. The most important lesson we can learn from Cascade is to keep trying, trying, trying until we figure out what DOES work. In our efforts to reduce poverty in Waco I imagine we will need to make space for some false starts and “do-overs,” but that is far better than never trying.  Anything worth doing is worth doing badly…at first.

 

Bridges out of Poverty: One word – “Plastics!”

By the third day of Bridges out of Poverty training last week, my brain was pretty much full to capacity and overflowing, so I almost missed one of the best parts of the whole training: The story of Cascade Engineering.   

Cascade Engineering , headquartered in Grand Rapids, Michigan, specializes in large scale plastic injection molding which is used to create all kinds of things from car parts to trash cans to furniture. In fiscal year 2012 they did over $338 million in sales, up from around $285 million in 2011.  

Why were we talking about plastics in our Bridges out of Poverty training? If you take a look at the Cascade “2012 Triple Bottom Line Report,” the connection becomes clear.  The report includes not just financials, but also metrics on their social and environmental accomplishments.  For example, on the last page of the report, in the same annual scorecard where they report their sales, they also report a metric called “Welfare to Career Retention Rate” – 97% for 2012, by the way. This metric is evidence that Cascade has developed a successful strategy for recruiting individuals from poverty and retaining them as valuable, productive employees.  In so doing, they have moved the concept of “social benefit” from the realm of charitable donations into the realm of business strategy.   

Here’s a quote from the letter the CEO, Fred Keller, wrote to introduce the 2012 Triple Bottom Line Report. Read and be inspired! :  

“Sometimes I am politely asked if our Triple Bottom Line focus on People and Planet takes away from Profits. With the release of this year’s Triple Bottom Line Report … we have a great opportunity to address the common misconception that these three priorities are necessarily at odds with each other. In truth, they can be. But if you do it right, the opposite is true. Commitment to People and Planet can accelerate Profits because teams committed to such worthy endeavors tend to work harder and with greater innovation than if they were merely going through the motions of the job. Also, commitment to People and Planet introduces business value that almost always results in greater long-term rewards.”

 The story of Cascade engineering helps us to evolve the conversation about poverty into a conversation about potential – for the people involved and also for the businesses that employ them.  We can learn from that! 

 It wasn’t easy though…more on the journey in a blog to follow.

Bridges out of Poverty: The Elephant in the Room

I’m a sucker for a good parable. Here’s an oldie, but goodie — one that I have been thinking of this week while attending the Bridges out of Poverty training  as part of the Prosper Waco Initiative

Once upon a time there was a tiny village where no one had ever seen an elephant. One day an elephant and his keeper wandered into the village. The keeper needed a little cash, so he hid the elephant in an enormous barn and held a contest. Villagers could pay $2 to come into the barn blindfolded and examine the elephant. Then, the contestant who could describe the elephant correctly would win half the money collected. Five folks decided to play. The first blindfolded man touched the elephant’s ear. “An elephant is a large fan like the kind you use in church when it’s hot,” he said. The second person wrapped his arms around one of the elephant’s legs. “An elephant is a pillar, like the ones on the courthouse,” he stated. The third player was holding the elephant’s tail. “An elephant is a type of rope,” he stated with great conviction. The fourth player leaned against the elephants’ side. “An elephant is clearly a big, flat wall,” he said. The fifth had the elephant’s trunk wrapped around his waist, “An elephant is a large python snake,” he insisted in a condescending tone. The five blind-folded contestants argued deep into the night. While they argued, the elephant keeper ran away with all of the money.

The parallels to the poverty “elephant” are obvious. What causes poverty? “Obviously it’s the destructive behaviors of the individuals in poverty,” says the first blind-folded man. “It’s definitely lack of education,” says the second. “No, it’s lack of jobs,” says the third. “Good grief!” says the fourth, “Can’t everyone see it’s exploitation!” “You’re all crazy! It’s the global political and economic system,” insists the fifth.

In the Bridges training this week 40 or so folks from health care, education, law enforcement, non-profit organizations, the city and a sprinkling of other occupations have been taking off blindfolds and looking at the whole elephant. It’s hard not to be hopeful about the possibilities.

 

He’s got a ticket to ride…the bus

On February 21, 2013, I sat in a booth in my satellite office, Whataburger, visiting with David Ellis – the new Supervisor of Attendance, Truancy and Dropout Recovery at WISD. He was fairly new to Waco. After years serving as a pastor in Baytown, Texas, he had followed his wife here so she could pursue her career. Having landed in town without work for himself, he took a job for several months as a bus driver for Waco Transit before finding his current position. Given that, I guess it’s not too surprising that our conversation quickly turned to transportation.

Mr. Ellis was concerned that day about a young man who was taking classes at Brazos High School – also known as the WISD Credit Recovery Center. The Credit Recovery Center helps students who have dropped out, or who are in danger of dropping out, recover credits so they can get back on track to graduate. The only problem is, for it to help you, you have to show up. The young man in question was in trouble for truancy. Mr. Ellis had watched as Judge Villarreal of the truancy court asked, “Why haven’t you been attending school?” “I don’t have transportation,” the student replied. “My mom goes to work and I don’t have a ride.”

Sounds like a lame excuse, right? I mean, good grief, Kid – ever heard of a school bus? Well, it’s a little more challenging than that. WISD provides buses for students according to attendance zones. The Credit Recovery Center, it turns out, caters to students who come from all different attendance zones. So, some of the kids who need the recovery center the most have a tough time getting there. It took Mr. Ellis, the former Transit bus driver, about two seconds to figure out that Waco Transit Route 1 goes right by Brazos High School. Problem solved! Except…for some of our very low-income students the $3.00 a day round trip bus fare was a road block.

Fast forward to May 1, 2013 – Mr. Ellis is feeling cautiously optimistic about the transportation situation. Mayor Malcolm Duncan has helped to negotiate a Pilot Program with Waco Transit. During the pilot, any WISD Middle School or High School student with a proper WISD student ID can ride a transit bus to school for FREE!

This is a terrific example of how a great community operates. We tear down silos; we try new things; we remove roadblocks. Thanks Mr. Ellis, Mayor Duncan and Waco Transit for making Waco work a little better for our students and for all of us!

__________________

The pilot program will run from May 1 to June 6, 2013. Initial daily ridership is averaging in the 30’s for the first few days but is sure to grow as the program is promoted and students learn they can ride and how it can work for them. Spread the word! For more information about this terrific program please contact David Ellis, Supervisor of Attendance, Truancy and Dropout Recovery at 254-757-5909 or david.ellis@wacoisd.org .

 

 

 

Beware the bad air

I recently read an article that went into great detail about the concentration of wealth in the United States and argued that it was bad for so much wealth to be concentrated in the hands of so few. To tell you the truth, I don’t understand economics well enough to know if that is true or not. Reading the article did make me think, though, about what I care about in regard to wealth distribution.

I don’t begrudge super rich people their wealth. I’m not sure I really care if the super rich control a high percentage of all the wealth available. What I do care about is whether the amount shared by the people at the other end of the spectrum is enough for most to afford a “decent life.”

It’s tough to agree on a definition of “decent life,” but for me it includes being warm when it’s cold and cool when it’s hot; having a roof over your head, clothes on your back and food to eat; being able to get help when you are sick or when disaster strikes; being able to educate your kids; having some savings for old age; being able to take a little time off every now and then; and having the time and money to afford a little fun, a little beauty, and a little edification.

I wouldn’t call a decent life a “right” that everyone “deserves,” but I do think “percentage of people who can afford a decent life” is a key indicator of the overall health of the economy.

When the needle on this indicator is moving in the wrong direction we all need to care, and we need to be care-ful about how we diagnose the problem. Certainly individual cases of “not being able to afford a decent life” might be the result of some individual problem – laziness and lack of motivation are some I hear tossed around frequently. But — when the percentages are moving in the wrong direction we need to be wary of focusing too much on individual weaknesses. We need to start looking toward the environment. Did you know that sluggishness can be a symptom of carbon monoxide poisoning? What if what gets diagnosed as widespread laziness is really poisoning from bad economic air? When the air is bad it affects the most vulnerable first – but eventually it will affect us all.

 

 

Questions about community…

When I started Act Locally Waco, it was based on a simple idea. I knew there were all kinds of activities going on around town to build up the community, but it seemed like I was always finding out about them too late. I specifically remember reading about the “Walk for the Homeless” downtown three years in a row… always the day after it was over. I thought it would be handy to have someplace where people could find out about these kinds of events in time to plan to participate. I mentioned the idea to a few other people, and they seemed to agree, so I put up a website and down the road we went.

Up to that point I had not thought very much about what we mean when we say “community.” Working on Act Locally Waco, though, and later serving on the Poverty Solutions Steering Committee caused me to think more and more about the concept: What is a community, really? What kind of community do I want to live in? What is my role and responsibility in bringing that about? What about people who disagree about what kind of community we want? Who do I want to be “in community” with? Can a city as large as Waco have a real sense of community? How can a community work together to solve problems or move toward goals? How do we get a community of people with diverse histories, cultures, financial situations, education levels, religions, political persuasions, etc. etc. to even decide what we want to do, much less work together? How do we balance self-interest with the mutual interests of the community? What builds a community? What tears it down? Why should we care?

This past Thursday, like many of you, I watched the beautiful, somber, heart-breaking, uplifting service for the first-responders who died in the terrible explosion in West. Nearly 10,000 people filled the Ferrell Center for the service and thousands more watched from satellite locations and through computer and television screens. Every single one of us, I imagine, considers these twelve to be heroes – not simply because they died, though that is tragic — but because they died for the sake of others – for the community. Lord God, what would you have me learn from them about what it means to be a community?

 

Time to Respond

I stand in awe of the first responders.  Here’s one story I heard:  Having seen the fire and fearing the worst, a young mother, 15-month old baby in her arms, ran into her house to grab shoes and a diaper bag before leaving.  They weren’t quite quick enough though. The plant exploded while they were still inside.   The young father watched in horror from the front yard as the glass from their sunny front window, once such a beautiful part of their home, became a deadly force flying in shards toward his family.  Miraculously, Mom and daughter were safe.  They had stepped around a corner into an interior hall just as the blast occurred.  They scrambled out of their wrecked home and into their damaged-but-drivable Jeep and headed out to put a safe distance between themselves and the burning fertilizer plant. But Dad, a volunteer fireman, did not go with them.  As his wife pulled out of town, he waved good-bye to his own family, so recently and mercifully spared, and ran toward the blast zone to help others.  There are no words…

I stand in awe of the second, third and fourth responders.  The folks who know how to bind up wounds and board up houses; the organizers who can find a place for the piles of water bottles, and clothes, and diapers; the comforters who can hold a hand and bring a moment’s peace; the competent ones who know how to make and serve coffee for the multitudes – all of these people are heroes to me.  I’m terrible at all of that kind of thing, paralyzed by the chaos, I’m more in-the-way than helpful.

All day Thursday and Friday I monitored the media. Through the window of my computer screen, I watched the tide of help roll in while I sat in my office.    Eventually I began to see notes like this: “We are hearing from pretty much every official that we speak to that monetary donations are needed at this time.”  A way for me to respond!  I may not know exactly what to do in a crisis, but I dang sure know how to write a check!  We all have some part to play, and this is my part for now.