Extraordinary Expectations - four stories

A Community Rises

I felt awkward- the only suit in the room, and the only white face and I think they felt awkward having me there. The storefront had an odd smell, maybe from a long ago fire, and the people were not easy to get a feel for. There were a couple of rough looking men, angry when they spoke, a few older people including a grandmotherly type who seemed to be leading the meeting, to the extent it was being led, and a mixed grill of others, including several eager young men and women in jeans and sweats. An enthusiastic city planner was pouring over large street maps that were pinned to the walls. They had been meeting for more than a year and had the dream of transforming the whole neighborhood from one of poverty and despair to one of prosperity and hope. Or so said their letter, which came across as grandiose and vague. Because we had funded one of the Community Development Corporations involved in the project, and liked the young woman who ran it, I had agreed to come to this meeting. I was beginning to wish I hadn’t when I began to sense something in the room and in these people.

Despite simultaneous conversations the discussion was more focused than I had initially realized, and the group interaction, including some heated disagreements, which didn’t seem to bother anyone, was moving right along. I realized the woman leader was being quite skillful in bringing disparate views together and nudging the conversation to other related issues. She kept returning to the central idea of this effort being led by the community for the community. It was clearly a mantra for the group. To ensure it, they set a goal of directly involving as many as a third of the 10,000 residents who lived in the neighborhood. It would be a truly awesome community organizing effort that would take years. And it would be even more years before there would be demonstrable and visible evidence of change. Those who were in the room seemed to understand that. I became transfixed and, unusual for me, just listened. Instead of feeling ignored I was getting comfortable being a fly on the wall. Remarkably, they did not hold back at all, but were allowing me a real look at their 'big' idea, and their many challenges.

I sat there that first night and thought about the hundreds, thousands, of such storefront discussions about 'big' ideas that had not gone anywhere. This group actually thought they had a shot at getting eminent domain powers, which at first blush seemed crazy. Or was it? No private citizen-led, community based organization in this state had ever managed to do that. If successful, it would radically change the development dynamic. Being able to access land and properties would solve many problems and eliminate one of the most serious roadblocks for smart development.

I left the meeting that night with my head swimming. Were these serious people with a serious idea? Could they really pull this off? It seemed so daunting. Who were they? How were they viewed within the community? As funders, we had learned the hard way — it isn't easy to know these answers.

Driving through streets filled with abandoned homes, burnt out buildings, crack houses, and all the sidebars of inner city individual and family turmoil, I thought of the street map up on the wall. The city planner had put pins into what they were calling the neighborhood's 'assets' — the churches, the areas where two fledgling CDCs were building housing, vacant land that had potential for a supermarket and other retail development, an area designated for small businesses, and a new playground adjacent to an elementary school. One of the comments the meeting leader made kept ringing in my head: that she was one of many people who had lived in the neighborhood for a long time, more than 25 years, and cared deeply about the community. I'm a numbers man, and liked thinking about the assets and the liabilities, the neighborhood balance sheet so too speak.

I was intrigued. No, the truth is I was excited about what our Foundation might be able to do, but could I convince my fellow Trustees?

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I drove through the neighborhood recently and dropped in on the office. As always, there was a meeting going on. I could feel the hum of the place, remarkably the energy was still there after 15 years. I drove past the new large supermarket, the youth center, and thought about the several after-school programs and the job-training program for formerly homeless women in process as I drove by. Has the neighborhood been transformed? No, that would be an overstatement, but I would say there has been a lot of progress on several fronts. Supporting this project was the most ambitious thing our Foundation has done. We threw away our rulebook; we had never before invested in something for nine consecutive years. How important was our philanthropy in the whole deal? Our gifts and those of one other major funder were critical to the planning and organizing work without which these major development efforts would not have happened, at least not on the scale they reached. It was a hard process and had lots of bumps and missteps. Many times along the way I felt it would not succeed but these people were amazing long-distance runners. I am glad we ran along with them. I just wish there were many more funders who felt the same way.

Give me an evening of your time, in almost any city or town in America and I will bring you into a room where good ideas are percolating, where smart people, of all colors, have dreams and passions to improve their community and their lives. Just one evening of listening is all it would take!

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A Theatre Blooms

I was glad to do a fund-raiser for the Arts Center at our home and it was going just fine when we had to break the party up and get everyone over to see this play by the new theatre group. At the time we planned the evening we thought it would be different and fun to combine a party with a play. As the hostess I remember feeling a bit annoyed at interrupting the flow of a good time. That mood didn’t last long. The play was The Mound Builders by Langston Hughes and it was excellent, the kind of black box theatre I love. When we went a month later and saw a truly memorable production of an adaptation of the Dickens novel Hard Times, I realized these players were very talented. I went up after the show and asked one of the founders about the make-up of the New Rep board of directors. What I got was a blank stare as though he didn’t know what a board was. I thought to myself- Wow- they won’t make it.

One day a call came about renewing our subscription and for reasons I will never understand I offered to do a fundraiser for them. It wasn't such a big deal at the time, but I realize now my reaching out was a huge thing for my new friends —and they fast became my friends. The piece de resistance of that first fundraising event was a scene from A. R. Gurney’s The Dining Room staged around our dining room table! That was fun. We raised $4,000 that night which at the time was a lot of money. Of course the Artistic Director and his colleagues, who knew a live one when they saw it, suggested I become Chair of a new Board. I did so with many reservations, and it has led to a ton of work, but over the years we somehow managed to provide the support to keep these talented players in business. New Rep has even gone through a transition with a new, and equally talented, Artistic Director, a great new Board Chair who I recruited, and after 18 years — despite how hard it is to sustain a small repertory theatre company—. remains viable. In fact, the New Rep is arguably today the best small professional theatre in the region. There are plans to move into new and larger space. And most important of all to me, their productions continue to be excellent!

Would I do it again? There are two answers. One is - no way! All those endless meetings, deficit budgets, personnel issues, and the travails of managing a group of temperamental artists are enough to wear anybody down. But there is another answer to the question - in a heartbeat! The art is worth it, the actors are worth it, and when I am in the audience, moved by the performance, it all becomes worth it. I complain of course but the truth is New Rep is part of my persona. I love them.

When you love, you get a real kick out of things, you are turned on, you become excited, and it is very satisfying. There is enough energy to carry you through the dross, the work/work, and the disappointment. Is this story unique? Other than the specifics, it is not. We could literally tell hundreds of thousands of analogous stories. They constitute the heart of the philanthropic experience. What is your story?

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Revelation in the Outback

It isn't as though signing my name was such a big deal- it was only for $100,000 and if these characters defaulted so what. I liked the loan idea and that the money would continuously be recycled struck me as better than a charitable gift. There is a kind of rigor to a loan and no guessing whether it has worked out as planned. So many things you do are uncertain and that drives me crazy. It's what is wrong with charity if you ask me. Too much is based on faith. Somehow, I just don't trust a lot of these people, especially the talkers— you know the smoothies. But I sure trusted these women. They were serious and you could tell they needed a lot. The village was small, maybe 300 people. It looked like a thousand other villages I had driven by even if this one was more remote. You could tell they had nothing. I mean nothing. The road in from the main highway, if that is what it could be called, was enough to keep you out. The nearest good water was a half a mile away. It was a problem, you could see right away, that was big. This project of building a low-head hydro dam and a canal with a series of sluices would make an incredible difference to the village. The only power came from one line that was always down for one reason or other and a few gas generators that were too expensive for most of the people. Other than during the rainy season, there was no water for crops. It was easy to see how this project was going to change their lives. I didn't know the group who was going to build the dam, some foundation from Hong Kong, but they had built this same kind of thing before. It still boggles my mind that the World Bank or somebody hadn't done this long ago. What the hell have they done with all that money anyway? My loan was the final piece of funding needed to make this happen and I had heard about it from my private bank of all places. I was on an Ecotour and decided to make a detour to the village. The loan was to be paid back from the sale of the electricity over ten years and I had agreed to have the repayments put into a kind of Village Bank which would in turn make small loans to people for small businesses. I was amazed when they said that a woman with just two cows could make a living. There already was one clothing business that had started up four years ago by an enterprising woman. She employed four others and every month took her goods into Jakarta to sell at a street bazaar. I think I had actually been there. It would be stupid to say I understood things there or connected so well to the people, but I was drawn in. I mean there was nothing phony - if you know what I mean. I stayed in the village two days, which is not a long time, but they were surprised. Most people like me just blow in for two hours and then go. I don't know why I did that — something about them. Before I left I got to thinking and on the spot agreed to make a gift of $25,000 to the Village Bank. It was a little embarrassing- they were sort of all over me. I am glad I went there and met these people. I think about them all the time.

Why should it be a revelation to realize that the human spirit is indomitable irrespective of adverse circumstances? Why is it always amazing to see how the same needs, the same dreams and the same remarkable drive to make one’s life better are universal? Why are solutions so hard to find when they are often so easy to find?

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The Reading Legacy

My mother was a great reader and some of my earliest memories are of going to the library with her. It was like going to church and my brothers and sisters knew we had better behave or else. This was a special place for my mother- it was in fact another kind of church for her. She read to us all the time and I suppose I associate reading with my mother’s love. From that time forward I have been a reader and it has made all the difference. Not only in school but also in my life, in the way I think about things. Let's face it, for kids it is everything. If they can’t read they are stuck behind the eight ball.

I was drawn to help urban Catholic Schools, not just because I am a product of them, but because today their students are among the very poorest and the most needy. They come from families with lots of problems, and by the way most of them are not Catholic. The work these schools do is the work of the true church. It is the church that I love. What I learned is that the parochial schools do not have the resources of the public schools and yet consistently do better. The city has this big reading program for all of its schools and the parochial schools have nothing. We looked around and discovered an excellent supplementary reading enhancement program that was originally developed in New Zealand. Called Reading Recovery, it seemed just what was needed. Reading Recovery, when properly administered is able to take very weak readers and in a relatively short time, help them improve their comprehension. I liked the idea that the program trained trainers who could then be part of the ongoing instruction in the schools.

It has not been easy. It has been disappointing that so few of the elementary schools we approached were able to prepare a coherent and compelling proposal on how they would integrate the program into their curriculum. It made no sense to me to provide the resources for schools unless they were willing to commit to make it work. That would be just spinning wheels, and wasting money and I have no interest in that. At the same time, the schools wanted to know how long I would commit to support the program. The more I thought about it the only thing that made sense was to say the answer was ‘forever.’ That’s right, if the schools do their part then I will do mine. It seemed the right thing to do- don’t you think so?

Is it working? The answer is yes and no. Many of the students are reading better but their overall life situations are in many instances too tough. We have also lost some teachers right after they completed their training, which was especially disappointing. At the same time, two of the five schools where we have been working for the last three years have made great progress, and several of the schools that had initially taken a pass have now indicated a real interest in bringing Reading Recovery into their schools.

I have arranged my affairs so that when I die, this program can continue, but only if the schools continue to do their part. That's only fair. This program is the best thing I have ever done, and I am glad I am doing it.

What was that? Oh, you want to know why I have been anonymous? Well I don't like making a big noise about things. Sometimes you can ruin a good thing by too much publicity. I want to keep the focus on what is important and what is important is that more of these kids learn to read, and like me learn to love reading. That's what it is all about. Don't you think?

When someone's values are strong and clear, and the need is equally clear what you get is a kind of synergy between thought and action that simply sings!

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