Bridges out of Poverty: The Elephant in the Room

By Ashley Bean Thornton

I’m a sucker for a good parable. Here’s an oldie, but goodie — one that I have been thinking of this week while attending the Bridges out of Poverty training  as part of the Prosper Waco Initiative

Once upon a time there was a tiny village where no one had ever seen an elephant. One day an elephant and his keeper wandered into the village. The keeper needed a little cash, so he hid the elephant in an enormous barn and held a contest. Villagers could pay $2 to come into the barn blindfolded and examine the elephant. Then, the contestant who could describe the elephant correctly would win half the money collected. Five folks decided to play. The first blindfolded man touched the elephant’s ear. “An elephant is a large fan like the kind you use in church when it’s hot,” he said. The second person wrapped his arms around one of the elephant’s legs. “An elephant is a pillar, like the ones on the courthouse,” he stated. The third player was holding the elephant’s tail. “An elephant is a type of rope,” he stated with great conviction. The fourth player leaned against the elephants’ side. “An elephant is clearly a big, flat wall,” he said. The fifth had the elephant’s trunk wrapped around his waist, “An elephant is a large python snake,” he insisted in a condescending tone. The five blind-folded contestants argued deep into the night. While they argued, the elephant keeper ran away with all of the money.

The parallels to the poverty “elephant” are obvious. What causes poverty? “Obviously it’s the destructive behaviors of the individuals in poverty,” says the first blind-folded man. “It’s definitely lack of education,” says the second. “No, it’s lack of jobs,” says the third. “Good grief!” says the fourth, “Can’t everyone see it’s exploitation!” “You’re all crazy! It’s the global political and economic system,” insists the fifth.

In the Bridges training this week 40 or so folks from health care, education, law enforcement, non-profit organizations, the city and a sprinkling of other occupations have been taking off blindfolds and looking at the whole elephant. It’s hard not to be hopeful about the possibilities.

He’s got a ticket to ride…the bus

By Ashley Bean Thornton

On February 21, 2013, I sat in a booth in my satellite office, Whataburger, visiting with David Ellis – the new Supervisor of Attendance, Truancy and Dropout Recovery at WISD. He was fairly new to Waco. After years serving as a pastor in Baytown, Texas, he had followed his wife here so she could pursue her career. Having landed in town without work for himself, he took a job for several months as a bus driver for Waco Transit before finding his current position. Given that, I guess it’s not too surprising that our conversation quickly turned to transportation.

Mr. Ellis was concerned that day about a young man who was taking classes at Brazos High School – also known as the WISD Credit Recovery Center. The Credit Recovery Center helps students who have dropped out, or who are in danger of dropping out, recover credits so they can get back on track to graduate. The only problem is, for it to help you, you have to show up. The young man in question was in trouble for truancy. Mr. Ellis had watched as Judge Villarreal of the truancy court asked, “Why haven’t you been attending school?” “I don’t have transportation,” the student replied. “My mom goes to work and I don’t have a ride.”

Sounds like a lame excuse, right? I mean, good grief, Kid – ever heard of a school bus? Well, it’s a little more challenging than that. WISD provides buses for students according to attendance zones. The Credit Recovery Center, it turns out, caters to students who come from all different attendance zones. So, some of the kids who need the recovery center the most have a tough time getting there. It took Mr. Ellis, the former Transit bus driver, about two seconds to figure out that Waco Transit Route 1 goes right by Brazos High School. Problem solved! Except…for some of our very low-income students the $3.00 a day round trip bus fare was a road block.

Fast forward to May 1, 2013 – Mr. Ellis is feeling cautiously optimistic about the transportation situation. Mayor Malcolm Duncan has helped to negotiate a Pilot Program with Waco Transit. During the pilot, any WISD Middle School or High School student with a proper WISD student ID can ride a transit bus to school for FREE!

This is a terrific example of how a great community operates. We tear down silos; we try new things; we remove roadblocks. Thanks Mr. Ellis, Mayor Duncan and Waco Transit for making Waco work a little better for our students and for all of us!


The pilot program will run from May 1 to June 6, 2013. Initial daily ridership is averaging in the 30’s for the first few days but is sure to grow as the program is promoted and students learn they can ride and how it can work for them. Spread the word! For more information about this terrific program please contact David Ellis, Supervisor of Attendance, Truancy and Dropout Recovery at 254-757-5909 or [email protected] .

Beware the bad air

By Ashley Bean Thornton

I recently read an article that went into great detail about the concentration of wealth in the United States and argued that it was bad for so much wealth to be concentrated in the hands of so few. To tell you the truth, I don’t understand economics well enough to know if that is true or not. Reading the article did make me think, though, about what I care about in regard to wealth distribution.

I don’t begrudge super rich people their wealth. I’m not sure I really care if the super rich control a high percentage of all the wealth available. What I do care about is whether the amount shared by the people at the other end of the spectrum is enough for most to afford a “decent life.”

It’s tough to agree on a definition of “decent life,” but for me it includes being warm when it’s cold and cool when it’s hot; having a roof over your head, clothes on your back and food to eat; being able to get help when you are sick or when disaster strikes; being able to educate your kids; having some savings for old age; being able to take a little time off every now and then; and having the time and money to afford a little fun, a little beauty, and a little edification.

I wouldn’t call a decent life a “right” that everyone “deserves,” but I do think “percentage of people who can afford a decent life” is a key indicator of the overall health of the economy.

When the needle on this indicator is moving in the wrong direction we all need to care, and we need to be care-ful about how we diagnose the problem. Certainly individual cases of “not being able to afford a decent life” might be the result of some individual problem – laziness and lack of motivation are some I hear tossed around frequently. But — when the percentages are moving in the wrong direction we need to be wary of focusing too much on individual weaknesses. We need to start looking toward the environment. Did you know that sluggishness can be a symptom of carbon monoxide poisoning? What if what gets diagnosed as widespread laziness is really poisoning from bad economic air? When the air is bad it affects the most vulnerable first – but eventually it will affect us all.

Questions about community…

By Ashley Bean Thornton

When I started Act Locally Waco, it was based on a simple idea. I knew there were all kinds of activities going on around town to build up the community, but it seemed like I was always finding out about them too late. I specifically remember reading about the “Walk for the Homeless” downtown three years in a row… always the day after it was over. I thought it would be handy to have someplace where people could find out about these kinds of events in time to plan to participate. I mentioned the idea to a few other people, and they seemed to agree, so I put up a website and down the road we went.

Up to that point I had not thought very much about what we mean when we say “community.” Working on Act Locally Waco, though, and later serving on the Poverty Solutions Steering Committee caused me to think more and more about the concept: What is a community, really? What kind of community do I want to live in? What is my role and responsibility in bringing that about? What about people who disagree about what kind of community we want? Who do I want to be “in community” with? Can a city as large as Waco have a real sense of community? How can a community work together to solve problems or move toward goals? How do we get a community of people with diverse histories, cultures, financial situations, education levels, religions, political persuasions, etc. etc. to even decide what we want to do, much less work together? How do we balance self-interest with the mutual interests of the community? What builds a community? What tears it down? Why should we care?

This past Thursday, like many of you, I watched the beautiful, somber, heart-breaking, uplifting service for the first-responders who died in the terrible explosion in West. Nearly 10,000 people filled the Ferrell Center for the service and thousands more watched from satellite locations and through computer and television screens. Every single one of us, I imagine, considers these twelve to be heroes – not simply because they died, though that is tragic — but because they died for the sake of others – for the community. Lord God, what would you have me learn from them about what it means to be a community?

Time to Respond

By Ashley Bean Thornton

I stand in awe of the first responders.  Here’s one story I heard:  Having seen the fire and fearing the worst, a young mother, 15-month old baby in her arms, ran into her house to grab shoes and a diaper bag before leaving.  They weren’t quite quick enough though. The plant exploded while they were still inside.   The young father watched in horror from the front yard as the glass from their sunny front window, once such a beautiful part of their home, became a deadly force flying in shards toward his family.  Miraculously, Mom and daughter were safe.  They had stepped around a corner into an interior hall just as the blast occurred.  They scrambled out of their wrecked home and into their damaged-but-drivable Jeep and headed out to put a safe distance between themselves and the burning fertilizer plant. But Dad, a volunteer fireman, did not go with them.  As his wife pulled out of town, he waved good-bye to his own family, so recently and mercifully spared, and ran toward the blast zone to help others.  There are no words…

I stand in awe of the second, third and fourth responders.  The folks who know how to bind up wounds and board up houses; the organizers who can find a place for the piles of water bottles, and clothes, and diapers; the comforters who can hold a hand and bring a moment’s peace; the competent ones who know how to make and serve coffee for the multitudes – all of these people are heroes to me.  I’m terrible at all of that kind of thing, paralyzed by the chaos, I’m more in-the-way than helpful.

All day Thursday and Friday I monitored the media. Through the window of my computer screen, I watched the tide of help roll in while I sat in my office.    Eventually I began to see notes like this: “We are hearing from pretty much every official that we speak to that monetary donations are needed at this time.”  A way for me to respond!  I may not know exactly what to do in a crisis, but I dang sure know how to write a check!  We all have some part to play, and this is my part for now.

What’s the connection?

By Ashley Bean Thornton

Today – as you know – has been a glorious spring day in Waco. I had already been to the Downtown Farmer’s Market for lunch, and was taking a break after exploring Art on Elm when I happened to walk up behind my friend DB in line at Lula Jane’s . He surprised me by gallantly paying for my orange-cranberry scone and iced tea.  That’s the kind of day it has been, the kind where somebody picks up your tab just because you’re standing next to him in line — a TERRIFIC day.

So it came to pass that I’m munching my scone and visiting with my benefactor and his lovely and talented wife, LB, when she says, “I got your email,” meaning the Act Locally Waco Friday Update email. Then she makes a sweeping gesture with her arm that takes in the scone, Art on Elm, and the whole glorious day, and she asks, “What’s the connection?”   I don’t know why she asked it – maybe she had seen the blurb about Art on Elm in the Friday Update and wanted to know why a blurb about an art festival was included in a newsletter about reducing poverty.  We didn’t end up talking about it.  Someone else wandered up and took the conversation in a different direction, or maybe we just got distracted by an especially tasty bite of scone; anyway, we never finished the thought.

There is a connection though.

Act Locally Waco was born out of a desire to help reduce poverty in Waco.  The basic idea was that there are (A) lots of people in Waco who care about reducing poverty, and (B) lots of things going on in town to reduce poverty, and maybe it would be (C) helpful to have a website to help bring A and B together. From the very beginning, though, an important part of the Act Locally Waco philosophy has been that “not-poverty” is not enough.  It’s not enough to dwell solely on what we DON’T want; we need to do some dwelling on what we DO want. And one of the things we DO want is more days like today:  a day that every person in Waco can enjoy regardless of income level, a day to come out and commune with your neighbors and listen to music in the beautiful sunshine, a day to fall in love with everyone you see, a day to remember how great we can be together.