After the Storm

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This was the second time I had been part of a relief mission after a storm. The first was over half a lifetime ago. I had just finished my junior year of high school and received an invitation to participate in some cleanup and restoration work in the southern tip of Florida.  There, a community had been hit by a fairly powerful hurricane, nearly a year prior, and crews were still being dispatched to help with the ongoing efforts. I don’t remember any of my youth leaders discussing what to expect, and maybe they didn’t even know.  However, I’m sure I carried in my own expectations based on the values and messages I’d picked up along the way about what it meant to help.

There is a lot I could say about our experiences, however, one stands out in my mind.  We had been informed that we would be helping in a neighborhood that was being restored and that we would be assisting by painting a house.  About ten of us, all white middle-class teens, were dropped off at a small home in a Latino community. The home appeared to have been there way before the storm.  It was made of concrete block with all concrete floors and open windows (no glass). As we scurried to begin our assignment, I noticed family members wandering around, as if strangers in their own home.  I had been conditioned to think that the family would be “grateful” for our help, but here we were and it all felt awkward. We were quickly loaded up with paint cans and began painting the exterior of the house.  My friends seemed unphased as they were eager to get started. Like most teens in similar situations, their focus was on each other. So, they began painting the house, painting one another, and basically goofing off.  This time, however, I was in my own zone, walking around bewildered at what was happening. I then wandered in the living room and came face to face with the Matriarca (mother). We locked eyes for what seemed like an extended period of time and a deep shame and sadness came over me.  

In that moment I realized that the issue at hand was not a storm, but chronic poverty and injustice, and the remedy was not a few gallons of paint. In fact, I didn’t have the words to put to it, but I realized that we were somehow contributing to the problem.  

Did anyone ask this family what they really needed?  Was anyone’s dignity considered in this process? Why did a group of kids from Ohio need to come to Florida to do what the residents had the capability to do, and probably much better?  Was this really about them….or about us?

Please don’t misinterpret my statements to suggest that service doesn’t matter or that “people should just take care of themselves.”  Quite the contrary. It’s an honor and a responsibility to come alongside people in need, both near and far. Rather, I’m suggesting that HOW we serve matters. This includes the actions we take and the position of our hearts.

Nearly three weeks ago our Dayton community suffered devastating storms.  Many of us have already had the opportunity to serve our neighbors and will continue to have opportunities to serve over a long period of recovery. As we do, I offer up a couple principles to help guide our actions.

Listen first and don’t assume to know what others need. Listening includes giving up preconceived notions of what people may need, asking how you can be of assistance and paying attention to the material, as well as the psychological and spiritual needs of others.  

Respect and defer to local leadership.  Outside relief can be a huge asset because of the manpower needed to mobilize and resource such efforts. However, all relief and recovery  efforts should be accountable to, and in lockstep partnership with, indigenous leaders inside neighborhoods impacted.

Lastly, do WITH instead of TO or FOR others. Tragedy can break down neighborhood and other invisible barriers that divide us.  As we do, let’s not miss the opportunity to cultivate new friendships that extend beyond the needs of today to the gift we have of each other.  

Marlo Fox, Executive Director, Think Tank, Inc.

To learn more about Marlo's work, please visit thinktank-inc.org


Survival Mode

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I wasn’t feeling well, not like the kind of “under the weather” that a cup of tea and rest would remedy... more like, I’m not sure I can talk or get out of bed sort of sick. But life wasn’t stopping and I had responsibilities—so I decided to push through. Feeling determined, I left for a big work trip scheduled across the country that required hours of travel and leading a two day training.

I’m pretty tenacious, so even when doubtful thoughts emerged, I quieted them with positive self talk and determination. I prayed for travel mercy and for everything to be smooth sailing—no curve balls. I love my work and many days get energy from it, so I knew the trip would be fine.

It was NOT fine.

From the beginning balls were being thrown my way, and repeatedly I felt like I was going to strike out. I wanted to go home, I wanted to sit back on the bench. I even questioned if I wanted to be on the team anymore.

At the start, I was delayed by TSA and almost missed my flight. I sat crammed in a middle seat on the plane, arrived onsite at the training, and did not have the materials I needed. The agenda for the training became taken over by one crisis after another. Things were a total mess.

I’d like to say that everything turned around... sunshine and roses met me at the end of the whole ordeal... that is not what happened. Yeah, it worked out, but it did not end up being anything close to a home run. I was in survival mode nearly the entire trip.

The whole experience made me think of my friends who struggle in poverty, and how survival mode can actually teach us a thing or two. Here are a few insights I have after some reflection:

Practice gratitude
I had to be intentionally thankful. When I was stuck on a plane for hours with little leg room, I reminded myself of how blessed I am to travel the country and get paid to do it. I had to appreciate that I wasn’t sitting next to a Chatty Cathy and I was able to finally finish a good book.

Don’t give in to scarcity
I had moments when I clearly didn’t have enough (training material shipment didn’t make it to the site). I was forced to figure it out. I had to problem solve and think about a plan B and sometimes even a plan C and D.

Communicate your needs
I had to lean on the relationships in my life. I had to text my husband and ask for words of encouragement. I had to ask my coworkers (back home in Ohio) for help and let go of control.

Work Hard
There where times I had to roll up my sleeves and get my hands dirty, even do some physical work that was difficult while feeling sick. I had to make a decision to not give up and when it would have been easier to say, “Sorry I can’t do that.” I had to use grit and keep going.

Embrace Fear
The unknown can be really scary for a perfectionist like myself. I had to take ambiguity and turn it into a place of creativity. Quickly making decisions around risk and recognize that mistakes can be learning opportunities not failure.

While this experience is just a record of a few tough days for me, I can’t help but think about those who have to navigate the reality of life throwing curve ball, after curve ball, day after day. The families who stand in a batting cage, of sorts, with balls coming at them full speed with no bat in their hand.

The mother who doesn’t have enough money for decent shoes, but continues to stand on her feet everyday with discomfort and work hard. The returning citizen who is turned down for one job after another, but continues to be grateful for each job interview. The Grandparent raising grandchildren, who sets pride aside, and asks for help because they need it. The first generation college student who is scared to death to take that first class, but doesn’t let fear get the best of them, and gets a degree. All the families who don’t have enough—money, time, relationships, the list goes on...they don’t give into scarcity, they live out perseverance.

So, I survived. I didn’t win, but I stayed in the game...

I think we have a lot to learn from those who survive and stay in the game. Stepping up to the plate, even though the likelihood of striking out is high. Those who don’t give up. Those who despite obstacles, continue to make ends meet and survive.

We must appreciate the resilience that it takes to keep playing, even when you’re not on the winning team. The strength that comes from being in survival mode cannot go unnoticed.

Who do you know that is doing their best to survive? What are you doing to cheer them on as they step up to the plate?

Heather Cunningham, Training Director, Think Tank, Inc.

To learn more about Heather’s work, please visit thinktank-inc.org

Waiting to Be Developed

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I was in my late twenties when I was exposed to the idea of greenfield and brownfield development. Never having formal training on urban planning or economic development, it took me some time to understand what was involved.  Simply put, greenfields include undeveloped land (in a city or rural area) that has never been built upon. Brownfields, in contrast, are abandoned areas of previous industrial or commercial use which have the potential for redevelopment.  Both spaces hold opportunity for fresh purpose and use; be it recreational, commercial or some other type of development.

Living in a mid-size city that possesses many brownfield and greenfield assets, the subject of brownfield versus greenfield development always seemed to spark lively conversation and imagination.  In some ways, it was equally scary to entertain either option. There was something about our untouched land that seemed sacred and safe. Paving paradise to put up a parking lot felt like corruption of something formerly pure and sacred.  At the same time, brownfield development could mean resurrecting the dead; scouring through toxins and reliving old failures and wounds.

Who knew that land use and development would be the theme that would pop into my head on the first day of the new year, 2019.

 It does seem that strange metaphors have a tendency to find their way into my brain at just the right time. These images, however, hold symbolic meaning for most of our lives.  As we think about the year ahead, there are undoubtedly undeveloped lands where the soil is ready to be tilled. It can feel risky to try something new….to pave a way into the wilderness.  Past screw-ups or disappointments can weld themselves into our psyche enough to convince us that not trying is better than “getting it wrong.” Therefore, too many canvasses don’t get painted and musical instruments don’t get played. People don’t get the help they need and we unconsciously convince ourselves that life is easier spent passively consuming than actively creating.   On the other hand, revisiting wastelands can also seem risky and painful. Whether it is a relationship that needs forgiveness and mending or a project in the garage that I’ve started three times and can’t seem to finish, brownfields require me to clean through a mess to find new glory revealed. In reality, some brownfields need to be left alone. The investment required to decontaminate or resurrect old structures just aren’t worth it at this time.  However, each one of us probably have areas of life that we thought were dead that just need a little disciplined effort and creativity to be given new or refreshed purpose again.

I’m grateful to say that at Think Tank we are constantly given the opportunity for greenfield and brownfield development, metaphorically speaking.  This year holds the promise of new collaborations that give platform for people, who are transcending poverty, to share their stories and be given greater influence to lead change.   Additionally, we have some old projects that we’re excited to dust off and bring new life to again.

I hope you’ll take the next few days in quiet reflection and imagination about your life’s areas of wilderness and wasteland, waiting to be developed in 2019.

Marlo Fox, Executive Director, Think Tank, Inc.

To learn more about Marlo's work, please visit thinktank-inc.org


More Than A Place to Lay My Head

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A couple weeks ago I spent some time in Portland. I had heard and read about the accelerating state of homelessness in Seattle, Portland & other West Coast cities, but this is the first time that I had seen it at this level with my own eyes. I am embarrassed to say that in the moment I found myself going back & forth between staring at the roadside tent camps and just wanting to look away - pretending this wasn't happening to real people in this beautiful city.

You see, most of the time poverty & its effects are not so visible to many of us and poverty manifests itself in a variety of ways.

However, there are a few lessons that we can draw upon from Portland’s battle to combat homelessness, that serve as an illustration for all of us working to fight poverty in our own communities.First, we must acknowledge that the issues are always more than what’s on the surface. Some of us may have been conditioned  to think that such circumstances arise because of personal failures on the part of those affected. Yet we know that individuals working full-time in low-wage jobs in Portland are paying up to 80% or more on rent alone. In order to understand the forces contributing to  poverty, we must be willing to see the big picture, while listening to those affected without judgment.Second, sometimes good intentions backfire.  County Commissioners serving the Portland area made a bold move to promise every homeless individual a shelter.  However, their no-turn-away sheltering policy proved to be more than the city could handle and ended up drawing people in need of shelter from other counties and other states, exacerbating the issue.  We can’t always anticipate the unintended consequences of our actions, however, we know that all too often our helping actually hurts.  That’s why it is so vital to include many voices in the solutions, from those with power and resources to those directly affected by the issues.Finally, relationships are key. - There are many critical services in our communities that meet people in their state of crisis and provide relief.  Yet as we move beyond crisis management to address the root causes driving poverty, we realize how vital a network of supportive relationships are. Many who find themselves on the streets experience great isolation, and do not have access to people with the resources and committed presence to ensure their wellbeing.   We believe that it takes more than a program or charity to create transformation in the lives of individuals and communities impacted by poverty. That's why we place our focus on building relationships across economic lines.Think Tank is over a decade old now.  When we started Think Tank, we recognized that there were thousands of people and organizations on the front lines of poverty alleviation, but very few were coming alongside these helpers.  We knew that we had to be champions for them, and to ask the hard questions about how our helping was benefiting, or hurting people living in poverty. Additionally, we believed in working to ensure that people with lived experience in poverty were center stage - influencing the direction & priorities that our communities embraced.  We recognize that we have not been exempt from imposing help that has hurt or charging ahead with solutions without first stopping to listen to the voices and leadership provided by people who have experienced poverty.  This is why we value our relationships so much. Relationships developed across economic lines are the heartbeat and discipline that keeps us working together for the good of our communities.  This season, I encourage you to take some time to:

  • Recognize that poverty is more than what you may see on the surface. Be quick to listen rather than judge.

  • Offer a word of appreciation to those that labor day in and out to fight the root causes of poverty in your community.

  • Think about how you might take a step to build a relationship with someone experiencing material poverty.

Give Some Grace

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I worked from the coffee shop today. I am an extrovert. My energy from being around people. This is usually great for my line of work, unless I have a bunch of projects to complete and my need to connect with people becomes a distraction. Write... research… emails… or people… I pick people every time. So, I drive to a coffee shop out of town every other week to help with my productivity. It’s working! I get to be around people, but I’m not distracted. Well, most of the time I am not distracted…“I CAME BY HERE, INSTEAD OF GOING HOME AFTER THE DOCTOR. THEY GOT THAT DELICIOUS STRAWBERRY SALAD!” A voice from behind me yelled. It was actually sort of startling at first. I perked up in the booth. “YEAH I DON’T HAVE A HOME PHONE ANYMORE. JUST THIS PORTABLE ONE...” she continued. Her conversation cut through all the surrounding sounds, the classical music playing, customers ordering, and even the loud coffee machines. She continued with her phone conversation on speaker phone for nearly fifteen minutes! The rest of the coffee drinkers in the place and I could tell you what has happened in the little lady’s life the last month, in GREAT DETAIL. From the garden she didn’t feel up to planting this year, to her new neighbors who have an unruly dog. A few times I thought, I wonder if she knows her cell phone is on speaker? What would happen if someone said to her politely, “Ma’am everyone can hear you, could you talk quieter?” Instead I decided to observe the other folks in the room. The young college student with headphones just chuckled and turned up his music. The couple who smiled at me repeatedly and the woman even got up to refill her drink and leaned over and said, “Isn’t that cute?” The group of men who seemed to be doing some serious business, made a few comments to themselves about it and then (with smiles) moved to another table, but said nothing. The woman with a small child, winked at me a few times and audibly laughed.

Everyone offered grace.

I was really puzzled by the ordeal. I mean she was loud… it was distracting. It was against the rules and all coffee shop etiquette. I kept asking myself, why did everyone give the woman a free pass? It’s not fair. That’s the problem with grace – it’s not fair. And that’s why we don’t like it – we have so many expectations that life is, or at least should be, fair. Grace disrupts this idea and introduces a variable that is uncomfortable. We prefer order, stability, even predictability. Why? Because, that gives us the illusion that we are in control.If we know the rules and can count on them, then we figure that by playing by those rules we stay in the game. Which is why we get upset when someone comes and messes with them.When you’re in poverty, when the world hasn’t been fair to you, or when you’re the one who screwed up and hurt yourself or someone else, then, suddenly, grace matters. Grace matters if you live alone and haven’t had a conversation with your granddaughter in months—just a quick phone call and getting out of the house for a strawberry salad makes the isolation go away for the day. Grace matters if you’re an eighty-year-old in the local coffee shop. Grace is for the people who break from norms. Sometimes they just don’t have it all together. Sometimes the rules are out of date and grace can provide the space to realize that maybe the rules need a revision. Grace is uncomfortable sometimes – in that it messes with our sense of order – but when we extend grace, it’s an opportunity to see our neighbor and connect to the brokenness we all have.


With these connections we can build something beautiful, together…

Where do you have an opportunity to give grace this week? 

Lessons on Sweet Potato Fries and Airplanes

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Have you ever tried to put 30 pounds of apples into a ten pound bag?I often live under the illusion that I can fit just one more minor task in my day, a practice that works for me most of the time.Such was the case when I recently landed in Tampa, Florida and discovered that I had been spared what I thought was the perfect amount of time to grab a bite 'to go' from the food court next to my gate. I ordered, paid more than I wanted to, and stood there drooling over the fact that it was going to be all worth it when I bit down on those fresh sweet potato fries.These days, the luxury of filling my belly between flight connections is a rarity.As the minutes began to pass, I started to feel a little more panicked.  Certain signs began to tell me I may have to choose between my food and the flight home. I was feeling terrible because I had dragged my colleague into this mess, and she was probably not going to get her order either. The women working the grill were moving in slow motion, like a cartoon. “Hadn't their manager told them that they work in an airport?’ I thought to myself. “Pick up the pace ladies!!”  In a panic, I told the cashier that we were going to miss our plane. She clearly didn't care. Food, or plane? We chose plane.I huffed and puffed about this whole situation through the bulk of our two-hour flight home. By the time we landed, it would be close to nine hours since our last meal.Then it hit me hard. We'd just come from a conference on social factors that drive negative health outcomes, especially for people in poverty.  Just several hours earlier I was having conversations about the countless seniors in this country who are choosing between buying food or medicine. Hourly workers are grabbing chips in the vending machine for lunch, because they are experiencing scarcity of time or money.  Parents are spending four dollars a gallon for milk at the local convenience mart, because they have no transportation and the closest grocery is a fifty minute walk.I needed to NOT get my food that day. My current state of life allows me the privilege to not care about the food insecurity of people in my own community, if I so choose. My privilege invites me to cling to two extreme and dehumanizing narratives, either:

  1. That people experience hunger because they are helpless victims of a terrible system, or
  2. That they are just living with the consequences of their own behavior.

These narratives place me in characters I wasn't meant to play, as the hero rescuing the victim or the protagonist using blame or shame to justify my own apathetic state.Listen up folks because here is the point: We have a full-on assault to caring in our country because these narratives are being applied to a whole host of social issues including homelessness, substance abuse, social isolation, racism and more.  And if we continue to embrace them, then we continue to erode what we know to be true in the depths of our soul... that all people have inherent dignity and value. This truth requires us to care and engage with inequity; working towards just systems with people experiencing poverty at the center of the change, as key actors in their own story.But caring is like a muscle. It has to be consistently strengthened or it will atrophy. And sometimes that strengthening comes through little annoyances, like not getting my food. 


 For up-to-date information on food insecurity in America go to foodinsight.org.

There’s No Place Like Home

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We moved. For the last few years my husband and I have been working on a master plan to sell our house and relocate to an urban neighborhood. A neighborhood that is on the cusp of the poorest part of our city. Intentionally moving from a house less than a mile from our local country club, with the best schools, beautiful homes and well manicured lawns. We made a decision to move from a neighborhood that’s desired by many. Doesn’t make much sense, right? Why would we do such a thing? 

I could tell you that the new house is in a great neighborhood, full of historic homes. (We love big old houses.) I might add that we are excited to be a small part of a revitalization of our downtown. I could mention that we know lots of the people who are part of the neighborhood association who live there, and we like how they think and what they do. But really those are not the reasons we moved.

The answer is simple, we moved because of Community.

We love community. We feel at home with people. We thrive in the tension of unfamiliar settings. We want to move from the back yard to the front porch. We want our children raised in a diverse socioeconomic environment. We want to breathe life into the old victorian home and restore its beauty.Sounds wonderful doesn’t it? Well we moved and it’s not. It is really hard. I’ve second-guessed our decision daily the last month for reasons I didn’t anticipate. Reasons that make me think about the statement, “There’s No Place Like Home”. This place is full of people being neighbors. Walking around and stopping by unannounced. Emails for dessert parties and neighborhood clean-up days. Calls to offer help with yard work and play date requests with the kids.This place has poverty in our face. Police cruisers frequent the streets. Litter in our yard. Houses with tarps on the windows. Unfamiliar noises in the middle of the night. 

As I reflect, I see that this new journey gives me the opportunity to better understand that community isn’t a place at all.

It’s a way of living.It’s a long process.It’s courageous people.It’s uncomfortable.It’s a platform for change.

Everyday, I get the privilege of helping individuals and institutions work on comprehensive solutions to holistic poverty alleviation. I develop and lead trainings that help folks shift their view of poverty. I know this stuff. I understand the power of relationships and the realities of our broken system.As our family enters into this new space of community, I recognize that I have my own isolation. Isolation is a destructive comfort, that can be difficult to recognize. In our own way, we are all isolated.I know I have more to learn and share, as my layers of isolation thaw, in this new community we now call home.

Stay tuned.

 Heather Cunningham, Training Director, Think Tank, Inc. To learn more about Heather’s work, please visit thinktank-inc.org

Get Back Up

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I'd like a do-over for 2018,” my husband says to me in his new raspy voice.  It was Groundhog Day and we'd barely made it off the starting block for the year. His comment caused me to pause. I guess things had been a little bumpy lately.  In fact, we had not until then verbally acknowledged the silent inventory of recent events that I had been subconsciously calculating in my head. Sudden illnesses including blood clots, the flu, bronchitis and laryngitis.  Sprained ankle, broken toe and subsequent medical bills.  Unexpected expenses, loss of income, frozen pipes, nearly every major household appliance shutting down, permanent hearing loss, dead car battery and the list goes on.In less than 40 days our family had encountered 20 different “stop you in your tracks” kind of setbacks.  At least 20 is the number of events that I could recall in that moment, when I finally decided to write them down. I cringe when I read this because the thought of putting our vulnerabilities on display makes me sick to my stomach.  Yet, there are bigger lessons encapsulated in this small window of our lives, and I’d like to share how one might view this through a different perspective.Glancing over this fresh list of wounds actually provided an unexpected and welcome surprise.  Rather than loathing, self pity, or an overwhelming sense of defeat- I felt gratitude, humility and and an air of hope.  Grace swept over me.  There is something about the process of being knocked down that provides an opportunity to get back up.  And when undergirded with faith, forgiveness and perspective, the rising can be a great strengthening exercise. As I thought about our circumstances, in my mind I began to canvas all of the faces of individuals I’ve known to whom life had given a disproportionate amount of sucker-punches.  People who through the conditions of poverty had faced social exclusion, discrimination, economic and physical hardship.  

And I saw them getting back up.

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When one job was lost, they picked up two more. When they faced physical hardship, they turned their energy toward caring for others. As funds became tighter, their creativity leveraged every resource they had. Yet, in the communities where they lived, many were seen only in relation to their defeats. Shame filled the space where redemption should live. The question we must ask ourselves in our quest for youth, wealth or perfection- where are we missing out on opportunities to find wisdom, strength and life from the broken? In our newsfeed, dinner conversation, books and podcasts - whose voices are we listening to? Our communities desperately need the voices of those who have faced immense challenges. We need the wisdom of those who have earned a few extra wrinkles and scars.  We need to trust and invest in those who keep getting back up. When we consider our own communities and the neighborhoods facing critical need - have we calculated a balance sheet that categorizes people as liabilities, and perhaps are overlooking our greatest assets?How might the resilient in your community share their wisdom and offer their leadership?by Marlo Fox for Think Tank, Inc. — to learn more about Marlo’s work, please visit thinktank-inc.org

Surviving the storm

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What's on my heart this month: On hurricanes and kids in poverty

As I write, our hearts and prayers are with those in Florida who are picking up the pieces after Hurricane Irma. We probably all have friends or loved ones who hunkered down and weathered the storm, fearful for their homes, families, neighbors, and communities.As I watched the news and prayed for those enduring the storm, my thoughts turned to families we know who live in poverty and the thing they have in common with hurricane victims: Living in survival mode. For someone weathering a natural disaster, life is very quickly focused on just a few things. Decisions are honed in on immediate needs. Long-term thoughts, like next year's or even next week's plans, are tabled until the storm is over.If you didn't know there was a storm, you might think those decisions were strange, even hard to understand. Why hole up in your house? Why not get up and go to work like other people? Why not think about your future?But factor in the storm, and it makes a lot more sense. In the same way, the "hurricane analogy" helps me better understand the decisions of someone living in poverty: Because they are living daily in a storm that is foreign to me, and for them life is about survival.Here's an example. For the past month or so, I've been working to match a delightful young woman through our mentoring program. She's eager to have a mentor -- and we have someone eager to mentor her. But communication has been hit-or-miss and the process has dragged on. I'll text her, she'll confirm and then cancel a few days later. Or I'll show up and her grandma is not home to sign paperwork. Or phones will be turned off for a week or more.In my world, this is frustrating. But in her world, one with no car, intermittent phone, a revolving door of living situations, a grandma with her hands full, and very little scheduling, this is normal. Honestly, for someone living in a storm, she's doing pretty well.Living in a storm, only thinking about survival, is not a place for anyone to stay permanently. It's not a place to flourish. But it's a starting point for us to understand those whose decisions don't always make sense to us.Thank you for being an advocate for those kids and families in our community who are weathering hidden storms! Together we are seeing kids grow toward their God-given potential -- not just surviving, but thriving.Faith Bosland | SCYMTo learn more about Faith's work visit http://www.crushtheodds.org/

An Operating System Gone Wrong

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Not too long ago, I found myself paralyzed in the moment.In light of the everyday tragedies that fill our world, this was really just a blip on the radar -- however, in that moment, I was reminded of how dependent most of us have become on technology for our most basic everyday functioning.  It was after lunch, and I was preparing to print materials for a board meeting late that afternoon and for a presentation the next morning. So naturally, at that exact point in time, my computer’s operating system decided that it was time for an update. Nevermind that I had previously set aside several reminders to update my system, or that I was the one that had chosen to use a PC instead of a Mac. For the next 45 minutes, I could do nothing but sit and wait for my computer to reconfigure itself into something more functional.All of us operate within systems that we did not design and likely have little control over. Most of us don’t spend much time thinking about all of the operating systems that govern our lives, humming quietly in the background. On my laptop or mobile device, I have a tendency to focus my attention on all of the shiny programs and applications that offer greater efficiency, more robust communication, or inspire new creativity. However, ask any Microsoft executive about Windows Vista and you will hear the haunting tale of an operating system gone wrong, causing Microsoft to fall behind during an important season in mobile and traditional computing. Perhaps we have something to learn about the work of poverty alleviation from our friends in technology. Connections often reveal themselves in unlikely places. Each year, we spend millions of dollars and countless hours of personal investment on the development of new programs aimed at addressing poverty. There is no doubt that these developments have spurred progress in many areas and have helped to improve quality of life and hope for many. At Think Tank, we encourage the development and cultivation of models of poverty alleviation that focus on restoring people to wholeness. However, in that process, we think it is vital that we get under the hood and look at our operating system driving the work of poverty alleviation in our communities. In other words, it’s not just about what we do to address poverty, it’s about how we do it.  

Change is most effective when those we serve have an equal say and stake in making their communities better.

To that end, we lift up five practices that must become ingrained into how we go about addressing poverty in our communities. These five practices are essential if we are going to attack American poverty at its core. First of all, we have an opportunity to break out of our compartmentalized way of thinking that, for example, views health only in terms of healthcare or housing only in terms of bricks and mortar. We must recognize the interconnected parts of people and communities and pursue holistic solutions.Secondly, we must cultivate the discipline of listening first. It’s easy for people, out of a desire to help, to assume what needs are present in their community and give accordingly. Yet, better outcomes happen when we first listen to those we want to help and truly value their experiences, needs, and goals.Instead of inspiring people to work for their communities, we should care about people working with their communities. Doing with, rather than ‘doing to’ or ‘doing for’, should be our default posture.Additionally, we believe change is most effective when those we serve have an equal say and stake in making their communities better. That sustained change is dependent upon intentionally promoting leadership from within communities impacted by poverty.And finally, and perhaps most importantly, we must learn to take an authentically-relational approach to fighting poverty. In an American society that continues to become more diverse, we need more contexts where people can connect meaningfully across difference. We know that relationships facilitate individual and community change, so we must build social capital -- especially among, and with, neighborhoods impacted by poverty.I am reminded time and again that change comes both in spite of us and, by the grace of God, through us. It comes, and the systems will adapt, just as they’ve always done. But, we have a choice in how change is seated within us.Poverty is already proof of an operating system gone wrong. Will we check our own to fix it?tt-blog-spark_o2by Marlo Fox for Think Tank, Inc. — to learn more about Marlo’s work, please visit thinktank-inc.org

Privileged Discontent

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I couldn’t shake it. On the bus. In the street. At the apartment next door. Homelessness. Poverty. Drugs. Systemic marginalization. A blind eye turned. A gaze diverted. I was growing numb. Numb to the realities of a fallen world. My heart was hardening and I had to stop it.I’d spent the past six years learning the ins and outs of some of our world’s most successful companies. From Honda to General Electric to Northrop Grumman to Boeing. I’d earned my engineering degree from The Ohio State University and soon found myself on the fast track to executive management at the world’s largest aerospace company. By many accounts, I was winning. Winning at this thing called life. Yet I couldn’t shake it. The growing discontentment. It was becoming far too easy for me to move through the routines of daily life in my safe bubble of self-absorption. Eat. Sleep. Work. Make money. Spend money. Be entertained. Do it again. Over and over.Why me? Had I earned this life? Why are some people forced to suffer in the pits of generational poverty, while others coast scot-free on the backs of their forefathers? What was I doing to help? Do I have an obligation to help? Was I actually part of the problem? I needed to know.These questions, and many more, plagued me. The more I learned about the complexities of poverty, the more distracted I became. I’d sit at my desk, staring at drawings of pressure bulkheads, and wonder how a man could possibly get to the point where he is content to dig his ‘meals’ out of a trash can. I’d wonder what led the young woman to work the street corner just to get by. That couldn’t possibly be her preferred choice…could it? I knew I had to do something, but I just wasn’t sure what.I’d grown disgusted with my unmerited privilege -- a White male raised in a middle-class family. Don’t get me wrong, I’m thankful for those that worked tirelessly to put me in this position and for the freedoms that this life has gifted me, but I just wasn’t sure that I was leveraging those freedoms appropriately.

I needed personal faces, smiles, tears and stories to be at the center of my framework. I needed them to shape me…mold me…break me. I had so much to learn. I have so much to learn.

At Boeing, I was losing my passion for a career that I’d dreamed about for so many years. The lifestyle of Corporate America was weighing on me and I didn’t have the strength to fight it. I was no longer that young man who out-hustled everyone in the workplace. I was subtly becoming okay with average work. Believe me, that is NOT okay. So, I moved. I made a switch. I took a risk.From Boeing to Coffee Crafters Academy. From building airplanes in Seattle, WA to making coffee inside of prisons around Central Ohio. I quit my job and promising career to serve with the AmeriCorps VISTA program. I needed to get as close to poverty as I could. Books and TED Talks were no longer enough. I needed personal faces, smiles, tears and stories to be at the center of my framework. I needed them to shape me…mold me…break me. I had so much to learn. I have so much to learn.For me, prison has been my playground over the past year, and I’ve been astounded by what I’ve learned. Take a look at these facts:

  • We, as a country, incarcerate nearly 25% of the world’s total prison population (over 2.3mil people without being a markedly “safer” country)

  • Our average annual cost of incarcerating each prisoner is over $31k

  • Our average rate of a prisoner returning to state prison within 5yrs of being released is an astonishing 76.6%

Folks, our prison system is not working, and it’s about time that we try something different.Prior to joining Coffee Crafters Academy, I knew nothing about our country’s prison system. Again, a prime example of my privilege. I didn’t need to know anything about it. It didn’t affect me, but that was no excuse for my ignorance. I confess, I still don’t know much about prison and why exactly things are the way they are, but I’m striving to learn more each day.

Some days I feel hopeless and inadequate. Much, I suppose, like those trapped in our prison system. Other days, I’m overwhelmed with a sense of peace and energy to fight on.

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The truth is that incarceration is trapping many families in endless cycles of poverty. Loss of income. Court fees. Poor communication. Isolation. Hopelessness. Fear. We are a people made for community, made for fellowship with other human beings. We become like those we surround ourselves with, so what do you think will happen when we group thousands of people struggling with drug addictions, mental illness, anger, and sexual perversion in the same cramped quarters? Those individuals are, inevitably, influenced. Influenced by ideas, attitudes and ways of life that are not conducive to a healthy existence. They learn to cope and survive in a world that is radically different from life outside their walls. Yet, we expect them to thrive once released? Really? Our strategy, in general, has been to make life so unbearably difficult and miserable for them that they couldn’t possibly want to go back to prison. I get it, I do. A bit of that makes sense, but that idea, on its own, is far from an adequate strategy or solution. The stories and data prove it.Do I have all the answers? Absolutely not. But my eyes have certainly been opened to a problem. A problem that is so complex and multifaceted that is, at times, paralyzing. And that’s okay. Some days I feel hopeless and inadequate. Much, I suppose, like those trapped in our prison system. Other days, I’m overwhelmed with a sense of peace and energy to fight on. I often find myself tempted to return to the lifestyle of Corporate America, and that, also, is okay. I just may do that someday. To be clear, that life is not inherently bad. Those in that space are part of the solution as well. However, for right now, this is good for me. It’s changing me. It’s giving me new perspectives, influencing my motives and making me uncomfortable. It’s blurring the boundaries of my life in ways that are challenging me to consider the whole. I encourage you to lean in. Embrace the messiness and not yet of this life. Soften your heart. Take a risk. It’s okay to hurt a little. In order to change anything, you must first be willing to be changed yourself. Friends, use your freedom to serve each other in love. Life is a gift, strive to live like it.Additional sources: The National Institute of Justice, The New York Times, Vera Institute of Justice, and the Prison Policy Initiative

by Nick Hirsch

Hirsch is the operations manager for

Coffee Crafters Academy

by way of the Corporation for National & Community Service's AmeriCorps VISTA program, a partner of Think Tank, Inc. — to learn more about Think Tank, please visit 

thinktank-inc.org

.

Go With Love

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I do not like crumbs in the bed...My nine-year-old daughter, Mary, organized a surprise movie night for me. She decorated my room with movie theater candy, creative homemade reserved seat signs, popcorn, and soda with fancy straws. She was so excited to unveil her surprise. She grabbed the remote and said, "Okay, Mom, let's pick a movie!"She invited me to sit on my bed, with her hand full of popcorn to watch the movie. I could see the crumbs tumbling down into the bed before the movie even began. And the sight...

Made.

Me.

Cringe.I had to make a choice.I decided to go with love, instead of focusing on the kernels dropping on the sheets.While this small event may be just a fleeting memory in my family history, it inspired me to think about the space between discomfort and a connection to something greater. In order to live in a community, sometimes I have had to take up my discomfort and recognize the opportunity to transform it into love and understanding.Think about...The single mom who has more children than she can afford, and you don't like that she's pregnant with another. Go with love.The recovering addict who seems to have only curse words in his vocabulary, and you don't like that he cusses in church. Go with love.The felon who is covered in tattoos, and you don't like that he lives with a woman he's not married to. Go with love.The stinky guy who always wants to give you a hug at the community meal, and you don't like that he has poor hygiene. Go with love.Sometimes we miss opportunities to create moments of genuine connection, because we can't sit with a certain level of discomfort within our beliefs. We miss experiences that we never forget. We miss times that teach us more about ourselves than others.When we go with love, it can be hard. It can mean navigating situations that go against our norm, and forgoing control and comfort.Our movie night was wonderful. We watched Pete's Dragon, one of my favorite movies as a child. I didn't say anything about the crumbs in the bed, but instead I focused on the important stuff, and I chose love.

What does it really mean to choose love? Love is courage, not comfort.Love is a decision, not a reaction.Love is selfless, not selfish.Love is connection.

tt-blog-spark_o2by Heather Cunningham — to learn more about Heather’s work, please visit thinktank-inc.org

Paralyzed In Poverty, Part III

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This is the third and final chapter of the Rethink Community mini-series, Paralyzed In Poverty, an as-told-to narrative based directly on the account of Andrea Harper and her perspective on living life in poverty.Harper, a former presidentially-recognized mathematics educator from Springfield, OH, was put on the road of redemption after dealing with a combination of circumstances which left her struggling in poverty and having to reclaim her good name when left subject to the judicial system.Currently earning her master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling at Wright State University, today, the former Princeton Review professor is a licensed chemical dependency (LCDC II) counselor and serves as a poverty-alleviation training facilitator and speaker for Think Tank, Inc., a federal partner of the Corporation of National & Community Service (CNCS).In case you missed them, please read Part I and Part II.


“Now remember, Andrea -- you only have 30 minutes travel time from the time you leave work to pick up your child.”That’s what I tell myself. The Title 20 social worker asked why my card swipe times were so inconsistent for picking up my baby. God forbid that I go to the store really quickly, or run home to throw a load of laundry in, or do the dishes, or have some decompression time before I pick up my kids. They have taken over the management of my life and determine who lives in my home. And so we make decisions I’m not proud of to make ends meet. Claiming his income would mean a loss of food stamps or a raise in the PIPP bills. Sometimes I wonder how I fit it all into a 24-hour period. I do not seem to get much help. I work full time, I am responsible for all the appointments for the kids -- and don’t forget to get documentation for every one of them, so you can get your gas cards at the end of the month. I do the grocery shopping and shopping for everything the home needs. I have a 1-year-old; a 12-year-old whose school calls me at least 3x/week, due to her special emotional needs; and a 17-year-old who lives her own life and is honestly not much help. I have to fit all the laundry, cleaning, and organization of the home in there, too -- on top of my NA meetings on lunch break (instead of eating), my counseling to keep me sane, and my medications to keep me stable. I get jealous of those who can afford house cleaners and nannies that come to the home -- or someone that cooks every meal.I have worked so hard my entire life. Why the short end of the stick for me? Why do I always feel like I am working harder than every single person around me? Maybe not at work, but for sure in all of life.  Most days I am filled with gratitude and peace from a God of my understanding and that personal relationship carries me through.  But other days, days like today, I just feel some type of way...perplexed...frustrated.
Scarcity exists in poverty. There is no 'off' switch. There is no vacation.

Now I know what some of you that are reading might be thinking (especially if you are a typical working mother in 2017), 'I have to run around and do all of these things in a day too! What makes poverty so rough?!?' Really, this is a point of intersection of shared experience between people in poverty, people of middle class, and people of wealth. I encourage you to share in that feeling of being overwhelmed and connecting our shared experiences of scarcity -- whether it's in financial resources, social capital, or time. Don’t quote me on this, I am recalling this from memory…but, I heard this story about a former President. The headline read something like, 'President goes golfing after threat to America'. But, I thought about it… this man might have just wanted to turn off for a minute before making a huge world-changing decision that would weigh heavy on his heart. This man has the resources to go golfing. I could judge him and say, ‘Must be nice.’ But I also can identify with that feeling of 'I JUST NEED A BREAK!!!'As an addict in recovery, I can understand that feeling of wanting to turn off. There were many times when I thought that using drugs was my only option and resource to tune out for a moment. I thank God that I have been able to rid myself of the weight of substance abuse. But that feeling remains. I don’t feel like I have a means to turn off the switch of life’s expectations. That is the scarcity that exists in poverty. There is no 'off' switch. There is no vacation. Often, there are no social resources to just get away for a weekend. This is not meant to produce guilt. I don’t want you to feel sorry for me, because I don’t get a vacation. I am asking you find the space for understanding when you read stories of people in poverty or meet people with limited financial resources. I think that the feelings of isolation and brokenness are more pronounced in poverty. And I know this both from my personal experiences in poverty and my life as a middle-class teacher. But we all feel isolated and broken sometimes. Let's use that common experience to connect us.How can we experience restoration together?tt-blog-spark_o2by Andrea Harper for Think Tank, Inc. — to learn more about Andrea’s work, please visit thinktank-inc.org

Paralyzed In Poverty, Part II

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This is the second part of the Rethink Community mini-series, Paralyzed In Poverty, a first-person account of living life in poverty from the perspective of Andrea Harper.Harper, a former presidentially-recognized mathematics educator from Springfield, OH, was put on the road of redemption after falling victim to a combination of circumstances which left her struggling in poverty and having to reclaim her good name when left subject to the judicial system.Currently earning her master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling at Wright State University, today, the former Princeton Review professor is a licensed chemical dependency (LCDC II) counselor and serves as a poverty-alleviation training facilitator and speaker for Think Tank, Inc., a federal partner of the Corporation of National & Community Service (CNCS).In case you missed it, please read Part I.The following are Harper’s own words.TT-Blog-Spark_B2“Mom, why would you tell him we were ghetto-rich?”My 12-year-old was shocked and embarrassed that she found out we make way less money than her uncle, my brother. I have literally built my life up from ground-zero poverty twice in my life. I mean poverty in every area, except intellectual, and sometimes, that spoke of the wheel even felt broken due to the heavy amounts of mental health medications I had to take at the time.  Together for a family of five, we make $24,000/year and that includes the $700 monthly social security check and the $5000 of cash odd jobs we do throughout the year.  Our credit is good, so we buy new cars, both of us, my husband and I. Our house is paid off, but on the borderline of being condemned, due to damage to the foundation and malfunctioning windows in the home. We don’t have to pay a mortgage -- just $110/month for insurance and taxes.  We all have new cellphones, iPads, and computers in the home. We pay cash for braces for our 12-year-old.  My husband’s family comes from deep generational poverty and thinks we are well off. It is only because I can navigate the resources and know every program that can give me a break or benefits to offer. We don’t pay for childcare, but we have to leave our precious baby -- the most important thing in our life -- with someone we met once and has mediocre childcare.We don’t pay for gas for my car. Or food. Or medical expenses. We all have name brand wardrobes. But, we have no money for vacations. We live off our tax returns for high-price items throughout the year.Poverty comes with a great deal of stress with having to have all your documents and receipts and proof of attendance all in a row, and at the right time, because having one thing off means a benefit is cut off -- just like that. My children don’t have to be without, and they get mostly what they ask for. So, by some of our families’ standards, we have it all together.     Poverty is relative. Middle-class values, work ethic, and organizational skills can make you successful in the navigation of the resources available to those of us in poverty who think ‘middle class’. But, the system is not set up for those with a generational poverty mindset. The appointment and documentation and organization and tricks of the trade are way too much for someone who lives only in the moment. It is too much to manage for someone who does not have transportation or has a crisis in his or her life. We have a system that sets some up to be ghetto-rich (if they have the knowledge to become so) and others to fail miserably, trying to survive.   How do relationships play a part in this real-life story...my real-life story? An employer allowing flex-time for appointments, or letting me leave an hour early to go home to clean or grocery shop before I pick up my kids. Someone who is willing to pay a living wage that would allow me to let go of the social security check (which has personally become my security blanket, if you will). A family member who would do childcare for you; a member of the family who would help a lot with the cleaning and cooking. One person, one relationship, can lighten the load -- it can really make the difference.So, the system, it may stay the same, so the individual may stay the same, but the relational interaction of just one person can be a game-changer in very small ways or very large ways. A relationship can move a family from living ghetto rich to middle class.tt-blog-spark_o2

by Andrea Harper for Think Tank, Inc. — to learn more about Andrea’s work, please visit thinktank-inc.org

Paralyzed in Poverty, Part I

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This is the first chapter of the Rethink Community mini-series, Paralyzed In Poverty, an as-told-to narrative based directly on the account of Andrea Harper and her perspective on living life in poverty.


Hi, I’m Andrea, and this is my first-person account of how it feels to suffer from the effects of poverty, to learn to live in it, and to struggle to climb away from it.Once upon a time, I was an educator, top-rated and vetted by my school district, my state, and even my country. Some bad decisions and other complex factors led me to becoming a felon and I had to rebuild my life, but not before entering into extreme poverty first. This short narrative is what has been crossing my mind as I continue my journey out of poverty. My mind races with the following thoughts.TT-Blog-Spark_B2I got my LCDCII (licensed chemical dependency counselor) licensure in the mail today -- a crossroads and pivotal moment is in front of me. This could be my way out of poverty.Why am I even contemplating staying where I am?Why am I paralyzed in poverty, I am seeing a possible way to financially get out of it?How in the world do I get out of this?Do I have the courage to look over the cliff? Is there a way out without hurting too bad?I have been tenacious and determined to figure living in poverty out. I have used my intellectual gifts to navigate every resource. My experience with material poverty is situational.(My situation today includes -- recovery in addiction and mental illness, a bachelor's degree in education that is of little value [because of my conviction] and every subsidy you can access as an under-resourced mother of three [medical, food stamps, housing, social security, the list goes on…].)I was raised with strong middle-class value system around saving money, having work ethic, and paying bills on time. I believe in higher education.Why won’t I let this social security check go? It’s like a stronghold. I have been traumatized by the effects of losing it all...of being thrashed into situational poverty from the effects of the disease of addiction.I lost my career, my home, my vehicle, my retirement, and every cent to my name. I moved into a home that should have been condemned while living off of $350/month and buying money orders at the moto-mart to pay my utilities (along with buying two cartons of cigarettes to last me the month) -- that was my monthly ritual. I have used resources in poverty to make my earning power be as if I am middle-class. “Ghetto rich”, I call it.I have the experience and license and education now to go on to full-time employment without the check -- but damn, it’s $700/month gone! And 20 more hours of work a week away from my home and my children to be at the same earning power that I am right now.Is the system a trap? or am I trapped, by fear?Why not take the risk?
Getting out of poverty is not always this glorious move with rainbows and flowers. The change process is scary. The system offers important resources, but can quickly become a crutch to getting ahead.Sometimes the pain of a comfortable situation is easier to live with than the ambiguity of the future.That's the pain. That's the truth about poverty.tt-blog-spark_o2
by Andrea Harper for Think Tank, Inc. — to learn more about Andrea’s work, please visit thinktank-inc.org

From Divisions and Differences, Radical Alliances

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I was a newly-elected legislator with hard-wired opinions about ‘the poor’. He was an advocate for them. We both were stepping into a highly-charged policy discussion about poverty: one of the most politicized topics in America, and the first impressions were not favorable. All the signals of ‘left-wing do-gooder’ were flashing in my head about him. But, he probably thought that about me -- no, I am sure he did -- ‘heartless, right-wing conservative’. This is how we do it, you know -- with our first moments of sizing up and labeling.But, as we spent more time with each other, sharing our life stories and the like, we discovered a common bond and purpose in our work. We both felt that ‘the Great American Safety Net’ was keeping and trapping people into poverty, not liberating them from it-- and the human cost of it all was devastating to our communities. Despite our very public political and world view differences, an odd couple was born, and together we helped craft legislation directed at solving the problem. A tiny step from a public policy perspective but a giant leap for a guy who had closed his mind to new ideas that didn't properly fit into his ideological box.. I found an alliance in the strangest of places. A radical alliance.What do I mean by “radical alliance”? A radical alliance is, simply, a relationship that cuts across ideological, class, ethnic/racial, or even theological lines for mutual benefit. These types of relationships may be the secret to laying the foundation and principles that will lead to lasting transformation for our cities and communities. It is our contention that the formation, development, and cultivation of radical alliances is the last best hope in alleviating poverty in a divided America. Alliances such as these -- whether between institutions, organizations, or individuals -- are radical, because they push against the prevailing norms, fixed ideas and established structures.They may be new friendships with people who are very different than you. Perhaps they have values, experiences, ethnicities, lifestyles, neighborhoods, or upbringings that differ from your own. It could be unsettling and awkward at first, sweeping you away from your protected comfort zone. Maybe even a little risky and provoke comments like ‘what would people think’ or even ‘Why am I wasting time with this person? This is beneath me. Or, ‘This doesn't add to my career or reputation if I align with them.’hand-1917895_1280By intentionally and purposefully forming these kind of alliances, we just may be able to create positive, meaningful, and lasting community change. When we unite in spite of our differences, we just may discover the deep and sometimes hidden ties that bind us together around a particular cause, a mission, or a community project. It’s not only radical, but profoundly counter-cultural in an American civic environment. It carves us all into dozens of identity/political interest groups that intentionally pit us against one another.The stories and narratives we tell ourselves about those so-called others, about their neighborhoods or their cultures, ethnicities, or political affiliations, can all come crashing down on us when we enter into relationship and discover that we have so much more in common than those things that divide us. We have to resist that gravitational pull away from people different than us and insist that a new approach of seeing others can deliver a powerful, spiritual, and personal rebirth that delight us when discovered. These moments of revelation can be transcendent and definitive, and have greater potential to shake us to our core, because they disrupt what ‘ought to be’ in our minds or the way things have always been. They can surprise us in their intensity and power, and beget fresh and new understandings.As it turned out, this new relationship in my life inspired legislation to be passed and enacted. A relatively modest positive step in the grand scheme of things, but the process was in place for new relationships and new learning in how to impact communities engulfed in poverty. The lasting truths, however, for me and my own spiritual journey have been profound, notwithstanding some painful and humbling self-reflection. It took someone from the other side of the aisle, as they say, to shake up some assumptions and value judgements. I am a richer man for it, and I just bet you, he as well.tt-blog-spark_o2

by John White — to learn more about John’s work, please visit thinktank-inc.org

Everything Has Purpose

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Entering through the door, she held up a wrinkled Ziploc bag containing a five-dollar bill.“You know, once I go back home, my uncle won’t take me back out for the weekend. Could we stop at the thrift store later? I’d like to get some clothes.”It was an unusually warm February evening, and we had a few things planned, but I assured her that we could fit in a short shopping trip. Serena was entering that stage where girls become aware of the fact that clothes are suddenly more valuable than toys to them, as they awkwardly try to hang on to childhood while reaching for a more grownup identity.We sat around the table eating pizza and talking about our day, as my daughter began to describe an all-too familiar experience for kids her age. Apparently, a clique of girls at school had shot nasty looks to she and her friend, gossiping and saying mean things about them. These kinds of episodes are pointedly painful for my daughter, as her people-pleasing instincts and fear of being alone cause her to internalize even the slightest hint of rejection. In a moment, the raw vulnerability that had been expressed opened the door for a flood of advice and sharing of her own experiences from Serena.As Serena viscerally described the names that had been ascribed to her and the ways in which she had been bullied, sorrow welled up in all of us. I wondered, how it is that we’ve allowed the experience of poverty or condition of obesity to serve as justification to treat others as objects to be beaten down? If any justice could be found in the situation, it would be in the fact that a caring and no-nonsense principal was doing her best to foster a culture of affirmation and accountability among all members of the school -- teachers and students alike. Still, no system can mandate love and even though her peers were forced to ‘behave,’ Serena knew what they really thought of her. After a bit of encouragement, the kids moved swiftly on to less weighty subjects and activities.Quickly the evening passed, yet we had one last thing on our list to do. Nothing must be worse to a thrift store clerk than three hyper youth with a handful of dollars, streaming into the store just before closing. I quickly stepped into the role of sergeant, trying to keep the kids focused on what we were there to get. Then we began sorting through a pile of larger-sized clothes that seemed to be fashioned more for a 50-year-old than a young teen. Making our way to the back of the store, there were a myriad of random items sitting on a shelf. As a minimalist with a very strong aversion for clutter, I couldn’t help but think how awful all of this stuff was. Perhaps of the same mind, one of the clerks came back our way, putting an old candle on the shelf. Trying to make conversation, she said, “This candle is really ugly, isn’t it?!” And then...a magical thing happened.Without missing a beat, Serena looked stone-face at the clerk, and calmly, but clearly, said,

“Nothing is ugly. Everything has purpose.”

It was as if the voice of God had just spoken to us. For a brief moment, all the clerk and I could do was look at one another, knowing we had been called out.Youth have no use for cliches. What Serena said was a glorious truth that by grace had been revealed to her in her pain. And at that moment, the truth was not only meant to bring redemption to her own experience, it was also redeeming the clerk...and me. For all of the times I had arrogantly claimed beauty for some parts of my community and ugliness for others, I needed that truth. For the times I’ve looked at others with suspicion, contempt or didn’t even see them at all, I needed that truth. And in that moment, I was grateful for the profound truths that children have to share with us when we are present enough to listen.tt-blog-spark_o2by Marlo Fox for Think Tank, Inc. — to learn more about Marlo’s work, please visit thinktank-inc.org

Listen

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Today I picked my eight-year-old daughter up from her elementary school (we only live two miles away). I pulled up and she jumped in the car, as she was excitedly flashing a smile on her face. Before the car door was even closed shut and her seat belt buckled, she was talking 90 miles a minute. During the three-minute drive home, I was totally bombarded with the details of her day. Full blast.I’ll be honest -- it was exhausting to hear. The lunch room, her teacher, the playground...you get the picture. At one point, I turned the dial on the radio, hoping she'd take a breath -- but she just talked louder. When we pulled into the driveway, I quickly dismissed the conversation and headed in the house to get our evening routine started. Recently, I have felt similar feelings when surfing Facebook, watching the news, or having conversations with friends. It's no secret that our political climate is full of social ambiguity and anger. People are talking 90 miles a minute, spewing their thoughts like third-graders all over social media and really any other platform they can. It's exhausting. I just want to dismiss all the conversations and stick to my routine. But what if I take a moment to listen? Not respond, but truly listen. Communication is complicated. Sometimes, when we want to share our story or experience, we result to a rapid firing of every thought, every detail. When we feel others aren’t listening, we get louder. This is a result of not feeling heard (and truthfully, many times, not being heard). During dinner, my husband asked the standard question, "How was everyone's day?" Our daughter went to explain that she was excited about a class presentation that she was in charge of. I said, "Wow, that’s great -- I didn't know that!" And of course she said, "Mom, I told you all about it in the car!" As exhausting as it can be, I encourage you to hear others. Listen and reflect. Because you may miss something important.tt-blog-spark_o2by Heather Cunningham — to learn more about Heather’s work, please visit thinktank-inc.org

Do We?

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Communities are relationships.We have a tendency not to think of communities that way, because of the corporate identity that they assume (or inherit, willing and unwillingly alike), but it’s simple -- communities, just like relationships, require communication. Communication that’s sincere and honest requires trust.Do we trust our communities? Do we trust each other in our communities? Do we trust ourselves? These are questions that we must ask, because if we are ever to make changes in our communities, in our communal relationships in which we are established, willfully or not, we must see ourselves as brothers & sisters and be keepers. And keepers keep in touch. Keepers communicate.In the world we’re in today, in the country that we as Americans abide, we’ve seen how divisiveness based on hate, fear, indifference, and at the very least, disinterest, has created and continued a legacy maelstrom of maladies for which we are now having to address in legislation. We’ve bore witness to countless murders, pain and suffering of all sorts, and freedom ringing in such a way that our own ears ring daily with a plethora of messages of aggression, pride, and assumptions. We have allowed ourselves to be deaf to our partners, our neighbors.When you listen to your partner, your spouse, you do so because you feel tied to the words, thoughts, and feelings of that person, and you probably desire to make known that he or she is valued and heard. You want to address that person with the sensitivity and respect that he/she merits, out of love. Why can’t we address each other with a humane respect and love that we need to survive and thrive in our world, our country, our communities? Why must we continue to persist that we are better when we keep our heads down and our ears plugged to the needs of our neighbors? It’s more than just mailing off monies to the March of Dimes or Shriners when they send donation by snail mail -- those are great causes, but we must show empathy for each other, person to person, spirit to spirit, heart to heart, day by day. It's far greater than an offering sent accompanied by a self-addressed envelope.Do we care about ourselves? Do we? because if we do, we’d know that caring for ourselves is much easier when we keep the cares of our neighbors close to us, looking to bear each other’s burdens and being open to the needs of those who live among us. It’s prayer, it’s earnest search for education and knowledge about our communities, it’s a willingness to see the world from other perspectives, it’s a desire to see the humanity in those who may seem a world away. It’s about loving ourselves well enough to understand that when we are enlightened about one another, we can better serve one another.Life is service, love is sincere and preferred service, and sincere service is about selflessness, and relationships of all kinds only work when we prefer the other in them, because that is a demonstration of love. And love demonstrates trust, love keeps others, love communicates the sincere intentions of the heart and manifests them.So, the real question becomes not do we care about ourselves, but do we love ourselves enough to demonstrably care for one another.Do we?tt-blog-spark_o2by Sandy Dover for Think Tank, Inc. — to learn more about Think Tank, please visit thinktank-inc.org

Dying To Live A Life Abundant

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I didn’t want to write this blog.It would be easy to make an excuse like writer’s block, when, in reality, I was probably just trying to avoid the message that kept coming to me.In my life, I’ve found that most years offer a theme, a life lesson, if we’re conscious enough to hear it. And for me, the theme of 2016 was death. Thankfully not death in a physical sense, but death as the psychological and spiritual growth engine that moves us to higher places, if we let it.This theme didn’t seem to square with what I was hearing or reading from popular leaders, CEOs, and inspirational writers. Their New Year’s letters were filled with seemingly more victorious topics, like ‘10 ways to be more effective, positive and successful in 2017’. Who doesn’t want to hear that? In reality, 2016 was a great year on many fronts and the future always offers an air of hope and promise.So before you CLICK OFF the page, stick with me just a moment longer. Maybe, like me, you needed to hear this same message. What seems like a depressing topic actually turns out to be quite liberating (it is for me, anyway). Learning to embrace death actually comes with a surprising form of peace. Those who have spent time with addicts know that people in recovery possess a special authority. They can’t lean on a false sense of who they are. Their death journey puts them in a unique place to receive life, to experience transformation.Death manifests itself in many ways:

  •         Living with failure
  •         Letting go of ego
  •         Living in a state of limbo or uncertainty
  •         Hitting the wall
  •         Dealing with unmet expectations
  •         Lacking answers
  •         Letting go of power or control

I recently had a conversation with a teacher that was working in an under-performing school district. The students he worked with didn’t connect with school. They only knew what it meant to live for today. They had been given many reasons not to trust others, especially those in authority. This teacher described the extremely-challenging school year he had faced trying to motivate these youth to connect with him, and the subject he was attempting to teach them.  After many false starts, he finally found a way to make the subject relevant to their real-life experience. He tapped into something they cared about and before he knew it, they were owning their own learning. This teacher was seasoned, yet moving to a new environment forced upon him feelings of irrelevancy and even incompetency. However, as he allowed himself to die to what he knew, he actually discovered new life through the eyes of others.2016 culminated in an annual celebration of a Christmas redeemer who modeled to humankind the paradox that, if you want to ascend, you first must learn to descend. Our innate drive is to run away from discomfort, cover over pain, and indulge in what feels good. And when the starry-eyed ambitions of January fade into the disappointments that inevitably come our way, may we lean into the lessons they offer and open our hearts to love a little more, knowing we’re on this regeneration journey together.

tt-blog-spark_o2by Marlo Fox for Think Tank, Inc. — to learn more about Marlo's work, please visit thinktank-inc.org