Ashley Bean Thornton, 53, a longtime administrator at Baylor University who has been pivotally involved in the battle against Waco’s chronic poverty for many years, is running to succeed Toni Herbert, who is stepping down after long representing North Waco District 4 on the Waco City Council. In this interview with the Trib editorial board, Thornton talks about Prosper Waco’s anti-poverty initiative; Baylor’s continuing outreach into the surrounding community; and her production of the Act Locally Waco newsletter on city events, services and jobs. She was recently elevated at Baylor to senior director for informed engagement and continuous improvement. The election is May 9.
Q Tell me a little about your background.
A We were a wandering family. My family is from Mississippi and I was born in Mississippi. We wandered from Mississippi to Louisiana to Texas on the Gulf Coast. I graduated from high school in Baytown. My father was in construction — roads, bridges, levees. By the time I was 18, I’d lived in 18 different houses. It’s only been very recently that I have consented to buying heavy furniture. I’ve been at Baylor 15 years now and if you had bet me I would be anyplace 15 years....
Q I know you’ve been involved in things such as the city-commissioned Poverty Solutions Steering Committee, which really set up the framework for where the Prosper Waco initiative is now going. I understand City Councilwoman Toni Herbert suggested to you the idea of running.
A I am not a person who grew up thinking, “Oh, I want to run for City Council.” That was never on my radar. It was 100 percent Toni’s idea. I think my first reaction was, to quote it specifically, “Not one cell of my heart leaps up with joy at the idea of doing this.” But she chipped away and chipped away and chipped away and the things that convinced me were my experiences on the Poverty Solutions Steering Committee and all of the things that kind of added up to be Prosper Waco. And, of course, I want to help move that forward any way I can. And through Act Locally Waco and its blog and through these different things, I’ve just gotten more and more interested in the community. This seems like a good next platform possibility to take all that to another level.
Q Is this an extension of what you now do for Baylor in terms of civic engagement and outreach?
A The conversation with Toni about running for City Council actually started before this new part of my job at Baylor came up, but definitely it seems like it fits together really well in some ways. The thing at Baylor is so new I’m not exactly sure how that’s going to pan out, but it definitely has some possibilities for really good synergy.
Q Is crime the biggest problem in your district? Or is it poverty?
A You know, every question I think ultimately comes back to not enough people making enough money. When I was heading the Poverty Solutions Steering Committee, I would go and do different presentations all over the city, including one in the Trib newsroom. A lot of times when I was in a big group, I would start out with two questions. My first was: “All right, we all live in Waco. What are some things you like about Waco? Turn to your neighbor and come up with four or five things you like about Waco.” Nobody ever had any trouble doing that. They’d say Cameron Park or Baylor or Texas State Technical College or the lake. Nobody ever had any trouble coming up with four or five things they liked about Waco. Then I would say, “Is Waco the best city of its size to live in?” I’d get a sprinkling of people who would raise their hands in agreement. And I’d ask what they’d like to see in Waco that they’re not seeing now. People would come back with all sorts of things, none of them particularly shocking: education, the arts, housing stock. And, yes, somebody would always say, “We need a Pappadeaux.” (Laughter.) But this is why we’re talking about poverty because to get those things, you have to have enough in your community chest in terms of good property values and people making enough money so that they will spend money. Waco has such potential. We’re right on the main artery of the whole country, we have these terrific natural resources, we have awesome higher ed opportunities, so to me it all boils down to that. We don’t have enough people who are making enough money.
Q What’s been your impression of Prosper Waco, given you headed the Poverty Solutions Steering Committee a few years ago?
A There have been some course corrections along the way and one thing I’m so impressed with about Prosper Waco executive director Matthew Polk is how willing he is to listen to me. He just jumped right in. He really hadn’t been that involved with this before. There were several minor tweaks but they were important, specifically focusing more on this collective impact idea and how we’re going to pull all the pieces of that together in Waco. It’s important to differentiate it from some foundation that is going to be handing out more money because that is not what it is.
Q You’ve started Act Locally Waco, a sort of online rundown of the many things going on in our town — where you can go to get certain types of assistance, certain job offerings, events. Where did you get the idea for this?
A I had kind of a life-changing experience having to do with Hurricane Katrina. I went with the youth from my church on a mission trip to do cleanup in the Ninth Ward (in New Orleans). And, oh my gosh, I have never seen a bigger mess in my life and never hope to see such again — and this was a year later. We were in full Hazmat gear cleaning out houses where drawers had not been opened and everything was still wet and gross. But one thing the people in camp were really good about was teaching the young people about how it ripped the lid off the whole city so you could see the haves and have-nots and how things really do work differently for the haves as opposed to the have-nots. I mean, the haves had a terrible time, but they were kind of getting back on their feet and the have-nots, a year later, still had not come back. So we were talking about this with our youth and one of our young people said: “Well, you know, it’s the same way in Waco.” And that flipped a little switch in me to learn more about what was going on and, when I got back from that trip, I thought, “What if I were a person who needed food stamps?” or “What if I needed some help with my house?” In other words, how do you even do these kinds of things? So I got on the computer and started trying to find out and — well, I use a computer every day and I don’t know how anybody finds that stuff out. I mean, have you ever downloaded a SNAP application (for food stamps)?
Q I have not.
A It’s about 10 times worse than your income tax form. It’s really hard. Anyway, I got more and more curious and I went to this little group of churches that had food pantries. They had a little roundtable and I think (pastor and anti-hunger activist) Kenneth Moerbe was in on that and Gaynor Yancey from the Baylor School of Social Work. But at the end of these meetings, people would go around the circle and each would say, “Oh, we’re having this event on the 15th and y’all come.” And then someone else would say, “Oh, we’re having an event on the 15th.” And it became obvious in that little group that we really didn’t know what each other was doing for the community.
Q I know you’re also involved in leadership training in Waco. What’s one leadership quality you look for?
A There are so many, but if I could only have two, one would be the ability to get past the words people use to devalue others. If you’re going to be a leader, you have to listen through that to really get to the nugget of what’s really important and not be turned off by how people are presenting. The other would just be perseverance. Don’t give up. Keep pecking away at it. Sometimes it just boils down to who’s still standing at the end.
Interview condensed and edited by Bill Whitaker.