Think Tank Inc

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


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