Pressing Toward Collaboration

By Kelsey Scherer

A couple months ago, I was driving through Austin on the way to a conference for work. I glanced at an overpass to see these words scrawled across the concrete wall:

“Collaboration is currency”

The phrase stunned me with its elegant simplicity.

Encouraging community collaboration, dialogue, and connection is a huge part of what I do as a Child Hunger Outreach Specialist at Texas Hunger Initiative’s Waco office. Still, I regularly struggle to clearly outline the role and value of collaboration in the work I do. I came into this position with well-intentioned ideas about the importance of collaboration, and yet have struggled to pursue earnest, engaged collaboration as much as I had hoped.

As I strain toward being a part of the renewal of this beautiful city with all of its untapped potential, perhaps it’s easier to begin with an honest reminder of what is not currency.

My privilege is not currency. My whiteness is not currency. My femininity is not currency. These are things which I admit, however uncomfortably, that I have used to my advantage for social or professional gain at various points in my journey. But collaboration – collaboration is a different story, and an entirely different currency, because it doesn’t belong to me. I can’t own it, steal it, or borrow it. Collaboration is currency which may be freely used, exchanged, and debated by all – which the reduced and exclusive currencies of culturally normative gender, race, wealth, or health status cannot. Regardless of my background and experience, genuine collaboration insists that my voice is not the one that matters, and that collectively we can achieve, learn, grow, and heal more together than we can apart.

While collaboration may seem like a sexy term – and we may be tempted to extol its virtues and slip it into conversation to further our agendas – collaboration lived out is anything but sexy. It’s messy, confusing, and hard to define. As soon as we find ourselves patting each other on the back for “collaboration well done,” we find another voice that has been excluded, another empty chair that should have been filled and pulled up to the table. Collaboration forces me to come to terms with what I lack. It reminds me that I do not know my neighbor, and if I don’t know my neighbor, I cannot possibly love my neighbor well.

grand canyonUsing collaboration as currency starts to chip away at the uneven playing field to which we arrive each day – a field which benefits me unfairly, to the detriment of others. Collaboration, however amorphous and hard to define, holds great promise for restoring dignity and humanity to people whose unique voices have been silenced for too long. Collaboration rightly understood is the only way out of the predicament in which we find ourselves. Trapped by isms, by poverty, by hunger, by finger-pointing and poor-blaming, collaboration is like a first awe-inspiring glance into the Grand Canyon. We may be impressed by its beauty and potential, but none of us are so foolish as to think it can be conquered or wrested away for our own purposes.

kelseyKelsey Scherer joins the Act Locally Waco team to blog about Food Security and related issues. She is a Child Hunger Outreach Specialist at Texas Hunger Initiative’s Waco Regional Office. Kelsey is also a team member for the CHAMPS grant.  The CHAMPS project aims to equip city leaders, anti-hunger groups, and the broader community to more effectively combat child hunger with the help of summer and afterschool meal programs.

 

 

How will we know downtown Waco has “arrived?”

by Megan Henderson, Executive Director, Waco Downtown Development Corporation

There are so many notions of what “good” means in relation to downtown. Some folks remember a time when the sidewalks were crowded and most of what a family needed could be – and was – purchased there. Young folks picture a place filled with hip spaces, where they and their friends would be delighted by high-end trends and nightlife. Plenty of us see small shops and restaurants beginning to multiply and Cross-fit enthusiasts running by in groups and feel pretty good about where we are right now.

I do think, though, that there is a real aspiration toward the next level – and I’d like to try to describe what that might be and look like, and what we’re all doing to help get there.

I think of the Downtown Development Corporation’s job as nurturing districts. There are several in Greater Downtown, and I love them all for different reasons, and we aspire to support and nurture all of them. But today I want to talk about the Central district, the one that’s mainly Austin Avenue with parts of Franklin and Washington. It’s the furthest along, but it’s not quite to the level when I think we will have “arrived” as a district.

In her recent visit, development consultant Michele Reeves discussed the notion of breaking through from an emerging into a transitional district in this way: when you’re a thriving transitional district, the district itself is the destination – not just a particular business.

Think of Lula Jane’s. It’s a destination business. Folks go there from all over the place. But could you name the five businesses closest to it? There’s a powerful sense of place on Elm Avenue, but there is not yet a business district that creates foot traffic from one business to another.  Now think of the 600 – 700 blocks of Austin Avenue, beginning with Sergio’s and Jake’s and ending with the Palladium and the Hippodrome. You could probably name several businesses in those two blocks, and at least once or twice (if you’re like me, that is) you’ve been to eat at Jake’s and been lured into Melange by their sidewalk sale, or walked by on your way somewhere else and seen friends going into Klassy Glass. There’s beginning to be enough interesting stuff going on within a small enough space that it spills over.

first fridayThe best time, however, is often on First Friday evenings, when many businesses have special events and promotions and stay open later. This is definitely a time when the Central district can truly be its own destination for many folks – when there is enough going on for a group of friends can plan to meet at one spot to park, then figure it out from there – maybe a little shopping, dinner, music – and have confidence that they’ll have fun without a plan.

This is our aspiration for all of our districts – a time when you can say “meet me downtown,” or “meet me on Elm,” or “meet me on Colcord” and figure it out from there.

Next steps for Central district? Franklin Place, Hippodrome, Stratton and Stratton Square are all in the pipeline within a 2-block radius offering a combination of entertainment, food, and other attractions including over 100 new residences and upwards of 200 residents. In the same 2-block radius Muddle – a new watering hole and live-music venue – and thInc Space – an entrepreneurship and innovation hub where creative types work and generate cross-pollination of ideas – are new to the area and adding more ingredients and flavors to this spicy local brew.

Local developers are making these great projects happen. The Greater Waco Chamber is driving thInc Space. The Downtown Development Corporation is facilitating the Stratton development. The TIF and PID (more on them later) are supporting all of this with strategic investments in the built environment and in enhanced services and public events.

What can you do? COME ON DOWN TO DOWNTOWN. Especially on First Fridays, but every time’s important. Spend some time and money. Watch how they make coffee at Dichotomy, shop for ties at Suit City – go somewhere you’ve never been before, and think to yourself…”I just like to head downtown, and figure it out from there.”

megan This week’s post was written by Megan Henderson, Executive Director of the Waco Downtown Development Corporation.  You can get in touch with her at megan@wacoddc.comTo keep up with what’s happening downtown, like the Waco Downtown Development Corporation Facebook Page. 

 

 

How Can a Vuvuzela Impact the World?

by Josh Lawson, Mentoring Advocate and Director of Community Engagement at Antioch Community Church

There is an old adage that says, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Or as some pessimists would chide, “The HOLE is greater than the sum of its parts.” As we look around our city, we can see that there are some incredible things happening. One of the main things that we have also noticed is that many of those great things are not working in unison.

The reason is pretty simple: working in unison is messy and it takes time. And many of the people doing these great things are just like me: they are “get-it-done” type of people. They don’t want to talk about doing something; they simply want to do it.

But what happens all too often is that we begin “doing” and we duplicate services, or we take on ministries or events that we aren’t great at. We expend so much energy doing so many things and at the end of the day we are tired and wondering if it’s even working.

If I have learned anything while working in our city it is this simple truth: You have to focus on what you do great AND make the effort to work with others.

It is only when you combine these two that you really begin to see the power of Collective Impact happen.

Several years back during the World Cup hosted by South Africa, the power of Collective Impact took center stage. During each match you could hear a slight droning buzz. And then without warning that buzz would turn into a resounding, earth-shaking roar.

WAAHHHHH…WAAAHHHHH” It sounded like a million bees were swarming our living rooms. What was the culprit? A poor sound system? A mis-feed through the cable provider? Nope. It was the sound of tens of thousands of vuvuzelas being trumpeted in unison by tens of thousands of rabid fans.

One fan playing one vuvuzela made no impact. It’s doubtful it could be heard on the field much less across the globe on television. But tens of thousands of fans blowing their horns as loud as they could muster literally impacted the world.

They each picked up their own vuvuzela, and they joined together for a collective impact.

For our community here in Waco, there are great things happening. And I believe that if we want to see some even greater traction happen, the next step is for each of us to consider what we are great at and FOCUS on doing that with excellence AND join forces with others who are doing incredible work.

josh picThis week’s Act Locally Waco blog post is by Josh Lawson, Director of Community Engagement at Antioch Community Church. One of his passions is mentoring. If you would like to learn more about mentoring in Waco, please visit this website to learn how you can get involved: www.mentorwaco.com . If you would be interested in blogging for Act Locally Waco, please email ashleyt@actlocallywaco.org to express your interest.

 

“Unwrapping” a basic understanding of Child Homelessness

by Phil York, Act Locally Waco Housing and Homelessness Policy blogger

The previous months welcomed the annual holiday season. Some of us spent time unwrapping gifts with high anticipation for what would be revealed underneath the glitter and flashy paper. In one of our previous posts we talked about the rise of homelessness among a few specific demographic groups. Today we will start to “unwrap” one of those groups as we learn a bit more about homelessness among children. The Charles A. Dana Center of The University of Texas reports that “over a course of a year, between 2.3 and 3.5 million people will experience homelessness in the United States, of which between 900,000 and 1.4 million will be children.”

Unfortunately, any conversation about homelessness must depend on ranges or estimates. As you might imagine, the very nature of homelessness makes it difficult to accurately count the people who are experiencing that situation. It is particularly challenging to get an accurate count of our homeless children and youth because the federal definition of “homelessness” as it applies to children is quite complex.

Children are considered homeless if they:

  • Are abandoned in hospitals.
  • Are awaiting foster-care placement.
  • Are living in environments not intended for habitation such as cars, parks, motels, public spaces, train stations.
  • Are living in substandard housing.
  • Are living in transitional housing.
  • Are sharing housing of others because of loss of housing, economic hardship.
  • Are displaced by a natural disaster.
  • Are fleeing a domestic abuse situation.
  • Are living temporarily with a relative in another town because a parent is hospitalized for illness or surgery.
  • Are immigrant students living in a homeless situation, without regard to whether they are in the US legally or illegally.

As you can see, child homelessness is more difficult to define than it might at first appear. This makes it even more difficult to observe. For example, a third grade student in WISD might technically have a roof over her head for the night, yet still suffer from inadequate housing. She would not be counted in a “point in time” count of those living on the street, but she is still considered homeless by the federal definition. Despite this complicated definition, thanks to the diligent work of the Homeless Outreach Services at WISD and the City of Waco we are able to estimate the number of homeless children in Waco ISD. That number, according to a May 2013 report by KXXV news is right around 1,500.

This definition of child homelessness is codified in a law called the McKinny-Vento Act. This law provides protections to youth that fall under the definition of homelessness and who are 21 and under (or until high school graduation in some states). Each school district is required by law to have a McKinny-Vento specialist available on staff to serve, protect and preserve the rights of homeless students. The specialist’s duties include:

  • Identification of homeless children.
  • Ensuring that homeless children enroll in and have a fair opportunity to succeed in school.
  • Making referrals to health care, dental, mental health and other appropriate services.
  • Informing parents and guardians of the educational and related opportunities available to their children and provide them with meaningful opportunities to participate in that education.
  • Disseminating public notice of educational rights.
  • Informing families and youth about transportation services and assisting them in accessing transportation.

The McKinny-Vento specialist for Waco ISD is Cheryl Pooler. She shared some insights about her work in a 2013 interview with KWBU. In the interview, Ms. Pooler described the difficulty of the first duty of her post: simply identifying students who may be eligible for programs.

National, state and local realities compel policy such as the McKinny-Vento Act which broadens the definition of homelessness among youth. This is important because homelessness is a complex issue that cannot be addressed without definitions and policies that are flexible enough to meet the complexity. But with complexity comes bureaucracy, including the documentation obstacles Ms. Pooler described in her interview.

The McKinny-Vento Act is not a simple piece of legislation. The definition of homelessness for children is not simple. Even the most basic task of figuring out how many homeless children we have in Waco is not simple. Perhaps we should let all of this legal complexity serve to remind us that life as a homeless child is certainly not simple. Consider for a moment how difficult it would be for a child experiencing any of the situations enumerated in the federal definition of homelessness to focus on school work.

“Unwrapping” the challenge of child homelessness is not a simple endeavor. Much more remains to be unwrapped. We will continue to unwrap homelessness, understand its scope and the policies around it in future posts.

york_phil2 (2)Phil York, Coordinator of Grants and Contracts at Waco Habitat for Humanity is a self-described “policy nerd;” he is also the Act Locally Waco housing and homelessness policy blogger. You can direct questions to Phil to pyork.law@gmail.com.  Would you be interested in blogging for Act Locally Waco?  If so please email ashleyt@actlocallywaco.org.

 

 

Martin Luther King Jr : A Hero, not a Super-Hero

In 2011 my husband and I participated in a fantastic program called a Church Swap. It was organized by Ramona Curtis and Mia Moody-Ramirez under the auspices of the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, The Waco Foundation and the Waco Community Race Relations Coalition. The central element of the program was (as the name suggests) swapping churches for three months: White people going to African-American churches and African-American people going to White churches. In addition to that central experience, the funding for the project also paid for a group of us “church-swappers” to go together on a Civil Rights Tour. One of the stops on the tour was the National Civil Rights Museum which is housed in the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. You may remember the Lorraine Motel as the site where the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968.

As you might imagine, touring that motel and seeing the exact spot where the assassination took place is an emotional experience. It was eerie, sad, angering, inspiring …the list of feelings goes on. It would be an understatement to say it gave me quite a bit to think about. In the midst of this reflection, I wrote my mom a letter telling her about our visit to the museum, sharing some of my feelings and asking her if she had any particular memories of what it was like during the time when the assassination happened. She surprised me by writing back, “You might not remember it, but we were living in Memphis on Tahiti Lane when MLK was killed.”

I didn’t remember that at all. I knew we had lived in Memphis for a couple of years when I was little, but I hadn’t worked out the dates to figure out that we were there when the assassination took place. It turns out I was six.

ABT and GrannyWhen I got home from the tour, I dug through some old pictures and found a picture of myself at that age. In the picture I’m standing with my Granny Mears. Up until that point I guess I had always thought of Dr. King as a “super hero,” larger than life, fundamentally different from me and people I know. Even though I knew intellectually that his assassination took place during my lifetime, it was never really “real” to me. I thought of it as something that happened a long time ago in a place very different from any place I had been – another time, another world. In other words, I had never thought of Dr. King as a regular person.

Seeing this picture of myself at the age I was when he was killed, and finding out that I was living in the same city where he was killed, at the time that he was killed, changed my way of thinking about him. I feel a more concrete human connection. He was a “regular person, ” a human being like me. I think it is important for me to remember that my heroes are human beings like me. They live in the same cities where I live. They eat the same food and drink the same water. They probably get pictures of themselves taken with their grannies. As a part of our honor and reverence for Dr. King and other personal heroes, it is important to remember they are not “super-heroes from another dimension.” They are not fundamentally different from the rest of us. They are fundamentally the same. Or perhaps more to the point, we are fundamentally the same as them. We share the same responsibility to do our part to make this world the place it should be. To forget or ignore that most basic of facts is a way of letting ourselves – myself – off the hook.

 

Thankful for a story…

By Ashley Bean Thornton

One of the best things I did last year was to participate in the KWBU pledge drive for the first time.  I love KWBU; I love the people who work at KWBU; and I love that Waco is the kind of community that supports a public radio station, so when they asked, I was glad to help.  I only live about three miles from my work, however, and I do most of my radio listening in the car. This limits my exposure to some of the shows. As the time for the pledge drive drew closer, I felt the need to do a little extra NPR-loading in order to at least give the illusion of knowing what I was talking about during my “on-air” debut as a pledge-encourager.  So it was that I listened to my first Ted Radio Hour, and so it was that I was exposed to a new idea that has profoundly deepened my thinking about building a community together.

adichie2This new idea was a gift from Chimamanda Adichie, a storyteller and writer from Nigeria. Her Ted Talk is entitled “What Are The Dangers Of A Single Story? It is a beautiful talk, made more delightful by hearing it in her own engaging voice.  A story she tells toward the beginning of her speech captures the heart of her main idea for me, here it is:

“I come from a conventional, middle-class Nigerian family. My father was a professor. My mother was an administrator. And so we had, as was the norm, live-in domestic help, who would often come from nearby rural villages. So the year I turned eight we got a new house boy. His name was Fide. The only thing my mother told us about him was that his family was very poor. My mother sent yams and rice, and our old clothes, to his family. And when I didn’t finish my dinner my mother would say, “Finish your food! Don’t you know? People like Fide’s family have nothing.” So I felt enormous pity for Fide’s family.

Then one Saturday we went to his village to visit, and his mother showed us a beautifully patterned basket made of dyed raffia that his brother had made. I was startled. It had not occurred to me that anybody in his family could actually make something. All I had heard about them was how poor they were, so that it had become impossible for me to see them as anything else but poor. Their poverty was my single story of them.”

Adichie goes on to tell how, when she came to America as a student, she experienced firsthand the negative effects of the single story.  Most Americans she met had a single story about Africa – a story of deprivation and backwardness – and that lens distorted their view of her.  She explains in the speech that this notion of a “single story” is inseparable from the idea of power.  A profound kind of power is the power to tell a story about a person, or a people, and to have that story “stick” as the definitive or “true” story.

Near the end of the talk she offers this statement: “The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.”

Wow!  I don’t know if I helped KWBU raise any money during their pledge drive, but I will be thankful for a long time for the gift of this idea.

Who among us wants to be defined by a single story, especially if that single story is the story of our weakest moment or the worst thing about us?  How often have we done that to someone else? Have we taken bad advantage  when we were in the position of power to make a story stick? How do we approach some of our local challenges differently when we make sure to let the stories of resilience, creativity, fun, faith, work and determination drive our work along with the stories of poverty, need, mistakes, prejudice and disappointment?  What if we choose not to flatten and simplify our understanding of each other, but to enrich and complicate that understanding by gathering more stories?  What if people take back the power and responsibility of telling their own stories? What kind of world – what kind of Waco – might we build if we remember together that there is always more than a single story?

There’s a Hole in My Bucket… & Mentoring Can Solve It

by Josh Lawson, Director of Community Engagement, Antioch Community Church

Besides being one of the longest and most annoying children’s songs known to man, “There’s a Hole in My Bucket,” is actually a great representation of what community development feels like. If you haven’t heard the song before, it is a winding conversation between “Dear Liza” and “Dear Henry” where Henry is trying to fix the hole in his bucket, but his attempts to fix it only lead him to finding more problems. Eventually he is left back at the original problem: the hole in his bucket. We all know that there is a problem in our community, but all too often the solution to that problem only brings up more problems! The educational system is not any different.

We know that kids need a better education, but as we dig in deeper and try to come up with a solution, we begin to see a web of problems. Poverty, hunger, lack of parental involvement, homelessness and learning disabilities all come together to form a massive game of pick-up sticks.

All too often, the magnitude of the problem causes those who can create the greatest change to simply give up.

But, that is never the answer. You have to start somewhere. And, I believe that for our community, mentoring is a fantastic place to start.

Now, don’t let me fool you, mentoring is not a silver bullet. We will not bring an end to poverty by simply mentoring kids, BUT it is one of the key components to helping us build a better community.

Take a look at a few of these powerful stats:

  • Youth with mentors are: 46% less likely to begin using illegal drugs, 25% less likely to begin using alcohol, 37% less likely to lie to a parent, and 32% less likely to hit someone.
  • Those with a mentor have also shown that they have better attitudes about school, higher college enrollment rates, enhanced self-esteem, improved interpersonal skills and decreased drop-out rates.
  • And those youth who graduate high school are less likely to be imprisoned, become a single mother or become unemployed.

Mentoring can make an incredible difference. January has been designated as National Mentoring Month, so it is the perfect time to set a goal to become a mentor for a youth this year. Even if you can’t be a mentor yourself, you can become an advocate for mentoring by encouraging others to get involved in the life of a young person. It matters and it is a small step in the right direction.

There is a hole in our bucket, but we can do something. We can be a mentor.

To find out more about being a mentor or to connect with a local mentoring agency, please feel free to email Josh Lawson at josh-lawson@aminternational.org. For a list of organizations in town with mentoring programs, click here: Mentoring Organizations in Waco.

josh picThis week’s Act Locally Waco blog post is by Josh Lawson, Director of Community Engagement at Antioch Community Church.  If you would be interested in blogging for Act Locally Waco, please email ashleyt@actlocallywaco.org to express your interest.

Lovesick New Year — beware of ideas!

by Ashley Bean Thornton

I don’t know what made me think of this, except that I guess a New Year is a “commencement” in a way, but a few years ago I read a terrific graduation speech. It was given by law professor Mark Osler to the graduating class of Vanguard College Preparatory Academy here in Waco on May 28, 2010. If I were (for some strange reason) to resolve to read a new graduation speech every day this year, I doubt I would read a better one. Sitting here at Whataburger, three and a half years later, I had to blink away a little tear as I re-read it. Embarrassing! (Google “Osler’s Razor Love and Graduation” if you’d like to read it for yourself.)

In this wonderful speech Dr. Osler urges his young listeners to fall in love – totally, crazy, silly in love – with an idea, a transformative idea, any idea. “It can be about art or politics or almost anything that exists at that point where the mind meets the world,” he exhorts them, “but just let yourself fall in love.” He does go on to warn them that, “Love does funny things to you when you are 19—it will make you stay up all night, it will make you blurt out stupid things, it will make your friends jealous, because you aren’t really the same person when you are in love.”

Waco heart I am here to report this falling-in-love-with-an-idea thing can have the same frightening effects at age 52 as it does at 19, except it’s actually worse because you really should know better, and all your friends know you should know better. And, you really don’t have the energy for it! Embarrassing! 

Yes!  i admit it! It has happened to me. Maybe it’s evidence of a mid-life crisis (Why couldn’t I have fallen for a red convertible?) but, I have fallen unexpectedly head over heels into a late-in-life love affair with, of all things, an idea.  What is this tempting idea that has somehow wormed its way past the stout defenses of age and wisdom and into my heart?

I am intoxicated with the idea that our community of diverse people – old, young, rich, poor, every race, every creed, even different political persuasions – can figure out ways to think together and work together, to overcome serious challenges together (like less than optimal health, income and educational acheivement), and to shape a beautiful future together. 

As predicted by Dr. Osler, this goofy love has made me stay up – well, not ALL NIGHT (Come on now!) – but certainly later than is my custom. It has definitely made me blurt out stupid things numerous times and hopefully also a few smart things, or at least passionately believed things. I don’t know if my friends are jealous, but sometimes, especially when my devotion to this idea seems to be requiring me to sit through lots of meetings or work on a Saturday morning, I am jealous of my pre-love self who didn’t have much better to do than take long walks, read books, and go to movies with Mr. Thornton.

I guess what is different is that when you fall in love in your late teens you expect your beloved idea to be perfect, and for everything to be moonlight, magnolias and mockingbirds (as my friend B. Sharpless would say) and it can be fairly crushing when that turns out not to be the case.  But in your fifties… Oh wait…there’s no difference…it is still painful as all get out when your beloved idea turns out to be much more demanding and disappointing and difficult than it seemed in the first days of blissful infatuation.

Of course overcoming the challenges just makes it that much sweeter when things work out.   That’s how love baits its trap!

It’s terrible really – this falling in love with an idea, derned inconvenient. Maybe it’s just this particular idea that is such a pain in the (ahem!) neck. It’s so elusive, yet so desireable.  Of course it’s not a new idea at all – in many ways it is the original American idea. I am just one of the millions who have fallen for it — some of the most desperately smitten live right here in Waco. None-the-less, It’s terrible. I don’t recommend it – except that I can’t resist it. Can you? I hope not!  it is so much more fun when we are all lovesick together!

 

 

Community, Leadership and Recapturing Power

by Ryn Farmer, Community Organizer, Waco Community Development Corporation (Waco CDC)

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, concerned citizens can change world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

At Waco Community Development Corporation (Waco CDC) where I am a Community Organizer, we work to inspire and cultivate healthy neighborhoods. Our Waco neighborhoods are teeming with people who are passionate, willing and ready to become engaged in what is happening in the community. They have the potential to lead positive change in their own neighborhoods.

When people are forced into leadership positions before they are prepared, however, frustrations often result. For example, they may not be effective in raising up other leaders due to lack of confidence in their own abilities. Like most of us, these passionate, willing potential leaders can become more effective with some training in leadership skills.

Up until now, however, it has most often been the case that the people who get chosen to go through leadership development sessions are not necessarily people from the neighborhoods where Waco CDC works, but people who are already in some position of power or connected to a business, institution, or organization. My colleague, Alexis Christensen, and I have been the beneficiaries of some of this leadership training, and we thought, “What would it take for us to pull together all of the tools and resources we have received over the years to create something that could specifically be used to engage the potential leaders we work alongside every day?” At Waco CDC we have always focused on identifying leaders from within the neighborhoods where we work and helping them cultivate their skills and abilities. Alexis and I thought giving this process a name and creating groups of cohorts might further establish and sustain this important work. Thus, Grassroots Leadership Training (or the catchy, “GLT”) was born.

blog pic

First graduating class of GLT:Vickie Calhoun, Tommy Nays, Jeanette Bell

We officially started our GLT program in October, and we are happy to announce the first three graduates! Three community members in East Waco have completed the three-session GLT training program. During the training we covered several topics, including relationships, leadership, power, culture, cultural humility, asset based community development, communication, how to lead a meeting, resolving conflict, communication, and the importance of evaluation/reflection. One participant said, “Although I have had some leadership training, I acquired more skills by attending the Grassroots Leadership Training. We had in-depth conversations that helped me to know more about the people in my community, their concerns and what we can do together within our own neighborhoods.”

The individuals who participate in the GLT receive information that they will be able to use in their communities as they seek to work together. These skills will help them transfer power from “the top” – the traditional leadership structure – and share it with their neighbors so that the people in the community can have an effective voice in what happens within their own neighborhoods and schools. The first cohort of graduates will specifically use the tools and resources from GLT as they work to receive community input and develop a plan of action for the Northeast Riverside neighborhood. As another participant said, “I learned how to become a leader in my community and make a difference. We started coming up with ideas and ways to address things in the community and we will keep moving forward to work together in our neighborhood.”

The next target audience for this program will be parents who have children in school. As parents develop and gain confidence in their leadership skills, they can start working with other parents to be a part of the decision processes that affect their children.

It is vitally important to provide a safe place for potential leaders who live, work and worship in the community to develop their skills and abilities. When they are ready, they are the ones who need to be in the spotlight. When individuals who live in communities that have been oppressed and marginalized start taking action to bring change, hope is restored. They recapture the power that has always been theirs and create an environment that allows others to do the same.

ryn farmerThis Week’s Act Locally Waco Blog post is by Ryn Farmer. Ryn is a Community Organizer at the Waco Community Development Corporation (Waco CDC). Waco CDC helps to inspire and cultivate healthy neighborhoods. They consider a healthy neighborhood to be one that is safe, clean, and diverse; one in which it makes economic sense for people to invest and one where neighbors manage change successfully. If you would be interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco blog, please send an email expressing your interest to ashleyt@actlocallywaco.org.

What is hunger? How do we understand it?

By Kelsey Scherer

Hunger feels like a strange topic this time of year, doesn’t it? At a time of year when for many of us food is available in abundant – if not excessive – quantities, we can easily lose sight of the fact that this is not the case for all families in our community. Let’s take a moment to remember that today.

What do we even mean when we use the word “hunger?” Bread for the World, a leading international anti-hunger organization, astutely defines it this way: “hunger is a physical manifestation of poverty.” They are not talking about the occasional stomach grumble or the physiological symptom of skipping lunch because we’re too busy. They are talking about the kind of hunger that is the result of on-going need. For this kind of hunger, I prefer the more descriptive term “food insecurity.” Chronic food insecurity – which is defined as uncertain or unstable access to enough healthy food for three meals per day, seven days per week – is a nuanced and complicated issue, and it affects 14.5% of American households. That’s nearly 49 million Americans.

But what does food insecurity look like? How can we identify the people who are experiencing it? Food insecurity takes many forms, and affects different individuals and families in different and far-reaching ways. A participant in a recent focus group at Caritas, a food pantry providing critical assistance to Waco-area families, explained, “Hunger doesn’t really have a face. You can’t tell if someone is hungry by just looking at them.”

I6- Caritas pic couldn’t agree more. There is not a sound or appropriate way to physically assess whether a child or adult is experiencing food insecurity, and there is danger in thinking we can make an assessment of such a complicated issue with one sweeping glance. If we assume that hunger is only experienced by the homeless man we sometimes see downtown, we will fail to understand that it can also impact the single parent in the suburbs who struggles to pay her mortgage and to put a healthy dinner on the table every night, or the two parents who work a combined four jobs but just can’t make ends meet. Even within the small city of Waco, hunger can look different from block to block. To more fully understand how food insecurity is impacting our neighbors we must move beyond assumptions and stereotypes.

We don’t necessarily know who is hungry, why they are facing food insecurity, or even the best ways to help. With that in mind, it is critically important that we approach our neighbors with a posture of humility and grace when we seek to problem-solve. When poverty-fighters approach people facing food insecurity as teachers from whom we have much to learn and who are experts on their own problems – rather than as students who need teaching or reprimanding –  we make progress. In so doing, we significantly increase the chances of ending poverty in life-giving, dignifying, collaborative, effective ways.

What so many of us who do community work (myself included) often miss as we seek to attack the complex problems associated with poverty are the real perspectives, dreams, and goals of the real people who experience poverty. Even with the best intentions, if our solutions to poverty aren’t informed, driven, led, and evaluated by the people experiencing it, those “solutions” are doomed to fail. The same is true of programs designed to end hunger and to empower families to have secure access to healthy food.

So, as each of us enjoy this holiday season, may we be inspired to volunteer at local food pantries, to participate in food drives, and to give back to our community in other meaningful ways. But, let’s also seek to get to know our neighbors on their own terms. May we approach our neighbors who are experiencing poverty and food insecurity in a spirit of warm curiosity and teachability, believing that they hold the key wisdom and insight that is needed to solve these problems.

This week’s Act Locally Waco blog post is by Kelsey Scherer, a Child Hunger Outreach Specialist at the Texas Hunger Initiative. Are you interested in writing a post for the Act Locally Waco blog? If so, please email Ashleyt@actlocallywaco.org.