One of the enjoyable aspects of my work is that I get to talk to people about urban issues and urban community development. I especially like the times I get to speak with students in university settings. Talking to students forces a clarity and a sharpness that otherwise would allude me.
Over time I have developed a handful of ideas that I consider fundamental to nurturing community development in a social context dominated by poverty and its unique problems.
This feels like an appropriate space to discuss some of these essential notions.
Without a doubt this concept or, better, this commitment is the most important truth I have learned in the past twelve years.
People possess the power, the capacity and the desire to solve their own problems, if they are given the resources they need and the opportunity they crave.
People don't need help nearly as much as they need a chance.
I bump into this reality every day.
Years ago, my role at Central Dallas Ministries was much different than it is today.
When I first came here in 1994, I was spending five-days-a week interviewing low-income people in our Food Pantry. On Sundays, I was out in churches begging for money and volunteers.
I wasn't doing very well on either ask because we were always short on both!
Back then, all of our volunteers drove in from suburban or Park Cities churches and neighborhoods. Everyone who volunteered was white.
All of the material resources were on one side of the equation. All of the need was on the other.
Relationships with the community always felt pretty much "one down." You know, paternalistic, neo-colonial.
One day my world and the world of CDM changed in a moment.
I found myself facing three Hispanic mothers with their beautiful children.
The three women were perfect strangers to one another and to me.
Not a very "professional" way to do "social work."
But then, I've never had a social work class in my life. The only time I've even been in a social work class was when I taught one at Pepperdine University last fall.
But, back to the women.
These three delightful people were attempting to combine their limited English to overcome my absolute stupidity when it comes to speaking Spanish.
We weren't getting too far.
As we sat there in growing frustration, Josefina Ortiz, an older woman who had already been interviewed and assisted, walked by.
I stopped her and asked if she could help me.
I learned then, and have learned many times since then, that this is a very important question for "helpers" to learn how to ask those they seek to "help."
She replied that she would be very happy to help me. She sat down with us and translated the conversation. As a result, we were able to provide the assistance the three families sought.
As they were leaving, I turned to Ms. Ortiz and began thanking her profusely, still not realizing what an asset I had right in front of me.
She had the good sense to turn back to me when she reached the door. I will never forget what she said:
"Larry, I could come back tomorrow and help you."
I told her that would be great because, as she could see, I needed the help!
Josefina came back "tomorrow" for nine years.
That afternoon when the pantry closed, I returned to my upstairs office. As I was looking out my large window on the "crack house" next door, I received a very clear message.
The message was in two parts.
First, I was told that I was dead wrong about the neighborhood. Even though I thought I knew what it needed, I couldn't possibly know.
Second, I had been wrong to look at the community only in terms of need, especially material need. I should look at the neighborhood in terms of its assets. And, I should realize that there are all kinds of asset besides the material variety.
Immediately, Josefina's face came to mind.
The lesson was so clear. The truth so obvious.
Over the next forty-five days we set out to change our organizational culture and change it quickly.
Every person who came through our doors was encouraged to talk not just about their needs, but also about their assets.
Further, we invited every person who came to us to return and serve the community as a volunteer.
Almost overnight we had more volunteers than we knew what to do with.
Several things happened.
We lost almost all of our suburban volunteers. We now have several hundred volunteers in our database and 99% are community people who continue to access our various resources and services.
People from outside the community who were our supporters questioned our sanity.
"Looks like you have the lunatics running the asylum," one dedicated supporter told me with a smile.
"These people will steal you blind," I was told in countless ways, again and again.
Finally, I had the presence of mind to form a standard reply that went something like,
"You know, you are correct. In this business you're going to have some theft. But, I've noticed that it is one of two kinds. It's either canned corn or human dignity. I'm going with the canned corn cartel!"
Over the years we've stayed with this model.
It is the one essential, fixed, non-negotiable ingredient in our mix here at CDM.
Whatever success we have enjoyed is directly related to this approach and to the principle of "people power" back of it.
Our volunteers run our Resource Centers, both on Haskell and inside Roseland Homes.
This amazing group of people serves as a 24-7 "think tank" of sorts.
Every idea, every initiative, every response to poverty has arisen from the collective and individual wisdom expressed by these amazing people.
There is no way for me to overestimate their importance or their continuing impact.
Talk about wealth! Social capital and collective efficacy continue to transform everything about our efforts to re-invent and develop community in inner-city neighborhoods here in Dallas and in San Antonio where we have a sister organization.
Mark it down.
If you mission is to grow community then. . .
. . .People cannot be treated as projects.
. . .People cannot be treated as problems.
. . .People cannot be treated as "opportunities for ministry."
. . .People cannot be treated as if they should be disconnected or disengaged from the primary process at work.
. . .People must not be seen as clients.
. . .People must be trusted and valued as they are, for who they are.
You see, transforming truth is quite different.
The truth is, people are my neighbors and I am their neighbor.
The truth is, people, all people are powerful.
The truth is, people are beautiful, promising, full of wonder and great, great potential.
People power--it is the only place to start, to live, to conclude.