2017 Greatest Hits #3: Prejudice then and now…

(During December we will be reprising some of  “2017’s greatest hits” from the Act Locally Waco blog. I couldn’t possibly pick my favorites – so I used the simple (cop out?)  approach of pulling up the 10 blog posts that got the most “opens” according to our Google Analytics.  It is an intriguing collection that gives at least a little insight into the interests and concerns of Act Locally Waco readers. I hope this “Top 10” idea inspires you to go back and re-read your personal favorites.  There have been so many terrific ones… If you would like to see the Top 10 according to Google Analytics, here’s the link: 2017 Greatest Hits.  Merry Christmas! — ABT) 

by Ashley Bean Thornton

I have a cloudy memory from when I was very young, six or seven years old at the oldest, maybe even as young as four or five. I was born in 1961, so this would have been sometime between 1966 and 1968, I guess.

Some adult in my life, a woman, sat me down and explained to me why, according to the Bible, black people were meant to be subservient to white people.  I don’t remember who gave me this lesson.  I think it was at my grandmother’s house, but I don’t think it was my grandmother.  It might have been an aunt or maybe just one of my grandmother’s friends.  It doesn’t really matter. Plenty of people would have told me the same story.

The explanation had to do with Noah after the flood.  Noah had gotten drunk and was lying naked in his tent.  One of his sons, Ham, saw his father in this sorry state and reported it to his brothers.  When Noah found out about this, he cursed Ham saying that Ham’s offspring should always be slaves to his brother’s children. So, Ham’s children became black people and the brothers’ children became white people and that is why black people were always meant to be subservient to white people.

Nowadays I’m sure every white person I know would cringe at hearing this story.  I imagine most of my friends find it downright offensive.  I hope they do.  It’s a terrible story. I’m ashamed to even tell it.

The reason I am telling it is because I have thought of it often these last few years as I have watched gay people gain more and more rights and have observed the strong resistance to that progress.  I thought of it this morning as I read that two years after the Supreme Court ruled that same sex couples have a constitutional right to marry, gay people still cannot get a courthouse wedding in Waco.

You may be thinking that the woman who sat me down and told me the story of Noah and Ham and black people must have been some kind of mean, ignorant, “white trash,” low-class person.  Even though I can’t remember exactly who she was, I can tell you that was not the case.  Any adult woman I would have met at my grandmother’s house would have been cut from basically the same cloth as my grandmother: hardworking, educated, church-going, white women who had all endured some hard times, and who, despite that, liked to laugh, tell stories, watch Laurence Welk and talk behind each other’s backs about who had the best pound cake recipe.

In other words, I imagine the woman who tried to pass her racial prejudice on to me was a good person by most every measure.   I believe she took the time to make sure a small girl understood the lesson about Noah and Ham because she believed the story was true and that it was right and important to pass it on to me.

In the same way, I think that many people who oppose gay marriage and other gay rights believe very deeply that they are correct in their opposition. They believe God’s word is clear. They believe it viscerally. They feel all the way down to their bones that they are right.

This story from my own childhood reminds me that at one time, not so long ago, many otherwise decent people felt the same way about racial segregation and opposing the civil rights of black people.  You can see it in the angry faces of the white people in the pictures of the mob scenes when schools were being integrated or black people were marching for their rights.  I have heard it in angry words coming out of the mouths of my own family members. These white people who opposed civil rights for black people believed they were right.  Being told they were wrong caused a kind of outrage on two fronts.  On one front, they were outraged because black people were demanding to “rise above their rank” and were “disrupting the natural order of things.”  On the other front, they were outraged because other people, black and white, were judging them for standing up for what they believed was right.

They felt viscerally, to their bones, that they were right.

But, they were wrong.

Thanks to legislated integration, my grandmother, by the time she retired, had taught many African-American second graders and worked with at least a handful of African-American teachers. She realized, at least partly, that she had been wrong about black people. Her attitude changed.  Not as much as it should have, perhaps, but it changed some.  My mother’s attitude has changed even more.  Mine has changed even more.   We’ve changed enough that I feel ashamed of a story that at one time was accepted and defended among my kin as “what the Bible says.”

I believe a generation from now we straight people will feel just as ashamed at having tried to deny gay people the right to marry as we white people feel now at having tried to deny black people the right to vote and to be treated equally and fairly.

I’m not sure what I would have done if I had been born in my grandmother’s generation or my mother’s generation instead of my own.  I don’t know if I would have recognized the way black people were treated as being wrong, or if I would have gone along with the prevailing beliefs of most white people in the South at the time.  But, living here and now, and having learned from that example, I will say that I would be proud for gay people to be able to get married in our courthouse in Waco.  I am sorry that we have not reached that point already. I hope we get there soon.

This Act Locally Waco blog post is by Ashley Bean Thornton, she has lived in Waco almost 20 years now.  Far longer than she ever lived anywhere else.  She likes to walk. If you see her out walking, honk and wave and say “hi!” 

 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.


Time to activate our mediocre super powers

By Ashley Bean Thornton

Several years ago my friend Marianne Stambaugh and I were enjoying the Baylor Homecoming parade when the string of snazzy convertibles carrying the “Outstanding Young Alumni” rolled past.  When Marianne and I are together almost everything is funny to us, and this struck us as particularly hilarious. We immediately decided that we would start a group called “Mediocre Middle-Aged Alumni.”   Our plan was to insert ourselves in the parade directly behind the Outstanding Young Alumni. We would ride in a caravan of old pick-up trucks, a happy multitude of grey-headed men and women, comfortable in our stretchy pants and matching green and gold “MMAA” T-shirts, sharing some nice snacks, and waving contentedly at the homecoming crowd.

I’m not knocking outstanding people at all.  Lord knows we need them. We need some people who poke their heads up above the crowd and see new sights and dream new dreams. We need the people who use their energy, smarts, originality, creativity, hard-headedness or whatever it takes to accomplish things that impress the rest of us.  Outstanding people deserve to be celebrated.  They are inspiring!

I’ll admit though, that sometimes when I hear about all the brilliant things the outstanding people are doing, it makes me want to take a nap.  I don’t have the time or energy to keep up with that.  Anyway, it sounds like they have it under control… Don’t we have anything to eat in this house?… I wonder what’s on TV?

In that moment, as inspiration fades in the face of inertia, it’s important to remember that when it comes to making the world – and Waco – a better place, the real power is not with the few “outstanding” ones in the convertibles, it is with us plain old folks in the pick-up trucks. Yes, we ordinary folks who make up the big middle section of the bell-curve of humanity are the ones who hold most of the cards – and most of the responsibility.

For example, the Keep Waco Beautiful awards program is coming up soon. They will be recognizing individuals and groups who have worked especially hard to keep our city clean and beautiful.  There are some outstanding individuals who will be recognized, and deservedly so.

Imagine, though, how much cleaner and more beautiful our city would be if, in addition to the outstanding work these few people are doing, a whole herd of us middle-of-the-pack folks consistently did just a little bit of mediocre work.  What if 10,000 of us, for example, made it a habit to pick up just one small bag of trash a week.  Our city would go from litter full to litter free!  (Of course the best thing would be if ALL of us in the middle of the bell curve had the habit of disposing of trash properly in the first place.)

The key word is habit.  Habits are what give the multitude of us garden-variety folks our super powers.  Occasional big efforts are admirable and exciting, but, honestly, it is the everyday habits of the majority of us average folks that have the potential for making the biggest difference.  The water wears away the stone not in one big splash, but by constantly dripping on the same place for a long time.

Small positive behaviors, carried out regularly by a bunch of us run-of-the-mill people can have a bigger effect on the health of our community than occasional heroic efforts by a few.  Here are some examples of the kinds of things we could easily be doing…

Take a walk in the neighborhood once a week or more. – If we all get in this habit we will end up with healthier, safer neighborhoods where we know each other better.  Those kinds of neighborhoods are the building blocks of strong cities.

Lean toward local. – We don’t all have to take a blood oath to never set foot in a big box store or a chain restaurant, but we can get in the habit of making local restaurants and stores our default choice.  Consistently patronizing our local businesses helps them thrive and gives our community it’s unique flavor.

Volunteer a little and give a little – Volunteer for just an hour, but do it consistently once a month or once a week.  Even the smallest effort – picking up one bag of trash – done consistently makes a difference.  Give $2 or $3 a week to an organization you care about, but give it every week.  It doesn’t have to be a huge commitment – an hour or two a month of consistent volunteering or a few dollars a month of consistent giving adds up when enough of us do it.

Our power as members of the middle of the bell curve is not in doing an exhausting amount of good, it is in more of us making a habit of doing a very reasonable amount of good consistently.

So thank you outstanding folks!  We appreciate your herculean efforts on our behalf.  Now the rest of us have few little things to get done before we take our naps!

This Act Locally Waco blog post is by Ashley Bean Thornton, she works at Baylor, and helps out with Act locally Waco. She likes to walk. If you see her, honk and wave and say “hi!” 

 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.







Where do we go to learn to be citizens in a democracy?

By Ashley Bean Thornton

I was visiting with my friend Austin Meek (host of the fantastic KWBU program Downtown Depot) the other day and he asked me, “What’s the best thing happening at Baylor right now?”  Wow! So much to choose from…we just named our first woman president, who by all accounts will be a super-star.  We’re about to graduate another stellar class of brand new Baylor alums off to make the world a better place in all kinds of ways we can’t even imagine yet.  Baylor researchers are making new discoveries about everything from the effects of algae in the water supply, to how to detect eye cancer, to how to teach number sense to pre-k kids. I couldn’t pick the BEST thing, so I slyly answered a slightly different question: What’s MY FAVORITE thing happening at Baylor right now?

Before I reveal my answer, I want to take a little detour to consider the purpose of higher education.

College tuition is going up. Student debt is increasing.   Some people are starting to wonder if a college education is “worth it” in terms of increasing lifetime earning potential.  On another front, technology is making it easier and easier to “deliver content” in all kinds of convenient ways – perhaps much more convenient than sitting in classes for four years… I do not know what the future holds for higher education, but it will almost certainly include some big changes.  The aggravating thing about change is that it is almost always disruptive and stressful.  The good thing about change, though, is that it pushes us to circle around and think about core purposes and what we are really trying to accomplish.

What, then, is the purpose of higher education? One purpose is certainly to help people prepare for a career – a good job with good pay.   No argument there.  Just as certainly though, that is not the only purpose.  To me the “higher” in higher education, in the USA at least, is educating the citizenry of a democracy to govern themselves wisely and well.

Where do we learn to wrestle with the big questions of “truth, beauty and justice?”  Where do we learn to think about what kind of world we want to create together?  Where do we learn the skills of how to work together to create that world?  Where do we learn to listen and to present a reasoned argument instead of just yelling at each other? Where do we learn to have some empathy for our fellow humans even when we disagree with them?  Where do we learn to discuss difficult issues in a productive way?  Where do we learn to leaven our zeal for efficiency, productivity and profit with an understanding of the roles of diversity, creativity and compassion?

I don’t think we can run a democracy without citizens with this kind of knowledge and skill, and I don’t think we can take for granted that people will develop it on their own.  This kind of learning and thinking is the journey of a lifetime.  I think it is a core purpose of higher education to equip people for that journey and to give them a good running start on their way. As the form of higher education evolves, I don’t want this purpose to get lost along the way.  I want our institutions of higher ed, Baylor included, to be as creative in thinking of ways to fulfill this purpose as we are in thinking of ways to help students get the skills they need for a career.

That brings me to a terrific program that has taken root at Baylor this last year.  It’s called The Baylor Public Deliberation Initiative, “PDI” for short. PDI’s work is to “invite Baylor students, staff, and faculty as well as local community members to participate in forums about local and national issues to better understand the perspectives, possible outcomes, and trade-offs of different options.”  In other words, they set up workshops where we can practice doing democracy together. They invite not only Baylor students, but also the Waco community to participate, because part of what it means to do democracy is to do it with all kinds of different people from different stages of life, different walks of life and different life experiences.

The PDI folks have already facilitated deliberations on topics like Immigration, Campus Carry, and Climate Change.  At each deliberation participants share personal connections to the issue, have a civil discussion about the pros and cons of at least three different approaches to the issue, and then deliberate about what actions they believe they could agree to take despite differences in perspective. Doesn’t that sound like a terrific way to do democracy together?

As an extension of this work, PDI is hosting a “Civic Life Summit” that is open to the public.   On June 1 & 2, the summit will offer practical sessions designed to help us  learn the skills of citizenship.  Topics include “Living Room Conversations on Race,” “Beyond Reactions and Factions: A Pragmatic Approach,” “GRIT 101: Getting Gritty Doing Civic Engagement,” and many more.  The sessions will be led mostly by active Waco community members (including some Baylor faculty and staff) with a sprinkling of experts brought in from other communities. Registration is $95 until May 15, and a few scholarships are still available.

I love that my Alma Mater is hosting an event that focuses on civic learning, an event that invites students and the rest of us in the community to learn to be better citizens together.  Is it the best thing happening at Baylor right now? Not sure…it has lots of competition.  But, it is my favorite!  Hope to see you there.  It’s more fun to learn to be better citizens together!

 This Act Locally Waco blog post is by Ashley Bean Thornton, she works at Baylor, and helps out with Act locally Waco. She likes to walk. If you see her, honk and wave and say “hi!” 

 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.







Walking into the Future of Downtown

By Ashley Bean Thornton

I like to walk, and I like downtown, so when I discovered the book Walkable City: How Downtown can Save America, One Step at a Time (by Jeff Speck) I picked it up.  I mentioned it on Facebook to see if I could rope a few folks into reading it with me.  Soon we had about 20 people signed up for a book discussion.  It was such a great conversation that a handful of us decided to keep meeting. We have adopted the name Waco Walks. Now we’re even getting T-shirts, so what do you know?  We’re a real “thing!”

Our merry group has decided that we want to get out and walk together once a month. Our intention with these walks is to get a little exercise, enjoy each other’s company, and see what we can learn and do about making Waco into a community that walks!

Our last walk was on February 11.  We walked from the fine arts building on Baylor campus, down University Parks to Washington, and then across to Sixth street, before jig-jagging to Fifth Street to cross back under 1-35 to return to Baylor campus. Think about all the neat Waco stuff you get to see on that route: the Martin Museum of Art, the Mayborn Museum, the First Street Cemetery, the Downtown Farmer’s Market, the food trucks, the suspension bridge, the longhorn statues, the courthouse, the (soon to be open) Mary Avenue Market, the lofts in the old Gradel Printing building, the Silos, First Baptist Church, the Bear habitat, the beautiful new Baylor fountain in the middle of 5th street… It’s really a terrific 3.5 mile loop!

Where the sidewalk ends…

So why isn’t it more popular for walkers?  Well, there are lots of fun things to look at along the way, but they are not connected together all that well. There are big empty parking lots and dull or boarded up buildings in between the cool things.  There are long stretches of really nice sidewalk, but they are occasionally punctuated with unfortunate patches of badly broken sidewalk and places where you have to walk in the grass or in the street. Baylor and downtown are not too far away from each other to walk, but I-35 is a psychological barrier and the underpasses, while technically walkable and safe enough, are a little intimidating and not very inviting.  How do we go about overcoming some of these challenges and maximizing the benefits of the great pieces we have?

Enter one of the things I love most about Waco:  our awesome city employees!  We invited Clint Peters and Chelsea Phlegar from the City of Waco Planning Office to come with us on our walk.  They willingly took time away from their own Saturday morning plans to walk with us and educate us about some of the possibilities for making the area more walker-friendly.  They even brought handouts!

It was exciting to hear about upcoming plans for better sidewalks up and down University Parks and on Sixth Street, and new hotels and apartments with first floor retail and public space for pedestrians to peek into and enjoy.  We dreamed together about the possibilities for developing the parking lot and current drive-thru bank area between the courthouse and Austin Ave. into a walkable city square similar to the ones in Georgetown and Denton.  We talked about the pros and cons of one-way and two-way streets and how that affects walkability and storefront development. We talked about the culture changes needed so that people are willing to walk a couple of blocks instead of parking directly in front of their downtown destinations. Clint and Chelsea helped us understand overlay districts and TIF rules and the influence they have on making downtown more walkable and pleasant.  They gave us some great information about how we might be able to speak into the I-35 expansion project (if it happens!) in regard to making the underpasses more inviting and walkable “gateways” from Baylor to downtown.

What were my main take-aways from our walk together?  First, there are all kinds of terrific ideas and possibilities for making downtown more walkable and interesting. We residents of Waco need to educate ourselves about what it takes to actually implement those ideas.  Second, there are an awful lot of good things going on right now.  If we took this exact walk again in just six months we would see lots of new developments moving us toward the goal of an ever more interesting and walkable downtown.  Exciting times!

Are you interested in helping to make Waco a community of walkers?  We’d love to have you join us! Check the Waco Walks Facebook page for information about upcoming meetings and walks.

Are you specifically interested in downtown development?  On February 25, from 9:00 to Noon, Baylor Continuing Ed is offering a class called “Waco 101: How to Grow a Downtown.”  We’ll learn about the theory and practice of downtown development from Megan Henderson of City Center Waco, then we’ll take a brief walking tour of downtown led by local developer Shane Turner.  We’ll cap it off with a question and answer session with Megan, Shane, City Manager Dale Fisseler and City Councilman Dillon Meek.  It costs $10, you can register online at https://www1.baylor.edu/ers/upay.php?event_id=106643&action=register.   See you there!  Walk on!

This Act Locally Waco blog post is by Ashley Bean Thornton, she works at Baylor, helps out with Act locally Waco, and facilitates the Waco Foundational Employment Network which is a part of Prosper Waco.  She likes to walk and doesn’t mind at all if you honk and wave when you see her.

 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]ctlocallywaco.org for more information.



It’s the end of the year and I’m sad…

by Ashley Bean Thornton

I headed into the last month of 2016 feeling more melancholy and tired than usual. I can point to three rocks in particular that have been heavy to me this year.

Racial tensions – Back in May we as a community paused to reflect on the anniversary of the illegal lynching and burning of a 17-year old black man named Jesse Washington, an event often referred to as “The Waco Horror.”  Looking back on that service, it feels like a grim symmetry that the 100th anniversary year of that terrible event would also be a year fraught with race-related tension, controversy and bloody violence.  In a strange way it is embarrassing for me to even mention how exhausting this tension has been for me this year.  I can see in the faces and hear in the words of my Black friends and neighbors that the weight I felt this year is a weight they have already been carrying for a very long time.  I know it will never weigh as heavily on me as it does on them.

Sexual assault and response at Baylor – I am a Baylor alum and I have worked there for almost twenty years, plus I am a human being and a woman.  Everything about this situation has been sad and bad to me:  the awful nature of the crimes themselves and the toll on the victims; the feeling of unfairness that comes with knowing that just because I am a woman I am more vulnerable to this kind of violence myself; the swirling currents and undercurrents of pain, blame, fear, sexism, and even racism in the general discussion of the events and the response; the personal concern for people whose reputations have been fairly or unfairly damaged;  the angry feeling that we are being relentlessly pecked at by buzzards who won’t let the story go; the gnawing guilt that comes with “just wanting it to go away” even though I know it is far too important an issue to sweep under the rug.   It has worn me out.

The presidential election –  Yes, my candidate lost.  But that is not why this election weighs heavily on me, at least it’s not the whole reason. More than any election I can ever remember, this one felt like a year-long slog through muck and disappointment.  There is a certain beauty in watching two fine teams battle it out in any sport, including politics. When your team loses you walk away from the game feeling disappointed with the outcome, but generally good about the worthiness of the game itself.  That’s how a presidential election should feel.  That is not how this one felt.

I don’t want to descend into whining. (“Too late!” I can hear some of you saying.)  But, I will also say that I am not particularly ashamed of my sadness.  I think I am justified in feeling sad about the things I have described above.  Frankly, I would wonder about myself if I didn’t feel sad.  To some extent, sadness is good for you…for me…for us as a society.  How might we treat each other if there were no such thing as sadness?  Still, in a world that thrives on a constant feed of instant gratification, we don’t seem to have much appreciation or patience for sadness any more.  I think we need to reclaim it.

The kind of sadness I am feeling now is a kind of confusion.  It’s a feeling of being in limbo.  It’s like I don’t understand how the world works anymore. It is unsettling – I was settled into one way of thinking and being, and evidence has come along that has unsettled me.   I was settled into thinking that racial tensions had mostly gotten better, that bad things don’t happen in places full of good people (like Baylor), that there are certain unspoken rules of civil engagement that we all generally share.  Now I am unsettled.  Being unsettled and confused, I have slowed down to try to figure out what to do next. It may take me a while.

Just because this time is melancholy, however, doesn’t mean it is all bad.  This time of sadness is a time of loss of confidence and that means it can be a time for humble learning.  It is a time of vulnerability, and that means it can be a time for developing an appreciation for kindness. It’s a time of loss, and that means it can be a time for realizing what is really important.  It’s a time of mixed feelings, and that means it can be a time of openness to new ways of seeing.  It’s a time of disappointment and that means it can be a time for backing up and taking the long view.

In an odd way, it can be a time to relax, to give myself permission to go for a long walk, to clean out a drawer, to make something with my hands.  It can be a time for still and quiet.

Sometimes we think that just because a lot of something is bad, we can’t stand even a little.  But that is a mistake.  Too much salt in the soup ruins it, but a little makes it better.  I don’t want my whole life to be spent in confusion and limbo and melancholy, but I am not afraid of some.

I may not have intentionally invited sadness to my holiday celebrations, but since it’s here, I’m not working too hard to kick it out. Maybe it has a secret to tell me that I will need in the New Year.

This Act Locally Waco blog post is by Ashley Bean Thornton, she works at Baylor, helps out with Act locally Waco, and facilitates the Waco Foundational Employment Network which is a part of Prosper Waco.  She likes to walk and doesn’t mind at all if you honk and wave when you see her.

 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.

On ukuleles and politics…

By Ashley Bean Thornton

(Warning: Really bad metaphor ahead! Don’t read if you are sensitive to overwrought literary conceits.)

For my fortieth birthday I bought myself a ukulele.  Except for a few dutiful piano lessons in Jr. High, I had never played an instrument.  I thought it might be interesting to celebrate middle age by stretching my brain in a new direction.  I picked ukulele because…4-strings… how hard could it be?

I was partly right. Playing the ukulele wasn’t all that hard.  In fact, with a little practice, I had a great time playing it!  I fell in with a few goofy friends from Baylor and we formed a little ukulele band. (The “Free to Be Uke” Players — get it?)  We had a blast!  We even did a little Christmas sing-a-long in the Student Union Building much to the – delight? bemusement? annoyance?  – of the students passing by on their way to take their final exams.

The hard part about the ukulele wasn’t learning how to play it, it was learning how to tune the darn thing.   This was so frustrating to me that sometimes I tried to skip the tuning and just play…but, it sounded terrible, and that wasn’t any fun.  Usually (probably out of a desire to preserve his own sanity)  my much-more-musical-than-me husband would end up volunteering to tune it for me.  I would hand it over, and he would patiently pluck each string, listening carefully while he tightened and loosened first one then another until finally – magically, it seemed to me — he would strum a few chords, and it would all sound good together.

I haven’t played my ukulele in a few years now, but I still think pretty often about the notion of “tuning.”  Tuning is hard to do, but it’s a simple idea really. A string is stretched between two end points. The quality of the music depends on finding and maintaining the right tension between those end points.

It’s interesting (at least to me) to note that no one would ever say that one or the other end point between which the ukulele string is stretched is “right” or “wrong.” That doesn’t even make any sense.  Both end points are necessary.  The tension between them is what makes the music possible, and adjusting that tension is what makes the music sound good or bad.

It’s a simple idea, but I had never thought about it before, and it struck me as pretty profound.  It helps me understand what is necessary when two true and good things seem to be opposed to each other – a condition that comes up constantly.

Think of all the pairs of “end points” you tune between on a regular basis in your personal life: striving and resting, independence and interdependence, confidence and humility… One end point isn’t “right” and the other “wrong.”  They are both important.  We have no choice but to take on the sometimes frustrating, sometimes rewarding task of loosening, tightening and listening to get the tension right between them so that the music of our lives sounds good.

I’m thinking about all this today because I just got home from a weekend trip to Austin to attend a thing called “Tribfest.”  It’s basically an annual 3-day political “wonk-fest” put on by The Texas Tribune, my favorite news source for all things having to do with Texas politics.  Tribfest is billed as “your chance to engage with politicians, industry leaders and journalists as they explore issues critical to Texas.” While there I got to hear, among other things, interviews with  John Kasich and Ted Cruz, and bi-partisan panel discussions on all kinds of topics from the STAAR test to the appropriate relationship between faith and government.   The conversations were by turns fascinating, frustrating, terrifying and hopeful.

Throughout the weekend, the idea of “tuning” has been playing in the back of my mind.  The whole Tribfest was full to the brim with examples of the exact kinds of things I’m talking about above — true and good ideas that seem opposed to each other:

  • Personal freedom/public good…
  • Regulations to protect our environment/flexibility to do business in a profitable way…
  • Giving our teachers the freedom to teach/holding our school systems accountable for learning…
  • Wise frugality/ wise investment…
  • Protecting second amendment rights/Protecting ourselves against gun violence…

The most hopeful conversations I heard were the ones where our leaders (elected and otherwise) seemed to understand the notion of tuning –  where they understood that both end points are necessary to make the music and we have to tighten and loosen and listen until we find the right pitch.

The most discouraging and even scary conversations were the ones where the  players didn’t seem to understand how the instrument worked at all, much less how to tune it.  In these conversations the misguided leaders seemed bent on convincing us that the tension between the two end points was bad, and that whichever end point they stood on, the other end point had no value at all.

My weekend at Tribfest has left me wondering if “we the people” are taking enough responsibility for keeping our “ukulele of democracy” in tune. (Did I warn you there was a terrible metaphor coming?  Why, yes, I did…)

What is our part? We can reject the nonsensical and dangerously simplistic notion that our most complex political challenges are simple binary choices – that one end point is good and the other is bad.  We can stop talking that way among ourselves, and we can stop cheering for that kind of talk from our leaders.

We can develop habits of thought more appropriate for the complex nature of the challenges we face.  We can learn to tighten and loosen and listen in our own conversations, and we can support leaders who do the same.  The political discourse in Texas, and in the country sounds terrible right now…and that’s no fun.  Tuning is hard work, but it’s necessary to turn this noise into something that we can stand to listen to, much less sing along.

me and omarThis Act Locally Waco blog post is by Ashley Bean Thornton, she works at Baylor, helps out with Act locally Waco, and facilitates the Waco Foundational Employment Network which is a part of Prosper Waco.  She likes to walk and doesn’t mind at all if you honk and wave when you see her.

 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.








Janitors, jobs and priorities

By Ashley Bean Thornton

When I got home on July 12 a phone message was waiting for me – Did you see the paper?  City of Waco is thinking of outsourcing janitorial services; 22 people might lose their jobs!   Since I have been facilitating the Prosper Waco committee that is working hard to help people find exactly these kinds of jobs, I was certainly concerned.  I zipped off a note to my city council rep, the mayor, and the city manager (among others).  I’m pleased to say that all three responded quickly and thoughtfully.   Their responses all shared the same basic message – we’re trying to make wise choices about how to best use limited resources.

We, the general public, tend to want everything. We want to pay people decent wages, and we also want more and more other stuff:  Police and fire protection, street repairs, good water and utilities, parks, arts and culture, sidewalks, etc. etc. We like the comfort of the status quo, and we want the benefits that come with change.  Also, we don’t really want to pay any more in taxes.  It’s tough to choose among all these priorities.

In general, we the people of Waco, are not too keen on wrestling with the trade-offs and the exact details of how much of one thing we are willing to sacrifice in order to get some more of something else we want.  We leave these “details” to the city staff.  That’s A-OK with me.  I have all kinds of confidence in our city staff.  I believe they know a whole lot more about running a city than I do.  And, I believe they are working as hard as they know how to help us grow the city we want.  It is precisely because we trust our city officials to handle the details of these trade-offs, that it is important to communicate clearly to them what is most important to us.

I want our city leaders and staff to know that good jobs for all Wacoans is at the very top of our list of priorities.  I want them to know that, if need be, we will support decisions to go slower on some of our other city goals in order to stay true to that value.

What does outsourcing a few janitorial jobs have to do with the lofty goal of good jobs for all Wacoans?  Maybe not too much, but maybe quite a bit.  I had never thought about outsourcing much before facilitating this Prosper Waco employment committee, but as I have learned more about how it works, I worry that it can lead to a general trend of trading good jobs for bad jobs.

By “good jobs” I mean full-time work with decent pay (at least $10 an hour) and benefits such as health care and retirement.  By “bad jobs” I mean low pay, or offering only part-time work that never leads to any benefits.  “Good” jobs build up our community and help create stable families. Bad jobs contribute to destabilizing families, and destabilized families contribute to a host of deep and long range challenges for our community.

I understand that the jobs I am calling “Bad” are not bad for all people in all situations.  Too many bad jobs and not enough good jobs is the problem.  That’s why I am concerned about the possibility of trading some of our good ones for bad ones.

When I heard that the city could save $294,000 by privatizing, I wondered how a contractor would be able to do the same work for so much less.  One worrisome possible answer is that they will pay less, not offer equivalent benefits, or only let people work part time so that they never qualify for benefits.  But, that doesn’t necessarily have to be the case.  It could be that by focusing on the one core business of janitorial services contractors are able to gain efficiencies that allow them to offer lower rates to their customers while still offering their employees good jobs. The latter would be a win-win.  The former would not be a win for Waco even if it represented considerable savings to the City HR budget.

I don’t know if outsourcing these janitorial jobs is a good idea or not. That depends on the exact details of the arrangement, and those are exactly the kind of details I depend on the city staff to scout out and our elected officials to discern. I just want them to know as they are weighing these decisions that we in the community believe that a commitment to good jobs should carry a lot of weight.

The 22 janitorial jobs that started this conversation are important.  I am convinced after visiting with my Councilman, Dillon Meek, that if we do decide to outsource, the city will work hard to help those 22 people make the transition into jobs that are equivalent in terms of pay, hours and benefits.

Those 22 jobs, though, are not the whole story in regard to this notion of trading good jobs for bad. I’ll paraphrase a quote often attributed to Ghandi, “Be the change you wish to see in Waco.”  I would like to see us follow that advice in regard to how we think about city jobs.

Making sure that people who work for the city get fair pay and benefits – whether they are on the city payroll or on a contractor’s payroll — is one way we as a city show that we expect other employers in Waco to do the same.  When we are negotiating with businesses who are considering moving or expanding here, one thing we want from them is good jobs — jobs that contribute to the overall long term health of our community.  I would be proud for the city to lead the way in that regard, even if it means we have to make some tough choices about other priorities.

Ashley Thornton 3This Act Locally Waco blog post is by Ashley Bean Thornton, she works at Baylor, helps out with Act locally Waco, and facilitates the Waco Foundational Employment Network which is a part of Prosper Waco.  She likes to walk and doesn’t mind at all if you honk and wave when you see her.

 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.






Waco City Plan 2040: An idea for the Future Grandparents of Waco…

By Ashley Bean Thornton

My Facebook feed is full of babies right now:  Girl babies, boy babies; bald babies, hairy babies; laughing babies, serious babies, crying babies; every shade and shape of baby!  I am in awe everyday of all of these beautiful ears and toes and tiny fingers, all these little eyes taking everything in, all these little brains growing and growing! Hooray for all these babies!

This post is for the parents of those babies.  It’s hard for you to imagine now, but in 2040 these babies you are holding in your arms today will be 24, 25, 26 years old.  Many of them will be finished with college, getting married and having babies of their own.  Congratulations Grandma and Gramps, or GiGi and Big Pop, or Ona and Gumbo…you’re soon to be grandparents! (Well, in 24 years or so, anyway!)

My question for you today, new parent/future grandparent, is what kind of Waco do you want for your grandchild?  I’m asking you this because that future Waco we get depends to some extent on the decisions we make today.  If you want that grandbaby to be playing under nice shade trees, we need to plant those saplings now!

Those trees are important, and they aren’t the only things we need to be thinking about.  Where will your grandchildren live?  Will they be able to walk to school?  Will they have a beautiful diversity of friends to play with?  Will there be a park nearby? Will their parents be spending hours a day commuting back and forth to work? Will they be able to find work in Waco? Will the air be clean?  Will they have good water to drink? Will you be able to find an affordable place to live nearby so you can help out with raising them?

I’m sorry new parents/future grandparents – I know you are way, way too sleep deprived to be thinking about all of this right now! Luckily, the City of Waco Planning Office has already been doing some of the thinking for you.  They have scoured pages and pages of reports and studies and strategic plans that have been developed by different groups and organizations throughout Waco these last several years (Imagine Waco, The Upjohn Report, Prosper Waco, to name just a few), and have worked really hard to pull it all together into one document: The City Plan: Waco Comprehensive Plan 2040.   That plan is now available on their website for you to review.  They are even still taking comments till August 5.

The plan is pretty long though, over 90 pages in fact .  And, no offense to the city planners, but I have to say it is a little…ummm… dry.  Buried in those charts and graphs and all that planner-speak, though,  are some important ideas for building a terrific hometown for your future grandbabies!  And that terrific future Waco isn’t going to build itself!  We all need to be informed about the comprehensive plan, because we are all going to have to help build the future city it describes.

Still, I sympathize with your dilemma.  You want to be a great, informed citizen and build that future for your grandbabies…if only you could get your current baby to go  to sleep!

Here’s an idea: read the city plan to your baby at bedtime!   Voila! Multi-tasking at its best!  Maybe this little excerpt will get you started, and inspire you to read more of the plan…to yourself and to your baby! With apologies to Dr. Seuss…

Waco City Plan 2040 (Bedtime Version)

Hello sweet baby!  I wish you would sleep!
If you would start snoozin’, off to bed I could creep!
You won’t close your eyes!  You’re still crying! Oh man!
Would this calm you down? It’s the new City Plan…

The overall goal is “make Waco sustainable.”
This goal will take work, but we think it’s obtainable!
We must make decisions we can live with right now,
and they must make good sense for YOUR future, but how?

Economic development is one good place to start –
We’ve got lots of colleges, with kids who are smart…
Let’s use them as bait for good jobs with high pay,
Then maybe our smart college grads will all stay!

And when they all stay, they’ll want fun stuff to do!
They’ll want music and culture and arts, wouldn’t you?
So investing right now in these things is essential,
And maybe downtown should be more residential…

If this all works out, we will grow, yes we will,
And one trick to really smart growth is in fill!
By “in fill” we mean live and work close together.
There’s all kinds of reasons together is better!

When we’re all spread apart it just costs more to serve us,
Sprawling and sprawling should make us all nervous.
It uses up gas, all those roads cost a bunch…
When we live close together we can just walk to lunch!

And speaking of walking, let’s talk transportation…
A subject that stirs up a heap of frustration!
You don’t have a car?  Too bad! That’s tough luck!
You can’t get to work or the store – you’re just stuck!

Bus rapid transit would help quite a bit,
And bike lanes and sidewalks just might be a hit!
We could build a good network for non-auto modes,
That new fangled thinking would help us out loads!

Hey sweet little baby, don’t fall asleep yet!
There’s a whole chapter here on environ-ment!
I still haven’t read you the part about housing,
The utilities section is really quite rousing…

Sweet dreams little one, rest your head and sleep tight…
I guess that’s enough City Plan for one night.
That’s right, nighty-night! You can lay your head down,
Count on us, Waco baby – to  build you a great town!

Ashley Thornton - love youThis Act Locally Waco blog post is by Ashley Bean Thornton, she works at Baylor, helps out with Act locally Waco, and facilitates the Waco Foundational Employment Network which is a part of Prosper Waco.  She likes to walk and doesn’t mind at all if you honk and wave when you see her.

 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.

How Different our World Might Be…

by Ashley Bean Thornton

“I tried to see a friendly face somewhere in the mob – somebody who maybe would help.  I looked into the face of an old woman, but when I looked at her again, she spat on me.”

— Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine

In September of 1957, nine African American high school students enrolled in formerly all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.  Arkansas Governor, Orval Faubus, welcomed the students, saying: “We have done some terrible things in this country – we enslaved people, we oppressed people, we killed people – based on nothing more than skin color.  We can never erase these things, and we must never forget them, but we can and do repent of them. We are humbled, today, to be on the front lines of righting a great injustice. We look forward to beginning a process of racial integration that will benefit all our citizens, Black and White! For too long our schools have been segregated.  For too long the Black students in our state have had to make do with inferior facilities and materials.  For too long our communities have missed out on the full benefit of nurturing and feeding and growing and celebrating the minds and hearts and spirits of these beautiful young people. I am here today to throw open these doors in welcome,  to usher in these nine exceptional students, and to usher in along with them a new era of freedom, justice and prosperity for the great state of Arkansas and, indeed for our whole nation.”

Oh, White America! How different our world might be if this were the story we could tell!

It is not.

Instead of giving these nine young people the heroes’ welcome they deserved, we met them with angry mobs and screaming.  Instead of welcoming them, we threatened them and spat on them. We closed down the school district for a year rather than integrate it.  When that didn’t work, we abandoned it.  We ran away.

I’m not just talking about Little Rock any more, I’m talking about cities across the South, throughout the country…We moved out of the city.  We created White suburbs and we put in place deed restrictions and loan restrictions at the bank so that the Black children could not follow us.

Now, almost sixty years later, we no longer have to scream and spit.  Now instead of saying we moved out of town to “get away from the Blacks” we can say we moved out because “we want our kids to go to a good school.” Who can blame us for that?  Never mind that our schools are “good” because rather than lean toward fairness and equality, rather than work for schools that could have benefited all children, we chose to gather up our resources (earned, certainly, but earned on a playing field that was anything but fair) and move to a place where Black children could not follow.

Now, a generation or so into our re-segregated lives, we feel perfectly justified in saying, “I’m not prejudiced or anything, but why should my hard earned tax dollars go to support a school system where my kids don’t even go?”

And so the struggling school districts keep struggling.

And so, the richer folks, who just happen to generally also be the Whiter folks, get better schools. And, the people who get better educations, as we know, get better jobs…and so on, and so on…

And what about the ones who were left behind?  The ones without the good schools…the ones who are getting worse and worse educations, and worse and worse jobs?  The ones who just happen to generally also be Blacker? It’s actually pretty easy not to see them.

And then someone…a young black man…gets killed.  And another. And another.  And another. And then five police officers are killed. And then we are wondering, what’s happening?  No place feels safe anymore.  What’s going on?

What’s going on, White America, is that we did a bad thing, many bad things. We enslaved people, we oppressed people, we killed people — based on nothing more than skin color.  We treated our fellow human beings as less than human. We believed ourselves to be better than them. And when the time came to repent, to turn around, to acknowledge our wrongs and to sincerely devote ourselves to doing right, we did not.  We still have not.

Instead of throwing the doors open wide, we called in soldiers to keep the door shut. When that didn’t work, instead of staying and building schools and communities where we could all live and thrive together, we grabbed our stuff and ran away. We figured out a way to build a society that has allowed us to continue to accrue the benefits of being White without having to admit to the unpleasantness of racism.  At every step we have done the least we could do, and fought like Hell not to do that.

And now we White people realize something that Black people have known for a long time. The situation is dangerous.  We are worried and afraid.  We made this situation, White people, and it is going to be hard to fix it.  And we will never fix it unless we take responsibility for it.  If guilt is what it takes for us to take responsibility, then we need to admit our guilt.  If self-interest is what it takes to take responsibility, then we need to realize that we will all be better off when our Black Brothers and Sisters are better off.  If religious conviction is what it takes for us to take responsibility, then we need to pray to God to give us a hunger for righteousness.  We need to take the responsibility. We need to shine a light on the disparities that still exist between the races, and we need to get to work doing our part to fix them.

Ashley Thornton 3This Act Locally Waco blog post is by Ashley Bean Thornton, she works at Baylor, helps out with Act locally Waco, and facilitates the Waco Foundational Employment Network which is a part of Prosper Waco.  She likes to walk and doesn’t mind at all if you honk and wave when you see her.

 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.











Ten years in …

By Ashley Bean Thornton

Ten years ago this summer I took a trip to New Orleans that changed my life.  I went there for youth camp with the kids from my church.  The camp had a focus on “missions,” and the “mission” that year was Hurricane Katrina clean up.   Even though it had been a year since Katrina, the Ninth Ward where we were working was still the biggest mess I have ever seen or ever hope to see.  The devastation from the storm was terrible, but that’s not what changed my life. It was like the storm had ripped the lid off the city so that it was easy to see the poverty and the wealth and everything in between.   It seemed like the mess was already there, the hurricane just laid it bare.

I was 45 years old and I don’t think I had ever thought about “the systems” of a community and how they worked, much less whether they were fair or good.  I think for my whole life I had been mainly just a “consumer” of my community.  Busy using what I liked – schools, hospitals, roads, fun things to do — I hadn’t given much of a thought to what a community “should” be like, or the work that goes into shaping a community, or that I might have some responsibility for helping to create a good community.  

That week in the Ninth Ward flipped a switch in me.  I felt like the systems in New Orleans were broken – that all these people living in poverty was a terrible waste of potential and that our society couldn’t afford that waste. When one of the youth on the trip reminded us that the rate of poverty in Waco was just as bad as that of New Orleans, I began to feel a personal responsibility.  I began to feel strongly that for all our sakes, we had to do better. I started trying to learn more about poverty, about what we could and should be doing, about what I could and should be doing.   

Learning about poverty has been like dropping through Alice In Wonderland’s rabbit hole into a whole confusing, tangled spaghetti bowl of problems and opinions and statistics and theories and theology and political stratagems and turf issues about education and workforce development and affordable housing and health care and neighborhood development and all kinds of other interwoven issues.  I learned that there’s a name for these kinds of tangled up messes where nobody knows what to do to make it better – they’re called “wicked problems.”  Appropriate name.  Trying to work on the “wicked problem” of poverty here in Waco has been an exercise in self-doubt and generally always feeling overwhelmed and ignorant.    

All that to say…I wish I had never gone on that trip to New Orleans!

Ha!  Kidding!  (sort of…) It is frustrating, but it also feels like work worth doing, and I am in love with the idea that a community of people can work together to set goals and solve problems and accomplish things together if we can only figure out how and stick with it. Ten years in, I would like to think I had figured out a few things in that regard…kind of a unified theory of how to get things done…but I haven’t. All I have to show for my efforts is a pile of random, half-formed ideas.  Here are a few of them…maybe you can help me make sense out of them as we are working together these next ten years…

  • Focus on what you want, not what you don’t want.  – We want a great community for everyone who lives here, not just “not poverty.”   Keep the real goal…the higher goal… in mind.
  • When it gets right down to it, relationships are what make things happen.
  • Have faith that the faith you have is enough faith to keep going and to do some good.
  • Participate and help at least ten times more than you criticize.
  • It’s not enough to just be compassionate; we have to also try to be smart.  We have to learn to use information better. But, we have to be compassionate too.
  • Work with the people who want to work with you…if the others come along later, great, but don’t waste time and energy trying to drag them.
  • Don’t feel like you always have to invent a new thing.  Chances are, someone is already doing something.  Listen to them.  Learn from them.  Build on what they are doing.  
  • It does cost money to do stuff.  Not everything can be done for free or cheap.  (But if you don’t have money, there is still stuff you can do.)
  • Try things – they might not always work, or work like you think they will, but you will almost always learn more than you would by talking and not trying.
  • It’s easy and more comfortable for White people to ignore the role that race plays in all this.  Don’t ignore it.
  • When in doubt, err on the side of boldness.
  • Do what you think is right – people are going to gripe at you either way, so you might as well do what you feel good about.  
  • If you don’t have any ideas about what to do, go around the table and have everyone share their ideas.  There is probably some quiet person who has a great idea, but hasn’t said it.
  • Sometimes you don’t need a new idea, you just need to apply the ideas you already have more consistently.  Sometimes, though, you need a new idea.
  • Keeping up with the details – the to-do list, the email list, the meeting notes – is half the battle.
  • When in doubt, over communicate.
  • “Them” is always us.
  • Art and song and dance and joy and play and fun are central.  They are not “fluff” to be ignored until we are done with the “important stuff.”  They are the things that fuel the creativity and energy and passion we need to do the “important stuff.” 
  • Don’t forget to say “please” and “thank you.”

Ashley Thornton 3This Act Locally Waco blog post is by Ashley Bean Thornton, she works at Baylor, helps out with Act locally Waco, and facilitates the Waco Foundational Employment Network which is a part of Prosper Waco.  She likes to walk and doesn’t mind at all if you honk and wave when you see her.

 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.