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Are Waco’s chronic poverty woes a lost cause? Q&A with National Resource Network executive director David Eichenthal

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The National Resource Network executive team huddles at City Hall kicking off a year’s worth of visits: Myriam Milfort Sullivan (from left), Jennifer Lydic, David Eichenthal, Debra Vaughan, Christa Payne and Mercedes Márquez.

Last week, the National Resource Network, a consortium created to leverage the expertise, partnerships and resources of both public and private sectors to help cities comprehensively address their most pressing challenges, began a series of monthly visits to Waco to help craft and refine strategies overseen by the Prosper Waco planning process involving more than 100 volunteers, many of them civic leaders, and all focused on battling poverty. The network’s “all-star” team of experts spent part of the week discussing goals and concerns with health professionals, business leaders, educators and government officials regarding this much-splintered problem.

During the visit, National Resource Network executive director David Eichenthal sat down with the Trib to discuss the network mission and what his colleagues heard in Waco. Joining Eichenthal was Myriam Milfort Sullivan, Jobs for the Future senior program manager; Jennifer Lydic, senior analyst for the PFM Group of financial and investment advisers; Christa Payne, NRN senior consultant; Debra Vaughan of D Vaughan Consulting; and Mercedes Márquez, former deputy mayor of Los Angeles and now of Márquez Community Strategy. We arrived in time to hear the team and Waco Mayor Malcolm Duncan Jr. discussing ways to attract and retain employees with local business executives and managers. That included an admitted element of skepticism. This interview was conducted on Sept. 9.

Q     How has your executive team’s first visit to Waco gone?

David Eichtenthal     I think it’s gone exactly as we hoped that it would. The network had an assessment team in Waco earlier this summer. I was on that. We got a huge amount of information during that visit. We spent a great amount of time with the mayor and other leaders. The challenge for us — and I think it’s a challenge also for Prosper Waco executive director Matthew Polk and the mayor — is figuring out how to move in a thoughtful but fairly timely way from all the good work that Prosper Waco and the city have already done in setting specific goals to actually figuring out how to help them in implementing strategies. We’ve been trying to get everyone involved in meetings with the network, the people who are already working on these problems and have great ideas already. We’ve got something like 124 possible areas that we’d like to think about. We’re going to narrow those down substantially to work with the city and Prosper Waco on a series of very targeted work over the course of the next year.

Q     Do you sense a great deal of buy-in by the community or do you sense hesitancy?

Eichtenthal    I think there’s a remarkable level of focus that cuts across the entire community. By the end of our assessment visit this summer, we were beginning to wonder whether it was assigned reading for every member of this community to look at the Upjohn Institute study (about Waco and its poverty dynamics). That’s really kind of remarkable when you go into different cities and see this coming together from different sectors, all focusing in on one thing. Second, there’s a recognition that what folks are trying to do here is not just another program, another project, another initiative. This is all about fundamentally changing how Waco as a community does business and thinks about its economic competitiveness. And the third thing is what we heard during our earlier assessment visit and we’ve heard it even more the last day or two — a readiness and willingness and desire to start to act. The brilliant thing about what Waco has done is committing so much time and attention to doing the research and analysis, then convening and planning around that.

Q     Think about your visit here this summer when you were conducting this assessment study of Waco. Were there any defining moments that helped you refine and boil down what the challenges are?

Eichtenthal    I would characterize them as less about challenges, more about opportunities. I’ve spent the last dozen years or so of my life in Chattanooga, Tenn., which is in many ways not so different from Waco. It’s 170,000, two hours from Atlanta and two hours from Nashville and has had economic challenges, though unlike Waco it had gone through a period of significant population decline. The first time we walked around downtown here, we saw this could be something very, very exciting. The presence of Baylor University and the other institutions of higher education is a huge competitive advantage for Waco. One thing for us is figuring out how that can play out so it grows the overall economy and begins to address the academic challenges identified in the goals of Prosper Waco. And it’s going to sound weird and it’s not something that a lot of people might mention, but Lake Waco impressed me a lot — the fact that you have these great natural amenities, and not just the lake but the rivers. There’s just a lot here to work with in terms of beginning to do this sort of work that affects poverty, affects financial security, affects health and affects education.

Myriam Milfort Sullivan    One key moment for me was that all the needed players were at the table, so during the workforce discussion we had yesterday, we had education, we had the workforce system, government, all present to talk about the issues. That’s not common in discussions in other places. That was really impressive.

Debra Vaughan    And every person is so willing to do whatever it takes.

Mercedes Márquez    There’s real pride here, there’s deep love of this community and you need that. I’d also say there’s a lot more low-hanging fruit than people know.

Q     Such as?

Márquez    Take for example the relationship with Baylor. It is not anywhere near as broad or as deep or as powerful as it can be, not even close.

Q     That’s interesting. It’s generally regarded that in the last several years Baylor has emerged from its so-called “bubble” to participate in more of the community than it did for many years.

Márquez    They have, but nowhere near the vibrant economy that could benefit both Baylor and others when you explore its true potential.

Q     This morning you met some members of the business community. My impression has been that the business community might be the hardest to get on board for all this, especially given that so many in business are focused on the short-term bottom line. I would expect they bring to all this a lot of skepticism, as indeed one business leader who is very committed to your goals nonetheless admitted.

Eichtenthal    That’s what the business community often brings to these sorts of efforts. It’s the ability to ask tough questions and focus on results. That in and of itself is really important. It goes to what the mayor said earlier: This can’t just be government trying to do something, it has to be a community-wide initiative and must actively involve businesses. I mean, if we’re talking about employment and financial security, it’s awful hard to get at those issues without the business community being there. But this is a good deal for the business community. Having a city that is able to both attract and retain talent is a good deal for business.

Q     Yet I worry too many businesses think only of short-term advantage with all focus on that bottom line, not building and retaining workforce for the long term through everything from, say, scholarship programs to financial literacy to better pay. I mean, obviously businesses ranging from DuPuy Oxygen to H-E-B understand this is important through the things they do to attract and retain employees. But how does that message get out to other businesses?

Eichtenthal    I don’t know every business in Waco will buy in to this being the best deal possible, but I think there’s a reasonable and appropriate case to be made as to why all this is in business’ interest, and that includes short-term benefits as well as long-term benefits.

Márquez    Earlier you made a joke about the Prosper Waco staff (and their role in addressing poverty through administrative analysis and coordination, which a few locals have criticized in letters to the paper). In my own experience of working in different places, including the city of Los Angeles where I was deputy mayor, not many institutions acknowledge that it takes more than what they do every day to break through and solve a problem. What I’ve seen is that most institutions and sectors are bursting at the seams of being overtaxed (in workload), very busy, with no more time. They can barely get through what their obligations are, whether it’s making payroll or running the government, whatever. Everyone is at the brink. When you invite people of goodwill who are all at the brink, they come with a level of trepidation because if they have a good idea, you’re going to ask them to execute it and they have no bandwidth left to do it. It’s one of the real reasons why problems don’t get solved and why real conversations don’t pierce problems. After all, what are they going to do when they come up with something? Nothing is going to happen. So you need to create mortar for those bricks and it can’t come out of the folks who are already doing a lot of the work because there’s nothing left of them at the end of the day. What is incredibly important about what’s happening in Waco is that you’ve acknowledged that and you have found a way to invite people in and you’ve told them, “You can leave your good ideas here. You can be frank. We are going to guard your privacy. We’re going to honor your expertise and we’re going to help connect (it all) so that when you come, the hour you spend (with us) has meaning. And the next time you come, we will have moved forward on what you said because we’re providing the mortar to do that.” All kidding aside, if people don’t understand that — that you need that — then the problem is really with those people who just don’t understand. And then the question becomes of those people: “Are you moving forward? Because maybe you’re not.”

Q     You’re coming into a very conservative community in terms of political ideology. The first thing you hear from some is, “Oh, well, the Great Society was a big failure.” The second thing some people offer is that Ronald Reagan line: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’ ” And you hear the inevitable stereotyping of poor people as lazy deadbeats and scofflaws who need to be drug-tested for benefits.

Eichtenthal    I haven’t looked at the 2012 and 2008 election returns, but I would bet Hamilton County, Tennessee (where I have lived), probably didn’t have very different vote totals than this county, but I think what you see, particularly at the local level, even around these sorts of issues and in the way you’ve framed it, is that ideology doesn’t matter nearly as much. People really just want to see results. People want a great community to work in and to live in. I think everyone wants the school system to be a good school system and to educate kids. I think people think it’s a problem if other people are unhealthy and overall indicators about health in the community aren’t as strong as they could be. And I can’t imagine anyone takes pleasure around the fact that a large percentage of the population lives in poverty. I’ve never worked for the federal government, I’ve never worked for state government. When I was in government, it was at the local level. I grew up in New York and a very famous Republican mayor of New York once said, “There is no Republican or Democratic way to pick up the garbage.”

Q     You mean Mayor Michael Bloomberg?

Eichtenthal    No, Fiorello La Guardia — the one they named the airport for. [La Guardia served from 1934 to 1945.] And that’s one of the great things about working on problems at the local level. You’ve got a community that understands that their economic wellbeing, that their life and quality of life, is dependent on addressing these issues. It’s a lot easier to get past these problems of ideology than at the state level or the federal level. And I think people here want to start seeing results. They want to see us doing something and they want reasonable expectations that it will produce a certain positive outcome. One of the great things about Prosper Waco is that it’s focused on hard data, it’s focused on evaluations and measuring results.

Q     During the time you’ve been here, is there one person you met who offered some insight or observation that particularly resonated in a way that relates to the challenges our community faces?

Márquez    I wouldn’t say there was just one, but there are some clear themes that run through our visit. However they’ve come to it, there’s a clear understanding about the need to move forward. But I loved the comment made by one gentleman who talked about growing up on a farm (and how work expectations were clear from an early age).

Q     I wonder if that remark says something about the millennials as employees, since someone else today commented on how difficult it is to reach them about the importance of such things as thinking to call your boss at work when you’re sick and won’t be able to come in.

Márquez    Unfortunately, I’m too old to know that, but he might represent a lot of people’s best values about growing up in this part of the country.

Christa Payne    One gentleman [Wilton Lanning] made a joke about arriving in Waco in 1867 (laughter) and then I thought about the same kind of sentiment expressed by the new assistant city manager who arrived here a month ago. You already feel that people here have deep roots, no matter how long they’ve been here, and they’re really dedicated to this city. We’re talking a lot about programs, but it’s really about strategies and the people who implement them. That’s what will make all this sustainable.

Sullivan    The one who stood out for me was a woman in our workforce discussion who was very clear about how all these discussions were great but how other voices of the community need to be heard, including the unemployed and the underemployed, so that in all the work we’re doing we make sure those populations are really addressed. In that same meeting, there was a young woman who shared her own experience in the education-to-workforce pipeline and she exhibited some of the things we talked about, including moving in and out of poverty and into successful employment and then thriving in this economy.

Q     Are there any cities that we ought to be looking at as they work through these same problems?

Eichtenthal    Lots of cities, including ones we’re working in, look at some of these issues and too readily embrace some of the thoughts you were citing: The poor will always be with us. There’s nothing we can really do about this. The Great Society failed. And all I think about is how I grew up in New York City in the 1970s when the Bronx was burning, the city was on the verge of bankruptcy and I remember going to school in a bowling alley because the teachers were on strike and 40 kids in a classroom was the norm and everybody just knew New York City was going to float off into the Atlantic and would never be heard from again. There was actually a decision made by city planners where they were going to pursue a policy called “planned shrinkage.” The idea was that they were going to start shutting down municipal services in different parts of the city because no one was going to live there anymore, so they started shutting schools and subway stations. And now, anytime I meet millennials who tell me they’re moving to New York, it’s those very places where they’re moving to. And that’s what I mean. There is an ability to turn around and deal with incredibly tough issues and incredibly tough challenges. They didn’t get it done in a year and they didn’t get it done in four years. It took decades, but there was a change in trajectory and progress was made.

Interview conducted, condensed and edited by Bill Whitaker.

Editor's note: In 2012, 64% percent of McLennan County voters selected Mitt Romney as their presidential choice over Barack Obama. In Hamilton County, Tennessee, Romney was favored by 56% of the vote. In 2008, the numbers were 62% and 55%, respectively, for John McCain.