Sunday, September 30, 2012

Stop the Madness: We Were Wrong

One of the architects and staunchest advocates of the "No Child Left Behind" initiative now admits she was wrong.  Diane Ravitch, the former U.S. assistant of education under presidents Bush and Clinton, once believed in teacher and school performance rankings and rigid student testing that has given rise to an entire testing industry and strained the public education system in America to the breaking point.

Now, she believes, it is time to admit that many of the underlying assumptions and strategies were wrong, even harmful.  Indeed, one of her chief concerns is that this movement that began with genuine concerns for young students has been co-opted by a variety of economic self-interests that are driving much of the major education reforms in America today.  In an interview with the Austin Chronicle this week, Ravitch describes these self-appointed reformers as "policymakers who know nothing about public education, allied with organizations that expressly want to see it dismantled."  It is the latter intent that is most disturbing, especially for so many students that are left behind by many of these reform efforts.

Don't take my word for it.  You have a chance to hear her speak at 2:00 this afternoon at Eastside Memorial High School.  You may not agree with her, but you owe it to yourself as an educated citizen to hear what she has to say.  Someone has wisely observed that the first thing to do when you find yourself in a hole is to stop digging.  Diane Ravitch is imploring us to do just that.  Frankly, I think it's rather remarkable these days to hear any expert or authority admit they were wrong and attempt to make corrections.  We would all be much better off if we would emulate her honesty and courage.  Give her a hearing and let me know what you think.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

It's Not Their Fault

Whoever we blame for poverty in this country, there's one group that's entirely innocent - the children.  That's easy to forget in the endless and overheated political rhetoric of this presidential campaign.  

Years ago I was standing in the lobby of an overnight homeless mission at 5:00 a.m., talking to a single mom preparing to take her children to school on city buses and still get to work in just under two hours.  As I stood there looking at her three lovely children, I thought of my own children blissfully asleep in their beds at that hour because they didn't have to sleep in a shelter.  And I kept thinking, why are my children so blessed? What did they do to deserve a better life, or at least one with significantly less challenges and sacrifices?  And I realized that they, like the children that stood before me, had done nothing to deserve the life they had.  I've had that thought many, many times - in Haiti, in Honduras, in Chicago, Detroit, San Antonio, and Austin.  

So, the next time we're waxing eloquent about who's to blame for people living in poverty and the drain that it is on our economy, remember those innocent children who always suffer the most for our adult mistakes and neglect.  It's not their fault.  

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Rich and Poor Together

One of my favorite Christian authors is Shane Claiborne.  His book, Irresistible Revolution, is my favorite of all his writings.  I like Shane because he doesn't just speak and write about social justice, like so many, but he lives it every day.  That's why his observations about fellow Christians are so essential to understanding God's will for all of us.

"I had come to see that the great tragedy in the church is not that rich Christians do not care about the poor, but that rich Christians do not know the poor...I truly believe that when the poor meet the rich, riches will have no meaning.  And when the rich meet the poor, we will see poverty come to an end."  (Irresistible Revolution, pp. 113-114)

"There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and feasted sumptuously every day.  And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus..."  (Luke 16:19-20)

"Resources, without relationships, are invariably wasted."

(Type your email address in the upper right-hand column of this blog to continue this conversation and learn more about the work Urban Connection Austin is doing with our neighbors in north Austin.)

Friday, September 21, 2012

Ready to Learn

The primary goal of our Family Resource Center at Dobie Middle School is "to have all students in the classroom every day, ready to learn."  Sounds pretty simple and easy, doesn't it?  And yet, last year school districts in Central Texas lost over $470 million in revenues because of student absences. That's equivalent to the expense of constructing five Long Centers every year.  The two most common reasons that students give for failing to attend is that school is boring and they would rather hang out with their friends.  But the truth is a bit more complicated than that.  

In fact, recent research studies indicate that over half the factors that affect the academic performance of low-income students take place outside the classroom.  It makes sense, doesn't it?  It's hard for a student to study if her family is homeless or his stomach is growling.  Schools are being negatively affected by all sorts of "out of school" factors, like increasing levels of child poverty, high student mobility rates, struggles with housing, unemployment, and healthcare, just to name a few.  That's why we partner with Austin ISD and Austin Voices for Education and Youth to direct one of these centers at Dobie Middle School.

At the Family Resource Center we develop relationships with parents to help them create a plan to move out of crisis into stability and, eventually, sustainability and growth.  That's not easy and it doesn't happen quickly, but, with caring and perseverance, circumstances can change and lives can be transformed, especially the lives of those young students.  It is estimated that the difference in lifelong income for a student that graduates from high school and one that does not is over $1 million.  And just imagine the multiplying effect of that difference on the overall economy.  Clearly, investing in people and programs that can help students get to graduation, and beyond, is well worth the money.

We believe Family Resource Centers are just such an investment and we need your support.  You can begin by subscribing to this blog (type your email address in the upper right-hand column) and giving us a chance to tell you more about the difference that Urban Connection Austin and the Family Resource Centers make in the lives of our most vulnerable and precious students.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Key Is Relationships

One of our most important values is building relationships in the community.  If you notice, our mission isn't to fight poverty for our neighbors, but with them.  It comes from following the biblical wisdom of how to treat others, especially those in need.  "Love your neighbor as you love yourself," the Bible tells us.  It's a pretty simple principle, but too often it's ignored because we tend to unconsciously regard those "in need" as inferior and not as our neighbors.  When we do that, we may sacrifice the dignity of those we're trying to help and undermine the good we're trying to do.

Here's how it often works.  First, you find something you want to do to help others (usually something that funders think is important), secure their financial support, and then take your (funded) program to the neighborhood and see who is interested.  (Remember, your future funding depends on people agreeing to accept what you're offering.  In schools, we call that "engagement.")  Unfortunately, one of the most common complaints about this approach is that the ones we're trying to help won't accept or don't appreciate our efforts.  (That's called, "lack of engagement.") 

Let me put it in a different context.  Let's suppose you live in a nice, middle-class neighborhood where crime is low, homes are well-maintained and everybody knows their neighbors. Many nights, as you sit on the front porch, you notice an older couple (let's call them Fred and Edna) walk by your house holding hands, obviously still in love.  Then one night, you notice that you haven't seen this couple in weeks and you ask your neighbor next door where they have gone.  He replies that Edna died several weeks ago and Fred just retreated into his house and hasn't been seen much.  

Filled with compassion, you immediately go to your computer and start doing research on grief counseling.  Then, a few days later, you knock on Fred's door and, eventually, he answers.  You can see by the look on his face, that he's not doing well.  So, you ask if you can come in and when he agrees, you say, "Fred, I'm so sorry to hear about your wife's death.  I've been researching grief and grief counseling and I've found some excellent programs and resources to help you through this period in your life.  Allow me to show you some brochures and help you make some appointments."

Can you imagine saying that to your neighbor?  I don't think so.  Rather, I can imagine you saying, "Fred, I'm so sorry to hear that your wife died.  What can I do to help?"  And then sit back and listen to him.  Why?  Because then you will discover what he needs and what he doesn't need.  And, in the process, you will offer him what he needs most - a caring relationship.  

That's our approach at Urban Connection Austin.  It's why we often say that "resources, without relationships, are invariably wasted."  And it's why we're creating local Family Council meetings at several multi-family complexes in our neighborhood - to be informed, rather than inform.  Perhaps, St. Francis of Assisi said it best when he observed that it was more important to understand others than to be understood (or appreciated) by them.  And, by the way, it's also more effective.

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Sunday, September 16, 2012


It has been almost five years since approaching our parent organization, CitySquare (formerly Central Dallas Ministries), for their blessing to start Urban Connection Austin.  This was their plan for several years, but no one had stepped forward to lead the effort.  So, after spending 33 years in professional ministry (much of it spent seeking to help others in need - in Detroit, Chicago, San Antonio and Austin), I offered to lead it because I had a passion for this ministry.  

Since then we've made great strides, working with our neighbors in north Austin to address the root causes of poverty.  It began when we partnered with Austin Voices for Education and Youth and Austin ISD to create and direct a Family Resource Center at Dobie Middle School. There we help families in crisis so their students can be in class every day, ready to learn. And over the last few years we've helped hundreds of families find the resources they needed to move out of crisis toward a more stable, self-sufficient life.  You see, we believe that education is one of the two greatest resources for lifting people out of poverty.  The other is community.  

That's why we convened the North Austin Community/School Alliance, with over 50 partners, to leverage the resources of the community to help. And it's why we're forming local Family Councils in several multi-family housing complexes to engage parents on their own turf and secure their investment in a better future.  You see, we believe that resources, without relationships, are invariably wasted.

The noted author and theologian, Frederick Buechner, once defined vocation as the place "where our greatest passion meets the world's greatest need."  I would like to think that Urban Connection Austin is that kind of place, for me and for you, if you choose to join us.  

Let's continue this conversation and I'll tell you more about the ways we're working to fight poverty with our neighbors in north Austin.  You can do so by subscribing to this blog.  Just type your email address in the upper right-hand column of this blog and we'll keep you updated on our progress.