The Problem of Perception

By Christopher Qualls

I work at Indian Spring Middle School in Waco ISD. Though I share that with pride, I am not oblivious to the feelings it conjures up in others. Our school has been in the news for a myriad of less-than-positive reasons over time. Recent history is no exception.

There are several vicious cycles present in our communities’ schools, and I have not the time nor energy to discuss each of those in depth through this platform. However, the most nefarious problem I believe that our students face is the public perception.

While shopping at a local business this weekend, I learned that an employee there had retired from Midway ISD. Interested to find that unique bond shared between wartime trench-friends, I proudly shared my occupation.

“Oh. I bet that’s tough. Those kids have a rougher, street element”

Wait. What.

What does that mean?

Our students at Indian Spring are exceptional.

There is little difference in the students of Indian Spring, Tennyson, Caesar Chavez, G.W. Carver or even Midway Middle.

The problem is not the people; it is the perception of the people.

Our students at Indian Spring are victims of others’ perception. From the time they were in elementary school, the assumption has been that these students are somehow lesser than. There are those in the community that mistakenly underestimate the limitless potential of youth. They assume that these children will grow into underperforming middle school students, high school students, and eventually some sort of scourge on society.

This perception seeps through to the students, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

By expecting less of the students at Indian Spring, we are setting them up for failure.

These are good children who have been given up on and underestimated.

If we are going to change the educational climate of Waco ISD, we must first start with the perception we have of the students. That means we must start with ourselves. We must realize that the perceptions we have of our students will either enable or limit their future. More than any skills, we teach young people how to believe in themselves—or not. We wield a dangerous power through our perception. We must use it wisely.

Christopher Qualls is a Licensed Master Social Worker serving Waco Independent School District as the Afterschool and Summer Enrichment Programs Manager and actively consulting various non-profits on all aspects of programming. He has near 10 years of experience in agencies all over the world, but has spent the past three years living and serving in Waco.

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 for more information.

Learning to be a Citizen: Water, River, and Community

By Emily Carolin

For the 2017-2018 school year, Baylor launched an exciting set of transdisciplinary courses aimed toward the promotion of human flourishing and the development of innovative approaches to some of the world’s most complex challenges. Under the umbrella of the Social Innovation Collaborative (SIC), Baylor currently has teams of students and faculty collaborating on a wide range of important projects. One of these projects includes the pioneering Water, River, and Community course taught by a wide range of professors from Museum Studies, Economics, Environmental Science, English, Education, and Religion. I was fortunate enough to be one of three Museum Studies graduate students in this course, along with nine other undergraduate students from various disciplines. This unique mix of both professors and students allowed us to delve into a topic from our own backyard.

Water, River, and Community is a problem-based, community-embedded transdisciplinary learning experience that involves students in an exploration of the wicked problem of water. The problems associated with water are difficult to define, without clear solution, socially complex, void of one group who expresses sole responsibility for the problems, and involve many interdependencies. As stated by Ban Ki-moon, former United Nations Secretary General, “Water is the classic common property resource. No one really owns the problem. Therefore, no one really owns the solution.” As a class, we undertook the problem of water and in some cases, worked to find a solution, through lectures, field trips, and assignments.

At the start of the semester, we took a canoe trip down the Brazos River in conjunction with reading John Graves Goodbye to a River. While we contentedly paddled down the river, we looked to discover our own natural connection with the river while understanding Graves’ personal love for the Brazos River. We saw turtles, various bird and fish, snakes, and encountered one too many spiderwebs strung across low-hanging branches. We caught and identified tiny fish native and non-native to the Brazos River, while discussing the impact of the Whitney Dam on the aquatic life. We explored the heart of the Brazos River Valley first-hand with wet clothes and slightly sunburnt skin.

One of my personal favorite assignments and activities of the semester included the development of a survey using Contingent Valuation Method (CVM). This economics-based method allowed us to inquire as to our fellow students’ willingness to pay regarding cleaning up and beautifying Waco Creek on Baylor’s campus. Many students complain of the trash in the creek and recognize it as a major eyesore on Baylor’s campus. We developed questions that probed students as to their recycling habits, opinions on landscaping on Baylor campus, and if they choose to recreationally use the areas around Waco Creek. We proposed a one-time $25 increase to student fee and a subsequent $5 increase to install a bandalong trash collection device that would skim the top of the water for trash and adding planters and seating to other areas of Waco Creek. A high majority of students said they would be willing to increase their student fees to clean up Waco Creek for the betterment of the Waco community. In the future, we hope to expand upon this survey to propose a solution to keep Waco Creek clean. Waco Creek is not just important to the Baylor campus but to all Waco residents; and this is only one example of how our class continually connected the health of a community to the health of a river. We depend on a river just as much as the river depends on us.

A final assignment brought local fourth-grade students from Bell’s Hills Elementary School to the Mayborn Museum to learn about their local waterways. My group developed an activity, Can You Undo Pollution? It simulated pollution in a river or creek. We took a metal tub of water and filled it with dirt and trash. Students upon walking up the activity were initially disgusted by the tubs, which was just the reaction we were hoping for! By seeing the damage that littering or polluting local waterways can cause, students can better understand how the actions they take affect the world around them. With strainers and tongs, we asked the students to attempt to remove the dirt and trash from the water. While the trash was removed, much of the dirt continued to swirl in the water showing students that pollution is often irreversible. Students then suggested ways that we could act to stop pollution from happening, including: stop littering, recycle, and throw trash away appropriately. We hope that came away from this activity with a better understanding of how their actions affect the health of a river, which in turn will affect their own health in the future.

While this is only a small glimpse of activities we undertook in the Water, River, and Community, Overall, the course taught me to be more cognizant of my actions and to better appreciate the natural world where we live, while also providing me with a strong background to discuss water policy, ethics, and law. I hope this blog has helped you learn some of the effects that a person can have on a river!

Emily Carolin is a Yankee living the grad school life in the South. She can often be found: devouring books and baked goods, wearing clogs, and wandering in museums. Emily is a graduate student at Baylor University and works at the Mayborn Museum Complex.

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 for more information.

2017 Greatest Hits #10: Stop the Bleeding

(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 Mike Stone

Waco, we have a problem.  A recent Trib article (Waco Economy Staggers Despite Promising Signs) highlighted the residential construction boom our city is experiencing, and the surging price of homes due to all of the newly constructed and remodeled homes being built. It is an accurate claim resulting from numerous factors, all of which benefit our city.  However, when examining residential construction data for the neighborhoods surrounding downtown we see the opposite.

The Brook Oaks, Carver, Northeast Riverside, and Sanger Heights neighborhoods all possess a long history of strong people, traditions and homes that have shaped the core of our city. It is a core that’s bleeding, because in the past decade we have lost more homes than have been built.  As a result, the people power and economic power of these communities lessen.

According to the last ten years’ worth of data from the City of Waco Permits Department, there have been 334 residential demolitions in these neighborhoods but only 118 new homes permitted.  This is in spite of the efforts of numerous Wacoans who have chosen to build homes; private developments such as Cameron Heights; and the work of local non-profit home builders, including Waco Community Development, Waco Habitat and Neighborworks Waco.

There is a myriad of reasons for the demolition of homes in the past decade.  They include faulty wiring, poor maintenance, fallen trees, and fires.  Just next to our office, we lost a 90 year old home due to lightning.  The house was hit twice igniting the insulation and destroying the house within minutes.

Losing homes from these neighborhoods will continue as the homes age, but the real problem is the low volume of newly constructed of homes in these areas.  We need more homes built to stop the bleeding.

New construction is occurring in concentrated areas of new subdivisions but the growth is on the west side of town far from these core neighborhoods.  This strategy of concentrated construction works well for the builders and the buyers because it gives numerous options to create a home within a community.

A similar strategy has been used in the Brook Oaks neighborhood. Over the past 15 years, the community has experienced a focused effort by numerous builders to construct homes in a targeted area.  These efforts were able to effectively slow and almost stop the bleeding within this core of the city neighborhood as shown in the chart below.

In the focus area of Brook Oaks, twenty-six homes were built to replace the 27 homes that were demolished.  As opposed to the non-focus area of Brook Oaks where only fourteen homes were built to replace 32 homes that were demolished.

The City of Waco has continued to combat this bleeding with funds from The Federal HUD program.  Many of the homes built in the focus area were the result of this investment.  A concern is if the current budget proposals from Washington D.C. are followed, this effort will be dramatically curtailed and the bleeding will increase.  The current federal budget proposals include major cuts to these HUD programs.

We need more homes being built and we need creative solutions to help encourage more new construction in these neighborhoods.  How do we entice other builders to build in these core neighborhoods?  How do we expand the work the non-profit builders are doing?  How do we entice more families to buy more homes in core of the city neighborhood?  How do we stop the bleeding?

Waco, we have been tasked with making sure the core neighborhoods of our city thrive. It is my belief that this can be done though a collective effort to build homes in one focus area at a time.  Let us band together to stop the bleeding.  Let us go help somebody!

Mike Stone has been the Executive Director of Waco Community Development since November of 2012.  Waco Community Development has built 57 new homes in Waco and remodeled 19 homes in their efforts to inspire and cultivate healthy neighborhoods.  When not working, you won’t find him, as he will be in the woods somewhere that cell phones don’t work.


2017 Greatest Hits #8: Communities of Waco…King’s Landing

(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 Rebecca Melton Mercer

A good friend of mine often texts me with the best conversation starter, “So what’s really good?”

So what’s really good, Waco?

Here’s something I think is really good. A new hot spot in town that is the product of a 32 year-old family business and a community that has been gathering since long before #Wacotown was a thing. Back in the corner of a shopping center at 1427 S Valley Mills Drive, just a short walk from Bankston’s Comics, people of Waco are gathering. People of all walks of life, and all ages are meeting up to discuss their common interests in a place that welcomes all, where they can grab a meal, play games, or geek out about things they love.

It’s called King’s Landing.  It’s a little hard to describe exactly what King’s Landing is.  Proud owner Brent Bankston told the Waco Trib it was a “Game Café and retail location.”  I would call it the best clubhouse ever!

Geeks and Gamers. Fans and Food.

The force of community is strong here. And like several places in Waco, the community that is building here is one that looks like Waco. There are truly people from all ages and stages and walks of life. Everything from a mutual love for “Walking Dead” to Super Mario Bros. is bringing them together.

Game night demos with Wade, photo by Kyndall

Bringing people together is something the gaming community is experiencing in big ways in recent years as people are seeking ways to spend time interacting, and gaming seems to be just part of what is bringing people together. As long-time Bankstons employee and my friend Jamie Cooley said recently, people who love playing games of all types and many who had played years ago are “coming out of the closet AND going in to their closets” to drag out sets of Magic the Gathering and Pokémon games, board games, and video games to play with friends and family. There’s a noticeable movement to spend more face to face time in the age of FaceTime.

The thing about “geek culture” is that it was once seen as limited to a few. And those few weren’t always understood or loved by the rest. But in recent years that has changed. ComicCons are more mainstream, “geek” has risen from a put-down to a badge of honor, and the characters, teams, and sub-cultures people love have become a way to strike up a conversation with new people or safely bond with those we already know and love.

2016 was noted for divisiveness, and there’s something beautiful about watching people dive in to a role-playing game like Dungeons and Dragons and just enjoy a game and a story together. Or to watch the Central Texas Artists Collective (CTAC)  folks walk around their newest display of artwork on the walls and discuss their creative process with King’s Landing guests.

I can grab a locally brewed-beer or locally roasted latte, then head back to the back of the building where a family enjoys pinball and arcade games together and a few folks debate which of the retro video game systems they love the most and why. My husband can again admire the mounted Hylian Shield and Master Sword that he really, really likes. (That’s from the fandom of Zelda, if you, like me, didn’t know.)

I’ve never dropped by and not had to navigate around smaller groups of patrons intently enjoying a game or conversation. But even though I’m fairly new to all of this, there’s an air of welcome and openness.

From King’s Landing you can easily walk over to Bankston’s Sports Memorabilia, Comics and Collectibles  and catch a conversation about sports teams of old, check out that autographed picture of the famous punch thrown by Nolan Ryan, re-hash Baylor/ home team sports, or watch a parent and child head towards the carefully-maintained comic book wall to catch up on the latest story line.

Events. Events. Events!

In either location, get the scoop from employees about the many upcoming events. The crew travels to schools and ComicCons, and locally hosts community fundraiser events, book signings, artist meet and greets, cosplay volunteers, meet ups after movie releases, and the ever-growing Free Comic Book Day celebration every May. There are LGBTQ groups who meet, ladies who lunch and gather for fierce Mahjong play, groups who paint miniature game pieces, artists who draw together, community gatherings, private events, and on and on. Whew! Good thing there’s social media to help spread the word on all the things. (Check out the Epic Valentine’s Day Event this weekend!)

Family Business

Talking to Brent Bankston will quickly get you to the topics of community and family. Brent’s children and many other members of his family work here when they can. The catering business his wife Lee started in their home kitchen has taken new life in Butter my Biscuit, the delicious cafe part of the multi-faceted business that draws people to the shop on Valley Mills every weekend with scratch-made biscuits crafted into savory entrees, sandwiches, snacks and sweet treats. This business deeply cares and seeks to intentionally build a tolerant and positive place that serves our community.

Join the Fun!

Whether you’re looking to let your geek flag fly, are curious, hungry, bored, new in town, looking to reminisce, connect with some friends and family or what the heck ever, I encourage you to check this place out. If we’re there, my husband is the guy with the Batman tattoos who speaks way more geek than me. But all are welcome here, even a muggle like me.

Rebecca Melton Mercer moved to Waco (on purpose) from Houston in 2007 and claims Waco as her adopted home town. Although the “job” she’s most proud of is Mom to two smart kids, nowadays she also spends a lot of time teaching English at LaVega High School, and runs a small business as a social media consultant that gets her out in the community and is as much fun as it is work.  Rebecca has been active in building community through her work with Social Cents, her social media consultancy that serves small businesses and non-profits, with The City Review, a local alternative and entertainment newspaper, teaching in local private and public schools, and volunteering with non-profits that serve the Waco area. Rebecca, along with her husband Jeremy Mercer and the two awesome kids previously referred to, enjoy supporting the creative and positive things that Waco has to offer.

Whether it’s playing trumpet in the “Friday Band” at MCC or playing board games at King’s Landing, One of the wonderful things about Waco is that there are lots of ways to find community here.  Where do you find community in Waco?  Would you be interested in writing about it? If so, let us know.  Email if you have an idea for a post.  You could be seeing your own picture on this page!





2017 Greatest Hits #9: Changing The Community, One Mentor At A Time

(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 Stephanie Korteweg

When I used to think of the word “mentoring,” I used to get this instant mental image of a Big Brothers and Big Sister’s commercial.  Almost immediately my next thought was, “I don’t have enough time, and what in the heck would I do if I became a mentor?” We all sometimes have this sort of knee jerk reaction to things that are out of our comfort zone. Think for a moment about a time when you did something that caused you a little fear, whether it was something adventurous like skydiving, or trying something new like a new job or becoming a parent. Sometimes the things that cause us insecurity and a little bit of fear are some of most intrinsically rewarding experiences that we talk about for years.

Let me ask you a question… how did you learn the things you know today? What person taught you those things? Who taught you how to change a tire, write a resume, how shake hands. Who was there for you during a difficult time in your life? If you think about it long enough you will probably think of several people who helped you when you needed it. Maybe they gave you advice, or maybe their presence made you feel like you weren’t alone.

I think the biggest barrier to becoming a mentor is the definition of “mentoring” we carry around in our heads.  We need to put aside that old rigid framework–you know what I’m talking about. It’s the one that leaves you feeling overwhelmed before you begin.  I think it’s time we start looking at what mentoring really is — an intentional investment in a person’s life, particularly a young person’s life.

And, what if I were to tell you that mentoring is one way we can help transform our community?

I’ve been a part of a mentoring group called the Mentor Coalition for the past five years. As soon as I joined I realized that the mentoring opportunities here are as diverse as our community. We have organizations that require a relatively low time commitment and others with a substantial time commitment. There are mentoring organizations that focus on high school students, others that focus on elementary students. Some are highly structured programs, others are a lot more flexible in their structure.  In the Mentor Coalition each organization does their part, working together like the gears in a bike, to see our community changed for the better.

A study from Child Trends called “Mentoring: A Promising Strategy for Youth Development,” showed that “overall, youth participating in mentoring relationships experience positive academic returns, better attendance, an improve chance of continuing on to higher education, and better attitude toward school.”

Another study, The Consequences of Dropping Out of High School, Joblessness and Jailing for High School Dropouts and the High Costs for Taxpayers,” states “The incidence of institutionalization problems among young high school dropouts was more than 63 times higher than among young four-year college graduates.”

There’s a correlation between the success of the youth of our community and health of our community. I’m not just talking about the old Michael Jackson song here, but the children really are our future. They are the future entrepreneurs, doctors, teachers, social workers, police for our community.

Our American mentality looks for the quick fix. We are in the age of instant gratification, and we have forgotten about the simplicity of consistency, the power of a smile and the impact of an encouragement.

I was recently speaking with a truancy judge and she told me a story of a family that had been in to see her several times. By the third time she asked to see only the kids in her office. As she sat there with the kids, she pulled an alarm clock from her desk drawer. She gave it to the kids and showed them how to use it. I remember her telling me how inadequate that action felt to her and how she really wanted to do something more. I asked if she’d ever seen the kids back in her court.  She paused, thought about it for a minute looked back at me and said, “actually, I haven’t seen them since.”

Don’t discount the small things. Don’t let the fear of the unknown keep you from investing in a kid’s life. Don’t believe the lie that your small investment won’t make an impact. Join more than 800 other individuals in our community who are making an impact by mentoring- go to our website and get involved!

The Mentor Coalition is a group of representatives from mentoring agencies that serve young people in the Greater Waco area. These organizations work with local schools and families to provide necessary academic and social support to our area’s youth. The goal of the Coalition is to double the number of people who are currently mentoring in Waco to a total of 2,000 mentors! Please visit for more information on how to become a mentor. 

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 for more information.