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.

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.