Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Thanks Don!

The year 2010 is going to be a year of changes, as of course is every year.

But for me, this year is going to be significantly different and I suspect it will be so for Dallas. Hold on minute. This is neither preacher hyperbole nor an over inflated sense of my importance. But I am serious.

This year, the Foundation for Community Empowerment, a non-profit organization founded by Trammell Crowe Corporation's chairman, J. MacDonald Williams, is changing its mission slightly. Call it a narrowing of focus. FCE had been a resource for other non-profit organizations in South and Southern Dallas, helping them build their capacity; providing leadership training, research, grants, loans, political access and intellectual capital and a focus on the southern sector of the city that will be missed beyond our ability to measure immediately.

To top all of it off, I consider Don Williams a friend. He has celebrated significant family events with me; encouraged my work as pastor; supported my change in roles from church leader to my work with Central Dallas Ministries, he even spoke at my son's funeral.

FCE's down sizing has little, if anything at all, to do with the economy. Don is going to take some time to do a few other things of interest to him. Not totally going away, but certainly take what friends of mine call some serious 'me' time. My first inclination is to say 'Good for him!'.

I first met Don almost 20 years ago, when he committed to help Dallas Area Interfaith, at that time a fledgling community organizing concern affiliated with the Industrial Areas Foundation help get a living wage employment strategy called, "WorkPaths' off the ground (I confess, I co-opted the name for CDM's job training program). Don worked with the organization to identify 600 jobs for which we could provide training for members of our congregations and communities. He also identified other business leaders with whom we could consult and council. He lined up serious 'heavy hitters', like Bill Solomon of Austin Industries and Roger Enrico of Pepsico, who worked with us through the design and implementation of the entire program. Eventually, we identified about 200 jobs before the program was absorbed into what now is Worksource of Dallas County. But those were two hundred jobs, primarily in the health care industry that provided living wages (at that time $9-$10 an hour), with benefits and a career track. Some jobs paid much more than that.

I can't say beyond a shadow of a doubt that this involvement changed Don's life, but it certainly didn't cause him to lose his taste for engagement with low income and poor communities. I got to know Don Williams beyond DAI and when we both were invited to participate in a study group for leaders across Dallas, organized by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. It was a group which included clergy, academics, business leaders, politicians, public officials from virtually every sector of the city. We studied classic literature, historic speeches and other documents in order to determine what kind of civic life we wanted for all of Dallas.

Somewhere along the line, the idea was introduced about what to do with the 'second half' of one's life; what does one do after career goals have been met, money had been made and prestige and acclaim had been achieved? If the first half of one's life is devoted to success, what does it mean to devote the second half to significance? Over an extended period of time, I watched the group's numbers dwindle but three men I watched as they obviously allowed those questions to challenge them - and, to some degree, I believe, change them. Bob Buford, cable television executive, who eventually wrote the book 'Half-Time'; John Castle, a senior vice-president with Electronic Data Systems (EDS) and Don Williams. All three men have had similar commitments to helping change the lives of people, and all in line with a serious faith commitment. But as time went on, I had the chance to work most closely with Don.

Don walked the streets of South Dallas. He got to know people in the community, the leaders, small business owners, principals and teachers. He got to know pastors, executive directors of small community non-profits and neighborhood association leaders. He asked questions and he listened. And he asked more questions. And he listened more. And then he hired people to help him ask even more questions and to listen more.

He not only asked questions of people who lived and worked in the neighborhoods of South Dallas. Don Williams leveraged his status to go to city hall and state government, to business leaders and large foundations and ask hard questions of them, based on what he heard in some of the poorest neighborhoods of South Dallas. He made them uncomfortable. He challenged them to come and see, and meet people about whom they theorized.

Eventually Don Williams organized the Foundation for Community Empowerment. He started out connecting non-profit and community leaders to the business leaders and politicians to whom they either had either little to no meaningful access or from whom they got little serious results. Don didn't just make phone calls, he stood with them in many cases. Not as a patron, but as a partner. Don gave them public recognition through FCE. He took them to other cities to see how their dreams and aspirations were being realized in other cities. And then worked with them to achieve similar results here in Dallas.

Eventually FCE took on a more corporate model, but it had the same goal. Don didn't abandon what he knew, he simply used it as a template to help bring bring effectiveness and credibility to the organizations with whom he worked. Just a few of the initiatives spear headed by FCE under Don's leadership:

Dallas Achieves, a strategy for increasing effectiveness in urban schools

The J. MacDonald Williams Institute a research arm of FCE which utilized empirical data to inform the work of FCE and the South Dallas community, 'proving up' with data the anecdotal claims of the residents in the areas of housing, health, civic culture, economic development and political engagement

Frazier Redevelopment Initiative a community redevelopment arm for an area of South Dallas near Fair Park (an area of Dallas whose demographics were worse than New Orleans' lower ninth ward, pre-Katrina).

The Southern Sector Economic Development Agenda, which brought together three dozen stake holders to develop a consensus on economic development for the South Dallas/Park area

Don's not perfect. And I never believe in absolute pure motives - as a preacher I admire once said, 'We've got too much dust mixed in with what little Divinity we might have in us'.

Don approaches work in the community with a business leader's mentality and expects things to get done. That can be good and bad. And there have been some, both at City Hall and in the community that have felt the pressure that came from his unrealized expectations. Don and I have not always agreed. I'm not a huge fan of the Dallas Achieves initiative, for instance. But that has never stopped us from working together. And it has never stopped him from seeking my advice or counsel when he has had an idea, or was engaged in something meaningful. As far as 'pressure'? Don's been far more patient in many instances than I have been!
I don't know how long Don's sabbatical is going last. But for however long it lasts, we are going to miss his up front engagement. I don't know how many times over the years, when someone wanted to get something done, that I've been asked, 'Do you think you could get me a meeting with Don Williams?' 'Do you think this is something Don Williams could get behind?' 'Do you think Don Williams will support this?'
Don Williams' investment of time, talent and treasure in South Dallas redevelopment has been substantial...very, very, substantial. But we don't know what it cost him otherwise. I know early on, Black community leaders questioned his sincerity, white business leaders questioned his sanity. None of that deterred him and I am hard pressed to find words to express my gratitude for how he has inspired me through his example. In my opinion, far too few of us have ever adequately expressed thanks for his work and sacrifice.

There is a short list of men and women, outside of Dallas' minority community whose leadership and dedication I hardly ever question. Ernesto Cortez, Jr., Southwest Region Director of the Industrial Areas Foundation is one; Larry James, CDM CEO and President is another (I've told him that long before I came to CDM) and Don Williams is another.

Don's taking some much deserved time off. I know I'll miss him. Dallas will too - the thing is, they just don't know how much!
Of course, while Don Williams is away, there is plenty of room for more well to do African-American men and women to step up to the plate and work shoulder to shoulder with these same leaders in the same way.
There's plenty of work to be done still!


Chris said...

Is the Industrial Areas Foundation the same one founded by Saul, Rules for Radicals, Alinsky?

Gerald Britt said...

The one and the same Chris...