A Pencil

By Ashley Bean Thornton

Is there anything in this world more hopeful and full of promise than brand new school supplies?  The smell of a new box of colors.   A brand new sharp pencil full of letters and words and pictures and numbers waiting to be set free.  A bright, clean spiral notebook ready to be filled with ideas, and dreams, and problems, and scribbles about who “hearts” who “4-evah,” and drawings of houses and families and fast cars and rockets and dinosaurs.   To all the grown-ups out there…if you have forgotten the joy and power of school supplies, you have forgotten a precious thing.

A few months ago, the Act Locally Waco book group decided to read and discuss the book “Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom” by Lisa Delpit. We had heard through the grapevine that our (then new) WISD school superintendent, Dr. Marcus Nelson, had recommended it to principals in the district, so we put it on our list.  On a whim, I decided to invite him to our book discussion, and lo and behold, he came!  We had a thought-provoking conversation about heavy issues affecting our schools…and more to the point…our children.  I will confess I left the discussion feeling overwhelmed with the complexity and magnitude of the challenges before us.

In the course of the conversation, Dr. Nelson mentioned a poem about a child and a pencil that he thought made an important point…

‘Cause I Ain’t got a Pencil

By Joshua T. Dickerson (reprinted with permission from the author)*

I woke myself up
Because we ain’t got an alarm clock
Dug in the dirty clothes basket,
Cause ain’t nobody washed my uniform
Brushed my hair and teeth in the dark,
Cause the lights ain’t on
Even got my baby sister ready,
Cause my mama wasn’t home.
Got us both to school on time,
To eat us a good breakfast.
Then when I got to class the teacher fussed
Cause I ain’t got a pencil.

This poem is a prism.  When you look into it one way all you see is poverty.  It can leave you feeling sad and overwhelmed. When you look at it another way you see a bright, capable kid solving problems and figuring out what it takes to keep on keeping on.  She (or he) is exasperated with the rest of us because we can’t see that if we would just help her out a tiny bit with a pencil she could get on with the business of getting an education.

Ramona Curtis who works in the Department of External Affairs at Baylor starts each school year by joining the NAACP to welcome and cheer on the young scholars at J. H. Hines Elementary on the first day of school.   For a few years now, she has noticed that even with the many, many wonderful school supply drives throughout our community there were still too many kids coming to school without supplies.  Several conversations with the principal and outreach coordinator at Hines confirmed that school supplies are a big issue.  Even when kids have enough in August, they often run out long before the school year is over.  I’m sure teachers do fuss at kids who don’t have pencils – I know I did when I was a teacher! – but teachers also routinely dig into their own pockets to provide supplies for their kids.  There never seems to be enough to make it to the end of the school year.

With all this in mind, this year Ms. Curtis is working through the Solid Gold Neighbor Initiative at Baylor along with numerous organizations throughout the community to organize a school supply “power” drive.  The goal of this project is to make sure that the five Transformation Zone schools (Brook Avenue Elementary, J. H. Hines Elementary, Alta Vista Elementary, Indian Spring Middle School and G. W. Carver Middle School) who already have so much on their plates this year, do not have to worry about school supplies.

Ms. Curtis and her team visited with the principals at each of the five schools to make a list of the supplies needed for the whole school for the whole year. They got back numbers like 996 boxes of crayons, 2500 glue sticks, 12000 pencils, etc.

Now they are working through churches, sororities and fraternities, non-profits, local businesses and every other kind of organization they can think of to gather those supplies and deliver them directly to the schools to be divvied up among the teachers and distributed as needed with discretion and discernment throughout the school year.

The Solid Gold Neighbor program has made it easy for you to participate.  You can donate money directly by clicking on www.baylor.edu/SGNschoolsupplies or by texting BUSGN to 41444.  Follow the Solid Gold Neighbor Facebook page for updates about how to donate school supplies and what supplies are still needed. Or contact Ramona Curtis at ramona_curtis@baylor.edu  to see how your business or organization can join in!

Not all problems can be solved with a pencil. But sometimes a pencil – or a box of markers, or some paper, or a glue stick — makes a big difference. We have bright, capable kids in Waco ISD. Many of them face tough situations every day and yet resiliently get to school anyway and go about the work of learning the best they know how to do.  We have some significant challenges in our schools, and it will not doubt take time to chip away at most of them, but one thing we can do right now is to make sure there’s a pencil available when a kid needs one.  Let’s do that!

* You can follow Joshua T. Dickerson on his Facebook page, “Joshua T. Dickerson Speaks,” or on Twitter: @joshtdickerson

This Act Locally Waco blog post is by Ashley Bean Thornton, she has lived in Waco almost 20 years now. Far longer than she ever lived anywhere else. She likes to walk. If you see her out walking, honk and wave and say, “Hi!”

The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email ashleyt@actlocallywaco.org for more information.



2018 Greatest Hits #1: I admit it…I did not want to go to the March for our Lives

(During these last few weeks of December we will be reprising the Top 10 Most Opened Blog Posts for 2018 from the Act Locally Waco blog. I couldn’t possibly pick my favorites – so I used the simple (cop out?)  approach of pulling up the 10 blog posts that got the most “opens” according to our Google Analytics.  It is an intriguing collection that gives at least a little insight into the interests and concerns of Act Locally Waco readers. I hope this “Top 10” idea inspires you to go back and re-read your personal favorites.  There have been so many terrific ones… If you would like to see the Top 10 according to Google Analytics, here’s the link: Top 10 Most Opened Blog Posts of 2018.  Merry Christmas! — ABT)

By Ashley Bean Thornton

I went to the “March for our Lives” rally Saturday, but I did not really want to go.

I do not like political rallies and protest marches.

Sure, I can appreciate a clever sign and an inspiring speech as much as anyone, but once the initial emotional high has worn off, I feel bad.

I want to believe people can work together to understand each other’s points of view and to find a way forward together when it comes to difficult issues.  Once the PA system and the signs come out, however, I feel like we aren’t trying to understand each other and work together any more…we are trying to make sure our side wins.

I have a democrat sticker on my car and I have heard people say that means I hate guns.  I don’t hate guns. I would characterize my feeling toward guns as neutral.

I don’t personally own a gun. They are not interesting to me, so I spend my money on other things.   Also, I am pretty much blind in one eye…the one you need for shooting it turns out.  So, there’s that.

But, I don’t hate guns. Many of my friends have guns for all kinds of different reasons… hunting, protection, fun.  I don’t have any problem with that.  I don’t have any problem with you carrying your gun in your purse or your pocket or your holster or your pick-up truck.  If you are not using your guns to shoot innocent people, and you are keeping your guns away from little kids, then I don’t have any problem with your guns.

I do not hate guns.  Most of the time I don’t even care about or think about guns.

One reason I have the luxury of not caring about guns is that most of the people who do own guns are very responsible with their guns.  Most gun owners are responsible. I get that.

I also get that responsible people don’t like having their rights and privileges abridged because of the behavior of irresponsible people.  I don’t want my car taken away because someone else drinks and drives.   I don’t want my cell phone taken away because someone else texts and drives.  You don’t want your guns taken away or your gun ownership made inconvenient because some other guy was irresponsible.  I get that.

Also, I believe that some (maybe most) gun owners “get” some of things that are important to me.   For example, I am fine with a whole lot of people having guns, but there are some exceptions.  I am not fine with unsupervised teenagers having guns that can kill people. I am not fine with certain kinds of criminals having guns.  I am not fine with mentally unstable people having guns.

I bet most gun lovers can understand why I believe some people ought not to have guns.   I believe we could have a fruitful conversation about where to draw those lines and how to enforce them. I believe we could make some headway that would keep us all safer.

When it comes to “assault guns” or “AR-15’s” or whatever the right word is for guns that fire many, many bullets incredibly quickly…I don’t like them, but I can understand why some people might not want to have them banned completely.  I bet most gun lovers can understand why I think the standards and rules for owning such a dangerous weapon should be very, very strict.  I bet if we got in a room together with the goal of coming up with rules we could both live with on this matter, we could come up with something that would move us down the road.

There have always been and always will be trade-offs between freedom and safety. We can’t protect ourselves or our children from every harmful person, but we can work together to get better at it than we are doing now. I believe that’s what we should do.   Or more to the point, I believe that is what our elected representatives should be doing in our names.

I don’t really like rallies and marches because I feel like, if we are not careful, they become opportunities for vilifying each other, reinforcing our worst opinions about each other and making it harder than ever to work together.

So why did I go to the “March for our Lives?”  Honestly, I succumbed to peer pressure.  My friends were going, so I did.  And, despite my misgivings, I’m glad I did.

The young people who spoke were magnificent! Smart and poised and well-reasoned, they gave me hope for the future of our country.

Also, bluntly, the way I wish we would work together doesn’t seem to be working.

As I stood in the sun listening to the speeches, I thought about how long we have been trying to figure out how to protect our children and ourselves, and it seemed to me we have made no progress.

As I looked around at the crowd of hundreds in Waco (and the pictures that showed crowds of thousands, and possibly hundreds of thousands in other cities) I thought, “I guess this is what it takes to make progress. It takes bodies getting out into the street. It takes showing the sheer physical mass of people who care about an issue. This is what it takes to get an issue on the table.”   I understand this is what it takes, and I am so very grateful to those hardworking souls who are making it happen, but I still wonder why … why can’t we just talk? I wish we could.

This Act Locally Waco blog post is by Ashley Bean Thornton, she has lived in Waco almost 20 years now. Far longer than she ever lived anywhere else. She likes to walk. If you see her out walking, honk and wave and say “hi!”

The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email ashleyt@actlocallywaco.org for more information.


Delighted by Delight

By Ashley Bean Thornton

There are many things I love about my husband:  he knows how to grill a steak just the way I like it, he does most of the grocery shopping, he brought Mo-town and peppermint ice cream into my life, he’s good looking, etc. etc.

But, if I had to pick the one trait that I love most of all about Mr. Thornton it is that he has a wonderful capacity for delight.  He laughs out loud at the Sunday morning funnies.  When he is reading a good book, he reads the best lines out loud to me. He takes full-hearted joy in watching our dogs zoom around the house. A cookie, an onion ring, the sound of a wind chime, a full moon, clean sheets, warm towels, elephant jokes…he delights me nearly every day by taking delight in things that I might have missed.

One of the least disturbing examples of the graffiti we saw.

A few weekends ago our Waco Walks group took a walk with Erika Huddleston.  Erika is an artist who specializes in “nature paintings in urban settings.”  Thanks to the Art Center of Waco, she has a series of paintings on exhibit at the Mayborn Museum that are her interpretations of Waco Creek.  Our walk with Erika took us into parts of town that many of us – left to our own inclinations – might have avoided.  As is my habit sometimes, I saw plenty of ugly things: disturbing graffiti made all the more disturbing by the obvious artistic talent of the ones who created it, a stringer of dead fish covered with flies and stink, broken concrete and glass, and everywhere trash, trash, trash.

Thanks to Erika’s gentle leadership we also saw some beautiful things.  One of the most beautiful was standing on the 15th Street bridge overlooking Waco Creek listening to Erika talk about what she saw there. She described how the chaos and beauty of nature in the midst of the imposed structure of the city inspired and delighted her.  With the aid of her delight I saw the limestone, the fall color in the leaves, the tiny fish… all beauty I might have missed.

As part of my job at Baylor I have been doing a little tutoring at J. H. Hines Elementary.  We are trying to figure out ways that the University can partner with the public schools within a two-mile radius of campus for the benefit of both.  I was working through a box of sight word cards with a first grader the other day when he grabbed the pile of cards containing words he had

One of Erika’s Waco Creek paintings.

read successfully and fanned them out like hundred dollar bills – “Look at all the words I can read!”  he beamed.  Little kids are notorious carriers of delight.

I called my mom last night.  Our family Christmas plans are a little rushed this year and I needed to delicately negotiate spending time with Family in Houston while still getting back to Waco in time for church obligations.  I was slightly annoyed when she didn’t answer the phone.  This morning I got a text, “Sorry I missed your call – watching Sound of Music and singing along.  Please try again.”   Thanks Mom, for raising me to understand the importance of delight!

As one year sets and another rises, there are some heavy problems out there in our city and in our world.  Good people have been chopping away at them for a long time.  Sometimes it feels like we are making progress and sometimes it doesn’t.  How do we keep going?  How do we renew our spirits?  Keep an eye out for the delights along the way, my friends, and keep on chopping!  Merry Christmas to all and onward to 2018!

This Act Locally Waco blog post is by Ashley Bean Thornton, she has lived in Waco almost 20 years now.  Far longer than she ever lived anywhere else.  She likes to walk. If you see her out walking, honk and wave and say “hi!” 

 The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email ashleyt@actlocallywaco.org for more information.



Welcome to Waco, Dr. Nelson! I think you’ll be glad you came.

By Ashley Bean Thornton

A few weeks ago I attended a welcome and “get to know you” reception for our new Waco ISD Superintendent, Dr. Marcus Nelson.  The event, sponsored by the Waco NAACP and the local chapter of educator sorority, Phi Delta Kappa Inc., was a terrific success.  Dr. Peaches Henry, NAACP president, told me they had put out 50 chairs before the event – by the time Dr. Nelson rose to speak they needed 200. Dr. Nelson made some fans for himself that night.  His introductory speech was masterful:  full of  humor, passion, challenge and confidence. His speech wasn’t exactly a sermon, but there were plenty “amens” from the congregation as he shared key elements of his educational philosophy.

A few days later I happened to be walking out of a different meeting with school board member Norman Manning.  I told him I thought they might have hit a homerun with Dr. Nelson, and Mr. Manning agreed.  As we were talking, though, he mentioned some other conversations he has had about our new superintendent.  He told me several people had been asking, “Well, if he’s so great — why does he want to come HERE?”

Why here?  I don’t know Dr. Nelson yet, and I can’t read his mind, but I can think of at least three big reasons why a superb educational leader in the prime of his career would want to come to Waco, Texas.

First, if you believe in the power of education, Waco is exactly where you want to be.   Sure, there are probably easier places to work.  But, for someone who believes in the power of education, that’s not where the action is.  There are school systems with more money.  There are schools where the students have more advantages. There are probably even some schools where, honestly, the students are going to be fine if you are even a moderately competent educator.  But, where’s the sport in that?  The purpose of public education is not to perpetuate the status quo.  The purpose of public education is to perpetuate the dream – the dream that a person, any person, starting from any circumstances, can work hard and achieve and build a good life.  Waco is a place where “the rubber meets the road” when it comes to that dream. Waco is a place where educators make a huge difference in students’ lives every day.

Second, there is plenty to build on in Waco.  I’m an outside observer, I know, but I have some favorites: The Income Tax Prep program at the A.J. Moore Academy at University High; The Greater Waco Advanced Manufacturing Academy (GWAMA), the Greater Waco Health Career Academy (GWACHA) and the new Construction Sciences Academy; the fine arts programs including the amazing musicals; our support for homeless students…the list goes on.   We have terrific students at WISD.  When they are given the opportunity, they can knock your socks off.  We also have some terrific educators who are working and innovating every day to give them those opportunities.

Finally, the community of Waco needs a strong school district and we know it. I get phone calls and emails regularly from people who are moving to Waco and want the “inside scoop” on living here. I have not had one of these conversations yet that did not end up being a conversation about school districts.  These conversations reinforce for me what we all already know: Any community that expects to thrive must have a strong school district…and Waco expects to thrive. Our community has shown it is willing to join in the work of building up the school district.  Through community-wide efforts such as the Education Alliance (now a part of Prosper Waco) we have been rallying support for years. Organizations such as Avance and  Communities in Schools, tutoring programs sponsored by a variety of churches and community groups and numerous individual volunteers stand ready to help.

In 2015 our community showed its support for WISD by passing a Tax Ratification to direct new financial resources into the district – resources that have been used to improve literacy programs; to explore and implement positive, effective ways to work on behavioral issues; and to provide outstanding dual credit opportunities to WISD students.

Certainly, Waco ISD has its challenges. We also have the wisdom and the will to face those challenges head on.  By all accounts, Dr. Nelson did his homework before accepting the job as superintendent of our school district.  I think he saw a terrific opportunity in Waco, and was smart to jump on it.

For the first day of school the Waco NAACP organized a group of us to “greet the scholars” at J. H. Hines Elementary.   As we welcomed the children back to school and wished them a wonderful school year, Dr. Nelson showed up to do the same.  I had the honor of introducing him to Pastor Pam Rivera of St. Luke A.M.E. Church.  She welcomed him warmly to Waco, and as he acknowledged the welcome he lowered his voice a bit to say seriously, “We have a lot of work to do.”  She didn’t hesitate in her response, “and plenty of people who want to help.”  Amen, Pastor Rivera!

Welcome to Waco, Dr. Nelson.  Hard work pays off!

This Act Locally Waco blog post is by Ashley Bean Thornton, she has lived in Waco almost 20 years now.  Far longer than she ever lived anywhere else.  She likes to walk. If you see her out walking, honk and wave and say “hi!” 

 The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email ashleyt@actlocallywaco.org for more information.




2017 Greatest Hits #3: Prejudice then and now…

(During December we will be reprising some of  “2017’s greatest hits” from the Act Locally Waco blog. I couldn’t possibly pick my favorites – so I used the simple (cop out?)  approach of pulling up the 10 blog posts that got the most “opens” according to our Google Analytics.  It is an intriguing collection that gives at least a little insight into the interests and concerns of Act Locally Waco readers. I hope this “Top 10” idea inspires you to go back and re-read your personal favorites.  There have been so many terrific ones… If you would like to see the Top 10 according to Google Analytics, here’s the link: 2017 Greatest Hits.  Merry Christmas! — ABT) 

by Ashley Bean Thornton

I have a cloudy memory from when I was very young, six or seven years old at the oldest, maybe even as young as four or five. I was born in 1961, so this would have been sometime between 1966 and 1968, I guess.

Some adult in my life, a woman, sat me down and explained to me why, according to the Bible, black people were meant to be subservient to white people.  I don’t remember who gave me this lesson.  I think it was at my grandmother’s house, but I don’t think it was my grandmother.  It might have been an aunt or maybe just one of my grandmother’s friends.  It doesn’t really matter. Plenty of people would have told me the same story.

The explanation had to do with Noah after the flood.  Noah had gotten drunk and was lying naked in his tent.  One of his sons, Ham, saw his father in this sorry state and reported it to his brothers.  When Noah found out about this, he cursed Ham saying that Ham’s offspring should always be slaves to his brother’s children. So, Ham’s children became black people and the brothers’ children became white people and that is why black people were always meant to be subservient to white people.

Nowadays I’m sure every white person I know would cringe at hearing this story.  I imagine most of my friends find it downright offensive.  I hope they do.  It’s a terrible story. I’m ashamed to even tell it.

The reason I am telling it is because I have thought of it often these last few years as I have watched gay people gain more and more rights and have observed the strong resistance to that progress.  I thought of it this morning as I read that two years after the Supreme Court ruled that same sex couples have a constitutional right to marry, gay people still cannot get a courthouse wedding in Waco.

You may be thinking that the woman who sat me down and told me the story of Noah and Ham and black people must have been some kind of mean, ignorant, “white trash,” low-class person.  Even though I can’t remember exactly who she was, I can tell you that was not the case.  Any adult woman I would have met at my grandmother’s house would have been cut from basically the same cloth as my grandmother: hardworking, educated, church-going, white women who had all endured some hard times, and who, despite that, liked to laugh, tell stories, watch Laurence Welk and talk behind each other’s backs about who had the best pound cake recipe.

In other words, I imagine the woman who tried to pass her racial prejudice on to me was a good person by most every measure.   I believe she took the time to make sure a small girl understood the lesson about Noah and Ham because she believed the story was true and that it was right and important to pass it on to me.

In the same way, I think that many people who oppose gay marriage and other gay rights believe very deeply that they are correct in their opposition. They believe God’s word is clear. They believe it viscerally. They feel all the way down to their bones that they are right.

This story from my own childhood reminds me that at one time, not so long ago, many otherwise decent people felt the same way about racial segregation and opposing the civil rights of black people.  You can see it in the angry faces of the white people in the pictures of the mob scenes when schools were being integrated or black people were marching for their rights.  I have heard it in angry words coming out of the mouths of my own family members. These white people who opposed civil rights for black people believed they were right.  Being told they were wrong caused a kind of outrage on two fronts.  On one front, they were outraged because black people were demanding to “rise above their rank” and were “disrupting the natural order of things.”  On the other front, they were outraged because other people, black and white, were judging them for standing up for what they believed was right.

They felt viscerally, to their bones, that they were right.

But, they were wrong.

Thanks to legislated integration, my grandmother, by the time she retired, had taught many African-American second graders and worked with at least a handful of African-American teachers. She realized, at least partly, that she had been wrong about black people. Her attitude changed.  Not as much as it should have, perhaps, but it changed some.  My mother’s attitude has changed even more.  Mine has changed even more.   We’ve changed enough that I feel ashamed of a story that at one time was accepted and defended among my kin as “what the Bible says.”

I believe a generation from now we straight people will feel just as ashamed at having tried to deny gay people the right to marry as we white people feel now at having tried to deny black people the right to vote and to be treated equally and fairly.

I’m not sure what I would have done if I had been born in my grandmother’s generation or my mother’s generation instead of my own.  I don’t know if I would have recognized the way black people were treated as being wrong, or if I would have gone along with the prevailing beliefs of most white people in the South at the time.  But, living here and now, and having learned from that example, I will say that I would be proud for gay people to be able to get married in our courthouse in Waco.  I am sorry that we have not reached that point already. I hope we get there soon.

This Act Locally Waco blog post is by Ashley Bean Thornton, she has lived in Waco almost 20 years now.  Far longer than she ever lived anywhere else.  She likes to walk. If you see her out walking, honk and wave and say “hi!” 

 The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email ashleyt@actlocallywaco.org for more information.


Time to activate our mediocre super powers

By Ashley Bean Thornton

Several years ago my friend Marianne Stambaugh and I were enjoying the Baylor Homecoming parade when the string of snazzy convertibles carrying the “Outstanding Young Alumni” rolled past.  When Marianne and I are together almost everything is funny to us, and this struck us as particularly hilarious. We immediately decided that we would start a group called “Mediocre Middle-Aged Alumni.”   Our plan was to insert ourselves in the parade directly behind the Outstanding Young Alumni. We would ride in a caravan of old pick-up trucks, a happy multitude of grey-headed men and women, comfortable in our stretchy pants and matching green and gold “MMAA” T-shirts, sharing some nice snacks, and waving contentedly at the homecoming crowd.

I’m not knocking outstanding people at all.  Lord knows we need them. We need some people who poke their heads up above the crowd and see new sights and dream new dreams. We need the people who use their energy, smarts, originality, creativity, hard-headedness or whatever it takes to accomplish things that impress the rest of us.  Outstanding people deserve to be celebrated.  They are inspiring!

I’ll admit though, that sometimes when I hear about all the brilliant things the outstanding people are doing, it makes me want to take a nap.  I don’t have the time or energy to keep up with that.  Anyway, it sounds like they have it under control… Don’t we have anything to eat in this house?… I wonder what’s on TV?

In that moment, as inspiration fades in the face of inertia, it’s important to remember that when it comes to making the world – and Waco – a better place, the real power is not with the few “outstanding” ones in the convertibles, it is with us plain old folks in the pick-up trucks. Yes, we ordinary folks who make up the big middle section of the bell-curve of humanity are the ones who hold most of the cards – and most of the responsibility.

For example, the Keep Waco Beautiful awards program is coming up soon. They will be recognizing individuals and groups who have worked especially hard to keep our city clean and beautiful.  There are some outstanding individuals who will be recognized, and deservedly so.

Imagine, though, how much cleaner and more beautiful our city would be if, in addition to the outstanding work these few people are doing, a whole herd of us middle-of-the-pack folks consistently did just a little bit of mediocre work.  What if 10,000 of us, for example, made it a habit to pick up just one small bag of trash a week.  Our city would go from litter full to litter free!  (Of course the best thing would be if ALL of us in the middle of the bell curve had the habit of disposing of trash properly in the first place.)

The key word is habit.  Habits are what give the multitude of us garden-variety folks our super powers.  Occasional big efforts are admirable and exciting, but, honestly, it is the everyday habits of the majority of us average folks that have the potential for making the biggest difference.  The water wears away the stone not in one big splash, but by constantly dripping on the same place for a long time.

Small positive behaviors, carried out regularly by a bunch of us run-of-the-mill people can have a bigger effect on the health of our community than occasional heroic efforts by a few.  Here are some examples of the kinds of things we could easily be doing…

Take a walk in the neighborhood once a week or more. – If we all get in this habit we will end up with healthier, safer neighborhoods where we know each other better.  Those kinds of neighborhoods are the building blocks of strong cities.

Lean toward local. – We don’t all have to take a blood oath to never set foot in a big box store or a chain restaurant, but we can get in the habit of making local restaurants and stores our default choice.  Consistently patronizing our local businesses helps them thrive and gives our community it’s unique flavor.

Volunteer a little and give a little – Volunteer for just an hour, but do it consistently once a month or once a week.  Even the smallest effort – picking up one bag of trash – done consistently makes a difference.  Give $2 or $3 a week to an organization you care about, but give it every week.  It doesn’t have to be a huge commitment – an hour or two a month of consistent volunteering or a few dollars a month of consistent giving adds up when enough of us do it.

Our power as members of the middle of the bell curve is not in doing an exhausting amount of good, it is in more of us making a habit of doing a very reasonable amount of good consistently.

So thank you outstanding folks!  We appreciate your herculean efforts on our behalf.  Now the rest of us have few little things to get done before we take our naps!

This Act Locally Waco blog post is by Ashley Bean Thornton, she works at Baylor, and helps out with Act locally Waco. She likes to walk. If you see her, honk and wave and say “hi!” 

 The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email ashleyt@actlocallywaco.org for more information.







Where do we go to learn to be citizens in a democracy?

By Ashley Bean Thornton

I was visiting with my friend Austin Meek (host of the fantastic KWBU program Downtown Depot) the other day and he asked me, “What’s the best thing happening at Baylor right now?”  Wow! So much to choose from…we just named our first woman president, who by all accounts will be a super-star.  We’re about to graduate another stellar class of brand new Baylor alums off to make the world a better place in all kinds of ways we can’t even imagine yet.  Baylor researchers are making new discoveries about everything from the effects of algae in the water supply, to how to detect eye cancer, to how to teach number sense to pre-k kids. I couldn’t pick the BEST thing, so I slyly answered a slightly different question: What’s MY FAVORITE thing happening at Baylor right now?

Before I reveal my answer, I want to take a little detour to consider the purpose of higher education.

College tuition is going up. Student debt is increasing.   Some people are starting to wonder if a college education is “worth it” in terms of increasing lifetime earning potential.  On another front, technology is making it easier and easier to “deliver content” in all kinds of convenient ways – perhaps much more convenient than sitting in classes for four years… I do not know what the future holds for higher education, but it will almost certainly include some big changes.  The aggravating thing about change is that it is almost always disruptive and stressful.  The good thing about change, though, is that it pushes us to circle around and think about core purposes and what we are really trying to accomplish.

What, then, is the purpose of higher education? One purpose is certainly to help people prepare for a career – a good job with good pay.   No argument there.  Just as certainly though, that is not the only purpose.  To me the “higher” in higher education, in the USA at least, is educating the citizenry of a democracy to govern themselves wisely and well.

Where do we learn to wrestle with the big questions of “truth, beauty and justice?”  Where do we learn to think about what kind of world we want to create together?  Where do we learn the skills of how to work together to create that world?  Where do we learn to listen and to present a reasoned argument instead of just yelling at each other? Where do we learn to have some empathy for our fellow humans even when we disagree with them?  Where do we learn to discuss difficult issues in a productive way?  Where do we learn to leaven our zeal for efficiency, productivity and profit with an understanding of the roles of diversity, creativity and compassion?

I don’t think we can run a democracy without citizens with this kind of knowledge and skill, and I don’t think we can take for granted that people will develop it on their own.  This kind of learning and thinking is the journey of a lifetime.  I think it is a core purpose of higher education to equip people for that journey and to give them a good running start on their way. As the form of higher education evolves, I don’t want this purpose to get lost along the way.  I want our institutions of higher ed, Baylor included, to be as creative in thinking of ways to fulfill this purpose as we are in thinking of ways to help students get the skills they need for a career.

That brings me to a terrific program that has taken root at Baylor this last year.  It’s called The Baylor Public Deliberation Initiative, “PDI” for short. PDI’s work is to “invite Baylor students, staff, and faculty as well as local community members to participate in forums about local and national issues to better understand the perspectives, possible outcomes, and trade-offs of different options.”  In other words, they set up workshops where we can practice doing democracy together. They invite not only Baylor students, but also the Waco community to participate, because part of what it means to do democracy is to do it with all kinds of different people from different stages of life, different walks of life and different life experiences.

The PDI folks have already facilitated deliberations on topics like Immigration, Campus Carry, and Climate Change.  At each deliberation participants share personal connections to the issue, have a civil discussion about the pros and cons of at least three different approaches to the issue, and then deliberate about what actions they believe they could agree to take despite differences in perspective. Doesn’t that sound like a terrific way to do democracy together?

As an extension of this work, PDI is hosting a “Civic Life Summit” that is open to the public.   On June 1 & 2, the summit will offer practical sessions designed to help us  learn the skills of citizenship.  Topics include “Living Room Conversations on Race,” “Beyond Reactions and Factions: A Pragmatic Approach,” “GRIT 101: Getting Gritty Doing Civic Engagement,” and many more.  The sessions will be led mostly by active Waco community members (including some Baylor faculty and staff) with a sprinkling of experts brought in from other communities. Registration is $95 until May 15, and a few scholarships are still available.

I love that my Alma Mater is hosting an event that focuses on civic learning, an event that invites students and the rest of us in the community to learn to be better citizens together.  Is it the best thing happening at Baylor right now? Not sure…it has lots of competition.  But, it is my favorite!  Hope to see you there.  It’s more fun to learn to be better citizens together!

 This Act Locally Waco blog post is by Ashley Bean Thornton, she works at Baylor, and helps out with Act locally Waco. She likes to walk. If you see her, honk and wave and say “hi!” 

 The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email ashleyt@actlocallywaco.org for more information.







Walking into the Future of Downtown

By Ashley Bean Thornton

I like to walk, and I like downtown, so when I discovered the book Walkable City: How Downtown can Save America, One Step at a Time (by Jeff Speck) I picked it up.  I mentioned it on Facebook to see if I could rope a few folks into reading it with me.  Soon we had about 20 people signed up for a book discussion.  It was such a great conversation that a handful of us decided to keep meeting. We have adopted the name Waco Walks. Now we’re even getting T-shirts, so what do you know?  We’re a real “thing!”

Our merry group has decided that we want to get out and walk together once a month. Our intention with these walks is to get a little exercise, enjoy each other’s company, and see what we can learn and do about making Waco into a community that walks!

Our last walk was on February 11.  We walked from the fine arts building on Baylor campus, down University Parks to Washington, and then across to Sixth street, before jig-jagging to Fifth Street to cross back under 1-35 to return to Baylor campus. Think about all the neat Waco stuff you get to see on that route: the Martin Museum of Art, the Mayborn Museum, the First Street Cemetery, the Downtown Farmer’s Market, the food trucks, the suspension bridge, the longhorn statues, the courthouse, the (soon to be open) Mary Avenue Market, the lofts in the old Gradel Printing building, the Silos, First Baptist Church, the Bear habitat, the beautiful new Baylor fountain in the middle of 5th street… It’s really a terrific 3.5 mile loop!

Where the sidewalk ends…

So why isn’t it more popular for walkers?  Well, there are lots of fun things to look at along the way, but they are not connected together all that well. There are big empty parking lots and dull or boarded up buildings in between the cool things.  There are long stretches of really nice sidewalk, but they are occasionally punctuated with unfortunate patches of badly broken sidewalk and places where you have to walk in the grass or in the street. Baylor and downtown are not too far away from each other to walk, but I-35 is a psychological barrier and the underpasses, while technically walkable and safe enough, are a little intimidating and not very inviting.  How do we go about overcoming some of these challenges and maximizing the benefits of the great pieces we have?

Enter one of the things I love most about Waco:  our awesome city employees!  We invited Clint Peters and Chelsea Phlegar from the City of Waco Planning Office to come with us on our walk.  They willingly took time away from their own Saturday morning plans to walk with us and educate us about some of the possibilities for making the area more walker-friendly.  They even brought handouts!

It was exciting to hear about upcoming plans for better sidewalks up and down University Parks and on Sixth Street, and new hotels and apartments with first floor retail and public space for pedestrians to peek into and enjoy.  We dreamed together about the possibilities for developing the parking lot and current drive-thru bank area between the courthouse and Austin Ave. into a walkable city square similar to the ones in Georgetown and Denton.  We talked about the pros and cons of one-way and two-way streets and how that affects walkability and storefront development. We talked about the culture changes needed so that people are willing to walk a couple of blocks instead of parking directly in front of their downtown destinations. Clint and Chelsea helped us understand overlay districts and TIF rules and the influence they have on making downtown more walkable and pleasant.  They gave us some great information about how we might be able to speak into the I-35 expansion project (if it happens!) in regard to making the underpasses more inviting and walkable “gateways” from Baylor to downtown.

What were my main take-aways from our walk together?  First, there are all kinds of terrific ideas and possibilities for making downtown more walkable and interesting. We residents of Waco need to educate ourselves about what it takes to actually implement those ideas.  Second, there are an awful lot of good things going on right now.  If we took this exact walk again in just six months we would see lots of new developments moving us toward the goal of an ever more interesting and walkable downtown.  Exciting times!

Are you interested in helping to make Waco a community of walkers?  We’d love to have you join us! Check the Waco Walks Facebook page for information about upcoming meetings and walks.

Are you specifically interested in downtown development?  On February 25, from 9:00 to Noon, Baylor Continuing Ed is offering a class called “Waco 101: How to Grow a Downtown.”  We’ll learn about the theory and practice of downtown development from Megan Henderson of City Center Waco, then we’ll take a brief walking tour of downtown led by local developer Shane Turner.  We’ll cap it off with a question and answer session with Megan, Shane, City Manager Dale Fisseler and City Councilman Dillon Meek.  It costs $10, you can register online at https://www1.baylor.edu/ers/upay.php?event_id=106643&action=register.   See you there!  Walk on!

This Act Locally Waco blog post is by Ashley Bean Thornton, she works at Baylor, helps out with Act locally Waco, and facilitates the Waco Foundational Employment Network which is a part of Prosper Waco.  She likes to walk and doesn’t mind at all if you honk and wave when you see her.

 The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email ashleyt@actlocallywaco.org for more information.



It’s the end of the year and I’m sad…

by Ashley Bean Thornton

I headed into the last month of 2016 feeling more melancholy and tired than usual. I can point to three rocks in particular that have been heavy to me this year.

Racial tensions – Back in May we as a community paused to reflect on the anniversary of the illegal lynching and burning of a 17-year old black man named Jesse Washington, an event often referred to as “The Waco Horror.”  Looking back on that service, it feels like a grim symmetry that the 100th anniversary year of that terrible event would also be a year fraught with race-related tension, controversy and bloody violence.  In a strange way it is embarrassing for me to even mention how exhausting this tension has been for me this year.  I can see in the faces and hear in the words of my Black friends and neighbors that the weight I felt this year is a weight they have already been carrying for a very long time.  I know it will never weigh as heavily on me as it does on them.

Sexual assault and response at Baylor – I am a Baylor alum and I have worked there for almost twenty years, plus I am a human being and a woman.  Everything about this situation has been sad and bad to me:  the awful nature of the crimes themselves and the toll on the victims; the feeling of unfairness that comes with knowing that just because I am a woman I am more vulnerable to this kind of violence myself; the swirling currents and undercurrents of pain, blame, fear, sexism, and even racism in the general discussion of the events and the response; the personal concern for people whose reputations have been fairly or unfairly damaged;  the angry feeling that we are being relentlessly pecked at by buzzards who won’t let the story go; the gnawing guilt that comes with “just wanting it to go away” even though I know it is far too important an issue to sweep under the rug.   It has worn me out.

The presidential election –  Yes, my candidate lost.  But that is not why this election weighs heavily on me, at least it’s not the whole reason. More than any election I can ever remember, this one felt like a year-long slog through muck and disappointment.  There is a certain beauty in watching two fine teams battle it out in any sport, including politics. When your team loses you walk away from the game feeling disappointed with the outcome, but generally good about the worthiness of the game itself.  That’s how a presidential election should feel.  That is not how this one felt.

I don’t want to descend into whining. (“Too late!” I can hear some of you saying.)  But, I will also say that I am not particularly ashamed of my sadness.  I think I am justified in feeling sad about the things I have described above.  Frankly, I would wonder about myself if I didn’t feel sad.  To some extent, sadness is good for you…for me…for us as a society.  How might we treat each other if there were no such thing as sadness?  Still, in a world that thrives on a constant feed of instant gratification, we don’t seem to have much appreciation or patience for sadness any more.  I think we need to reclaim it.

The kind of sadness I am feeling now is a kind of confusion.  It’s a feeling of being in limbo.  It’s like I don’t understand how the world works anymore. It is unsettling – I was settled into one way of thinking and being, and evidence has come along that has unsettled me.   I was settled into thinking that racial tensions had mostly gotten better, that bad things don’t happen in places full of good people (like Baylor), that there are certain unspoken rules of civil engagement that we all generally share.  Now I am unsettled.  Being unsettled and confused, I have slowed down to try to figure out what to do next. It may take me a while.

Just because this time is melancholy, however, doesn’t mean it is all bad.  This time of sadness is a time of loss of confidence and that means it can be a time for humble learning.  It is a time of vulnerability, and that means it can be a time for developing an appreciation for kindness. It’s a time of loss, and that means it can be a time for realizing what is really important.  It’s a time of mixed feelings, and that means it can be a time of openness to new ways of seeing.  It’s a time of disappointment and that means it can be a time for backing up and taking the long view.

In an odd way, it can be a time to relax, to give myself permission to go for a long walk, to clean out a drawer, to make something with my hands.  It can be a time for still and quiet.

Sometimes we think that just because a lot of something is bad, we can’t stand even a little.  But that is a mistake.  Too much salt in the soup ruins it, but a little makes it better.  I don’t want my whole life to be spent in confusion and limbo and melancholy, but I am not afraid of some.

I may not have intentionally invited sadness to my holiday celebrations, but since it’s here, I’m not working too hard to kick it out. Maybe it has a secret to tell me that I will need in the New Year.

This Act Locally Waco blog post is by Ashley Bean Thornton, she works at Baylor, helps out with Act locally Waco, and facilitates the Waco Foundational Employment Network which is a part of Prosper Waco.  She likes to walk and doesn’t mind at all if you honk and wave when you see her.

 The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email ashleyt@actlocallywaco.org for more information.

On ukuleles and politics…

By Ashley Bean Thornton

(Warning: Really bad metaphor ahead! Don’t read if you are sensitive to overwrought literary conceits.)

For my fortieth birthday I bought myself a ukulele.  Except for a few dutiful piano lessons in Jr. High, I had never played an instrument.  I thought it might be interesting to celebrate middle age by stretching my brain in a new direction.  I picked ukulele because…4-strings… how hard could it be?

I was partly right. Playing the ukulele wasn’t all that hard.  In fact, with a little practice, I had a great time playing it!  I fell in with a few goofy friends from Baylor and we formed a little ukulele band. (The “Free to Be Uke” Players — get it?)  We had a blast!  We even did a little Christmas sing-a-long in the Student Union Building much to the – delight? bemusement? annoyance?  – of the students passing by on their way to take their final exams.

The hard part about the ukulele wasn’t learning how to play it, it was learning how to tune the darn thing.   This was so frustrating to me that sometimes I tried to skip the tuning and just play…but, it sounded terrible, and that wasn’t any fun.  Usually (probably out of a desire to preserve his own sanity)  my much-more-musical-than-me husband would end up volunteering to tune it for me.  I would hand it over, and he would patiently pluck each string, listening carefully while he tightened and loosened first one then another until finally – magically, it seemed to me — he would strum a few chords, and it would all sound good together.

I haven’t played my ukulele in a few years now, but I still think pretty often about the notion of “tuning.”  Tuning is hard to do, but it’s a simple idea really. A string is stretched between two end points. The quality of the music depends on finding and maintaining the right tension between those end points.

It’s interesting (at least to me) to note that no one would ever say that one or the other end point between which the ukulele string is stretched is “right” or “wrong.” That doesn’t even make any sense.  Both end points are necessary.  The tension between them is what makes the music possible, and adjusting that tension is what makes the music sound good or bad.

It’s a simple idea, but I had never thought about it before, and it struck me as pretty profound.  It helps me understand what is necessary when two true and good things seem to be opposed to each other – a condition that comes up constantly.

Think of all the pairs of “end points” you tune between on a regular basis in your personal life: striving and resting, independence and interdependence, confidence and humility… One end point isn’t “right” and the other “wrong.”  They are both important.  We have no choice but to take on the sometimes frustrating, sometimes rewarding task of loosening, tightening and listening to get the tension right between them so that the music of our lives sounds good.

I’m thinking about all this today because I just got home from a weekend trip to Austin to attend a thing called “Tribfest.”  It’s basically an annual 3-day political “wonk-fest” put on by The Texas Tribune, my favorite news source for all things having to do with Texas politics.  Tribfest is billed as “your chance to engage with politicians, industry leaders and journalists as they explore issues critical to Texas.” While there I got to hear, among other things, interviews with  John Kasich and Ted Cruz, and bi-partisan panel discussions on all kinds of topics from the STAAR test to the appropriate relationship between faith and government.   The conversations were by turns fascinating, frustrating, terrifying and hopeful.

Throughout the weekend, the idea of “tuning” has been playing in the back of my mind.  The whole Tribfest was full to the brim with examples of the exact kinds of things I’m talking about above — true and good ideas that seem opposed to each other:

  • Personal freedom/public good…
  • Regulations to protect our environment/flexibility to do business in a profitable way…
  • Giving our teachers the freedom to teach/holding our school systems accountable for learning…
  • Wise frugality/ wise investment…
  • Protecting second amendment rights/Protecting ourselves against gun violence…

The most hopeful conversations I heard were the ones where our leaders (elected and otherwise) seemed to understand the notion of tuning –  where they understood that both end points are necessary to make the music and we have to tighten and loosen and listen until we find the right pitch.

The most discouraging and even scary conversations were the ones where the  players didn’t seem to understand how the instrument worked at all, much less how to tune it.  In these conversations the misguided leaders seemed bent on convincing us that the tension between the two end points was bad, and that whichever end point they stood on, the other end point had no value at all.

My weekend at Tribfest has left me wondering if “we the people” are taking enough responsibility for keeping our “ukulele of democracy” in tune. (Did I warn you there was a terrible metaphor coming?  Why, yes, I did…)

What is our part? We can reject the nonsensical and dangerously simplistic notion that our most complex political challenges are simple binary choices – that one end point is good and the other is bad.  We can stop talking that way among ourselves, and we can stop cheering for that kind of talk from our leaders.

We can develop habits of thought more appropriate for the complex nature of the challenges we face.  We can learn to tighten and loosen and listen in our own conversations, and we can support leaders who do the same.  The political discourse in Texas, and in the country sounds terrible right now…and that’s no fun.  Tuning is hard work, but it’s necessary to turn this noise into something that we can stand to listen to, much less sing along.

me and omarThis Act Locally Waco blog post is by Ashley Bean Thornton, she works at Baylor, helps out with Act locally Waco, and facilitates the Waco Foundational Employment Network which is a part of Prosper Waco.  She likes to walk and doesn’t mind at all if you honk and wave when you see her.

 The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email ashleyt@actlocallywaco.org for more information.