Tag Archives: Urban Engagement Book Club

These Times Call For “Big Citizenship” – (Insight from the Book by Alan Khazei, Founder of City Year)

As I have written frequently, I live in (more than) a couple of different worlds.  I read, and present synopses of business books.  But I also speak monthly at the Urban Engagement Book Club for CitySquare.  I present synopses of books dealing with social justice, racism, poverty – issues of human need.

Sometimes, I feel a little whiplash…

This month, after lunch today, I will have presented two books for two different Urban Engagement Book Club sessions.  On the first Thursday of the month, I presented my synopsis of the book Lifeblood:  How to Change the World One Dead Mosquito at a Time by Alex Perry.  It had a very real parallel to a section in Abundance:  The Future is Better Than You Think by David Diamandis (which I presented at the July First Friday Book Synopsis).  Abundance profiles some technophilanthropists.  And Lifeblood focused a great deal on the work of Ray Chambers.  Maybe not a “technophilanthropist,” but certainly a wealthy philanthropist who made/is making a whopping difference.  He served as the first ever UN Special Envoy for Malaria.  His goal was to get rid of malaria in the poorest countries of Africa.  Here’s a quote from the book: 

“Perfection is the enemy of good,” he said. “Will we cover every single person with a bed net? Honestly, I doubt it. Will we have a bigger impact than any other campaign ever? Yes, I think we will. You set lofty goals, and if you get 90 percent, that’s a great achievement, and you focus on getting the remaining 10 percent done as quickly as you can.”

Today, I am presenting my synopsis of the book Big Citizenship:  How Pragmatic Idealism Can Bring Out the Best in America by Alan Khazei.  Mr. Khanzei is the founder of City Year, which ultimately played the pivotal role in the establishment of AmeriCorps.  The book is filled with great stories, but it boils down to this:

What is the problem, and how do we tackle solving it?

I will say this today:

In fact:  all solutions boil down to Individual, Face-to-face, Compassionate, Competent, Attention. 

Here are a couple of key quotes from this book:

Big Citizens are not household names. They are not the elected officials or prominent leaders. They are regular, good hearted people blessed with a loving heart and an open mind. Anyone can be a Big Citizen and join with others in common purpose. You just need to listen to that voice inside that says: “I, too, want to be part of making my neighborhood, my school, my community, my country, my world, a better place for all of us.”

At times of great crisis, we often want to find that one great leader to bring us to a better day, but what we need to recognize is that throughout our history, it has been the willingness of regular people looking in the mirror and committing to causes larger than themselves that has been the key to making progress. At the end of the day, it is up to all of us.

And he includes this famous quote from Robert Kennedy:

 “It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is thus shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

In Dallas, Larry James, Gerald Britt, and the full team at CitySquare work with dogged determination to meet human need, to help people establish a more solid foundation; they actually find homes for homeless people… the list of ways they tackle human need is long, and impressive.  And Gerald Britt works tirelessly on public policy issues (payday lending is one of his recent targets – payday lending is an absolute drain on people in poverty).

I encourage you to add a social justice/poverty book to your reading stack.  There are many good ones.  If you ask me where to start, my current “best suggestion” is The Working Poor by David Shipler.  But, it almost does not matter – read any book that helps you see, and remember, the very real human needs of others.  And then, do something about it!  (CtySquare is a pretty good place to start).

And in you are in the DFW area, I invite you to come join us at the Urban Engagement Book Club.  We meet twice a month.  Check it out.

Putting Our Minds to Finding Work Solutions for The Under-Skilled May Be the Most Patriotic Thing We Can Do

For practically every family, the ingredients of poverty are part financial and part psychological, part personal and part societal, part past and part present.  Every problem magnifies the impact of the others, and all are so tightly interlocked that one reversal can produce a chain reaction with results far distant from the original cause.
If problems are interlocking, then so must solutions be.  A job alone is not enough.  Medical insurance alone is not enough.  Good housing alone is not enough.  Reliable transportation, careful family budgeting, effective parenting, effective schooling are not enough when each is achieved in isolation from the rest.  There is no single variable that can be altered to help working people move away from the edge of poverty.  Only where the full array of factors is attacked can America fulfill its promise.
The first step is to see the problems, and the first problem is the failure to see the people.
David Shipler:  The Working Poor  (Invisible in America)

How does anyone live on the wages available to the unskilled?
Something is wrong, very wrong, when a single person in good health, a person who in addition possesses a working car, can barely support herself by the sweat of her brow. You don’t need a degree in economics to see that wages are too low and rents too high.
Barbara Ehrenreich:  Nickel and Dimed
 – On (Not) Getting By in America


News item:  Non college graudates are seeing their job opportunites completely disappear.  From Do You Have a Job? by Daniel E. Slotnik:

For many young people in America, steady work is far from guaranteed. A new study shows that only one of six high school graduates is now employed full time, and although 73 percent think they will need more education, only half say they will enroll. Are you now employed? What jobs have you had in the past? Do you think you could find work after high school, if you choose not to attend college?

In her article “More Young Americans Out of High School Are Also Out of Work,” Catherine Rampell writes:
Whatever the sob stories about recent college graduates spinning their wheels as baristas or clerks, the situation for their less-educated peers is far worse, according to a report from the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University scheduled to be released on Wednesday.

Today is Urban Engagement Book Club day.  Twice a month, I present a synopsis of a book that deals with social justice or poverty at this event hosted by CitySquare.  This is one part of a multi-part life I am living.  On one day, I present a synopsis of a best selling and challenging business book.  On the next day, I present a synopsis of a book that deals with some aspect of human struggle, even human misery – books on social justice and poverty.  (I also do some presentation skills training; some keynote speaking, and a few other kinds of corporate-training-like activities).  I like everything that I do, and believe it is all useful to the folks that I interact with regularly.  I really do want to help people get “better” at what they do.

But it is the social justice part of my schedule that probably wins the “what matters most to you?” top spot.  I care about these issues deeply.  I’ve read too many books; I’ve read Isaiah and Amos from the Bible.  Caring about the neediest among us really is a big human deal.  To fail to do so makes us a little less human.

We all recognize these words, because they are so prominent in I Have a Dream by Dr. martin Luther King, Jr.:

Let justice roll on like a river,
 righteousness like a never-failing stream!

These words come from Amos 5, and here are a few of the other words that precede that famous “climax” in the chapter:

You levy a straw tax on the poor and impose a tax on their grain.
Therefore, though you have built stone mansions, you will not live in them; 
though you have planted lush vineyards, you will not drink their wine.
For I know how many are your offenses
 and how great your sins.
There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes and deprive the poor of justice in the courts…
Seek good, not evil.
Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts.

Caring for the poor; helping the cause of the poor; seeking and providing justice.  These may not be needed all that much by those with great means.  But as for the neediest…  these matter a great deal.  And the neediest among us seems to be a growing group at the moment.

Today’s book at the Urban Engagement Book Club is Family Properties:  Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black Urban America by Beryl Satter.  This is a book about a specific injustice, the “exploitation” of black people in Chicago.   But that story has been replicated in city after city.  This may be the key quote in the book:

When a seller in the black market demands exorbitant prices and onerous sales terms relative to the terms and prices available to white citizens for comparable housing, it cannot be stated that a dollar in the hands of a black man will purchase the same thing as a dollar in the hands of a white man.

The book is really about how people with means find ways to make a lot of money – a lot of money — off of black people without the same level of means.  It is a story overflowing with racism.  But there is a warning in here for all folks.

I fear that we are in for much more of this kind of exploitation.  People with inadequate means is a growing demographic.  High school graduates (and those who did not graduate from high school – some 23-27% of all high school students) are simply unable to find work (see the news item above).  The situation is going to be increasingly dire.  And this book chronicles just how adept some folks are at making a lot of money off of the exploitation of the poor.  The poor black people were the victims in Chicago.  And such racially charged abuse is still present in far too many places.  But the plight of all types of people without adequate means is a story that I think we need to know, and give some serious thought to.

May I make a suggestion?  As we read business books, and as we think about improving our own business, and getting ahead financially – let’s not forget the needy among us.  And not just with an occasional charitable gift. Let’s give this issue some real attention.  Consider reading an occasional book that deals with such social justice issues.  (Start with the Shipler book, The Working Poor.  He is a Pulitzer Prize winning author, and this book is honest, thorough, well-written).

Could anything help our country more than for all of us to set our minds to some solutions – to help create a better set of work possibilities for those now in such need, those without that college education to rely on?

It may be that the most patriotic thing any of us can do right now is to help the under-skilled and undereducated find work.

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Marable Manning (Thinking about Race after the Death of Trayvon Martin)

I don’t think a white man can ever fully understand the backstory of something like the sad and tragic killing of Trayvon Martin.

This week, as news and conversations surrounding Martin’s death brings so much pain and horror, I am also reading the acclaimed biography Malcolm X:  A Life of Reinvention by Marable Manning.

About that backstory…  African Americans have a long history of experiencing racially motivated violence against them by white people.  They are not imagining such violence.  It is real.  And that history gives them a different perspective on the story of Trayvon Martin than any white person can grasp.

For example, I just read this stark reminder, from the Manning book on Malcolm X:

Between 1882 and 1927, Georgia’s white racists lunched more than five hundred blacks, putting the state second only to Mississippi in lynching deaths. 

Every one of these was the case of a black person lynched by white people just because he was black.

I will be presenting my synopsis of this book at the April 5 Urban Engagement Book Club (we meet at noon).  These sessions include my synopsis, and then a conversation led by Reverend Gerald Britt of CitySquare.  (Read Gerald Britt’s blog here).  Frequently, Reverend Britt brings in another community leader to assist him in leading this part of the session.

Later in April, April 19, I will present a second race-related book at the second Urban Engagement Book Club of the month (we meet twice each month):  Taking Out the Trash in Tulia, Texas by Alan Bean.  It is about a much more recent racially motivated horror story.  The author himself will lead the discussion after I present this synopsis.

I think that we all need to better understand the issues surrounding race relations, and the dangers that still exist to our society, as well as actual dangers to individuals, because of racism.  It might be worth the investment of a couple of noon hours for you to join us in these conversations.

CitySquare (formerly Central Dallas Ministries) has hosted the Urban Engagement Book Club for a few years now.  The steady, consistent exposure to books dealing with social justice and poverty themes has greatly expanded my understanding of some very real world challenges that we face in our always fragile world.

Reverend Gerald Britt leads the discussions. Rev. Britt is the Vice President of Public Policy & Community Program Development for CitySquare. He is also the author of a monthly column for the Dallas Morning News.

Come join us.  Click here for details about the book club; and click here for more information about CitySquare.

Maybe We’re Too Enamored with the New – What Can We Learn from the Old, the Enduring?

This is the text I wrote for an announcement e-mail for the next Urban Engagement Book Club, which meets on December 1, here in Dallas (at the Highland Park Methodist Church, next door to SMU).  I decided to share it here.


We are enamored with the new.  We want the new, new thing.  We want the new product, the new approach, the new company.  We want to be “hip,” “with it,” “up-to-date.”  We want to be “new” ourselves.

But sometimes the old is worth a more careful look.  In fact, any organization that truly endures is deserving of a very careful look.  What can we learn from the not-so-new – the old, the enduring?

Thus, our book selection for the December 1 Urban Engagement Book ClubHeroic Leadership: Best Practices from a 450-Year-Old Company That Changed the World by Chris Lowney.

Form the page on Amazon:
What can a 16th-century priest tell a 21st-century business executive about leadership? Plenty, believes this author, who points out that from a 10-man “company” founded by St. Ignatius Loyola in 1540, the Jesuits are now the world’s largest religious order, with 21,000 professionals. In this absorbing, lucid book, Lowney, who left a seven-year stint as a Jesuit seminarian to become a managing director at J.P. Morgan, explores how the Jesuits have successfully grappled with challenges that test great companies-forging seamless multinational teams, motivating performance, being open to change and staying adaptable. As he takes the reader on an engaging romp through slices of Jesuit history, Lowney references four Jesuit pillars of success: self-awareness (reflection), ingenuity (embracing change), love (positive attitudes toward others) and heroism (energizing ambitions).
Leaders make great companies, but few of us truly understand how to turn ourselves and others into great leaders. The Jesuits pioneered a unique formula for molding leaders. In the process, the Jesuits built one of history’s most successful companies.
To put it simply, the Urban Engagement Book Club is trying to change the conversation a little in Dallas.  We are what we think about, and we think about what we talk about.  This book will help us look past our current fixation on the new, new thing, and learn a little from a truly enduring serving organization.  It is a conversation worth having.


So, in the next two weeks, I will finish preparing three new book synopsis presentations:

For the Urban Engagement Book Club:
Heroic Leadership: Best Practices from a 450-Year-Old Company That Changed the World by Chris Lowney.

For the First Friday Book Synopsis:
Blah Blah Blah: What To Do When Words Don’t Work by Dan Roam.
Demand: Creating What People Love Before They Know They Want It by Adrian Slywotzky and Karl Weber.

If you are in the DFW area, come join us at these gatherings.  Just follow the links for details/more information.

Books on my Reading List – Tomatoland & Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock

I wish I had more hours to read.

I am behind on my fiction reading (50 years behind); my business book reading; my general nonfiction reading.  I’m just behind!

But here are two books on my reading list.  I just bought Tomatoland:  How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit by Barry Eastabrook for my Kindle app (it was “on sale” {I guess} for $2.69), and I have downloaded the free sample pages for Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock by David Margolick.

Tomatoland is all about how tomatoes are grown; how they have lost their “tomato” taste;  and, how big agribusiness conducts it business.  I’ve read just enough to be fascinated…





Elizabeth and Hazel are about the two famous people in that very memorable photograph taken at Little Rock Central High School on September 4, 1957.  Here’s the picture:







David Margolick found them both, and told the story of their encounter, and the ways their lives took shape in the years that followed. You can read about the book (including an adaptations/excerpts, both by the author of the book) in this article from Vanity Fair

Through a Lens, Darkly:  During the historic 1957 desegregation of Little Rock Central High School, 26-year-old journalist Will Counts took a photograph that gave an iconic face to the passions at the center of the civil-rights movement—two faces, actually: those of 15-year-old Elizabeth Eckford on her first day of school, and her most recognizable tormentor, Hazel Bryan. The story of how these two women struggled to reconcile and move on from the event is a remarkable journey through the last half-century of race relations in America.



And in Slate.com,

The Many Lives of Hazel Bryan:  In the most famous photo of the Civil Rights era, she was the face of white bigotry. You’ll never believe what she did with the rest of her life.

I suspect that I will present a synopsis of Elizabeth and Hazel next year at the Urban Engagement Book Club.

These are just two books on my ever-so-large “I wish I had time to read these now” list of books.


People Are Just Too Big In This Country – We’ve Got To Shrink A Little, Now, Fast (We’re living in “Generation Extra Large”)

Ok – let’s state the obvious.  We’re too big. Really – we’re too big.  Way too big.  For example, the average person riding mass transit now weighs 200 pounds – up from 164 pounds just a couple of decades ago.  We’re too big!

Or, to put it another way:  When Dandy Don Meredith was the Dallas Cowboys quarterback, the average American weighed 166 pounds.  Today, the average American weighs 196 pounds (191 in 2002.  The average mass transit passenger is heavier, 200 pounds, because the level of poverty for these riders is higher than the average population).  By the way, the average lineman in the NFL is now 48 pounds heavier since  the early 1970s – with the average offensive lineman in the 2010 season weighing in at 312 pounds.

(Read many specific figures, from the CDC, here).

Why are we so big?  Because we eat more than we need.  The more we eat, the more we weigh  (it’s not rocket science).

And this is a big, big “we’re too big” problem. We ought to at least know a little more about it, don’t you think?

So, read these excerpts from this book:  Generation Extra Large:  Rescuing our Children from the Epidemic of Obesity by Lisa Tartamella, Elaine Herscher, and Chris Woolston.  This is the selection I am presenting for today’s Urban Engagement Book Club, which matters to the folks at CitySquare (formerly Central Dallas Ministries) because obesity is exacerbated by poverty.  (CitySquare exists to fight the root causes of poverty by partnering with those in need).

Sometimes important changes have a way of sneaking up on you.  One afternoon you’re at a busy airport, and you realize that a third of the people waiting for a plane will have trouble fitting into a regular seat.

In just one school, Gina Castro (Texas school administrator) finds eight fourth graders who weigh more than 200 pounds,   “My God, we had five-year-olds who weighted 100 pounds.”  “Twenty years ago you didn’t have a lot of obese kids, and then gradually it was more and more.  Then, after a while, I could look down my blacktop with one hundred kids in line, and thirty of them were obese.  I’m not saying just a little overweight.  I mean obese.”

It is worth wondering what would have happened if Castro had found eight fourth graders in one school with leukemia.  For starters, we’d all have heard about it.  Teams of epidemiologists would have come barreling into town to study the outbreak.  Medical specialists would have begun treating the children and would have reported daily on their condition.  Reporters would be locked in combat to be the first to describe just who these nine-year-olds are, how they live, and how they are coping with their heartbreaking disease.

But no busloads of scientists or reporters are sprinting to any of these kids’ front doors.  It’s just another day in the fourth grade.

One of the most disquieting things about obesity is how quickly and accomodatingly we’ve settled into it, towing our kids along with us. In as little as twenty years we’ve eaten our way into the record books.  Americans now rank among the fattest people on earth.  Two thirds of us weigh more that we should…  The country’s issue with weight caused some 400,000 adult deaths in 2000, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and obesity is poised to overtake tobacco as the leading cause of preventable deaths, possibly as soon as 2005.

The U. S. food industry produces 3,800 calories a day for every man, woman, and child in the United States (says Marion Nestle, New York University nutritionist and author of Food Politics).  Women need approximately 2,200 calories, men approximately 2,500 calories.  Food manufacturers can’t sell all those extra calories without increasing portions and seducing people to eat more…  “There’s something about human psychology – if a lot of food is put in front of us, we eat it.

Clearly, people are responsible for what they eat, but they can’t be held accountable for keeping a level playing field between themselves and the food industry.

Did you read that figure? – 3800 calories per day.  It’s an old problem, and I am defenseless in is presence– put me in line at a buffet, and I will eat more than I need to, more than I should, more than is good for me.  And if there is a dessert bar – it’s all over.  I eat a little (ok – more  than a little) of everything.  Everything!

So – we’re too big.  We’ve got our work cut out for us.

(Personal note:  I’m really glad I lost a fair amount of weight these last couple of months before I read this book.  If I hadn’t, I would have been so depressed that I would have headed straight for the Golden Corral).