February 16, 2012

Inner Visions and the Power of One

Do you ever feel overwhelmed with the bigness of the problems that you are trying to address and wonder what difference you can possibly make?  I do. Often. That's why I find so much inspiration in people who find a way to make a difference, one step at a time, in the most surprising ways.  And I'm inspired now. 

Imagine that you are living in a city that was just awarded the dubious honor of "Poorest City in the United States" and you are just one person, volunteering with a transitional housing program and tutoring a young boy from one of those neighborhoods that always show up on lists that include words like "poor" or the more politically correct "challenged" in their title.  What more than you are doing could you do?

I talked with a woman who was in exactly that position this morning.  I first met Jan Thrope last winter when Grassroots Grantmakers organized a special training for delegations from Cleveland and Denver in Lawrence, MA with Lawrence Community Works.  I saw Jan again this fall in Atlanta as Grassroots Grantmakers' most recent On the Ground learning gathering.  But this morning was the first time that we really talked.  I contacted Jan because I had heard about the Good News Tours that she is now doing and was curious.  As Jan shared her story, I quickly went from curious to inspired.

Jan talked about the discouragement she felt when Cleveland was named Poorest City a few years ago and the new determination she felt to be part of something that made a difference.  She isn't a native of Cleveland but has lived there long enough to have deep roots and the ability to see a different side of Cleveland than that distinction suggested.  A man who spoke at a poverty summit that she was attending brought the conversation about big plans and big programs back to the ground for her - saying that what he really needed most was some underwear.  Who in that room was thinking about real people like him, in very real situations like his? 

Jan had that in mind as she was working with the young boy she was tutoring, and began to listen to this young boy in new ways - hearing what he thought about his neighborhood and then taking pictures of what places he described.  She also heard dreams in what he was telling her - not just despair.  These conversations and these photos resulted in an amazing book - Inner Visions: Grassroots Stories of Truth and Hope - on sale now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble and, hopefully, your local bookseller, with all profits going to support community work in Cleveland.

So that's Chapter 1 - and Chapters 2 and 3 get even better.  Jan has now established Inner Visions of Cleveland, an organization that is dedicated to transforming Cleveland and East Cleveland neighborhoods into thriving communities by supporting community improvement projects that are initiated and led by residents. Jan describes Inner Visions as a non-profit but then goes on to say that she was intentional about not seeking non-profit status for the organization, saying that the red-tape in obtaining that status and the responsibilities that go along with having the status felt more like a barrier to doing what she had in mind.  She wondered if there was another way, and is indeed finding that way. Working with a commitment to using all donations and proceeds from books sales to fund community projects, and a belief that "small bucks can bring about big change when neighbors work towards shared goals and contribute their talents to projects", Jan is focused on getting things done by creating connections between people who are on journeys from pain to passion to purpose - a journey she says all people share, regardless of their economic situations. 

As one way to do this, Jan has been experimenting with Good News Tours - relationship-building excursions that are designed to challenge the perception that poor neighborhoods are devoid of hope and possibilities and plant relationship seeds that can grow into purpose-driven connections.  This weekend she will taking 15 people - including an 11 year boy who wants to get other kids excited about giving back to their community, people of wealth who are open to a new way of giving, and people from a church in a neighborhood they will be visiting - on a Good News Tour.  And good news is abundant on this tour, with these stops along the way:
  • Breakfast prepared by a woman who offers healthy cooking classes for community residents, using organic, locally grown food;
  • A visit with a powerful woman who has been at the forefront of responding to the foreclosure crisis in Cleveland and is now working on creative ideas to put vacant houses back to good use for community purposes;
  • Another woman who is establishing a new business, making organic beauty products;
  • A visit with an entrepreneur who has a green dry cleaning business (and teaches a class on entrepreneurship to neighborhood youth) and dreams of using the heat generated from the dryers to warm a greenhouse that can house a new youth-led business, growing and selling produce and flowers;
  • A visit with a printer and bookmaker who is creating journals of hand-made paper produced from the fibers from military uniforms for returning veterans to use to share their stories.
So think about it.  Imagine the connections that are about to happen, the stereotypes that are about to be challenged, the possibilities that are about to turn into realities.  Now imagine what would be lost if this all had to happen within non-profit organizations on both the giving and receiving side of the equations.  And think about  - and be inspired by - the power of one.  Kudos to you, Jan!

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