springfield

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


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