Friday, April 29, 2005

Our "Poverty Industry"

I've been at this "inner city ministry" thing long enough to have learned a few things.

Let me begin with a couple of important disclaimers.

First, I don't know everything. As a matter of fact, the older I grow the more I realize how much I don't know! Nice for the needed humility. For years I have threatened to include an asterisk on my business cards directing people to a parenthetical explanation at the bottom that would read something like, "Beware: this man doesn't know what he is doing!"

Second, the people I have met over the past eleven years who work in the city attempting to make things better, serving people and acting on behalf of the poor are some of the best folks I've ever known. I've found that to be the case across the board.

So, with that as backdrop and context, I need to make an observation or two.

Poverty has created its own industry.

This industry, professional field or category of workers has its own vocabulary, training venues, expectations, along with a fairly static worldview.

Most of the people in this industry have been in it and at it for a long time. Considering how difficult the problems and issues associated with poverty actually turn out to be, you can understand why innovation, energy and piercing clarity don't typically rule the day.

What is here today was present yesterday. The natural expectation is that it will be here tomorrow.

Poverty industry professionals learn to make assumptions about people.

Take the word "client" as an example. I have always hated that word. But, it is a trademark term used daily in this world.

Terms are extremely important. If I can classify you as a "client," I can count you, raise funds off of your various dilemmas and I can keep you at arms length so as to be able to reach more of your kind.

You won't hear people talking like this very often, but after awhile you learn to pick up on the subtleties of what is said, what is not said and how things are said.

I could go on and on.

Last night I was thumbing through an unlikely publication, Business 2.0--I have learned to keep my sanity, perspective and hope alive I need to read widely and far outside the literature produced by "poverty industry" gurus.

As I read through Jeffrey Pfeffer's essay, "Breaking Through Excuses" (May 2005, page 76), I found myself thinking about just how short-sighted and defeatist we can be about people who are dealing with the weight of poverty.

Pfeffer notes that "Most managers are good at explaining why something can't be done. . . .It's as though a requirement for entering the ranks of management today is the ability to generate excuses for why it's impossible to do things everyone agrees are important. . . . If you allow excuses to impede change, you don't merely fail to improve. You also risk losing out to those who see challenges as obstacles to be surmounted."

Wow! Do I run into this on a daily basis!

Service providers, church leaders, politicians, foundation funders, government bureaucrats, business leaders--the nay sayers come from every sector.

But, I must say, the most discouraging words often come from the folks closest to the street who are trying to make things better. It is just true. If you adopt a poverty industry mindset, you seem to be consigned to what I would describe as a "down-in-the-mouth" disposition!

I hate that!

Pfeffer offers a 3-step way out that he picked up from Rudy Crew, head of Miami-Dade County school system. Now there is a challenging job that would get to most of us and quickly!

Crew offers three suggestions.

First, do not accept preemptory surrender--giving up before you start. People who don't get this should be released from duty.

Several years ago, Jim Sowell, my dear friend, amazing business leader and the founder of CDM, listened to me bemoaning some issue or challenge.

Finally, he looked me in the eye and said, "Larry, you are a can-do kind of guy. Just find a way to get it done."

Conversation over. I'm grateful that Jim wouldn't let me stay in defeat before I even got started.

Second, move beyond "reasonable" excuses to find "unreasonable" solutions. This is all about vision, as Pfeffer suggests.

If people in the poverty industry don't think you're a little crazy, you likely are on the wrong trail.

John Greenan, Executive Director of our community development corporation, is famous for pulling rabbits out of hats around here when it comes to housing development.

For example, for almost the past five years, he has been working with a public partner to construct 237 units of housing, as well as almost 50,000 square feet of retail development in what once was a "bombed out" area of East Dallas.

When completed, the project's value will be around $25 million. Our CDC has less than $200,000 in the development!

John has had lots of opportunity to make excuses. Instead, he always opts for "unreasonable solutions."

Third, demolish excuses by example. Leaders must develop a real love for trenches! Leaders must face excuses, not make excuses. Leaders must work personally, sometimes at the grassroots level, to overcome the challenges that give excuses life and legs.

I dislike the poverty industry. I hate poverty and charity. I get up every morning because of friends of mine who make my life a blast.

Many of them deserve much, much better. And you know, come to think of it, they seldom make excuses.

[For additional reflection on American need and the caregiving service sector check out John McKnight's The Careless Society: Community and Its Counterfeits.]


Jeremy Gregg said...

Larry, regarding your disclaimer.... a quote from George Bernard Shaw that I just came across:

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the conditions that surround him. The unreasonable man adapts surrounding conditions to himself. All progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

Here's to your unreasonableness! :)

Joseph said...

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