Living Hope

By Alexis Christensen

What happens when we become disillusioned with the work at hand? With the community we’ve cried for, lived in, believed in? How do we keep the picture of the beloved community from being stripped from our minds and hearts? What happens when hope seems like a far off dream?

As a community organizer, I stare straight into the eyes of these types of questions each day. Whether in the eyes of the people I work with or in the mirror reflecting my own hopelessness. I have seen tears, desperation, confusion, anger and angst in many people. Systems can feel too big, too difficult to maneuver and change, so how do we keep going? How do we live in a world with such great challenges?

For me, it is hope.

hope cropThe Merriam-Webster definition of hope is “to expect with confidence.” I heard a sermon once where the pastor described hope as the confident expectation of good. I like that. When we face the difficulties of life and work in community, we cling to hope.

But the hope I’m talking about is more. This hope is a verb—it’s action. It’s seeing the endless challenges in life and saying yes again and again to the fight against injustice. It’s about my friends in the neighborhood who are often discounted, underutilized, and disrespected but still advocating for change together. It’s about showing up, speaking out, and holding fast. Hope is an element of good community organizing. In the process of listening, identifying leaders and topics of concerns, and gathering people together based on their self-interest, a thread of hope must be present if the effort is to be carried out effectively.

Hope motivates, inspires, and creates an environment of empowerment. I have seen parents lead initiatives in their schools, support their children and speak to power because of hope. I have seen churches and church members realize their capacity to impact their communities through their gifts and talents. I have seen neighborhood residents gather to create imaginative plans for change. The list is endless but the thread is the same, hope.

Hope follows me wherever I go when I remember that it is alive. At my office, in my car, on the streets, in the schools, it lingers. Author Barbara Kingsolver sums up this kind of hope in her book Animal Dreams: “Here’s what I’ve decided: the very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof.”

So, Waco, let’s settle down and live under hope’s roof. And while we’re there, let’s turn that hope into action for transformation in our communities.

AlexisThis week’s Act Locally Waco blog post was written by Alexis Christensen, a Community Organizer at Waco Community Development Corporation (Waco CDC).  Would you be interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco blog?  If so, contact

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.

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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

Vocalize your Waco Pride!

by Ashley Bean Thornton

(In an earlier post we introduced three big goals for Waco (1) Make Waco a city of opportunity. (2) Make sure pathways to opportunity are clear and well marked. (3) Provide effective support to help more of us keep our footing on the path. In this blog Ashley Thornton explores some ideas regarding goal #1.)  

I’m a Baylor grad, and this weekend, in case you didn’t notice, was Baylor Homecoming. One of my college roommates, Linda, was in town from Dallas. I will confess we had chocolate shakes at Wataburger instead of going to the bonfire and slept too late on Saturday to make it to the parade. When we finally did get up and going Saturday morning, we made our way to the Waco Downtown Farmer’s Market where Linda picked up an eco-friendly necklace for her daughter and a jar of gourmet peach jam for herself. She was slightly bitter towards me because we had already eaten breakfast, so she couldn’t comfortably avail herself of a pumpkin-pecan crepe.

parade pic

We missed the parade (Shhh!), but here’s a random pic from the internet — probably not even this year! Ha!

From the Farmer’s Market we headed to Austin Avenue where we whiled away the rest of the morning laughing and trying on vintage and not so vintage clothes with Brenda Atchison at B Joy Bijoux. After our fashion fun, we were ready for lunch – back to the house for our traditional homecoming feast of Poppa Rollo’s pizza after the parade. (Don’t tell anyone we didn’t actually GO to the parade!) We spent the rest of the afternoon browsing the “Craftapalooza” at the Waco Convention Center where I picked up a few early Christmas presents. We did eventually watch the Baylor game on TV, so I didn’t score a total zero as a proud alum (Sic’em Bears!), even so, the weekend turned out to be more about Waco than about Baylor. 

My point is this: I don’t know when I have spent a more pleasant day in any city in Texas. To be sure, part of the pleasure was the good company of a good friend. But a big part of the pleasure was Waco itself. I am proud of Waco, proud to show it off to my friends, proud to invite people to visit, proud to brag about how much fun I have living here.

“Well, I’m glad you had a nice homecoming, Ashley,” you may be thinking, “but what does that have to do with the price of tea in … well…anywhere?”

As was discussed in an earlier post, one of the things we must do if we want to reduce our rate of poverty in Waco is to make Waco a city of opportunity – a city with good jobs that pay well. In other words we must energize the whole Waco economy. Understatement alert: There are a lot of pieces to that puzzle.

Some of the pieces have to do with recruiting employers, growing our cluster industries, increasing wages and strengthening our workforce pipeline — things which, frankly, I often feel are outside of my sphere of influence as a plain old Waco citizen.

Some of the pieces, however, have to do with making sure that people recognize Waco as the kind of city where they want to live, the kind of community where they might want to start businesses, the kind of city a young person might want to stay in (or return to) after she finishes her education. That is exactly the kind of city my college roommate and I experienced on this lovely homecoming Saturday, and I don’t mind telling people about it.  Making sure that people (at least the people I know)  recognize that Waco is a great place to live is well within my sphere of influence — yours too. It is a part we can all play in building up Waco.

We can all make sure our friends, visitors, relatives, acquaintances, and students know what a terrific place Waco already is — and we can express our confidence that the future is even brighter. Every now and then I am in the company of someone who has fallen into the unfortunate habit of complaining about Waco or talking wistfully about other cities where they would like to live. I am trying to get in the habit of (mostly) gently challenging those complaints instead of letting them pass. Yes, we still have some work to do – but my gosh! Look around you! If you can’t find enough good things about Waco to make you proud of what is happening here, you are not paying attention!

Just the other day while enjoying my first Hot Chocolate of the season at Dichotomy Coffee and Spirits downtown (another terrific new place to show off), I had a great conversation with a new friend. He mentioned that his brother-in-law was a Baylor student who stayed in Waco and started a business. Now the business is thriving and not only are he and his family still here in town, but his parents have moved to town to help run it — more’s the better for the Waco economy!  That’s just one example, but it is indicative of the kind of upward movement that can take place when people recognize the potential of Waco and decide they want to be a part of that potential.

I wonder how that Baylor student came to know that Waco was a great place to live, a place where he might want to settle and start a business? Maybe someone just told him. Maybe some proud Wacoan introduced him to the best breakfast tacos in town and bragged a little about all the things to love in Waco. Be that person! Vocalize your Waco pride!

Favorable Conditions for People to Advance

by Jodi Stacey, Community Activist and organizer of the Low Income Families in Transition (L.I.F.T) workshop at First Baptist Church Waco.

In last week’s blog we introduced three big goals for Waco (1) Make Waco a city of opportunity. (2) Make sure pathways to opportunity are clear and well marked. (3) Provide effective support to help more of us keep our footing on the path. In this blog Ms. Stacey explores some ideas regarding goal #2.

Many of the people we serve are uneducated, undereducated, and/or lacking in technical skills. This has led to a shortage of career opportunities for them. They are most often unemployed or underemployed. The issue of a lack of education is often omitted during client consultations; yet, our clients’ problems for which they are seeking help are inextricably tied to their income and income earning potential. A simple example in the poverty law setting is a client who is a single mom facing an eviction from her apartment for failure to pay rent. Her hours were reduced to less than 30 hours per week at her $7.25/hour job, leaving her unable to pay her rent this month or in the future. We discuss her eviction rights and housing options, but do not discuss why her hours were reduced; whether she would like a referral to a nonprofit for job search, resume, and interviewing assistance; and whether she has thought about a certification or two-year degree at a local community college to start a career and how that goal might be accomplished.

We often provide services and guidance without a full picture of the human potential sitting in front of us and without an assessment of options available to them to improve their economic outcome in the future. The same clients return time and time again, and we wonder why. Why aren’t they doing anything differently to change their future? My question is whether we, as a community of people striving to help others, are doing anything differently to create the conditions that are favorable for people to advance themselves? Are we in agreement that a high school diploma or GED is insufficient to obtain employment with a sustainable wage and that higher education (at any level) provides the best chance to open the doors to careers with sustainable wages? If so, are we open and honest with our clients about this issue?

We, as social service providers, churches, school districts, community colleges, universities, and the business community, must be closely networked to develop clear paths to prosperity – “Career Pathways.” These paths must be so well developed and articulated in the community that people want to come back to education because they are convinced that careers and better jobs are within their reach. We can work together to align social services and funding to remove the most difficult barriers to education for working poor, first generation, and at-risk students so that they can enter college and graduate with a certificate, 2-year degree, or 4-year degree.

ACPfinalcover2I encourage you to read The Career Pathways Effect: Linking Education and Economic Prosperity, a joint publication of CORD and NASDCTEc, as well as Adult Career Pathways: Providing a Second Chance in Public Education (second edition 2011), by Richard Hinckley, Debra Mills, and Hope Cotner. These books provide a great place to begin a community conversation. CORD stands for the Center for Occupational Research and Development and is located at 4901 Bosque Blvd. in Waco. The President and CEO of CORD is Richard Hinckley. I read these books after moving to Colorado, and they have greatly influenced how I view community strategic planning and the importance of creating clear “Career Pathways” for high school students preparing for their future and for adults coming back to education so that they can achieve their goal of greater economic stability.

This week’s blog post was by Jodi Stacey.  If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco blog, please email

A long way to go…but we may be making progress

by Ashley Bean Thornton

A few weeks ago Jimmy Dorrell graciously invited me to give a short, 5-minute, talk as a part of the annual Walk for the Homeless in downtown Waco. What looked to me like a few hundred people came out that beautiful Sunday morning to learn and to show their compassion and support for our homeless neighbors. My part was tiny – to give a little information about the “big picture” regarding poverty in Waco. I didn’t write down my talk word for word, but the following is basically the message I tried to get across. I hope to use this blog in the next few weeks to explore the ideas presented below in more detail…won’t you join the conversation?

Waco is a community with tremendous assets: our location on I-35 half way between Dallas and Austin, the river, Cameron Park, numerous higher education opportunities…the list of good things about Waco goes on and on. We are already a really good place to live, and we have the potential to be one of the best places to live in Texas if not the country.

If we are going to capitalize on that potential, however, we must build a wider base of financial stability among our residents. More of us need to be making enough money to support ourselves and our families and to have a little extra to make investments in our community. Financial stability among our individual residents and families is what leads to building up our tax base and our overall spending, which in turn builds up the livability of our community, and will put us on an upward spiral toward becoming an ever better place to live for every person of every level of income.

With that end in mind, the message today is … yes, we have a long way to go, but it looks like we are making progress. The new American Community Survey results regarding poverty in 2012 were released by the U.S. Census Bureau in mid-September. I don’t want to make too big of a deal about these figures because they are based on only a one-year sample of survey respondents instead of the 5-year samples Act Locally Waco usually uses when reporting poverty rates, but bearing that caveat in mind, I see some reason to feel encouraged.

Waco’s poverty rate for 2012 was estimated at 27%. Yes, this is still much higher than the Texas rate of 18% and the U.S.A. rate of 16%. On the positive side, however, this same survey in 2011 estimated our rate of poverty at 32%. In comparison, a rate of 27% is headed in the right direction. Another positive indicator is that the gap between Waco and Texas may be narrowing. In 2011 Waco’s poverty was estimated at 32% while the estimate for the state was around 18%, putting our poverty rate at 14 percentage points higher than the state. In 2012 the gap was only 9 or 10 percentage points depending on how you round it. (Our gap with the U.S. was 17 or 18 points in 2011 and is estimated at 11 or 12 for 2012.)

If this improvement becomes a trend in the course of the next few years, that will be great news for Waco: what do we need to do to keep the wheel turning the right way?

The following are three broad goals that may help to frame that conversation:

Make Waco a city of opportunity! – Attract, entice, lure, nurture, incubate, develop…whatever the right verb is…businesses and other enterprises that generate good paying jobs.

Make sure the pathways to opportunity are clear and well-marked, particularly for those of us who are living in low-income situations right now. – This has to do with education in the broadest sense from birth through adulthood. It also includes the often overlooked component of educating schools, employers and other institutions about how best to work with residents who are coming to them from low-income or extremely low-income situations.

Provide effective support to help more of us keep our footing on the path. – The path from poverty to financial stability can be a treacherous, discouraging obstacle course for some. Well aligned, supportive, health services, social services and ministries help people to stay on the path making progress.

These are admittedly broad goals, but perhaps they can help give a little shape to our work together. In the next few weeks I hope to use this blog to explore various elements of each of them and to think a little bit about how each of us might play a part in accomplishing them. What ideas do you have? I’d love to hear from you and even publish some of your ideas in this blog.

Meanwhile, this is an exciting time in Waco. If you haven’t found your niche yet as far as how to get involved, this is a great time to do it. Check out the rest of the Act Locally Waco website – you’ll find lots of ideas about how you can be a part of making Waco a great place to live for every person of every level of income.

Neighbors Working Together for Impact

by Alexis Christensen, Community Organizer, Waco Community Development Corporation

Saturday morning a group of Sanger Heights’ and Brook Oaks’ residents went round robin to share what drew them to the meeting. Smiles and nods of understanding could be seen around the circle. Concern for their beloved communities brought unfamiliar people together to work for change.

The Vacant Property Task Force meeting had begun. For Kent McKeever, Director of Mission Waco Legal Services, finding solutions is what drew him in: “I wanted to start finding ways to serve the broader community with the legal tools that I have and our program provides, thinking outside the box in a way that is collaborative, innovative, community-driven, and with the goal of solving larger-scale community-wide problems. The task force seemed like a great place to try and cut my teeth in this way.” 

Logo - 11-30-2012Finding community-driven tools for impacting our neighborhood is just what we were doing. Seven months ago, my Waco Community Development colleague, Gabriela Gatlin, and I heard murmurings from community members wanting to address vacant structures in our area. Simultaneously, the number of fires in vacant homes in our neighborhood was increasing. The task force knew this was something they could address. In the early months, we educated ourselves on the processes of the City of Waco, meeting with representatives from Code Enforcement, Zoning & Planning, Housing and Community Development, Fire Department and the City Attorney’s office. In these meetings we realized everyday residents really could impact their neighborhoods. 

We wanted to share all that we had learned with our neighbors. Utilizing a community organizing tool called house meetings, task force members invited people from their circle of family, friends, co-workers, and neighbors to discover common interests and concerns. The task force has hosted two house meetings thus far, educating people about the processes of the City of Waco to address issues like the timeline for burned home demolition and learning about shared interests. All of this knowledge helps neighbors understand their role in addressing vacant structures. Many task force members shared they felt empowered to go out and participate in the process of addressing vacant structures. Currently the task force is operating in two subcommittees to accomplish our goals: Data Collection and Engaging Neighbors. We are working for long-term, sustainable change in our neighborhood. 

If you’re interested in joining the good work of the Vacant Property Task Force, please contact the Waco Community Development office at 254-235-7358!


This week’s Act Locally Waco blog post was written by Alexis Christenson.  if first appeared as an article in the Waco Community Development Corporation (Waco CDC) newsletter If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco blog, please email




Questions about community…

By Ashley Bean Thornton

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

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

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