Ten years ago this summer I took a trip to New Orleans that changed my life. I went there for youth camp with the kids from my church. The camp had a focus on “missions,” and the mission that year was Hurricane Katrina cleanup. Even though a year had passed since Katrina, the Ninth Ward where we were working was still the biggest mess I have ever seen or ever hope to see.
Devastation from the storm was terrible, but that’s not what changed my life. It was like the storm had ripped the lid off the city so that it was easy to see the poverty and the wealth and everything in between. It seemed like the mess was already there. The hurricane had just laid it bare.
I was 45 years old, and I don’t think I had ever thought about “the systems” of a community and how they worked, much less whether they were fair or good. I think for my whole life I had been mainly just a “consumer” of my community. Busy using what I liked — schools, hospitals, roads, fun things to do. I hadn’t really given much thought to what a community “should” be like, or the work that goes into shaping a community, or that I might have some responsibility for helping to create a good community.
That week in the Ninth Ward flipped a switch in me. I felt like the systems in New Orleans were broken — that all these people living in poverty was a terrible waste of potential and that our society couldn’t afford such waste. And when one of the youths on the trip reminded us that the rate of poverty in Waco was just as bad as that of New Orleans, I began to feel a certain responsibility.
Learning about poverty here at home has been like dropping through Alice in Wonderland’s rabbit hole into a tangled spaghetti bowl of problems and opinions and statistics and theories and theology and political stratagems and turf issues about education and workforce development and affordable housing and health care and neighborhood development and all kinds of other interwoven issues.
I learned, for instance, that there’s a name for these kinds of tangled-up messes where nobody knows what to do to make something better — they’re called “wicked problems.” Appropriate name. Trying to work on the wicked problem of poverty in Waco has been an exercise in self-doubt. It generally leaves me feeling overwhelmed, ignorant.
Yes, it’s frustrating, but it also feels like work worth doing and I’m in love with the idea that a community of people can work together to set goals and solve problems and accomplish things if we can only figure out how and stick with it. Ten years into our work battling local poverty, a pile of random, half-formed principles have accrued. Here are a few. Maybe you can help me make sense of them as we work together these next 10 years.
• Focus on what you want, not what you don’t want. We want a great community for everyone who lives here, not just “not poverty.” Keep the real goal — the higher goal — ever in mind.
• When it gets right down to it, relationships are what make things happen.
• Have faith that the faith you have is enough faith to keep going and to do some good.
• Participate and help at least 10 times more than you criticize.
• It’s not enough to just be compassionate; we have to also try to be smart. We have to learn to use information better. But we have to be compassionate too.
• Work with the people who want to work with you. If others come along later, great — but don’t waste time and energy trying to drag them.
• Don’t feel like you always have to invent a new thing. Chances are someone is already doing something. Listen to them. Learn from them. Build on what they are doing.
• It does cost money to do stuff. Not everything can be done for free or cheap. But if you don’t have money, there is still stuff you can do.
• Try things. They might not always work, or work like you think they will, but you will almost always learn more than you would by talking and not trying.
• It’s easy and more comfortable for white people to ignore the role that race plays in all this. Don’t ignore it.
• When in doubt, err on the side of boldness.
• Do what you think is right. People are going to gripe at you either way, so you might as well do what you feel good about.
• If you don’t have any ideas about what to do, go around the table and have everyone share his or her ideas. There is probably some quiet person out there who has a great idea but just hasn’t spoken up.
• Sometimes you don’t need a new idea, you just need to apply the ideas you already have more consistently. Sometimes, though, you need a new idea.
• Keeping up with the details — the to-do list, the email list, the meeting notes — is half the battle.
• When in doubt, over-communicate.
• “Them” is always us.
• Art and song and dance and joy and play and fun are central. They are not “fluff” to be ignored until we are done with the “important stuff.” They are the things that fuel the creativity and energy and passion we need to do the “important stuff.”
• Don’t forget to say “please” and “thank you.”
Civic leader Ashley Bean Thornton, a longtime administrator at Baylor University, has led in efforts to analyze the root causes of chronic poverty in Waco and now facilitates the Waco Foundational Employment Network, which is a part of Prosper Waco. She also oversees Act Locally Waco, a blog that offers economic opportunities and highlights various community happenings.