Sequins, Moms, and Social Graces

By Ashley Bean Thornton

My mom worked so hard on me! My whole childhood was a series of experiments to see if she could instill in me what she called “social graces.”   One of her failed experiments was dance lessons. Ugh! When I was seven or eight she signed me up for tap and – double ugh! – ballet. I had no sense of rhythm and I couldn’t really tell my right from my left…hopeless!

Fast forward 45 years or so. My friend Shirley Langston tells me she is starting a Dance Troupe. (I suppressed an “Ugh.”) Miss Shirley runs Restoration Haven, a ministry in the Estella Maxey Complex. She was going to partner with Joy’s School of Dance to provide dance lessons for “her girls” who lived there in the public housing. Really? I thought. Wasn’t there something more important she could be doing for those girls? Maybe something having to do with school work or computers? She was so excited about it though, that despite my prejudice against dance lessons, I accidentally caught some of her enthusiasm.

She named the troupe “Miriam’s Army.” I went to one of their first recitals, a Christmas show complete with red-nosed reindeer and Angels. Since that early show a year or two ago, Miriam’s Army has performed at Juneteenth celebrations, the Waco Cultural Arts Festival, and no telling how many other events around town.   Last week I saw them perform at the NAACP 80th Anniversary Gala. They stole the show dancing their hearts out to “Baby Love” and “Heat Wave” among other familiar favorites. When they finished, the crowd jumped to their feet and gave them a long, loud standing ovation.

Pat and Miriam's Army

Four dancers from Miriam’s Army visit with School Board President, Pat Atkins. (Photo bombing mom in the background!)

After their moment in the spotlight, the dancers marched back to the tables reserved for them and sat through the rest of the banquet program. It was a fine program, but I can’t imagine it was terribly interesting to a bevy of tween-age and teen-age girls.   They sat through it though, with just the occasional restless tapping of their still tap-clad toes, minding their manners and politely pretending to listen. When the event was over, I noticed four of them walk up to WISD School Board President Pat Atkins, introduce themselves, and engage in a some pleasant after-dinner conversation.

Here’s what occurred to me as I watched the four young girls in fringed, sequined dresses with peacock feathers in their hair carry on a conversation with the school board president: These young ladies are learning some social graces!

“Social Graces,” it turns out, is code for “basic stuff you need to know to pave the way for yourself in the big, wide world.” The girls in Miriam’s Army are learning things like being on time to get on the van to go to practice, keeping up with their gear, and working on something they are not good at until they get good at it.  They are learning to smile even when they are nervous.  They are learning how to sit still during a speech even though it’s boring, how to manage at least the basic etiquette involved in a banquet, and how to introduce themselves and have a polite conversation with a grown-up person they don’t really know.   Would I be able to have the job I have now, the life I have now, if I hadn’t learned these kinds of things somewhere along the way?

Being a part of Miriam’s Army is about more than sequins and Motown. It’s about life. Dance team isn’t just a fun, frivolous “extra” that successful people can afford to provide for their children; dance team (and other similar opportunities) is where those children learn how to become successful people.

I did manage to pick up some “social graces” along the way, and they are so automatic to me now that it feels like I was born knowing them. But, I wasn’t. I learned them somewhere – if not in dance lessons, then at speech tournaments, or in choir, or drama or some other opportunity that I probably took for granted at the time. You can’t learn all these kinds of lessons in a classroom.  You learn them by doing something that requires you to perform in public, something that exposes you to new social situations and requires you to meet new and different kinds of people.   When you think about it, children who miss out on these kinds of opportunities are missing a crucial part of their education — just as if they had missed the week in school when you learn about percentages. When you think about it a little longer, you realize that these kinds of opportunities cost time and money, something that the moms in Estella Maxey don’t often have in great supply.

The moms in Estella Maxey want the same thing for their daughters that my mom wanted for me. With the help of Miss Shirley and Joy’s School of Dance, more of them are able to provide their girls opportunities to develop the “social graces.”  We should all want that for these girls. The confident tap-dancers who are introducing themselves to the school board president now will be the confident young women who are introducing themselves to college admissions officers and employers in the very near future. We all benefit if they are successful!

Would it give you joy to help support this ministry? A dance troupe requires dance outfits. Miriam’s Army saves money by purchasing their outfits second hand. They purchase three outfits every spring, one each for ballet, tap and Hip-Hop. Their invoice for outfits this year is around $3,000. The girls and moms have worked really hard selling popcorn and raffle tickets in addition to paying a hard-won $25 registration fee. They have raised over $1,000; they need to raise about $2,000 more. Contributions designated for Miriam’s Army can be sent to Restoration Haven, P O Box 875 Waco TX 76703 or donate on-line by clicking here:

Ashley Thornton 3This Act Locally Waco blog post is by Ashley Bean Thornton, the Manager of the website and the editor of the WHOLE Enchilada newsletter. 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.


We have the right to disagree. Do we have the wisdom to work together anyway?

by Ashley Bean Thornton

A few weeks ago on a Sunday most of us who read the Waco Trib opened our paper to find a dramatic advertisement – two full pages. The ad expressed a love of Waco and went on to list several beliefs that the signers — more than 100 folks in town, mostly local pastors — hold dear. Not everyone agreed with the beliefs listed in the ad. A group of people who believe differently responded via Facebook posts, letters to the editor and an op-ed piece expressing their own love of Waco and listing their own beliefs. Good for us! I’m sure I don’t need to remind anyone to be thankful for this precious liberty to freely express our widely differing beliefs without fear of being “disappeared.”

We have the right to be divided! But, progress comes from unity. How do we make that paradox work?

I have friends who signed the ad, and I have friends who wrote letters and editorials disagreeing with the ad. Must I choose between them? I profoundly disagree with some people in our community about beliefs that are at the very core of their faith and their identity. Can we still work together to build a stronger Waco?

I generally subscribe to a “live and let live” philosophy. I can be very tolerant when it comes to matters of taste. You like country music, it grates on me a little — but fine, I don’t really care that much. You like the Mavericks, I like the Spurs– it might take me a while, but I can make peace with that.

There comes a point, however, when differences of opinion enter the realm of right and wrong and justice. Who is allowed to marry whoever they want, and who is not? Does a pregnant woman get to be the one who decides if she will carry her pregnancy to term or not? In regard to these kinds of issues my mind is made up. I believe I am right – morally right. That means that to me some of you are wrong. I don’t mean “Wow, that’s an ugly sweater” wrong, but morally wrong, on the wrong side of justice wrong. There comes a point I can no longer “go along to get along,” I have to speak out. Does that mean I can no longer be your friend? Does that mean we can no longer work together on other issues? I worry about that. I don’t want the bitter divisions that seem to be making progress so difficult in our national politics to get in the way of people working together in my own community.

I have had a couple of conversations lately that have shed a little light on this concern. The first conversation was with a new friend. We’ve seen each other’s names for years connected with various community efforts, but we had never really had a talk. She noticed on Facebook that I took a stand that surprised her in regard to Planned Parenthood. She invited me to lunch. Instead of preaching to each other or trying to convince each other to change sides, we simply shared our history with the issue. We talked about what was at the heart of the matter for each of us. It wasn’t a debate. Neither of us changed our minds. We just listened to each other and got to know each other better. I think we parted better friends, despite our deep disagreement about this controversial issue.

The other conversation was with a Pastor friend. We were meeting to discuss job programs and community outreach, but we drifted into a conversation about “The Big Ad.” We talked candidly about some of the areas where our personal convictions are most different from each other. We parted, as we always do, with a hug.

I’m sure these kinds of conversations take place every day, but I don’t want us to take them for granted. They are crucial to the work of our community, and, at the risk of being overly dramatic, I believe they are crucial to the work of democracy. I am deeply thankful for free speech and the freedom to disagree, but if all we know how to do is disagree with each other, we will have a tough time moving forward.

I have reflected a bit on what made these conversations possible. I believe it is that these friends and I know more about each other than just our opinions on a couple of hot button issues. We are complicated to each other. I know, for example, that both these people love Waco. They love the people of Waco. They are working hard. They give generously of their time and energy and creativity to make our community stronger. And so, I can approach a conversation with them – even about a difficult topic – with respect and curiosity instead of with “shields up.” I can be vulnerable to them. I can expose my own mixed feelings without fear that they will use them against me. In both these conversations there was an implied rule that we weren’t trying to change each other, we were genuinely trying to get to know each other more deeply.

Making progress together while holding sacred our right to disagree is complicated. It’s easy for me to stay nested with other folks who believe just like I do and to reduce the people who believe differently to one-dimensional targets. To work together across our differences we have to be complicated to each other. We have to know more about each other than just our points of disagreement. To do that we need to figure out ways to spend some time together, to get to know each other, and to talk…not debate, not negotiate, not persuade…just talk and listen.

me and omarThis Act Locally Waco blog post is by Ashley Bean Thornton, the Manager of the website and the editor of the WHOLE Enchilada newsletter. 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.



Voting “Yes” for Waco Schools and Waco!

By Ashley Thornton

First thing in the morning on October 19, the first day to vote early, I hustled down to the McLennan County records building and voted “Yes!” for the WISD Tax Ratification. I know the final votes won’t be tallied until November 3, but I couldn’t wait.

I have high hopes for Waco.  Everywhere I look I see evidence that my hopes are justified. Downtown is starting to blossom; we just got a National Park designation; Fixer Upper has put us on the map with the HGTV crowd; the Baylor Research and Innovation Collaboration (BRIC) and SpaceX are drawing the technology of the future into the Heart of Texas…the list of positives is growing every day.

Perhaps because of all this good buzz , fairly regularly I get a phone call or an email from someone who is moving to Waco and wants the “inside scoop” on living here. I have not had one of these conversations yet that did not end up being a conversation about school districts.  People who have school-age kids obviously want to know for the good of their own children, and people who don’t have kids want to know because it affects the value of whatever home they might buy here. These conversations reinforce for me what we all already know: Any community that expects to thrive must have a strong school district.

Bluntly, our school district needs to be stronger, and, bluntly, it will cost money to make that happen.    We can keep dinking around with the resources we have, trying this or that new program, but in the end that’s like pushing the food around on your plate to make it look like there’s more than there is — not a satisfying strategy.

We have a high percentage of children in our schools who come from very low income situations. Every speck of research that I have ever seen points to the plain fact that it costs more to educate children who come from families with very little money. Imagine two cups. The first cup is half full and the second is nearly empty. If you pour a half a cup of juice in the first cup, you will fill it up. If you pour a half a cup of juice in the second cup, the cup will still not be full. I feel like that is what is happening with our school district. Kids from higher income families are more likely to come with their education cups already half full. Kids from lower income families are more likely to come with their education cups much closer to empty. It takes more juice to fill them up, and getting more juice – additional programming and additional instructional staff — requires some investment.

10.15 WISD TREPut another way, I have complete confidence that if we took our exact same school district with the same teachers, same buildings, same administrators, same budget, same everything, and plopped it down into the middle of a town with a more affluent student population, we would be knocking the top out of the state accountability measures. Fair or unfair, though, that is not the case.   Fair or unfair, when you look at the list of schools in WISD, you see a sprinkling of “improvement required” ratings mixed in among the “met standard” ratings. And, fair or unfair, families and businesses make decisions about whether or not to move into our community based on those ratings.  What we are doing now is getting us to where we are now.  If we want to get better results, we will need to do what we are doing now… plus more.

Money invested in that “plus more” will be money well spent for the future of our children and the future of our community. It is easy for me to say “yes” to that investment, especially when the amount requested is so modest. The net increase to our taxes will be five cents per $100, from 1.35 to 1.40.   My house, for example, has an assessed value of $110,140.   When the tax is ratified, my taxes will increase $44.49 annually, a little less than $3.75 a month. An increase twice that big would be well worth it to me for the value I believe it will bring to Waco.

“Hold on a minute,” you say, “just pouring money on the problem won’t help.” That’s true. It is true in the same way that just pouring gasoline on a car won’t make it run. To get your car to move forward requires two things: you have to have the gasoline, and you have to pour it in the right place.   I think the same is true regarding money and schools. To get the schools to move forward you have to have the money, and you have to pour it in the right place.

I believe WISD has the right idea about where to pour the money — straight into the campuses. As a former teacher, I am impressed that school district officials wisely went to parents, teachers and campus staff to find out what was most needed. I am impressed that they have been disciplined about sharpening the focus of their planning, to three targeted, strategic, measurable priorities — literacy, behavior, and dual credit college courses. These actions give me confidence that my investment will be well spent.

I believe this Tax Ratification will provide resources that are crucial to build the kind of school district we need to keep Waco rolling toward its bright future.   That’s why I was antsy to vote “YES!” as soon as the polls opened for early voting, and that’s why I hope you will do the same on or before November 3.

Ashley Thornton 3This 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.


What about people who “Just don’t want to work…”

by Ashley Bean Thornton

A couple of years ago I spoke to a class at MCC about poverty in Waco. One of the students asked a question that I think just about everyone has wondered about at one time or another, “Yes, but what do you do about people who just don’t want to work?” I’ve been asked that question more than once, so I’ve had time to think about it. My answer is, “Don’t start with them.”

I don’t mean that to be a smart-alecky reply. I am not blind to the fact that there are some people in the world who seem like they don’t want to work. I’m just saying that there are people who do want to work, plenty of them. Let’s start there.

There are people in Waco who want to find and keep good paying jobs, but who face barriers that would be tough for even the most resolutely motivated among us: What if you don’t have a car, and the good paying jobs are on the other side of town? What if you have children and no one to keep them during your shift at work? What if the only jobs you are qualified to do, don’t pay enough to support your family? What if your life is chaotic because of homelessness or because you can’t afford to keep the electricity turned on? That can make it hard to be a dependable employee. What if you have been to prison, and even though you have turned your life around, no one will hire you because of your past record? What if you have no idea how to do a job search on a computer, or how to present yourself in an interview?

I serve on the “increasing income” working group of the Prosper Waco initiative. As a participant in that group I’ve had the chance to learn about some of the programs available in Waco to help people overcome the barriers mentioned above.

One such program is “Jumpstart.” Currently being administered by the Economic Opportunity Advancement Corporation (EOAC), this program is available to anyone who has a household income of less than $37,000 and who is supporting at least one child under the age of 18. Since it kicked off in March, Jumpstart has already helped over 100 people find work. Their goal is to place over 300 by the end of the year.

Funded by a grant from the Texas Workforce Commission, Jumpstart forms partnerships with local employers who agree to consider hiring program participants, and then the staff does pretty much whatever it takes to help participants get jobs with and succeed as new employees at these partner companies.

Participants in Jumpstart receive job readiness training, and training about how to budget and manage their money. Depending on the situation, participants might also get set up with child care, or work clothes or a gas card to help pay for transportation. They might get help paying for utilities while they get on their feet at a new job. The folks at Jumpstart are relentless in helping their participants. The day I visited their offices they were working with a husband and wife who had both recently gotten employment thanks to the program. Because of the new jobs, the couple and their young son were moving from the homeless shelter into an apartment, but they had no furniture. The Jumpstart caseworker was tracking down a bed so the family would have something to sleep on the first night in their new home. Do you think having a bed to sleep in might make a difference as far as an employee’s performance on the job? I do.

Once a Jumpstart participant gets a job, he or she has access to a “job coach” for 90 days. This job coach is available 24 hours a day to help solve any work related problem that might come up – whether it be a flat tire, or a difficult boss, or a blown child care plan. Do you think it is an advantage to employers to have employees who are receiving this kind of stabilizing support during their first three months on the job? I do.

Rather than fretting over people who “just don’t want to work,” we can help programs like Jumpstart make a big difference for those who do want to work.  I asked Melvin Collins, the Director of Jumpstart, what they needed from us, the Waco community. He said to meet their goal of helping over 300 people find work by the end of the year, they need more participants, and they need more partner employers.

You and I can help by spreading the word. Share this information with your circle of friends, with your church, at the organizations where you volunteer…anywhere you think there might be folks who need help finding work. Interested individuals should call the Economic Opportunities Advancement Corporation (EOAC) at 254.756.0954, or go by the EOAC office at 500 Franklin Ave., and ask about Jumpstart.  If you are an employer who would consider hiring participants from the Jumpstart program, you can call that same number and ask for Melvin Collins, the Jumpstart Director.

Yes, I imagine there are some people out there who “just don’t want to work,” but I don’t see the upside to letting that frustrate and distract us. There are plenty of people who do want to work, and who could use our help to overcome some significant barriers. Let’s focus our energy on supporting programs like Jumpstart that are helping those who want to work!  If we finish that and still have some time, we can worry about the others.  Who knows, by the time we have helped all the people who do want to work, we may find there are not as many people as we thought left in the other category.

me and omarThis 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.








Hispanic American Heritage Month: A Tale of Two Parties

By Ashley Bean Thornton

September 15 through October 15 is National Hispanic American Heritage Month. This month of celebrating Hispanic culture was established in 1988, but this is the first year that I have taken the opportunity to enjoy some of the local festivities associated with it. So far I have been to two events.

fiestas patrias

Fiestas Patrias at the Extraco Center

One was the big “Fiestas Patrias” celebration at the Extraco Event Center. As I neared the event center I noticed the parking lot was packed and there was a line of cars waiting to get in. The floor of the arena looked like an ocean of people all having fun and enjoying a great night of music and mass togetherness. Congratulations to the folks who hosted this Fiesta! It was literally a “huge” success.

One of the first and most obvious ways to judge an event is number of participants. The automatic assumption is if it’s bigger, that’s better. Having a lot of people means you can afford flashy, expensive stuff – the hottest band, the lights, the smoke, the fireworks.   As Waco grows we’ll have more of these kinds of events, and good for us, because they are really fun!

That brings me to the other event I have attended as part of my personal celebration of National Hispanic American Heritage Month. On September 16, I went to a wonderful gathering at the Centex Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. September 16, as I’m sure you know, is Mexican Independence Day. The Hispanic Chamber, along with a group who is working to put together a Waco Hispanic Museum, hosted an event to commemorate The “Grito de Dolores.” I didn’t know what that was, but thanks to the wonders of Wikipedia, I was able to educate myself a little bit: “The Grito de Dolores (“Cry of Dolores”) was uttered from the small town of Dolores, near Guanajuato in Mexico, on September 16, 1810. It is the event that marks the beginning of the Mexican War of Independence. The “grito” was the pronunciamiento of the Mexican War of Independence by Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, a Roman Catholic priest.”


Louis enjoys a cookie!

It was a small gathering. I think there were probably 12 or 15 of us. Our hosts, Alice and Joe Rodriguez, pulled a folding table into the front lobby of the Hispanic Chamber building on LaSalle. They covered it with red and green table cloths to match the Mexican flag and scattered mementos to commemorate the occasion – historical pictures of the Mexican American Community of Waco, a doll in traditional Mexican dress, a poster commemorating the heroes of the revolution. There was cake and Dr Pepper, and someone had made some delicious little cookies that tasted like shortbread with cinnamon and sugar.

Pretty soon we were snapping pictures and laughing together. Someone ran out to the car and grabbed a guitar and several folks joined in to sing a few songs.   I got a narrated tour of a scrapbook full of memories. Most of the pictures were from the 70’s and 80’s, so I got to see several of my new friends in their younger days — darker, longer hair and much shorter shorts!  Louis Garcia, Chairman of the Waco Hispanic Museum, read a history of the “Grito de Dolores.”


Ernesto and Miguel sing us a song.

After the revolutionary history lesson, we settled into a different kind of history lesson – stories.   I learned about how the September 16 celebration in Waco used to last four days. There would be parades and dances at the Mutualista Hall. Neighbors would enjoy snacks from the “puestos” (concession stands, food trucks). When the children got hot and sweaty they would take a dip in “La Pila,” the fountain that was the hub of the Calle Dos (Second Street) Mexican American community.

It’s easy to see that big events like the “Fiestas Patrias” celebration at the event center, or the recent Brad Paisley concert at Baylor, or even the Palm Sunday “Gathering” last year are important. They are exciting. They make a big splash. They give us all a shared experience. They bring good publicity to our city. I appreciate the people who put them on, and I look forward to more of them in the future.

I also want to say a big thank you to the folks in town who are hosting and organizing smaller events — the “Grito de Dolores” celebrations, the Waco Poets Society open mic nights, the Community Race Relations Coalition meetings – events where groups of 10 to 30 people gather. These smaller events help us get to know each other. They provide a time and place for building the kind of understanding that only comes from learning each other’s names and listening to each others’ stories.

The big gatherings help us wave our Waco flag proudly for everyone to see.   In these small get-togethers we weave the cloth of our community, thread by thread.

Are you looking for ways to celebrate National Hispanic Heritage month? There are lots of things going on in Waco through the rest of September and on into November. For more information visit the ¡Viva Waco! website at If you are interested in learning more about the Waco Hispanic Museum or getting involved, please contact Louis Garcia by email at [email protected].

me and omarThis 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.




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.




The aftermath…

By Ashley Bean Thornton

So, I ran for city council and I lost.

It’s been two weeks. I spent the first week taking naps, binge-watching “House of Cards” and eating ice cream and chips for dinner every night. (Really Blue Bell? You had to pick this year to have your big melt down?) Now, with two weeks of perspective under my belt, my mood has improved considerably. I’m not quite skipping yet, but there’s definitely a new spring in my step.

I know it sounds like sour grapes to bring it up at this point, but the truth is I wasn’t just chili red hot to run for city council in the first place.

When Toni Herbert, our retiring city council person, suggested I should run, I resisted strongly. My initial response was, “Not one single cell of my heart leaps up with joy at the thought of doing that.”

So why did I agree to do it? Well, I love Waco of course. And, I have been working really hard for several years on various committees and projects and pieces and parts that seem to finally be coming to fruition under the umbrella of the Prosper Waco initiative. I thought being on City Council would put me in a good position to keep nudging that along. I didn’t know anyone else who was thinking of running, so it just started to feel like the responsible thing to do. On top of that, I’m more susceptible to flattery than you might think, and  it’s awfully flattering  to have your city council person ask you to run to take her place.

So why did I resist?  I’m 53 years old. I probably don’t know as much about myself as I should at this point, but I do know a few things. I know that I am more of an “acquired taste” than a “first impression.” I know that my most basic approach to life is, “Here I am. Take it or leave it.”   I know that I am a friendly introvert — I like people, but people wear me out. None of this self-knowledge made me think, “Hey! You know what would be fun? Running for City Council!”

Also, I knew that I was already way, way too busy and I didn’t want to be any busier. I knew that I would HATE asking people to vote for me. I know this sounds peevish, but I knew that I would HATE having my picture taken. I knew that running for office was going to make me feel over-exposed. I knew that, win or lose, the whole process would be embarrassing and that the MOST embarrassing thing would be to lose.

There I said it. I know it’s a little bit immature, but one of the main reasons I didn’t want to run is because I know that when you run there’s a chance you will lose, and I thought to run and lose would be really embarrassing. And it is a little bit embarrassing. But…as it turns out…being embarrassed doesn’t actually kill you.

surrounded by loveIn fact, I liked it better than I thought I would. I was absolutely overwhelmed by all the kind, encouraging, enthusiastic support I received throughout the campaign. Some of this came from good friends, but even more came from people I hardly knew, some from people I didn’t know at all and would never have known if I hadn’t stepped out and run. I did a lot of door knocking, which was terrifying at first, but I learned that most people are pretty nice and some people genuinely appreciate you stopping by. (I also learned that there are a WHOLE lot of Chihuahuas in District 4. They are not always as nice as the people!)  My campaign team was a true joy. What a wonderful, talented, fun, funny, creative group of folks! I couldn’t have asked for better people to help me, and I cannot imagine how I would have ever gotten to know them as well as I have if we hadn’t taken on this project together. That alone was worth the price of admission.

I did hate asking people to vote for me, but I got better at it and it was humbling and empowering at the same time. I did hate getting my picture taken, but I’ve gotten over myself in regard to that too, so good for me! I was tired almost the whole time. I had to do lots of things that were uncomfortable, and it has definitely given me a whole new appreciation for the people who serve in city wide offices. I will be much slower to criticize from now on. Even though I lost, I feel, oddly, like I gained self-confidence instead of losing it.  (Maybe because now I know for sure that losing and being embarrassed doesn’t actually kill you. )

In short, I grew. Even at 53, or maybe especially at 53, growing is not 100% fun, but looking back it was definitely worth it. I may have more profound thoughts on the nature of city politics from the distance of a few more weeks, but for now this is enough for me to turn off Netflix and put down the bag of chips and start thinking about the next adventure.

For the record, I fully support my former “nemesis,” Dillon Meek. He seems like a great guy, and all of us will benefit from him being a terrific city council rep. I certainly intend to help him do just that! By “help” I mean cheering him on when I think he is doing a good job, communicating with him as honestly and positively as I can if I have concerns, and doing my part to serve in whatever capacity is most helpful. I hope my fellow D4 dwellers out there will do the same. I’m very impressed that he has already started to reach out to all kinds of different people in the district, some who supported him and some who did not. I think that is smart, and courageous, and overall just a good thing to do.

In fact I feel like I should be thanking Mr. Meek! I got a lot of benefit from participating in this campaign, and now he’s the one who’s going to end up doing all the work! (Wink!)

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.

Thoughts on Fair Chance Hiring for formerly incarcerated individuals

By Ashley Bean Thornton

we loveFor several years now I have been a part of a conversation in Waco about how to help people returning to our community after incarceration to “reintegrate” into society. (Please visit the McLennan County Reintegration Roundtable website for more information about this on-going work.) One of the key elements for successful reintegration is employment. As you can imagine it is very difficult for an ex-offender to get a job interview much less a job. One idea that is being discussed to help formerly incarcerated individuals get work is “Fair Chance Hiring.” Fair Chance Hiring policies remove the questions about criminal history information from a job application. This change allows employers to judge applicants on their qualifications first, without the stigma of a criminal record. Questions about criminal history are moved later in the process. The idea is that if an employer has had a chance to examine the qualifications of the applicant, and possibly meet the applicant, that employer would be more likely to give the applicant a chance at a job. According to a flyer I received recently from Mission Waco representatives, 13 states have embraced this policy and around 70 cities and counties. On Saturday, April 25, 2015, several organizations in Waco including Mission Waco, Mission World and students from the Tarleton State University Social Work program worked together to hold a rally to advocate for Fair Chance Hiring. I was one of the speakers at the rally. Here are the thoughts I tried to share. Thank you for considering this important idea. – ABT

 My written remarks for the Fair Chance Hiring Rally (They don’t exactly match what I ended up saying, but pretty close!) :

One of the most challenging things about living together in a community is balancing the needs and wants of various groups within the community while also keeping in mind what’s good for the whole community. When we find a tool that can help us do this, we need to consider it seriously. I think this fair chance hiring notion is just such a tool, and I support it. I want to speak for just a moment about how I came to that conclusion. I want to talk for just a little bit about how the practice of asking about criminal history a little later in the hiring process can balance the needs of formerly incarcerated job seekers with the needs of employers who are hiring – and how it can benefit our whole community.

crowdI’ll start with what I believe is good for the whole community. I believe it is good for the whole community for as many of us who can work, to be working. When more of us are working and earning a good income, it benefits the economy of our whole community – more people are buying things and making investments in their homes and more people are paying the taxes that pay for our community amenities. On the other hand, when some people cannot get work because of whatever barrier, whether it be lack of transportation or child care or education, or – as in the example we are grappling with today — a personal history that includes incarceration – it is bad for all of us. It hurts our economy and reduces the pool of resources available to our community. It does not do us any good as a community to have a whole group of people who find it difficult, if not almost impossible, to find work. When more people in our community are working, we are all better off. I believe moving questions about criminal history a little later in the hiring process will result in more people finding work, and I think that will be better for all of us.

Next I would like to talk about the group of people who make up this population of formerly incarcerated individuals. Certainly no one doubts it is a benefit to them to be able to find work. We all need money to live. The best way to get money is to have a legal job. If that pathway is closed to you, then what options do you have? You can depend on your family – whose resources more often than not are already stretched to the breaking point. You can start your own business if you have the resources and personality to do that. Or, really, what else can you do? Add this financial reality to the psychological stress of being rejected for work at every turn, and you can see we have an environment that makes it very difficult for a person returning from incarceration to successfully reintegrate into our community. Moving questions about criminal history to a little later in the hiring process at least gives formerly incarcerated people a fighting chance to make their case, to put their best foot forward, to explain why what they CAN do is worth considering. It doesn’t give them a guarantee of a job – none of us have that – but it at least gives them a chance, a foot in the door, to finding a job that will allow them to contribute to our economy.

Finally, I would like to talk about this from the point of view of an employer. I have been an employer. I have had the job of trying to hire the best person for a job as quickly as possible. I know first-hand the expense and aggravation of making a bad hire.   And I will admit that as an employer I first thought that getting rid of “the box” – the little check box on the application where a person indicates that they have made some mistakes in their past – was a bad idea.

My resistance was based on a desire for efficiency – when I am in hiring mode I don’t want to waste my time. I want to weed out bad candidates and focus only on good candidates. That little box seemed like an easy way to eliminate unsuitable job seekers. What I have learned is that, like with most things, the easy way is not always the best way.

lady talkingFirst of all, just because a person doesn’t check the box, that doesn’t mean they are going to be a stellar employee. There are plenty of people out there in the job market who have all kinds of problems that impinge on their ability to be good employees – drinking problems, drug problems, all kinds of problems – just because someone’s problems haven’t resulted in a conviction doesn’t mean they are a perfect angel.   Just because a person doesn’t check the box doesn’t mean they have never done anything wrong. The absence or presence of a checkmark in that box doesn’t tell me this person will be a good employee and that person won’t. When it gets right down to it, hiring is somewhat a game of chance. That little checkmark really doesn’t give you as much useful information as it seems like it might at first glance.

Second, I have learned through listening to employers who make it a practice to give formerly incarcerated individuals a chance that giving someone a chance can be a good step toward developing a loyal, hard-working, long term employee. Make no mistake – when I am hiring, it is not my goal to be a charity institution. It is my goal to get the best employee for the job. If I can get myself a good, loyal, hardworking, long term employee by giving a motivated person with good skills a chance, why wouldn’t I want to do that? That’s good for me and good for my organization.

I would not support a policy of not being able to ask about criminal back ground at all – certainly as a hirer I would want to know about past behavior. Some crimes will certainly disqualify some people from some jobs.  But, if I weed people out because they checked a box before I ever met them, then I am missing out on some potentially good employees. If I talk to someone, find out about their skills, get a sense of their motivation and work ethic, and then find out about the mistakes of their past and what they learned from those mistakes – I can make an informed decision.

I have come to believe that fair chance hiring practices are potentially a benefit to employers as well. Yes, it may take more time in the hiring process – moving the question about past mistakes until later in the process, giving people a chance to make their case, takes more time than throwing away an application that has a check mark in the wrong place. But, finding a great employee is a beautiful thing. If time spent in the hiring process results in a great employee – regardless, or maybe even because of, the mistakes in their past – it saves time in the long run. We have employers in Waco who are reaping this benefit right now because they are willing to give people a chance. I believe it would be a benefit to the employers, to the formerly incarcerated individuals and to our whole community if more would do so.

ABT speakingThis Act Locally Waco blog post is by Ashley Bean Thornton, the Manager of the website and the editor of the Friday Update newsletter. 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-Centric Resolutions for 2015

by Ashley Bean Thornton

These are exciting times in Waco! Let’s keep that ball rolling with some community-centric resolutions for 2015. Here are a few ideas to get us started. I’m sure you can think of many others…

Spend more time downtown – So much great stuff is happening downtown! The more we take advantage of the opportunities, the better they will become. If you haven’t been downtown lately, “First Friday Waco” (find it on Facebook) is a good way to stick a toe in – lots of downtown shops and other places stay open late the First Friday of each month. Or check out the scene at the Waco Downtown Farmer’s market. I don’t even like vegetables (maybe a resolution for next year!), but I love going to the farmer’s market and watching the parade of dogs and babies. If you don’t want to spend much (or any) money, there are lots of free activities downtown throughout the year: Brazos Nights Concert Series, Fourth of July Fireworks, Waco Cultural Arts Fest, Waco Wonderland, Baylor Gameday, and the biggest free gift of all – Cameron Park. Check out to get the details about downtown happenings.

Spread good news about Waco ISD – Whether we have school age children or not, every single one of us has a stake in Waco ISD.   A thriving public school system is a “must have” for Waco to achieve its potential as a terrific community. Resolve to be a cheerleader for our school system. Google “Waco ISD enews” to find the website where you can sign up for the Waco ISD “In the Know” newsletter. It comes out a couple of times a month and is full of examples of great things happening in our local schools. It will make you proud of what our students and educators are doing, and it will give you plenty of good news to spread. If you want to get even more involved, google “WISD Community Partnerships” to find information about volunteering, or participating in the Adopt-A-School program. You can also find wish lists from various schools in the district on that same site     .

Use social media as a force for good – I love Facebook. I love seeing pictures of my friends’ at play. I’ll even admit to enjoying the occasional cat video or “dog shaming” slideshow. Our devotion to Facebook, Twitter and other social media can be a boon for our local non-profits. These media provide an inexpensive way to get the word out about events and services. They can be extremely effective channels of communication especially if we will all help by sharing and retweeting.   Most of the non-profits in town have Facebook pages and/or Twitter accounts. “Like” or “follow” your favorite organization. When you see something intriguing from them in your newsfeed, resolve to share it. Of course I have to mention the Act Locally Waco Facebook account/Twitter feed. It’s a great way to keep up to date on all kinds of neat things going on that make our community a great place to live. When you see something you like, share it!

Reach across a line that divides us – Waco is a beautifully diverse community. There are lots of opportunities for us to work together, play together, worship together, and get to know each other. Make a special effort this year to learn more about what it’s like to be a part of a race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or income level different from your own.   Go to a meeting of the Community Race Relations Coalition, the Waco Interfaith Conference , or Waco Interweave. Worship at Church Under the Bridge or visit another place of worship that is very different from your own. Read something or watch a documentary about people who have a different point of view from your own. I’ll go out on a limb here and say this is especially important if, like me, you identify as a member of the White, straight, Christian, middle-class. It is the path of least resistance for those of us in the majority to stay cocooned in our own majority culture. Resolve this year to make the effort to at least begin to break out of the cocoon. We don’t have to agree with or like everything we see in the world outside of our comfort zone, but we will all be richer for the increased understanding.

Advocate for Arts in Waco – I’ve never thought of myself as a particularly “artsy” person. I used to think of the arts as a “frill,” something to give us a little break from wrestling with the “important” issues of jobs, health, and education. Now I understand more clearly that the arts are how we nurture the hope, strength, understanding, honesty and wisdom to be able to work together to chip away at these complicated challenges. Participation in the arts builds passion, compassion, insight, creativity, confidence and discipline. Arts programs in our schools, The Waco Arts Initiative , The Waco Cultural Arts Festival, Mission Waco’s Jubilee Theatre and Urban Expressions program, Nuestra Voz at the Art Forum of Waco, Art on Elm, Miriam’s Army Girl’s Dance Troop at Restoration Haven, The Word Gallery, Teen Speak Out… these are just a few examples of arts initiatives that are strengthening the roots of our community. So, make your own art. Support a program that makes the space for others to participate in the arts. Or, resolve to enjoy seeing more art. Make this the year you get involved with the arts in Waco.

I have learned through the years that if I set too many goals, the chance that I will do ANY of them decreases dramatically. I’ll be keeping my list short this year, maybe even just one or two resolutions. We don’t all have to do everything. Even if each of us just makes one “Waco-centric” resolution, and sticks with it, we will be a stronger community a year from now. What will yours be? Happy New Year, Waco! Here we go!

me and omarThis Act Locally Waco blog post is by Ashley Bean Thornton, the Manager of the website and the editor of the Friday Update newsletter. 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.

That Damn Starfish Story!

by Ashley Bean Thornton

“While wandering a deserted beach at dawn, stagnant in my work, I saw a man in the distance bending and throwing as he walked the endless stretch toward me. As he came near, I could see that he was throwing starfish, abandoned on the sand by the tide, back into the sea. When he was close enough I asked him why he was working so hard at this strange task. He said that the sun would dry the starfish and they would die. I said to him that I thought he was foolish. there were thousands of starfish on miles and miles of beach. One man alone could never make a difference. He smiled as he picked up the next starfish. Hurling it far into the sea he said, “It makes a difference for this one.” I abandoned my writing and spent the morning throwing starfish.” ― Loren Eiseley

This is the time of year for “helping people.” The truth is I don’t really like to “help people.”  I don’t like to give money to people who are living on the street. I don’t like to serve meals to people who have so little money they can’t pay for food. I don’t like to take cans to the food pantry. I don’t like to buy Christmas presents for little kids or older people who won’t have any Christmas otherwise.  I’m glad there are kind and wonderful people who like to do it, because it needs to be done.  I do it myself sometimes because I feel like I should, but it doesn’t make me happy to do it. It makes me sad.  Sometimes it makes me embarrassed. Sometimes I feel like it embarrasses the people  I am supposedly helping, and that makes me feel worse. Sometimes I feel like the people I am supposedly helping have needed so much help for so long that they have gotten past the point of being embarrassed, and that makes me feel even worse still.

The truth is that what I really want is for more people to be “self-sufficient.”  That way I wouldn’t have to worry about helping them and how that makes me feel. I think of myself as being self-sufficient. I have a comfortable life – solid education, steady work, a place to live, food on the table, dogs, time to enjoy family and friends, a doctor when I need one, a good shot at security in old age.   I don’t have to take whatever food is available at the food pantry or the Salvation Army; I buy what I like to eat. If I am cold, I don’t have to wait for someone to donate a heater; I go buy one.   I don’t put off going to the doctor until I end up in the emergency room; I make an appointment as soon as I start feeling bad. I go to the dentist to get my teeth cleaned and to stop problems before they start. I’ve never had to go to the dentist because my tooth was actually hurting me.

I want more people to live like me. Is that middle class arrogance? Maybe. I’m tired of second-guessing myself about that. The honest truth is I want more people to have what I have, or at least for them to have enough that they don’t have to depend on my on-again, off-again, if-I-feel-like-it-today charity that never seems to be enough to make a dent in the need.

How did I get to be self-sufficient? Mainly luck.

It helps that I was born in the United States instead of somewhere in the world where the majority of people are living on $2 a day. It helps that I was born in the 20th century instead of in the 18th or 19th when even in America most people’s prospects were poor, poorer, or poorest. It helps that I was born white so that my family and I benefited from the prejudices of our society instead of being robbed by them. It helps that I was born healthy.

Lucky for me and through no effort of my own, my parents had good paying jobs. They worked hard at those jobs. They fed me, took care of me and paid for me to go to college. They even bought me my first two cars and put a down payment on my third. I went to good public schools where I evidently learned everything I needed to learn to succeed in college and later in a job. I had a whole raft of Girl Scout Leaders, Sunday school teachers, youth ministers, camp counselors, family friends, aunts and uncles, etc. etc. who taught me all kinds of useful things including the rules (hidden and overt) for fitting in and “making it” in middle-class society.

Basically all I have had to do to attain self-sufficiency has been to not screw up too badly. Sure, I had to study and go to class. Sure, I had to get a job when I graduated. I had to/have to work. I have to save some money. I am responsible for making it from third base to home plate on my own, but the odds are definitely in my favor.

I want us to build a community where more people are self-sufficient.

How do we do that? What can I do? Well, in honor of Thanksgiving, I think I can start by recognizing how lucky I am. I can start by being honest with myself and others that what I have earned “on my own” is the tip of the iceberg compared to how much was given to me through the sheer luck of birth. I can also point out to whoever is interested that being the beneficiary of all that dumb luck didn’t destroy my motivation and make me more dependent or lazy. In fact, quite the opposite, it gave me energy, knowledge, skills, self-confidence, opportunities to exercise my creativity, and at least some spark of belief that what I do makes a difference.

I’m thankful for those gifts of my lucky life. Am I thankful enough to use them to help build systems that make it more likely that more people will have more of that kind of luck? I hope so. But, working at that level is hard, and complicated, and controversial. I have my opinions about what I think we should do, but plenty of people disagree with me. Some even believe, with a passion equal to my own, that the things I want to do will make the situation worse instead of better. Maybe they are right, or at least partly right. It would take some significant work to find out. Do I want systemic change badly enough that I am willing to slog through the hard, frustrating work of making it happen?

I don’t really like taking cans to the food pantry.  I don’t really like that we keep on needing to take so many cans to the food pantry.  But taking cans to the food pantry doesn’t cause any arguments. In fact, people thank me when I do it, and it doesn’t cost much, and it doesn’t take much time…and like the man in the starfish story says, “It makes a difference to this one.”

me and omarThis Act Locally Waco blog post is by Ashley Bean Thornton, the Manager of the website and the editor of the Friday Update newsletter. 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.