People power innovation. Without a doubt this concept—or, better, this commitment—is the most important truth I have learned in the past 21 years. People possess the power, the capacity, and the desire to solve their own problems if they are given the resources they need and the opportunity they crave. People don’t need help nearly as much as they need a fair chance.
I bump into this reality every day.
Years ago, my role at CitySquare was much different than it is today. When I arrived in 1994, I was spending five days a week interviewing low-income people in our food pantry. On Sundays, I was out in churches begging for money and volunteers. I wasn’t doing very well on either ask because we were always short on both. Back then, all of our volunteers drove in from the suburbs or Park Cities. Everyone who volunteered was white.
People possess the power, the capacity, and the desire to solve their own problems if they are given the resources they need and the opportunity they crave. People don’t need help nearly as much as they need a fair chance.
All of the material resources were on one side of the equation. All of the need was on the other. Relationships with the community always felt pretty much “one down.” You know, paternalistic, neo-colonial, artificial.
One day, our world changed in just a few moments.
I found myself facing three Hispanic mothers with their beautiful children. The three women were perfect strangers to one another and to me. These three delightful people were attempting to combine their limited English to overcome my inability to speak Spanish. We weren’t getting very far. As we sat there in growing frustration, Josefina Ortiz, an older woman who had already been interviewed and assisted, walked by. I stopped her and asked if she could help me. I learned then—and have learned many times since then—that this is a very important question for helpers to learn how to ask those they seek to help.
She replied that she would be very happy to help me. She sat down with us and translated the conversation. As a result, we were able to provide the assistance the three families sought.
As they were leaving, I turned to Ortiz and began thanking her profusely, still not realizing what an asset I had right in front of me. She had the good sense to turn back to me when she reached the door, and I’ll never forget what she said: “Larry, I could come back tomorrow and help you.”
I told her that would be great because, as she could see, I needed the help! Ortiz kept coming back. For nine years.
That afternoon when the pantry closed, I returned to my upstairs office. As I was looking out my large window on the “crack house” next door, I received a very clear message in two parts.
First, I discerned that I was dead wrong about the neighborhood. Even though I thought I knew what it needed, I couldn’t possibly know.
Second, I realized that I had been wrong to look at the community only in terms of need, especially material need. I should have been looking at the neighborhood in terms of its assets. And, I should have realized that there are all kinds of asset besides the material variety.
Immediately, Ortiz’s face came to mind. The lesson was so clear. The truth so obvious.
Over the next 45 days, we set out to change our organizational culture and change it quickly. Every person who came through our doors was encouraged to talk not just about their needs, but also about their assets. Further, we invited every person who came to us to return and serve the community as a volunteer.
Several things happened. Almost overnight, we had more volunteers than we knew what to do with. We lost almost all of our suburban volunteers. But, now, we have several hundred volunteers in our database, and 99 percent of those are community people who continue to access our various resources and services.
Another thing that happened was people from outside the community, who were our supporters, questioned our sanity. “Looks like you have the lunatics running the asylum,” one dedicated supporter told me with a smile. “These people will steal you blind,” I was told in countless ways, again and again.
The truth is, people are my neighbors and I am their neighbor.
Finally, I had the presence of mind to form a standard reply that went something like, “You know, you are correct. In this business, you’re going to have some theft. But, I’ve noticed that it is one of two kinds. It’s either canned corn out the back door or human dignity stolen at the front door. I’m going with the canned corn cartel!”
Over the years, we’ve stayed with this model. It is the one essential, fixed, non-negotiable ingredient in our mix here at CitySquare. Whatever success we have enjoyed is directly related to this approach and to the principle of “people power” back of it. This amazing group of people serves as a 24/7 think tank of sorts. Every idea, every initiative, every response to poverty has arisen from the collective and individual wisdom expressed by these amazing people. There is no way for me to overestimate their importance or their continuing impact. Talk about wealth! Social capital and collective efficacy continue to transform everything about our efforts to re-invent and develop community in inner-city neighborhoods here in Dallas.
If you mission is to grow community, then people cannot be treated as projects, problems, “opportunities for service,” or treated as if they should be disconnected or disengaged from the primary process at work. People must not be seen as clients and must be trusted and valued as they are, for who they are. The truth is, people are my neighbors and I am their neighbor. People—all people—are powerful. The truth is, people are beautiful, promising, full of wonder and great, great potential.
People power—it is the only place to start, to live, to conclude.
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