Prosper Waco: Them is us

By Ashley Bean Thornton

It’s been interesting to see the conversation about Prosper Waco in the Trib lately. Is Prosper Waco a wise investment that will give us the traction we need to make progress against our stubbornly high rate of poverty? Or, is it a waste of time and money wrapped in a thick blanket of bureaucratic doublespeak? Time will tell I suppose. At this point, honestly, I think it could go either way. It’s up to us.

I don’t work for Prosper Waco, and I’m not on the board of Prosper Waco, but I was a member of the Poverty Solutions Steering Committee. In 2010 we were appointed by City Council to come up with strategies for reducing poverty in Waco. We made six broad strategic recommendations, including this one:

“Strategy 6 – Establish an organization to provide on – going coordination and leadership for our work together. – Poverty has been a challenge for Waco throughout its history. Success in reducing poverty will require sustained leadership and administration. The suggested goals proposed by the [Poverty Solutions Steering Committee] task teams give us important direction regarding how to move forward, but these goals are only a first step. On-going rounds of planning, implementation and evaluation will be needed to make our aspirations our reality. To effectively leverage our community resources, we need an organization whose central purpose and first priority is to coordinate this work. This organization will not provide direct services, but will provide the organizational scaffolding to stimulate, synchronize and harmonize efforts throughout the community. A key element for the success of this organization will be support and engagement from throughout the community; it must be a city-wide public/private partnership.”

The city council agreed with that recommendation and Mayor Malcolm Duncan and several others have worked very hard to establish such an organization which we now know as Prosper Waco. Is it perfect? Nope. Is it a good step? I think so.

I’m sure you know as well as I do about all the terrific work that is already going on in Waco to help people and families with low incomes: Mission Waco, Christian’s Men & Women’s Job Corps, EOAC, Salvation Army, AVANCE, Talitha Koum, Communities In Schools, Habitat for Humanity, Waco Community Development Corporation, NeighborWorks, Caritas, Shepherd’s Heart, Goodwill, Restoration Haven…the list goes on and on. I’m going to hurt some feelings by leaving someone off of this list, but truly, the whole list would take more space than this article allows. These groups are helping hundreds of people every day. Maybe thousands.

I think I can say with confidence that every single person who works at every single one of these organizations and agencies would love it if there were fewer people who needed their services.   Yet despite all this good intention and hard work, our rate of poverty remains steady.   The image that comes to mind is of dozens of individual gears spinning separately. It appears we have made about as much progress as we are going to make by spinning separately. The idea behind Prosper Waco is that our opportunity for progress lies in our ability to connect our gears. The purpose of Prosper Waco is to help us work together better, and by doing that to multiply the amount of benefit we are getting from the amount of work we are doing.

It feels to me like, as a community, our thinking about the issue of poverty is getting more sophisticated.  We used to focus most of our energy on the question, “How can we help poor people?” and we have helped a lot of people. Now we are looking more deeply at the root of the problem.  We are realizing that if more of us are making enough money to live on (and a little to spare), then our community is better off, and we are all better off. Our question has changed. We are starting to ask ourselves, “How can we build the kind of community where fewer of us are poor and more of us are making enough money to spend and invest here?” To answer this question we need more of us involved than just the good people who are already working their tails off at our various social service agencies. We need every part of our civic and economic system. We need the businesses, the chambers of commerce, the schools (public, private and higher-ed), the churches, the city and county governments, the people who have first hand knowledge of what it is to live on a very low income, and the people who have never had to worry about having enough, and all of the rest of us in between.

Do you believe getting all these different groups of people to work together and pull in the same direction will be an easy task? If you do, then you have not tried it. Pulling these gears together will require time, energy, creative thinking, and plenty of work.

It requires people to chase down the people who need to be involved, and convince them to get involved, and then convince them again when they start to fade away. It requires people who can learn the “language” of each group and serve as interpreters when they misunderstand each other. It requires people who know how to run meetings so that they are effective and meaningful. It requires people to do the research in between the meetings so that we have real information to work from instead of just pooled intuition and opinion. It requires people to check and see what other cities are doing so that we can steal their best ideas. It requires people to figure out how to “keep score,” to figure out whether we are making any progress or not, and what’s working and what’s not. It requires people who can help the rest of us make plans and then help us implement those plans across organizational boundaries. It requires keeping up with what we have done, and what we said we would do, and who has followed through and who needs to be reminded and urged forward. It requires someone to push against the powerful force of “the way we do things around here” and get us to consider doing things a different way.

This is the work that Prosper Waco was created to do: The work of helping us work together.

Is it working? For heaven’s sakes, No! Not yet! Prosper Waco is in its infancy. It has barely learned to turn over on its stomach much less crawl or walk. This work is momentous and challenging and there are basically no instructions. It will take a good little while for it to work.

Will it work? I don’t know. I think there is a good chance that it can. Certainly a better chance than if we just keep doing the same things we have been doing.   Other people are starting to believe in us. The National Resource Network is willing to invest $300,000 or so in us because they believe it can work.

The purpose of Prosper Waco is not to do the work of making our community stronger, but to provide the support we, the members of this community, need in order to work together more effectively to make our community stronger. If we don’t work, Prosper Waco won’t work.

We can stand back and watch until we are sure that everything is exactly to our satisfaction before we step in. We can criticize without being willing to help make things better. We can drop out as soon as we get frustrated. If we do that, it probably won’t work. Or, we can pitch in even when things aren’t perfectly organized and planned. We can focus on what we can do instead of what we can’t do.  We can look for ways to solve problems together, and listen to each other. We can challenge each other and try new things. We can stick with it even when it’s driving us crazy. We can speak up when we think we see a better way, and offer to do work instead of coming up with work for other people to do. If enough of us do that, we can probably make some progress.

It’s up to us whether Prosper Waco works or not. There is no them and us.  Them IS us.  We have work to do.

Do you want to get involved? For more information, visit the website: 

31This Act Locally Waco blog post is by Ashley Bean Thornton, the Manager of the website and the editor of the Friday Update newsletter: The WHOLE Enchilada. The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email [email protected] for more information.




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