Friday, July 16, 2010


in the inner city
like we call it
we think a lot about uptown
and the silent nights
and the houses straight as
dead men
and the pastel lights
and we hang on to our no place
happy to be alive
and in the inner city
like we call it

a poem by the late Lucille Clifton

I found myself turning to this poem after two conversations this week. In both of these conversations I found myself frustrated and I was talking with a friend today about it and I thought of this poem. By the way Lucille Clifton's poetry rocks - at least all that I've seen. This is the first poem in a collection entitled "good woman: poems and a memoir 1969-1980."

The first conversation was with a person I don't know very well. She and I serve on a committee together that meets every few months. But that is mostly work - and we don't have much chance to visit. This week it wasn't a meeting, it was a social event. The person I was talking with began to tell me about the good work that she was a part of at a community center on the southside of Indianapolis. I listened with interest.

At one point she was talking about how this community center did a great job of "breaking the cycle of poverty." And then in the very next breath she talked about it as a great place because people were coming there in the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th generations. If the cycle was being broken, I wondered out loud, then how was it that generations still need to be making use of the community center. She seemed flummoxed by the question.

She talked about the parents who are "all in jail." I said that I found that hard to believe. She talked about drug addiction and other issues - but mainly she focused her discussion on how the community center she was involved in was changing the values that the young people who come there grow up with from their home life. I was appalled at both the naivete and the bigotry of this statement.

I dare say that this woman does not know any of the parents of the young people of that community center. Let me say that I don't know them either. But I know that people say the same thing about parents in my neighborhood - and that these things are not true about the parents I know. What do you think it does to young people who attend these community centers and hear good, well meaning people like my conversation partner talk about their parents in this way? What does that make the young people think about themselves?

Yes, there are parents who are lousy. But I've not seen that income level makes much difference in that. And the values of those in the inner city that I know are not discernibly different than the values of people in the culture at large.

Later this week I was with a gathering of clergy and one of them asked me about the sports program at Tabernacle Presbyterian. It is a well known and well established program. The person commented that this sports program had made a difference in people's lives (which, by the way, I'm sure it has). But when I pressed him about what he meant - he talked about how it was reversing negative trends in the neighborhood. I talked with him about that - because Tab has been doing that program for over 40 years - about the same length of time Broadway has been running a summer program - and other churches in our neighborhood as well. And yet things continue to be (as one neighbor put it recently) "as bad as they are."

When I think of all the money invested in these efforts to "make things better" - I'm sure we would be counting in the millions of dollars by now. And there is very little to show for it. It has, I'm certain, helped a few people beat the odds - but it is a long way from helping change the odds for everyone. And that really is what the people of our congregations around here (and at community centers) would say we are trying to do.

In the clergy discussion the people around the table quickly agreed. But then the conversation then again turned to how lousy the parents are and that this is where we really need to focus our work. In some ways I think they are right - that's where we need to focus our work - but not because the parents are lousy - but because the parents need what we all need - people who will believe in us and love us and see the great gifts that we have. And they need institutions that will not put them down, but will function as investors in the life of the Spirit in their lives; shining a light on the wonder that is who they are.

We need folks who will see our communities not as places that need to be fixed (overwhelmingly by people who have problems of their own that they are often running away from) - but as places that are full to overflowing with grace and love and Spirit and hope and mercy. As places that are, in fact, built on very sound values. The values of David and Delores and Jewel and Dorothea and Nora and Arthur and Yusuf - just to name a few of the good folks who live less than a block from Broadway. I can tell you that these folks are not perfect, but have as finely rooted values as all the other non-perfect people I know, including myself.

And so, Lucille Clifton's poem, to me shines a light on a place of beauty. Often un-recognized. But beautiful. Truly.

Monday, July 05, 2010

What We Count Truly Counts

I was listening to a presentation by someone named Chip Conley (never heard of him before). The thing he said at the beginning really jumped out at me -- it was a form of this "what we count, truly counts." And this struck me as true on many different levels.

What we count is what we act like is important. So, if we are running a mentoring program, a tutoring program, an after school program, or a feeding program - we count how many people show up - how many people are served - how many people show up every day - how many people volunteer. And we turn over those numbers to the people who support us. Here's the problem: What does that really tell us? It really tells us how many people showed up. That's it. What we count, truly counts. It shapes what we do. It shapes how we understand what we are doing.

If we count how many people show up for a program - then we say, we imagine, we believe that we are making a difference. We are not doing something bad - but whether or not it is good enough or even good -- is up for grabs. We don't know. Because the standard we have set is that if people show up it is good.

Yet I think there is more than enough evidence to show us that this is not true. We see it on the front pages of the Indianapolis Star every day - when we read that graduation rates are down - even though there are a whole lot of programs going on. Why do we keep doing these things if they keep not making a real difference in what we say is important?

We had an intern who worked at Broadway over a year ago who told us stories about how he used to run a grandparents program at a local social service center. All the funders (and the directors of the center) wanted to know was how many people showed up and how often. The crazy thing about it, of course, is that this isn't all that people wanted to know. We want to know much more than this. We want to know that we are making a difference.

The problem is that making a difference is a lot tougher and more nuanced that getting more children or grandparents to show up for a program. The problem is that we are a quick fix society when the issues that we face are not quick fix issues - nor are they six week program answers. Nor are they answered by good work with children and youth, while not paying attention to the communities and homes in which those children and youth reside.

IF we are going to count, let's count what we really think is important. I had a friend, Willis Bright, ask me if as a result of what we are doing in the community are there more neighbors giving one another rides to get tasks done. It's hard to figure out how to count that. But my bet is that Willis is asking us the right question. During the summer of blessings that we have we are asking our young people to name, bless, and connect the gifts that they see among their neighbors. As they do that - we want to find some ways to count whether the economy is growing more stable around us. We want to figure out a way to count whether there are more social networks that spread beyond the walls of neighborhood and family, and do those networks end up resulting in better health, more and better jobs being found, and a deeper mutual delight in one another (how do you count that!). We would like to count whether as a result of our investment in neighborhood gardeners, are there more gardens being grown - and are more people eating from their own gardens? We want to count whether there are fewer young people being locked up and getting in trouble (all these summer and year round programs for young people in our neighborhood hasn't seemed to really reduce that number in a statistically significant way). We want to count whether there are more parents who are being celebrated for the gift they are to their children, their families, and the larger community - and then we'd like to count whether that makes for more parties, more laughter, and more picnics.

What are you counting?

*The poster at the top of this comes from a wonderful artist by the name of Beth Mount. You can find this poster and many others at her wonderful website Capacity Works.