Tag Archives: Urban Engagement Book Club

Children and Poverty – Here’s a Problem Worthy of our Most Focused Attention (Eric Jensen, Teaching With Poverty in Mind)

There are people with plenty.  There are others with far from plenty.  The poor are always at the top of mind at the Urban Engagement Book Club (sponsored by CitySquare).  Today, I am presenting my synopsis of Teaching with Poverty in Mind: What Being Poor Does to Kids’ Brains and What Schools Can Do About It by Eric Jensen for this very different book discussion/community conversation gathering.

The book is good.  It is focused on the school environment — but it provides a good reminder of the overall impact of poverty  on people and the larger society.  Here are two excerpts that summarize the essence of the book:

35 percent of poor families experienced six or more risk factors (such as divorce, sickness, eviction); only 2 percent experienced no risk factors.  In contrast, only 5 percent of well-off families experienced six or more risk factors, and 10 percent experienced none.  The aggregate of risk factors makes everyday living a struggle; they are multifaceted and interwoven, building on and playing off one another with a devastating synergistic effect.  In other words one problem created by poverty begets another, which in turn contributes to another, leading to a seemingly endless cascade of deleterious consequences.
It’s safe to say that poverty and its attendant risk factors are damaging to the physical, socioemotional, and cognitive well-being of children and their families.

Moving toward Solution:
The worse off kids are, the greater the potential gain.  If students come from good home environments, not much more than good teaching is necessary.  But if students come from disadvantaged backgrounds, enrichment can have a dramatic impact on learning.  And in these cases, an enrichment mind-set is crucial:  every staff member must be on board and fully believe that every kid can succeed.
You’ll know when everyone at your school is on board.  You’ll see it in the hallways, hear it in the classrooms, and feel it from the kids.  You’ll notice that students enjoy their classes and overall school experience and are hopeful about the future; that teachers share information and strategies with colleagues and discuss issues constructively; that the staff lounge area airs more success stories than complaints; and that the teachers give affirmations and support to kids all day.
The first prerequisite for change is your belief in it – and your willingness to change yourself first.  We can help kids rise above their predicted path of struggle if we see them as possibilities, not as problems… Students brains don’t change from more of the same.  We must believe that change is possible; understand that the brain is malleable and will adapt to environmental input; and be willing to change that input.

We are all busy people.  But I hope we will make some time in our schedule to think about those with the greatest needs.  What we read, what we think about, what we pay attention to…  all of this can lead us to do good things, better things, with our time and our resources.

And the need is so very great.

Interested in Race and Politics? – Here’s a Book Worth Reading

Today, I am presenting a synopsis of the book Running on Race:  Racial Politics in Presidential Elections, 1960-2000 (New York:  Random House – 2002) by Jeremy D. Mayer.  This is this month’s selection for the Urban Engagement Book Club, an event sponsored by CitySquare (formerly Central Dallas Ministries).

The book selections (made by a group of leaders at CitySquare, with my recommendations and input) have provided me quite a mini-education in social justice and poverty.  Here’s the bad news:  the needs are growing greater in this country, and the progress…well, there’s not enough.  And in this current economic climate, the needs are getting greater, as donations are harder and harder to come by.

This book is worth reading.  The author acknowledges other racial divides as worthy of careful study, but his emphasis is on the black-white divide…

Here are some quotes from the book:

Race and the array of issues surrounding it have been crucial to every presidential election since 1960…  Every presidential candidate during this period has had to take positions on racial matters, and each campaign’s strategic choices were influenced by the racial environment of the election year… Race affected the presidential contest in years when race was central to the nation’s agenda and in years when race was submerged by a host of other issues.  Race always mattered in presidential campaigns…

Racial tensions will not disappear anytime soon, as long as segregation characterizes many of our neighborhoods, as long as racial profiling remains a problem in so many police departments, as long as some whites believe, openly or secretly, in black inferiority, and as long as racial preferences inflame racial animosities.

“The prejudices of centuries die hard, and even when they wane, the institutional frameworks that sustained them are bound to linger.”  (Sociologist Orlando Patterson).

The book has chapters, with fascinating details, on every presidential election from 1960 through 2000.

If this subject interests you at all, I commend this book.  It is a good, somewhat disturbing read.


If you live in the  DFW area, and are looking for a place that responsibly and effectively serves the needy among us, please consider a donation to CitySquare.  Click here to start that process.


Thoughts About Change From A Book About Racial, Ethnic, And Class Tensions

For the Urban Engagement Book Club for Central Dallas Ministries tomorrow, I am presenting my synopsis of There Goes the Neighborhood:  Racial, Ethnic, and Class Tensions in Four Chicago Neighborhoods and Their Meaning for America by William Julius Wilson and Richard P. Taub.  At this book club, we focus on books related to social justice and poverty issues – quite a different focus from what we normally choose for the First Friday Book Synopsis.  And this book takes a careful look at some social justice and poverty issues.

In this book, which looks at four neighborhoods that felt the impact of racial change, and all of the implications of that change, I found this insightful paragraph:

Albert Hirschman argues that when people become dissatisfied with changes in their surroundings they can exit – move or withdraw from further participation – or they can exercise voice.  Hirschman defines “voice” as any attempt “to change, rather than to escape from,” an undesirable situation.
The more willing people are to try to exercise voice – that is, to change, correct, or prevent a particular situation – the less likely they are to exit.

This seems to be useful as we think about all kinds of change:  if a change is threatening (and most change is), then people will either “exit,” or they will “speak up” to seek to make their own voice heard in the midst of change.

And when will people most likely speak up?  According to Hirschman, people will speak up when one’s “loyalty” to a neighborhood, or an organization within the neighborhood, is deep, and genuinely matters to the individual.  In such instances, things are worth “fighting for,” and a person will do whatever he or she can to maintain the ties.

So – put this in a business context.  The more loyal people are to a company and its mission, the more likely they are to speak up to protect what is important, and seek to shape the change in a workable way for all.

It seems to me that we want people who are loyal enough to speak up for what is important to them!

Saul Alinsky + The Starfish and The Spider – Wisdom for a New Generation, on both sides of the Aisle

The basics transcend all differences.

I generally shy away from anything political on this blog.  But this morning, there is an article on Politico that is worth a little attention on a blog focused on business books.  The article is entitled The new tea party bible, and it describes how the Tea Party Movement has used two books as “Bibles” for their purposes.  The first is the most unlikely choice, the “liberal’s” guidebook for organizing, Rules for Radicals:  A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals by Saul Alinsky.  Politico had earlier written specifically about the Tea Party’s use of this book in the article The Right loves to hate – and imitate – Saul Alinsky. The second is the more recent The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations by Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom.

First, a few excerpts from Alinsky (I presented a synopsis of Alinsky’s book at the Urban Engagement Book Club in Dallas for Central Dallas Ministries, a couple of years ago):

As an organizer I start from where the world is, as it is, not as I would like it to be…  it is necessary to begin where the world is if we are going to change it to what we think it should be.

A reformation means that masses of our people have reached the point of disillusionment with past ways and values.  They don’t know what will work but they do know that the prevailing system is self-defeating, frustrating, and hopeless.  They won’t act for change but won’t strongly oppose those who do.  The time is then ripe for revolution.

The building of many mass power organizations to merge into a national popular power force cannot come without many organizers.  Since organizations are created, in large part, by the organizer, we must find out what creates the organizer.

I know that I have communicated with the other party when his eyes light up and he responds, “I know exactly what you mean…” — communication occurs concretely.

And a little about The Starfish and the Spider (from the Amazon page):

The title metaphor conveys the core concept: though a starfish and a spider have similar shapes, their internal structure is dramatically different—a decapitated spider inevitably dies, while a starfish can regenerate itself from a single amputated leg. In the same way, decentralized organizations, like the Internet, the Apache Indian tribe and Alcoholics Anonymous, are made up of many smaller units capable of operating, growing and multiplying independently of each other, making it very difficult for a rival force to control or defeat them.

Here are some lessons:

Lesson # 1:  Learn from anywhere and everywhere to accomplish your goals.  You will find books, companions, colleagues, alliances in many unlikely places.  Embrace wisdom from wherever you can find it.

Lesson #2:  We really are living in a bottom-up world. The top-down leadership structure of yesterday is so yesterday.  The Tea Party on the Right, and community organizers on the Left, have this in common:  no one leader at the “top” is dictating much of anything anymore.  Leadership comes from within, from underneath, from everywhere.  Modern social networking tools have simply accelerated the pace of this remarkable development.

Lesson #3:  As I have often hinted, and stated openly, the more you know, the more you know. Keep reading widely.  Keep learning.  And  remember that you can learn from people who come from very different places than you come from.  The disciplined, ongoing pursuit of learning is the only path to a more effective tomorrow.

What is a normal life? – Push By Sapphire (The Book Which Prompted The Movie Precious); A Reflection

As I have written often, I live in multiple worlds.  Today for the Urban Engagement Book Club, sponsored by Central Dallas Ministries, I presented  my synopsis of Push by Sapphire.

It was the toughest book to read – maybe the toughest I’ve ever read!  In this book-based gathering, we look at books that raise our consciousness and understanding on issues of poverty and social justice.  This book did the job.  (Yes, I know I’m quite a few years late on this – but it was the selection for the book club, and that’s what prompted the reading, and this post, now).

Here is one quote — a reflection by Precious:

What is a normal life?  A life where you not ‘shamed of your mother.  Where your friends come over after school and watch TV and do homework.  Where your mother is normal looking and don’t hit you over the head wif iron skillet.  I would wish for in my fantasy a second chance.  Since my first chance go to Mama and Daddy.

The “first chance to Mama and Daddy” refers to the ways that her Mama and Daddy stole her life, in so many ways.

In Roger Ebert’s review of the film adaptation of the book, Precious, he writes these paragraphs:

Precious has shut down. She avoids looking at people, she hardly ever speaks, she’s nearly illiterate. Inside her lives a great hurt, and also her child, conceived in a rape. She is fat. Her clothes are too tight. School is an ordeal of mocking cruelty. Home is worse. Her mother, defeated by life, takes it out on her daughter. After Precious is raped by her father, her mother, is angry not at the man, but at the child for “stealing” him.

There’s one element in the film that redeems this landscape of despair. That element is hope. Not the hope of Precious, but that of two women who want better for her. It’s not that Precious “shows promise.” I think it’s that these women, having in their jobs seen a great deal, can hardly imagine a girl more obviously in pain.

That is the starting point for “Precious,” a great American film that somehow finds an authentic way to move from these beginnings to an inspiring ending.

I don’t often say this so emphatically on this blog:  but read this book!  It will open your eyes, and your heart, and remind you of what you have, and what so many don’t have.

Is The Internet Taking Away Our Creativity? Our Very Ability To Pay Attention?

This could be a costly loss.

There’s a lot being written about the way that our reading is changing due to the shorter-attention-span internet world we live in.  Now Nicholas Carr identifies two specific potential losses that could be costly.

Robert Siegel of NPR’s All Things Considered interviewed Nicholas Carr, the man who wrote the article in the Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” and the author of the new book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.  (Read and/or listen to the interview here – it also includes a link to the transcript).  Here’s a portion of the interview:

And in fact, if you look at a lot of recent research on multitasking, it shows that in fact, as people optimize their ability to multitask online, they become less creative in their thinking. They become, you know, more likely to simply process information rather than think deeply for themselves about it.
So even if we get better at jumping from bit to bit to bit of information, we’re still losing – in fact, we’ll probably lose even more – that other, contemplative, introspective mode of thought.

The two losses:

1)    The loss of creativity.
2)    The loss of the ability to pay attention, thus the loss of the ability to be contemplative, to be introspective.

I don’t know if Carr is right.  But I know this, from my own experience.  Recently, I was “stranded,” away from my computer, for quite a chunk of time.  I had two books with me – The Big Short, and Imprisoning America.  I needed to prepare synopses for each of these books, The Big Short for a private client, and Imprisoning America for the Urban Engagement Book Club.  I read nearly both books in what was, in essence, one sitting.

It was great.

No distractions, no internet, no e-mail, no phone calls.  Just me, my thoughts, and those books.

I think I got more out of that experience than I have from any reading experience for quite some time.  I thought more deeply about what I was reading – with more introspection.  I “felt” more contemplative (yes, I realize how subjective that sounds).

And I think I grasped the point of each book more clearly than I would have in my usual world of distractions.

So – maybe Carr is onto something.  And maybe the simple lesson is this – do some heavy, extended reading, in a different chair, away from computer/smart phone/any phone.  For a chunk of time.

These words form the 37Signals guys from ReWork, make even more sense to me now:

You should get in the alone zone.  Long stretches of alone time are when you’re most productive.  When you don’t  have to mind-shift between various tasks, you get a boatload done.
During alone time, give up instant messages, phone calls, e-mail, and meetings.  Just shut up and get to work.  You’ll be surprised how much more you get done.