The Challenge of Competing Ideas

“Would you have sex with a person whom you knew for certain had AIDS and your only protection was a condom?” That was not a question I had expected, though I had responded to plenty of difficult questions in the preceding three hours of the meeting. For two years I had been piloting a sexuality education curriculum to prepare it for wider dissemination and replication in public schools. My visit to the rural Midwestern community on this winter evening was to meet with the curriculum committee of a local school considering adoption of the program. When I arrived at the school, I learned the meeting was to be held in a large multi-purpose room that served as both a theater and cafeteria. This seemed an odd location for a committee that was typically comprised of less than a dozen people. As I walked into the room, I realized it was not a committee meeting after all, but a community meeting and up to 200 people were expected. My mind raced to understand what this could mean.

I took a walk through the empty hallways of the school to center myself, focus my thoughts, and calm my nerves. I had not prepared for 200. I did not have nearly enough handouts. I could not understand why someone at the school had not given me advanced notice. I puzzled why so many people were expected to attend a committee meeting that even the official members probably skipped as often as possible. The knot in my stomach told me this was not going to be a good evening and that I had better remain calm and focused. I resolved to keep my comments and answers short, simple, and embellished with only a touch of gentle humor to convey friendliness. Walking back toward the meeting room I passed a large group of people huddled in the corner of the school’s main lobby, busily taking notes, and listening intently to the instructions of a man who was obviously in charge. He would be, as I would shortly learn, the first inquisitor of the evening.

A single member of the curriculum committee finally greeted me. I never did meet the other members.

By the time my host escorted me to the podium at the front the room had nearly filled to capacity. The leader of the group in the lobby was seated in the middle of the front row, surrounded by his followers, directly in front of the podium. My host briefly introduced me. I delivered a 15-minute opening presentation as requested and then invited questions.

The man from the lobby rose and asked in a booming voice, “Do you believe in moral absolutes?” and then smiled broadly, while his followers murmured their approval. I breathed deeply, remembered to smile, and said quite simply and very succinctly, “Yes.” For half an eternity, we simply looked at one other, smiling. Slowly, his face began to flush and his feet shuffled uneasily. Finally, he nervously turned to his followers for guidance, his confidence and certainty quickly dissipating. He mumbled something and hastily sat down, even as others in his group leapt to their feet and began shouting their questions at me as if to protect and defend their leader. Some of the questions were about the curriculum, some were about me, and many were philosophical and even theological. Thus, the evening began and continued for more than 3 hours until a man in the last row of chairs stood up and asked: “Would you have sex with a person whom you knew for certain had AIDS and your only protection was a condom?”

I smiled, thanked him for his question, and said, with a touch of humor to diffuse a tense situation, “I don’t think my spouse would appreciate me having sex with another person.” The man exploded in rage. He jumped up and screamed, “I asked you a question and I demand an answer! Would you have sex with a person whom you knew for certain had AIDS and your only protection was a condom?!?” All eyes flashed toward him, then shifted back toward me to see what I would do. I stood silent for a moment to quell my fear and compose myself. Finally, I calmly replied, “I’m sorry, I don’t believe that is an appropriate question.” All eyes turned back to him and throughout the room I could hear the whispered pleas from embarrassed community members for him to, “Sit down and shut up.”

Mercifully, the meeting was soon over…but the evening was not.

As the meeting was breaking up I was gathering my wits and materials. A woman strode up, stood in front me, glared into my face, and said, “I cannot believe you were ever a minister of the Gospel.” I was stunned and did not respond, so she moved closer and repeated it louder. I still did not know what to say so she came even closer and yelled it at me. I finally managed to mumble, “Thank you for your comment,” turned quickly, and started walking for the door.

Just before I reached the door, a man ran into me…hard…knocking all the materials out of my hands onto the floor. I was shocked to see he was a priest. I bent down to pick up the materials, keeping one eye on my “assailant.” To my surprise, the priest bent down and started helping me pick up the material. As we were both bent over, our heads close together in the gathering work, he whispered to me: “I really appreciate what you are doing and support it. I just wanted you to know I can’t say so publicly.” He handed me the last paper he collected, straightened up, and walked out the door.

The drive home was nearly 200 miles in the middle of the night over frozen roads, and I would finally get home at 4:00 AM. I never once feared for falling asleep as I intently watched the road ahead of me, and wondered what kind of place I had been where I would be accosted by a priest, just so he could speak to me. I nervously watched the rearview mirror for fast approaching headlights on the isolated rural highways.

It was months before I would sleep well again, even in the security of my own home.

As I drove home my mind tried to make sense of the evening. I also tried to make sense of my career move barely two years before. I had moved from a career in religious work to social services, where I was put in charge of piloting and replicating a teen pregnancy prevention program. I wondered if I had made the right move and if this kind of thing was going to be a regular part of the job. Even more, I wondered if I should stay with it. I did. Now, more than two decades later, and many similar community meetings, I am still in the field, as are numerous other veterans of the conflict over sexuality education on both, or many, sides. Since that winter evening I have wanted to more fully understand why and how we provide leadership amid such conflict.Peace and Conflict

This true story was featured in the opening pages of my doctoral dissertation, which was completed in 2013 after years of living the intractable conflict over sexuality education in public schools. It is a battle for public support and funding that still rages today, having originated in Chicago in 1913.

When I completed the study, I promised everyone who participated that I would share a summary with them. If you are interested in reading it, you can find it here and are welcome to download it free of charge.

The study focused on the intractable conflict over sexuality education in public schools. However, the “lessons learned” in the study can be applied wherever competing ideologies keep people from working together for a greater good. Have we not seen this competition in many community change coalitions, collaborations, and collective impact initiatives? Of course, it happens regularly in politics, leading to the infamous gridlock that hobbles any administration and legislature from leading and governing.

I am not offering this summary because it has all the answers. I am offering it because it may have some insights that are timely, especially for those of us who live in the United States. Indeed, it raises some important issues and questions if we are going to find a way to work together – regardless of our cause and despite our differences.

Be greater, do good, everyday.

Tom

A Father’s Day Reflection

For most people, Father’s Day is over for 2017. Mine extends into next week. I am privileged and blessed to claim several young adults as my children though I have only one biological son. Due to my work and volunteer schedule, I was not able to enjoy brunch with him yesterday as we had planned, so we are doing it next Sunday. Therefore, I still have time to post this essay, which I originally wrote about 10 years ago. I hope you enjoy it.

First, a brief bit of background on the essay.

I love oatmeal: plain (with a little salt to bring out the flavor); not so plain (with a touch of vanilla and cinnamon); exotic (with walnuts, apples, craisins, lots of cinnamon, more than a touch of vanilla, and freshly ground nutmeg). In fact, I eat the exotic oatmeal everyday for breakfast. I love oatmeal made on the stove too and I love it baked. By the way, I have an incredibly good baked oatmeal recipe. Let me know if you want it.

If I am ever invited to have oatmeal at your house, know that I have at least three oatmeal limitations, or requirements if you will:

  1. I am not a fan of microwaveable faux oatmeal. It contains too many chemicals and I worry that a universe-ending explosion will occur when “nuking” it.
  2. My oatmeal must be made using the “old fashioned” rolled oats, not the ground-to-a-pulp “quick” oats which have no substance, no taste, and no reason for existence.
  3. I will not eat oatmeal without salt. Period. The salt (which is always listed as an optional ingredient on the box) is what makes the flavor “pop.” Warning: Most restaurants and hotels with the complimentary breakfast buffets do not put salt in the oatmeal. Such an inhumane action is probably not yet worthy of a boycott or class action lawsuit but do know you will need to salt you own oatmeal.

However, it should be a criminal offense when anyone (and you know who you are!) try to pass off the faux oatmeal as “homemade” or “freshly made.”

Shortly after moving to the East Coast, I wrote of my passion for oatmeal in an essay I submitted to National Public Radio’sThis I Believe” segment that was a regular feature at that time. Now I believe they did not care much for the essay because it was kindly rejected in that soft-spoken NPR way by someone with a delightfully inimitable NPR-type name like Dharma Chung-Nunberg. Despite the heart-wrenching, soul-shattering rejection, I liked the essay and decided to publish it here anyway. (Ha! Take THAT, Dharma!)

I believe in the magic of oatmeal. My palate prefers the old-fashioned, whole grained oatmeal, but the magic of oatmeal usually transcends its form.

As a child, a steaming bowl of oatmeal, generously trimmed with farm-fresh cream and heaps of sugar, seemed to warm the kitchen of our Iowa farmhouse. On frigid February mornings the oil-burning stove at the end of the kitchen strained against the toe-numbing cold. Still, the oatmeal warmed me inside-out and the warmth seemed to mystically radiate throughout the drafty house. On those mornings of school bus windows frosted-over for the entire ride into town, I still remained warm and satisfied until the noon bell rang. At the bell, fueled by the oatmeal, I would race my best friend down the steps to the basement lunchroom of Morning Sun Elementary School.

As a young man and new father I introduced my baby boy, Jake, to oatmeal’s magic. Having wrestled him into his high chair and locked him into place, I would begin the

File0060

Tom & Jake at their introduction on Christmas Day in 1984. (Photo by doctor)

morning breakfast routine. He would strain against the unyielding high chair and vocalize his hunger. I would mix his oatmeal with just enough water of just the right temperature. As the first spoonful of the oat concoction reached his lips he would begin to emit a low “mmm” sound. He would eat and coo as I would whispered to him with each spoonful of his goodness and strength and my love for him. For the next several minutes we were connected, father and son, by the warmth and satisfaction of oatmeal. These early bonding moments have been built upon through the years as he grew and became a man and I, well, just became an older man.

Today, for the first time in my life, I live far from both the farmhouse and the son. Preparing to move from Des Moines to Washington last December I gave away nearly every food item in my kitchen…except my near new box of oatmeal. Upon arrival in DC, I unpacked it and shelved it in a cabinet where I could not miss it. The following morning it became my first meal in my new home.

Middle age demands I eat oatmeal more for its physical benefits today and, sadly, I now must trim it with skim milk and less generous portions of brown sugar. As the morning’s first spoonful triggers my taste-buds, it also triggers my memory. It takes me back to winter mornings in which I remained warm despite the bitter cold. Even more, it warms me with the memory of being a dad. It transports me back to a series of wonderful mornings when my son and I became a part of each other through the magic of oatmeal. I can close my eyes and recall the sounds, sights, smells, and smiles of those moments. When I open them I realize it is only a wonderful memory that will not happen again.

Or will it? Who knows…in the latter stages of my life I may be the one who coos as my son lovingly feeds me my oatmeal. By then, Jake, cream and sugar really should not be a factor in my longevity…so be generous, my son.

 

 

 

 

              

Naming, Knowing, & Trusting

“Here’s my promise: I will know your first and last name by the end of the week.” This didn’t sound like much of a promise really; until you consider that it was a promise I made to more than 100 youth, most of whom I was meeting for the first time.

Early in my career I was put in charge of a four-week summer youth camping program. I was barely aged out of the “youth” category myself. (Looking back at that period, I ask, “What in the world were they thinking?!?!” yet, it was a position I held for 11 summers.) Each week we would receive a new batch of campers and each week I tried very hard to get to know each of them by name. Sometimes I was successful; other times I was not. Occasionally, I’d stand before the whole group at the orientation and make that promise. Always, though, even unannounced, I would do my best to learn and remember each camper’s name so I could greet them by it…at least once by the end of the week.

There were two reasons I made this effort.

First, being known by our names feels good. Who has not known the embarrassment of being known as that “other person” or “hey, you” on occasion? Or the awkwardness of being called by another person’s name…even if it does look a lot like ours? Or the irritation of being called a different name that is a mispronunciation of our name? (You can imagine how many times THAT happens to me, especially during the holiday season, with the last name of “Klaus.”)

When I work with people, even on short assignment, I do my best to learn and remember their names – first and last – because I know how important it is. Sometimes, I even rehearse the pronunciation of their names, especially when I mess up the first time. A few years ago, I was working briefly with a woman whose first name was a lovely Spanish name that was nearly unpronounceable to me. I kept Anglicizing the name – not belligerently or uncaringly – but because I just couldn’t get my mouth and tongue to make the right Spanish vowel sounds. She became frustrated and corrected me rather directly. I came home that night, consulted with my spouse on the correct pronunciation (Spanish is her first language), and I rehearsed like crazy. The next day my effort was obvious even if my execution was still imperfect. This experience, which was a bit difficult for both the woman and me, reminded me how important it is to know a person’s name and to get it right.

Second, getting know, and correctly using, the names of people is a simple yet solid community building activity. From the moment those campers arrived, my staff and I had only six days to create a sense of community among them, which we knew would “make or break” the whole camping experience for many of them. By learning their names and being able to use them, and allowing them to know and use our names in return, we were taking the first steps in community building.

Correctly learning and using the names of people is still one of the easiest and best strategies in community building and community change. Each of us can do it and we can do it all by ourselves. The only permission we need is the permission of the person whose name we are trying to learn and use.

However, knowing a person’s name does not equate to knowing the person. This is a mistake commonly made in American culture which values fame and celebrity. Just because we know the names “Beyoncé” or “Lady Gaga” does not mean we actually know them. In community work we need to go beyond just knowing names. We need to know people and we need to be known by them. We need to get to know people as we let them get to know us. This is the beginning of trust. This is important because, as you may know already, change happens at the speed of trust.

At another point in my career I worked at University of Iowa Health Care as a fundraiser for the children’s hospital. As part of my orientation I received a packet of information that included a wallet card titled, “15 House Rules for Service Leadership.” I still have it today because I think it offers some great advice for learning people’s names, getting to know them, and building trust. See what you think:

  • Break the ice
  • Stop and help
  • Take the time
  • Keep people informed
  • Anticipate needs
  • Respond quickly
  • Respect privacy and confidentiality
  • Handle with care
  • Maintain dignity
  • Treat adults as adults and children as children
  • Listen and act
  • Help each other
  • Keep it quiet
  • Look the part
  • Respect our differences

Be greater, Do good, Everyday.

Tom Klaus

 

The Refuge of Community

What is the meaning of community for us; each of us, as individual persons? This question has been nagging at me since September when I attended Tamarack’s Community Change Institute in Toronto. It has come into sharper focus for me in the wake of the results of the U.S. Presidential election.

The institute’s theme this year was about the role of creative disruption in system change, which, of course, could also be an appropriate topic for a post-election blog. However, at the Institute, I kept running into people for whom community as refuge seemed important, even if they did not or could not name it as such. On Thursday evening of the event we went en masse to meet with a group of Syrian refugees and enjoy an evening of Syrian food, music, and dancing. It was not this experience, though it was powerful as well as enjoyable, that formed the question that has been nagging me. It was personal interactions with a couple of people at the event.

Prefer to hear and see The Refuge of Community video blog? Click on play button below.

One was a young black man from Florida, another American, who was attending his second Tamarack event. We connected early in the conference and shared a couple of meals together. As an act of remembrance, he wore a button with the picture of his friend, another young black man, who had been innocently shot and killed only a few months before. He was surprised to meet another American – especially a very white guy with roots in the Midwest – who did not hold the biases that made him feel threatened for his own life in his own country. He was finding among the Canadians a sense of community that did not judge him by the color of his skin. We became friends and together we experienced the refuge of community we had found at Tamarack and through our friendship.

The other was a young Muslim woman whose parents had emigrated from Iraq to Canada. It was not clear to me whether she had been born in Iraq, but it was clear that she was seeking community and had not yet quite found it. We also became friends at the event and had some nice conversations at breaks and between sessions. The night of the dinner and music with the Syrian refugees, I saw her and spoke with her again briefly. With a quiver in her voice and tears welling in her eyes she told me she had not known of this group that was so welcoming to Muslim people. “For the first time, I feel like I have a place,” she said. She, like the young man from Florida, was finding the refuge of community.

When I was at the Tamarack event in September many Canadians, and people from Denmark, Australia, and other countries as well, asked me what was going on with the U.S. Presidential election. I really did not have a good answer at that time. Now that it is, thankfully, over and I have had a chance to return to my musings about the refuge of community, a narrative has emerged that helps me make sense of the election. It is about the power of community and the need each person has for a community that offers a sense of refuge from the most troubling and disturbing aspects of life.

For American’s in the “fly over” states of the Midwest, this election was about finding the refuge of community after years of feeling like others had taken control of their lives and they had been left behind. I can appreciate that feeling. I am a native of Iowa in the Midwest and I have often heard – even my friends and colleagues here on the East Coast – speak with dismissive ignorance about the people in the middle part of the United States. (Does the same thing happen to people in the middle provinces of Canada, I wonder?) For example, people I know on the East Coast confuse Iowa with Ohio, even Idaho. They assume the geography of the Midwest is all the same – flat and bland – until you get to the Rocky Mountains. Even worse, they assume we Midwesterners are poorly educated, backward, and inconsequential. The 2016 U.S. Presidential election reinforced a lesson that we all should have learned a long time ago:

It is dangerous to stereotype and to allow our stereotypes make us believe others do not matter.

The U.S. Presidential election teaches us a powerful lesson about the need people have for the refuge of community. We all need to feel like we have a place in our community. Let me say that again. We ALL need to feel like we have a place in our community. This is true whether that community is a neighborhood, a city, a state, or an entire country. It is also true even when we consider micro-communities such as interest groups, sports teams, and places of worship.

Though I do not believe it is unique for our time, our world currently has many fractured communities in which some feel “in” and others feel “out.” Those who are “in” feel like the community is a refuge for them. Yet those who are “out” feel like their communities are not safe places for them. The young man from Florida has felt “out” of the U.S. community and the young woman in Toronto has felt “out” of the Canadian community. They remind me that as individuals we will be guarded and careful even as we seek the refuge of community for which we yearn. The U.S. election reminds me that when enough individuals who feel “out” of community finally come together they will disrupt the community and its systems. This is what I believe happened in the U.S. Presidential election. We experienced the disruption of people who have felt “out” of the national community coming together to re-establish it as a place of refuge for them.

The lesson of this U.S. Presidential election is a powerful one for those of us who work with communities. We must always be diligent to establish communities in which all can find and feel refuge. I know that is a very steep challenge; in fact, it may, in the end, be impossible. It looks impossible in the U.S. right now when one candidate, representing one vision of community, handily wins the Electoral College while the other candidate, with a very different vision of community, wins the popular vote by nearly three million. Nonetheless, we who work in community do so because we see a third way in which the whole community can come together to ensure a place where all can know and feel the refuge of community. Our unique gifts and abilities are needed now more than ever; and, so, our work continues.

Be greater; Do good; Everyday.

Tom Klaus

My Day at the White House

I was surprised (no, stunned) and honored with an invitation to the White House early last week for a meeting that took place at the end of the week. I was clueless why I received the invitation, especially on such short notice, so I called and asked if it was a mistake and, if not, what were they thinking? It wasn’t a mistake but the person I spoke with couldn’t tell me why I was invited (which is not exactly a confidence builder). It was all a bit mysterious but I went anyway thinking it was probably a mistake and I would either get thrown out or picked up by the Secret Service. Still, just in case, I didn’t want to miss the opportunity.

After five security stops (one online and four in person), I got into the building and I learntjust-me why I had been invited. It seems a recent research paper that Ed Saunders and I published earlier this year in Community Development, the journal of the Community Development Society, got some attention. Ed, who is the former Director of the School of Social Work at the University of Iowa, and I have been collaborators for 25 years, since 1991. Our recent research and paper on the integration of community engagement, collective impact, and sustainable community development grabbed the interest of a Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) official and that person, in turn, moved it up to the White House.

I was invited to the meeting as a way of introducing me and our work to the people in the Administration and around the country who are working on the President’s Promise Zones initiatives in 22 disadvantaged communities. (Also, my Midwestern self-deprecating roots tell me I should note that I was an easy “get” for the meeting because I live only 30 minutes away.) Because this is a 10 year initiative that is not tied to a Federal budget line, it is expected that the Promise Zones initiative will survive the change of administration later this year.

The unique, and apparently appealing, facet of our work is that it situates the social change phenomenon of collective impact within the larger framework of community development. Collective impact has been widely adopted by government, funders, and communities around the globe.

Many thanks, and kudos, to Norm Walzer, the editor of the special collective impact issue of Community Development.  I’m sure Norm is always pleased to know when people are reading the journal.

Thanks as well to Paul Born and Liz Weaver and their crew at Tamarack Institute for giving me the blogging and workshop space to vet, and vent, some of our ideas to their constituents in Canada. Tomorrow I head back to Toronto to be with them again in the Community Change Institute this coming week where I’ll be a learning lab leader and also lead a couple of workshops. It is always great fun to work with them!

Ed Saunders and I have enjoyed a long collaboration on program development, evaluation, theory development, and testing. It is gratifying to know that people are reading and finding value in our work. My work with Ed has been some of the most enjoyable and satisfying of my career.

It is even better if our hard work contributes to making the world a better place, especially for those who are disadvantaged and marginalized in our society.

It was a far more interesting and amazing day than I expected. I didn’t get thrown out or taken away by the Secret Service, but it was still an exciting day.

Be Greater. Do Good. Every day.

Tom Klaus

Listening for Crickets

Some people think of me as an expert in a few things, which is okay. It is not okay, however, that I have acted like an expert in most things…if not all things on occasion.

This awareness is part of the understanding that comes with experience and maturity (which is a nice way of saying “age”). That it took me a while to arrive at this self-understanding is a bit embarrassing yet I’m glad I did. It has dramatically changed how I try to work with individuals and groups. Even more, I think it has changed my relationship with them for better.

The problem with being an expert on anything is that we imagine it comes with a license to weigh in on everything, no matter how remotely related to our actual expertise. It is even worse when we experts become leaders. Leadership implies responsibility and now, along with our license, we feel a duty to share our expertise with everyone we can, whenever we can, wherever we can, and to the fullest extent possible. Makes us great party guests, huh?

When we experts are put in leadership of a team, a coalition, a collaboration, a backbone organization, or a collective impact initiative, it becomes especially important for us to exercise self-control.

Only when we lay aside what we think we know and lay down our leader/expert role can we hear more clearly the expertise of others and the wisdom of the collective.

Craig Ferguson & Geoff

Comedian Craig Ferguson with his Late, Late Show “side kick,” Geoff

So, this is where Craig Ferguson’s advice comes into play. In a stand-up comedy special he performed in 2011 titled Does This Need to be Said?, Ferguson offered three self-reflective questions. In one of his best lines, he also said it took him three marriages to learn them. Besides their potential for saving marriages, they are also important questions for us leader/experts to consider before sharing our wisdom. Let’s take a brief look at each of Ferguson’s questions:

Does this need to be said? Collaboration work is full of ups and downs. There will always be a temptation for us leader/experts to step in to try to solve, explain or otherwise smooth the way. In reality, the way does not always have to be smoothed. Often it is in the process of working together, through both good and bad, that challenges are met by groups with innovative solutions which produce the best outcomes.

Does this need to be said by meTruthfully…probably not. I’m learning that if I shut up, allow space for others to speak up while I simply listen, then if it needs to be said at all, others will say it. I’m learning there is often a difference between what I see as an issue and what the group sees as an issue.

Does this need to be said by me nowYou see, when I put on my leader/expert Super X-ray Glasses I can see many things that mere mortals cannot. Further, my expertise may tell me that “this is gonna be a problem and we gotta deal with it now.” When I shut up, keep my opinions to myself, and just listen, what I have learned is: a) if my analysis is correct, then others will usually see it too, name it, and the group will address it; b) my analysis may be only partially correct and the group may feel there are other issues (which my analysis may have missed or minimized) that it needs to address first; or c) if my analysis is dead wrong, the group will move to other issues which, once resolved, tend to take care of the issue I diagnosed.

A more academic presentation of Ferguson’s three questions comes from one of my favorite organizational culture authors, Edgar Schein. In his article On Dialogue, Culture, and Organizational Learning, Schein described “suspension” as a critical aspect of productive group dialogue. “Suspension” is to stop talking and listen: “to let the issue – our perceptions, our feelings, our judgments, and our impulses – rest for a while in a state of suspension to see what more will come up from ourselves and from others” (p. 33).

More pragmatically, I have to come to call this “listening for crickets.” This is the time of year for cicadas to make their presence known. I love the sound of cicadas – for this native Iowa country boy their annual symphonies are the quintessential sound of summer. Admittedly, cicadas can be quite loud and intrusive. Crickets, on the other hand, often require us to suspend our activity and to listen quietly for their “voices.” This is what we leader/experts must also do to make sure all voices can be raised, are included, and clearly heard and understood in the collaborations we lead.

Today, I am building my expertise in listening for crickets and trying to lead by that example. In doing so I hope other leader/experts will follow and, even more, that the crickets among us will speak out and be heard. After all, listening for crickets is one of the most important competencies for any collaboration leader. Let’s get better together.

Be Greater. (Listen for Crickets.) Do Good. Everyday.

Tom Klaus

A Community Thrives in Baltimore

Baltimore is a city with challenges. Trials of the police officers involved in the death of Freddie Gray in 2015 are currently ongoing. Both this year and last, in the week before Memorial Day and in an unsettling coincidence, the city recorded its 100th homicide of the year. One television station even reported the mark was reached on the same day, May 27th. To many outside of Baltimore all of this seems a little too much like the fictional Baltimore portrayed in the popular television show of a few seasons back, The Wire. Despite both the reality and perceptions of Baltimore, there is at least one place with a deep, thriving sense of community.

The concept of “community school” has been making a comeback. Community schools are “centers of the community and are open to everyone – all day, every day, evenings and weekends.” Today this is considered innovative. In the past, particularly in rural areas, the school was the center of the community. There are still some communities, where consolidation could not take hold, where it is still true.

I attended a community school…Morning Sun Community Schools, more precisely. Morning Sun, Iowa is a tiny rural community (population 836 in the 2010 census) in Southeast Iowa, only a few miles from the Mississippi River. Today, because of school consolidation that swallowed it up in the early 1990’s, it has only an elementary school. Nonetheless, that elementary school, with 145 students, is about the same size as the whole district at the time I graduated from high school. My graduating class was 24 students, which actually seemed pretty large to us at the time.

In my hometown the school was the center of community life. The school and its grounds hosted every aspect of social and cultural life in the town. It hosted scouting programs, the local Lions and Lionesses Clubs, summer Little League, Memorial Day and 4th of July celebrations, community dinners and dances, and the social event of the year: the Junior/Senior Prom. It was where we voted and received our vaccinations. It was the cultural center where band concerts, theatrical productions, and “donkey basketball” matches were staged. Okay, so maybe donkey basketball is not really a cultural event but the donkeys were pretty classy. It was the sports arena where we gathered to watch junior high and high school football, baseball, softball, basketball, and wrestling. Like today’s community schools, it was open every day of the week and it seemed like something was always happening there. Our school was the glue that held the Morning Sun community together.

In Baltimore there is another school, Wolfe Street Academy, which is doing something similar today to knit together its community within Baltimore. Wolfe Street Academy is a part of the Baltimore City Public Schools. The school’s focus on integrating academics, health and social services, youth and community development, and community engagement through community partnership causes it to stand out and bring hope to a city that too often struggles to find and hold hope. Wolfe Street Academy is a Pre-K through 5th grade school and historically has served the most recent immigrant populations. Today over 80% of its students speak a language other than English at home. Ninety-six percent of its students are from low-income households. As a community school, Wolfe Street Academy is a place which ensures students succeed academically, socially, and emotionally through a set of partnerships between the school and other community resources.

Wolfe Street Academy is a success story of deep community, collective impact, collaboration, and hope that needs to be told.

Fortunately, the people at Washington, DC’s public television station, WETA, thought so too. WETA has produced How a Community School Helps English Language Learners (ELLs) Succeed, a 13-minute feature on its ¡Colorín colorado! website about the Wolfe Street Academy.  ¡Colorín colorado! is a bilingual site for educators and families of English language learners.

In the spirit of transparency, I have to admit some bias about the work being done at Wolfe Street Academy. I have been there a couple of times in the past to help my spouse, Clemencia Vargas, with her students and I have been amazed and moved by what I have seen. Clemencia’s students, though, are the dental students from the University of Maryland School of Dentistry who provide oral health screening to Wolfe Street Academy. My role is typically to take pictures and otherwise stay out of the way. I see enough, though, to know this is a special place for many children and their families. It is truly a community school.

By the way, you will see Clemencia in a couple of fleeting scenes in the WETA video but you can see a longer interview with her about the dental screening program at Wolfe Street Academy and partnership with the UM School of Dentistry. When you view this video on the YouTube website you will see the interview continues with her in 11 segments total. In the additional segments she discusses the partnership with the school, the connection between good oral health and school success, and tells the story of one child whose life was changed as a result of the screening program.

The story of Wolfe Street Academy reminds us that community is defined by more than geography. Community is a place, a spirit, and a home where caring kindness wins out over rightness. May we all be so lucky to find such community in our lives and, then, welcome others into it.

Be Greater. Do Good. Every Day.

Tom Klaus