Four Ways To Ruin Your Life

chainlink-690503_960_720

My name is John White, and I had the honor to serve four terms in the Ohio House of Representatives. During my service, my focus was to encourage Ohio’s faith communities to partner with state and local governments to help solve the most difficult social problems facing our state. The following experience gave me a fresh clarity on the opportunity we have to engage those communities that are ready to tackle the issues surrounding returning citizens.


I had my reservations about traveling two and a half hours to Marion Correctional Institute in central Ohio. I had plenty of reasons not to go. It was icy — in fact, black ice lay on the road that morning, and it was cold. I was just going as a favor to the warden who I admired and heard much about. However, I, already disdainful about the inconvenience, turned around after slipping a little and started to go back home. Then something got my attention and told me to get back on the highway and GO. I’d like to think it was the Holy Spirit and that I heard the voice of God. That makes good piety, but maybe it was just a guilty conviction that I didn’t want to let her down. Either way, I can look back now and see…more on that later.

That wintery morning, I had a nagging temptation to be lazy and just stay home. I was a legislator and had reached my goal. What else was there to learn? Besides, I didn’t know what to expect and didn’t want to be embarrassed. It could be awkward. It could be very uncomfortable. It was self-talk time! “John do the hard stuff today to be the person you want to be tomorrow. After all this is what I tell my kids to do.” (I probably got that line from some cheesy motivational poster on a wall somewhere). At this moment I had an internal street fight on my hands. Marion won.

GO

Snarling barbed-wire fencing. A dreary day on a dreary piece of land with a dreary welcoming. Bars…lots of bars and locked doors everywhere. I couldn’t move. It took 25 minutes just to get into the place. Everywhere you move, security doors slam shut behind you. “Empty all your pockets!” I shoved down the impulse to shout, “Hell’s bells, don’t you know who I am? Weren’t you expecting me?” And then, there they were. 300 men stuffed into a room singing gospel hymns. A choir of 40 men; Black, White, Latino, old, young. There were clearly some grandfathers in here, probably some sex offenders in for life. They were in awkward choir robes and amazingly proud of it. All were holding hands singing aloud and sometimes off key. Tattooed, arms raised high, unashamed. A rank, sweaty-men smell permeated the room. They were unashamed and clearly free. Two giant men surround me. They were both lifers. On my right, a Black man revealed he was locked up for murder. On my left, a White man admitted his Aryan Nation leadership and former hatred of anything not him. Their arms were raised, tears in their eyes. Not me! I’m not buying it yet. I’m holding back and my shield is on to anything that disrupted my facade, my comfort of how I saw the world or needed to see the world to protect my long-developed mental box. I witnessed the experience of forgiveness and repentance as they all got on their knees, celebrating oneness through their Creator. I opened my eyes and looked around, still a skeptic. But what I saw was a joy that was raw, unvarnished, palpable and honest.

SEE

I felt naked and vulnerable. I was disrupted. This was not what I expected. I hadn’t even given a speech yet, or even been introduced. They probably couldn’t care less about my visit. They had found meaning, purpose and a divine and sacred brotherhood in the bowels of a medium-security prison in the middle of nowhere. They said that they were going to pray for me, asked about my family, and offered to write. They didn’t ask for anything in return. It was as authentic as anything I had ever seen before. I was numb and my chest was pounding, but I felt as alive as never before. Surprisingly, I didn’t want to leave. I hugged as many as I could grab to say goodbye and that I was coming back to see them. I wanted to worship with them again, an experience that was as powerful as I have ever felt in the grandest of cathedrals. This was a holy ground, I thought, and the whole place (some 2000 men and staff) all knew that it was different. I felt beaten up, penetrated, small, ruined and renewed!

FEEL

What did I discover that day…what was God wanting me to see? Why was I feeling so rich and honored, and yet a little unworthy to be a part of this? How does this work? What program in that prison makes this stuff happen? I think I saw more truth in that prison than I have seen in a lifetime of sermons and Christian books. I experienced a world that I wanted to see everywhere. The impact was as powerful as a blow to the head. Where can I find more of this? How do I get ruined every day in order to feel the joy in my heart now, and what does this have to do with being a better man, father, friend, legislator, leader, and Christian? I spent that day with imprisoned people considered to be the worst of sinners, only to end up ironically captivated by their freedom. What haunts me at this very moment is how many invitations I have ignored, because the road was too perilous, risky, and unknown. Even more tragic was the reality that I had been so sure of myself, that I thought there was nothing for me to learn. I didn’t realize how I had fenced myself in, not allowing myself to be moved by anything that would penetrate my protected and comfortable way that I saw the world, my community, and my neighbor. Before that day, I had never known anyone who went to prison and was completely humbled by the experience. As I drove into my lovely suburban neighborhood and pulled into my garage alone, I knew what I had to do…

GO AGAIN.

by John White — to learn more about John’s work, please visit thinktank-inc.org

Trust Is A Must

 

improve-stage

I recently enrolled in an improv class.

Improv (short for improvisation) is a state of being and creating action without pre-planning. Commercially, improv is taught mainly as a comedic art-form.

My first class, I stepped on the stage and the lights were shining bright in my eyes. Anxiety took over my body and my heart was pounding. What if I say the wrong thing? What if I make a fool of myself? Who in the group will be my ally?

Trust became of overwhelming importance for me.

So often, we forget trust is not something you automatically receive, but something that is earned. One essential ingredient to improv is listening. If you are able to hear your partner on the stage, then you can reflect, and work together to build the scene. You must trust that what they have to say is important and you are a team. In many cases, you are nearly strangers working together to build this beautiful story that includes lots of laughter. Patience is critical.

This makes me think about the families we work with, who work to build a new life and move out of poverty. Often times we start the relationship as strangers. We cannot forget that we are on the same team, and the opposite of poverty is community.

We have a bad habit of predetermining others’ needs and telling their story for them. We become impatient and forget to listen. We fail to recognize that we ALL have something important to contribute. We forget to trust them.

I think we have something to learn from the art of improv to better build relationships across class lines to create stories of transformation. Here are a few lessons I’ve gleaned:

LISTEN | not just to react but to truly understand.

 

TRUST | step out on faith and remember just starting the conversation takes tremendous courage.

 

THERE IS AN AUDIENCE | our story is not just about us, but about the community who wants to be part of it.

 

HAVE FUN | it’s important to enjoy the journey and laugh some along the way.

As I continue the improv class, I’ve gotten better at working with my team and creating scenes together. We are building trust. Trust comes from sharing stories with each other over and over again. Trust builds when we feel listened to. Trust gives us motivation to take on challenges, sometimes things we’d never consider doing on our own.

Today, I went on the stage. The light was shining bright in my eyes. My heart was pounding again with anxiety. Our instructor said, “Just say something. You’re doing great. It’s your story.”

I can say anything. The courage it takes to be there is enough, I am not a fool. I have allies surrounding me waiting to listen and create a new story with me.

by Heather Cunningham — to learn more about Heather’s work, please visit thinktank-inc.org

Stand. Listen. Love.

Paint

We have a bedtime routine with my one-year- old daughter, Helen. She gets a bath, a bottle, we rock and then she is laid in her crib for the night to go to sleep. This nighttime regimen was created when she was a newborn after plenty of reading and years of previous parenting experience, where my husband and I had a child in the middle of our bed.

Recently, when I lay Helen down she will wake and begin to whimper as soon as she discovers she is alone in her crib. As long as I stand by the crib and she knows I’m near after a few minutes she will fall into a sound sleep.

I could spend countless hours trying to figure out why Helen’s crib is a scary place and what I should do. I could become paralyzed and over think how to fix the situation.

Instead, I stand there at the side of her crib. Thinking, listening to her breath and occasionally say aloud, “I’m right here”.

Helen just needs to feel my love.

Tonight while standing by her crib, my mind was racing. Another young black man was shot by a police officer and my social media feed is drowned in posts. Posts from preachers,professionals and personal friends—some who are being advocates and some who are being adversarial. Videos of the violence. Statements from the young black man’s family. Articles about injustice and the racial war our communities continue to battle. My heart is heavy.

I scroll through the news feed and read each post. A few instances I click on the comment button and then change my mind as I begin to type. I don’t want to be in this conversation, I tell myself…it’s too complicated.

Then a woman who I respect and care for wrote a post. It reads:

I just can’t bring myself to watch the videos of these executions.  Thats what they are. I have a son and I am so afraid for him. He looks older than he is. He’s muscular. He sometimes rides his bike or walks home when its dark. I have to tell him if he’s ever stopped by an officer to keep his hands visible. Don’t make sudden moves or reach for anything. Comply with whatever they say even if that means getting arrested falsely.  I’d rather pay bail than pick out a casket.

My heart is no longer heavy, my heart is broken.

I know her. I know her son. She is a great mom and an amazing woman.

Relationships can be the force that drowns out the noise. Relationships allow us to hit pause to begin to take complicated issues and gain a glimpse of understanding. 

I could spend countless hours trying to figure out why her community is a scary place and what I should do. I could become paralyzed and over think how to fix the situation.

Instead, I will let her know– I’m thinking, I’m standing here and I’m listening. She is not alone.

She’s a friend who needs to feel my love.

by Heather Cunningham, to learn more about Heather’s work please visit thinktank-inc.org

*Shared with permission

Flight Connection

FLight

Airports are places full of people. People of different cultures. People of different race, age and gender. All on an unique journey

Recently, I was in the Chicago airport and had an experience that caused me to reflect on building community.

45 minutes until boarding time, I sat in my seat and typed on my laptop at the gate. Across the way, there was a young mother with two children. One in a carrier on the front of her body and one holding on to her hand, like a chained animal who wanted free. Occasionally she would let go of the toddler’s hand. This followed with yelling his name repeatedly and making a run to sweep him up, before he went too far in the crowd of strangers. It was clear she was exhausted.

Meanwhile I typed away. Other people quietly observed while the mom and young boy ran through the seats. The baby started crying. This made the situation more difficult and as the mom tried to tend to the crying infant, the little boy became more out of control.

30 minutes to boarding.

I noticed by this point, folks started talking about the young woman. Some spoke of pity. Others displayed frustration. I noticed one man in particular, who constantly would look at the mom. He even waved at the rambunctious toddler.

Why wasn’t anyone offering to help?

20 minutes to boarding.

Finally, I stood up. Passing the gentlemen who seemed interested in the young mom’s situation I said, “Come on let’s help.” He didn’t hesitate for a second and immediately followed me.

I introduced myself to the young mom and said, “We want to help. What do you need?” With tears running down her face she delegated instructions. I held the baby while she made a bottle. The other gentleman made fast friends with the little guy as he sat and read to him. The mom thanked us over and over again.

Five minutes to boarding.

Both children were fast asleep. Mission accomplished. I looked at everyone around me and couldn’t help but think–why didn’t anyone else offer to help? That wasn’t so bad….Actually it was nice to hold the little baby.

Well, I think this happens all the time in our community. Here’s a list of thoughts that I had when trying to decide whether or not to reach out to the mom. Maybe you can relate?

1 | I’m too busy.

I was trying to get caught up on emails and tending to kids was not in my plan. The work will always be there. Live in the moment a little!

2 | I’m not sure if ‘she’ wants my help.

I had no idea what to say to the young mom. I didn’t know if my offer to help would embarrass her. If you don’t ask you’ll never know.

3 | I don’t know what ‘she’ needs.

The gentlemen who helped with me, kept saying afterwards “I’m glad you got up- I wanted to, but I didn’t know what she needed.” Of course you don’t. That’s why the question, “what do you need from me?” is so powerful. Needs are universal and we can usually communicate them when asked.

4 | I worry about what others will think.

The young mom and children captured nearly everyone’s attention at the airport gate. I knew that lots of eyes would be on me if I helped.  Sometimes modeling is one of the best teaching techniques.

5 | I’m different than ‘she’ is.

I could tell in the short period of time that the mom and I probably parented differently. I knew she and I had a different culture. BUT I am a mother and I know what it feels like to be completely exhausted. Figure out ways to connect to the experiences of others, maybe not the exact situation or circumstance.

6 | I won’t get anything out of this.

Selfishly, I was tired and wasn’t in a giving mood. However, I had no idea how much holding the newborn was going to calm me and give me renewed energy. Reciprocity isn’t always obvious right away.

Our communities are places full of people. People of different cultures. People of different race, age and gender. All on an unique journey.

Isolation is terrible for us. Take the risk and reach out.

Five minutes to landing.

 

by Heather Cunningham, to learn more about Heather’s work please visit thinktank-inc.org

Redefining my legacy: My learning journey so far as an AmeriCorps VISTA.

ryan vista shot

I was first introduced to AmeriCorps VISTA through my instructor, who was the CEO of a local nonprofit. She would often share examples of how the VISTA members, Volunteers in Service to America, have strengthened her organization. I really enjoyed her class because of her hands on teaching style and participative facilitation that made the learning more stimulating.Throughout the class, my interest in the administrative side of running a nonprofit began to spark, so one day I decided to attend her office hours. We shared experiences and she informed me all about AmeriCorps VISTA and the services they provide to the community. After that first encouraging conversation, one thing led to another and the next semester I was interning for her nonprofit.

During my internship I was able to observe multiple leadership roles, various services they offer, interact with the VISTAs, and even began doing social media and marketing projects. This was turning out to be one of the best internships I’d ever had. I was using my skills, learning about the nonprofit realm, and realizing the many challenges in my community and how I can become a change-agent. When I heard a new VISTA position was opening, I knew this would be my chance to continue growing and learning with the organization.

So, here I am a few months into my service, exploring all aspects of the AmeriCorps VISTA experience. I’m embracing the newness of both living and now serving in the community that i’m from. VISTA is allowing me to use my skills, talents, and passions to help Think Tank, Inc. build collaborative approaches to addressing poverty. So far my role has been to assist with many of the administrative tasks, event planning, advertising our training opportunities, and brainstorming new ideas for social media and marketing strategies. Throughout my service year I plan to work on new partnership development and bring in new resources and funding, which is perfect since I’m now taking a class through VISTA Campus on resource development and grant writing. As a student studying Organizational Leadership and Marketing, It’s been gratifying to connect my VISTA role to the knowledge I’ve gained in the classroom.

For a long time throughout my undergraduate experience, I’ve thought that after graduation I would just move away. Move away from all of the problems, violence, and lack of opportunities in my community. But what good would that serve my community? VISTA is now challenging that mindset and allowing me to see the beauty in creating and expanding the initiatives that are enabling others to become self-sufficient and transcend out of poverty. I now feel like I’m really living, making decisions to not only better my future, but the future of the environment that has shaped me.

The connections I have made through AmeriCorps VISTA so far, will be great assets for the future; whether they be personal friendships or business relationships. AmeriCorps and its alumni is a great network and support group! Through all of the success stories & passion I’m now connected to, I’m confident that VISTA is leading me towards a world of possibilities and explorations. I’m interested in a career in the Nonprofit world, Higher Education, and Marketing. I hope to continue to serving my community after VISTA and use the skills I’m gaining in whatever career opportunity comes next.

By Ryan Staley, AmeriCorps VISTA serving with Think Tank, Inc.

Follow Ryan’s Journey on LinkedIn!

The Power of a Story

TT-Blog-Fold-9-10-15

I finished another successful training. I’m very fortunate to work doing what I love, working with people to change our mindset about poverty. I came home to my family after a long day that included a poverty simulation with community leaders. Most evenings, I debrief with my husband and he asks the typical question “How was your day?”

However, tonight was a little different. My teenage son, inquired about the details of my workday. “Mom what did you teach people today?”

“We talked about poverty,” I responded.

“What did you tell people about poverty?” he said.

I said, “Well… I actually shared a story about a young woman, whom I know, who was grocery shopping for her family. She had a bunch of groceries piled up in her cart. Once she got to the checkout, she discovered her food stamp card wouldn’t work. The cashier remarked about how careless the woman was to not have a working card. So, she was forced to leave the grocery store without buying any of the food. In the training, we had a dialogue about this woman’s grocery experience. We discussed how she possibly felt; how she may have felt embarrassed and felt defeated in the moment. But the important part of the story was what she did after being in the checkout lane. She contacted an ally and she talked about the shame and frustration of her experience. The ally helped her to process how she was treated and gave her encouragement to trudge ahead.”

My son listened as I told the story, much like the participants listened today at the training—waiting for me to share what was going to happen next, waiting for a happy ending to the story. Although, there was no way to tie this up into a happy story.

My son said, “Wow mom, that is really sad but good at the same time.” Then he left and went into his bedroom, back to his life of video games and FaceTime with his friends, like most teenagers.

An hour later, he came back to me and said, “Mom, you know Tom’s Market? Do you think you could do a training there for their cashiers? Maybe it would be good for them to learn about poverty. Then women, like your friend, wouldn’t get treated that way when they have trouble with their food card.”
Overwhelmed with feelings of gratitude, that my 16-year-old ‘gets it’ and he is ready to tackle some of the systemic barriers, that exist for those in poverty… I take a gulp and hold back the tears and I said, “Yes, son I think that’s a great idea.”

Having three children, we tell a lot of stories in my house; from reading at bedtime, stories at the dinner table, and just the typical “remember when” moments that many families share. But something came to me tonight from the story; the one I’ve told a hundred times.  Telling stories are an effective and important way, to open people’s eyes and hearts. Stories can ignite change agents. Stories can help people experience another person’s reality.

Stories can give a glimpse into poverty.

I am reminded that sharing these stories can give voice to the voiceless. These stories share an experience that needs to be shared. I’m reminded that stories help the complex issue of poverty become human and personal. I’m reminded how important it is to tell these stories to others.

Stories give connection.

Change can happen.  Even if it is one small grocery market at a time.

What stories are you telling in your community?

Who is listening?

How are the stories you tell creating change?

by Heather Cunningham, to learn more about Heather’s work please visit thinktank-inc.org

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Why I Don’t Like the Word “Funder” (and Other Cantankerous Thoughts)

faith blog

I have a confession to make: I’ve never really liked the word “funder.”

It’s a word we use a lot in nonprofit circles: “So-and-so is one of our funders.” “Here is a potential funder.” (Or if you’re like me: “Why can’t we just find more funders?”)

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the word, really. It describes someone, a foundation or government department or even an individual, whose money is supporting a project. It’s just that lately I’ve realized that the word “funder” has always rubbed me the wrong way, and I think I’m starting to figure out why.

“Funder,” to me, is a transactional word. You (the funder) give me (the nonprofit) a check. I do the work. I report back to you (or maybe not, because you know I do such great work.) When I make another pitch or proposal to you for more funding, you write another check. And so on. You write the check; I do the work – it’s a transaction.

At least that’s the way we view it sometimes – and maybe the way we like it. To be honest, we may keep things transactional because it’s easier and we’re more comfortable in those roles, on both ends. I (the nonprofit) do the work I am best at. You (the funder) give me money because you have lots of it and you want to do something significant in the community. Done and done. No need to make things messy. (Obviously I exaggerate here, but I know this reflects my own attitude at times.)

Except for this reality: “Funders” are never robots or ATMs. They are people. People who have visions and hopes and dreams for the community we serve. And if we can treat them according to their visions and hopes, and not just their checkbooks, we may just move from transactional to transformational.

So, you may ask, should we stop saying the word funder; and if so, exactly what word should we use instead? And is this really all just semantics?

First of all, don’t feel obligated to stop using the word funder; it’s just my little pet peeve that I may need to get over. However, what I think we do need to change, on a deep down conceptual level in ourselves and in our organizations, is to start thinking of these funders as partners. Players on the same team, with different roles. People with tremendous leverage and capacity to make a difference in the community. People with valuable perspectives and insights into our community. And as we dialogue with them, and listen to each other’s expertise on the community we serve, and invite them into a partner relationship, we move from transactional to transformational.

I have never seen a “funder” turn down the opportunity to have a thoughtful conversation about the big picture needs in our community. Not a pitch, not a proposal, not a speech from a nonprofit, but a thoughtful conversation. And who knows how that thoughtful conversation may lead into opportunities for us to partner together down the road.

So, my challenge for all of us is to start thinking of our funders, or potential funders, as partners. Even if your funders think of themselves as funders, try treating them more like partners, and see what happens. Value their opinions. Invite them into your work and cause. Develop a relationship. And watch what kind of transformation happens in your community.

Faith Bosland
Executive Director, Springfield Christian Youth Ministries
http://www.crushtheodds.org

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.