Poverty, John Lennon, and why Community?

As a “community development professional “, I am running into some interesting situations.  I will spend some time trying to understand them.  Today’s post will be a survey of general ideas, and will hopefully lead to some more depth over time.  Lykins Neighborhood

My motivation is twofold: I am building a career in micro-enterprise development and entrepreneurship, and I live in this community with my wife and three children.  When asked “what I do”, I have been responding recently by saying that I would like to have a better neighborhood for my kids to grow and play in.  This makes my motivation happily and un-apologetically self interested.  It is personal.  This has also brought more questions and other general confusion.

More fundamentally, why community?  What’s the big deal?

In response, I quote Malcolm Webber quoting a Zulu proverb: “A person is not a person without other people”.  

The general consensus is that most of our communities are unhealthy.  This is not surprising.  We are living through massive social, technological, and economic shifts.  At the very least, a healthy community should include men and women who can provide for themselves and their families without starvation or assuming large amounts of debt.  When you logically follow this assumption into the future, you will arrive at the definition of sustainability offered by the Brundtland Commission of the United Nations: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”  I am pretty sure that many or most of our communities are not living up to this definition.

Beyond food and shelter, there is an assumption that community means relationships.   I particularly like the picture of community painted by The Beatles in Penny Lane. 

Some of us may not even be aware of whether our community is unhealthy.  How do we recognize when we are living in an unhealthy community?  For many of us, we have no comparison.  All communities are unhealthy a little.  Having a healthy family to compare with is now the exception and not the rule.  More marriages end in divorce than those that endure until “death do us part”.  Well…”Its not my job to fix everybody”, we might say.  I will work on my own romance, my own family, and forget about the neighborhood.  To quote Jerry Garcia, “I may be going to hell in a bucket, but at least I am enjoying the ride”.  To each his own.  Live and let live.  This is the rugged American individualism rearing its head.  We will spend some time looking at that.

And then we might actually try to work on our own relationships.  For myself, I have found that I am pretty dysfunctional.  For a while there I wasn’t sure I was capable of participating in any healthy relationship.  I found myself wondering how on earth I ever expect anyone to get it right when I can’t even go through a single conversation without insulting someone or veering wildly off into false hopes and expectations.  The ideal becomes the enemy of the real.  To quote Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “He who loves community destroys community.  He who loves the brothers builds community”.   I do love community.  It is the people that I am not very fond of.  

I might be content to simply work on one or two important relationships, and let the rest figure it out on their own.  But this doesn’t last.  I have neighbors that I see regularly that I would like to have over for BBQ.  I would like to have a few friends around, wing-men for those hot Missourah nights.  To quote Malcolm Webber again, “If Jesus and Paul both needed friends, who am I that I don’t?”

Beyond friendship, we seem to recognize that, as a society, we need each other.  Here I have to quote in direct contrast to the American Individualism mentioned earlier.  Eastern traditions, as well as African ones, will clearly and strongly support our mutual responsibilities to each other.  

The African worldview is about living as one family, belonging to God”.  The Malawi philosophy of uMunthu states: “we say ‘I am because we are’, or in Chichewa kali kokha nkanyama, tili awiri ntiwanthu (when you are on your own you are as good as an animal of the wild; when there are two of you, you form a community).

So we are all working to understand these things.  At a very direct level, this is the question for the adults around me…those of us in our 20s, 30s, and 40s.  We are now running the world.  We are the grown ups in the room.  We will soon or have already inherited many of the institutions and the responsibility for educating the youth.  What are we doing about the challenges in our own communities?

To be honest, myself (and many others I am sure) will respond basically, “hit the cruise control and just let it ride, baby.  I vote, I pay my taxes, I try to raise healthy and respectful children.  What more do you need?”

For others, there is a recognition that the community is lacking something.  There are abandoned homes, crime, youth adrift,  dysfunctional systems, etc etc ad nauseum.  What is a healthy community, exactly?  And how does one build a healthy community when our systems of finance, government and development are so ineffective? (corrupt?)  I am sure if each one of us could travel right now into the barrios of central Mexico, we would thank our Lord in heaven for the communities we are living in.  So everything is good in the hood, right?

Wrong.  As Matthew Watts says very convincingly, the young people will tear down the house faster than we can put it back together again.  I would love to hear someone defend the state of our youth, and will willingly read all reports statistics, and otherwise that show that our young people are becoming more educated, well adjusted, respectful, and constructive with their lives.  Please, someone help me.  The news is just too depressing these days.

I will continue to post on several of the larger themes.  First, it seems that to truly understand a fundamental shift towards healthy community, we should try to understand the roots of the problem.  This is in keeping with Albert Einstein’s classic adage: “If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”

Second, we should try to recognize and identify how I avoid being a part of the problem.  I have unwittingly brought unhealthy expectations to my community, and so I may spend some time understanding how this happened.  This is in keeping with Gandhi’s classic adage: “be the change you want to see in the world.”

Third might be: where do we look for right knowledge and an example of healthy community?  We need clear and helpful learning for our communities.  I am working at this moment on the 2nd annual Community Capital Fund workshop to be hosted at the Kauffman Foundation Conference Center.  If you have helpful suggestions or know where to look, please let me know how others have done it.  

postscript: My great great great grandfather founded an intentional community based on Biblical values in 1920 in his native Germany.  The Bruderhof communities are still living today with over 2,000 members on three continents.

Can Business Be Evil?

Mr. Siekaczek (pronounced SEE-kah-chek) says that from 2002 to 2006 he oversaw an annual bribery budget of about $40 million to $50 million at Siemens. Company managers and sales staff used the slush fund to cozy up to corrupt government officials worldwide.

“We thought we had to do it,” Mr. Siekaczek said. “Otherwise, we’d ruin the company.”

Indeed, he considers his personal probity a point of honor. He describes himself as “the man in the middle,” “the banker” or, with tongue in cheek, “the master of disaster.” But, he said, he never set up a bribe. Nor did he directly hand over money to a corrupt official.

“Bribery was Siemens’s business model,” said Uwe Dolata, the spokesman for the association of federal criminal investigators in Germany. “Siemens had institutionalized corruption.”

The payments, he says, were vital to maintaining the competitiveness of Siemens overseas, particularly in his subsidiary, which sold telecommunications equipment. “It was about keeping the business unit alive and not jeopardizing thousands of jobs overnight,” he said in an interview.[1]

I am in a respected MBA program at a respected university. When the instructor told us about this scandal, which is perhaps the largest corruption scandal in modern history, the class reached an unsettling conclusion; “was it really so wrong?”. As we went around the classroom the students one by one asked the question, “it was just contracts for business. Someone has to do the work. And it wasn’t Siemens fault, they were just playing along with cultural norms for business in those countries. Who really suffered as a result of this scandal? Other contractors? Well thats just business. I’m sure they got along just fine.”

You might have said of this scandal, which involved billions of dollars in illegal money, that “you can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs”. Or, “money makes the world go round.” Or, according to one source, “People will only say about Siemens that they were unlucky and that they broke the 11th Commandment,” he said. “The 11th Commandment is: ‘Don’t get caught.”

The assignment is really very simple. We are asked to focus our mind and energy on one simple question; “what was the problem here, and why?” Our class put their efforts into it, and failed to come up with a strong conclusion. One sad but predictable result is the now popular cliche, “who decides what is “right” anyway?”. And, “just because it is illegal doesn’t make it wrong.” After all, people make the laws, and people can be wrong.

And so I will posit my thesis: ethics is not an abstract discussion of right and wrong, with no objective conclusion. It is a matter of life and death, future hope or future despair, both for people far away and for people here in the developed western world. And death is very objective. No shades of gray there.

Shocking? Maybe a little extreme? Sure. But we have quit being shocked by mass starvation and economic scarcity. How about this quote from Paul Collier:

This problem matters, and not just to the billion people who are living and dying in fourteenth century conditions. It matters to us. The twenty-first century world of material comfort, global travel, and economic interdependence will become increasingly vulnerable to these large islands of chaos. And it matters now. As the bottom billion diverges from an increasingly sophisticated world economy, integration will become harder, not easier.

What of the governments of the countries at the bottom? The prevailing conditions bring out extremes. Leaders are sometimes psychopaths who have shot their way to power, sometimes crooks who have bought it, and sometimes brave people who, against the odds, are trying to build a better future.

For our future world to be livable, the heroes must win their struggle. But the villains have the guns and the money, and to date they have usually prevailed.

This book is about four traps that have received less attention: the conflict trap, the natural resources trap, the trap of being landlocked with bad neighbors, and the trap of bad governance in a small country. [2]

The first three are outside of the scope of this essay, but the fourth falls squarely in our assignment: bad governance is the problem. But wait, I can sense that maybe you are questioning the logic of this quote. How can corruption far away lead to an unlivable future in the good ole U.S. of A? Paul Collier, CBE is a Professor of Economics, Director for the Centre for the Study of African Economies at The University of Oxford and Fellow of St Antony’s College. From 1998 – 2003 he was the director of the Development Research Group of the World Bank. [3] His work was only published after years of exhaustive research into why countries fail. Read his work, and you will see why bad governance in a small part of the world can lead to a failed state in another part of the world. The only response to this kind of trend is the hard line: full public transparency of finances, and ruthless truth in reporting.

The IMF agrees that corruption has a negative consequence: “There is no doubt that corruption can have a major negative impact on economic performance. Corruption can reduce investment and economic growth. It diverts public resources to private gains, and away from needed public spending on education and health. It tends to compress operation and maintenance expenditures, while boosting beyond levels that are socially desirable public investment and defense spending, both highly amenable to corruption. Finally, by reducing tax revenue, corruption can complicate macroeconomic management, and since it tends to do so in a regressive way, it can accentuate income inequality.” [4]

The academic nature of ethics can be really boring and inaccessible.  This is why I appreciate Collier’s willingness to use terms like heroes and villains.   Business and government play a functional role in the world, but the real struggle is in the motives, in the hearts and minds of the people.  Should we ignore moral and ethical concerns?  Should we let the teeming masses of unscrupulous politicians and businessmen make decisions about right and wrong, public and private, life or death?  The results of this moral laziness could very easily affect your grandchildren and make their world unlivable.  There is hope, however.  My professor for this class pointed me towards the work of Michael Sandel, who is helping us understand the consequences of our actions.  I have also been reporting on the intersection of ethics, Triple Bottom Line, and business in my work with B Corporations.  The fuzzy thinking and laziness that got us into the financial crisis in the first place can easily impact our future world.

In conclusion, the problem with the Siemens scandal is that so many otherwise intelligent, educated people, both at the Siemens Company and passive bystanders, can fail to see what is wrong. The inability to see why this is wrong is the story of our modern moral quicksand.

“FRONTLINE/WORLD: The Business of Bribes: At Siemens, Bribery Was Just a Line Item | PBS.” PBS: Public Broadcasting Service. Web. 03 Feb. 2012. <>.
Collier, Paul. The Bottom Billion. New York: Oxford UP, 2007. 2007. Web. 03 Feb. 2012.
“Paul Collier.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 03 Feb. 2012. <>.
“The IMF’s Approach to Promoting Good Governance and Combating Corruption — A Guide.” IMF — International Monetary Fund Home Page. International Monetary Fund, 20 June 2005. Web. 03 Feb. 2012. <>.

Urban homesteaders plant seeds of change in KC

The Kansas City Star

Jason and Candy Fields’ backyard in the Lykins neighborhood — one of the most blighted areas in Kansas City — is a patchwork quilt of urban farming ventures.

There are a vegetable garden fertilized with nutrient-rich fish waste and a lush swath of bamboo stalks waiting to be dried and used to stake tomato plants or to build a tree house or a lightweight bicycle.

Towering sunflowers wear paper grocery sacks draped over their heads, an effort to keep the birds away so the mature seeds can be roasted, then eaten as a snack. There’s a playhouse-turned-chicken coop for heritage breed hens.

On the driveway, tilapia swim in an aquaponics system fashioned from recycled, food-grade plastic drums that takes up as much space as an average living room. Fragrant basil grows in rock beds above the drums, cleaning the water for the fish while the nutrient-rich fish waste fertilizes the basil, all without the use of soil.

Nearby, duckweed grows in kiddie wading pools. The inexpensive, high-protein, easy-to-grow food for fish resembles green pond scum. A biodigester constructed from more plastic drums converts 800 pounds of restaurant and household food scraps into methane that could heat a greenhouse.

Word of these innovative, low-tech farming experiments has traveled rapidly through local food circles. One steamy weekend in late June, almost 300 people milled around the “Myrtle Plot” at the corner of 12th and Myrtle streets. The plot was a featured stop on the Urban Farms and Garden Tour sponsored by Cultivate Kansas City, a nonprofit that helps people learn how to grow food in urban settings.

Much of that grassroots popularity is a result of social media. Using his iPhone, Jason Fields routinely posts cleverly produced how-to or slice-of-life videos to More than 8,000 people “like” the website and Facebook page, and their “Farmin’ in the Hood” video has gotten 47,000 views on YouTube since its debut last spring.

The idealistic newlyweds decided to ditch their comfortable suburban lifestyle, if not their sense of humor, in 2008. Only half-joking, they recall how they worried that the drug-dealing squatter came with the foreclosed property they bought for $21,000.

After investing another $40,000 and four months of hard labor, they have turned the burned-out, graffiti-clad shell of a house into a home for their young and growing family, which includes Candy’s 17-year-old daughter, Raven, and the couple’s two sons, Titus, 2  1/2 , and Asher, 1.

The remodeled 1890s Victorian sits on a half-acre of land bordered by a white picket fence. Across the street, the abandoned lot is overgrown with weeds several feet tall, and the blasted bark on the trunk of a tree that shades the home is a result of a stray bullet shot from a car speeding through the neighborhood in the dark of night.

“It’s not a good investment,” Jason Fields says of their move to Lykins, “but it’s not necessarily a bad one, if this is where you want to live.”

Urban homesteaders

More than 20 suburban families have moved into Lykins, a pie-shaped piece of land that runs through the northeastern edge of 64127, a ZIP code synonymous with urban blight and sky-high crime rates. The 5,610 Lykins residents live between Independence Avenue and Truman Road, Benton Boulevard to Hardesty Avenue. Half the residents are Hispanic, according to 2010 Census data.

These urban homesteaders are mostly white 20- to 40-somethings. Most also are members of the Rock, a nondenominational Christian church founded in 1999 with loosely affiliated networks of house churches in Kansas, Missouri, Montana, Wyoming, Texas, Ohio, Michigan and North Carolina.

The Rock’s mission is to “plant” house churches throughout the inner city so members can live in and work with the communities they are trying to serve. On the face of it, their tactics for revitalizing a racially mixed, economically depressed neighborhood are simple: walk the neighborhood streets, make eye contact and open your heart.

“The biggest problem in this neighborhood is fear,” Jason Fields says. “There’s a spirit of hope and community when you decide not to hide from this and own it. … Something happens when you’re in something together. You meet people you wouldn’t have met otherwise, and it turns into really deep friendships.”

So far, those friendships mostly have been with other church members, but a new community garden is turning out to be fertile ground for getting to know neighbors.

Most Rock members have bought homes in a five-block area. The church has bought buildings once owned by the Catholic diocese, including a handsome red brick church built in the 1920s and a convent that has been remodeled into a home for the Rock’s 32-year-old lead pastor, Ryan Kubicina, and his family.

Since the congregation members prefer to gather in homes to worship, the church structure at 934 Norton Ave. is a convenient neighborhood gathering place for everything from art classes to association meetings.

Rock Solid Urban Impact, a charitable nonprofit headed by the Rock founder Tim Johns that focuses on the needs of urban youth, owns the dilapidated school built next door to the church in the 1950s. The school’s restored gym is a venue for youth wrestling matches, and there are plans to renovate the other rooms to serve as a community center and possibly a coffeehouse or farmers market.

Next to the school, the nonprofit bought 13 vacant lots. The heavily wooded property had become a hang-out for drug dealers and prostitutes. But earlier this spring, community members worked together to remove trash, trees and other debris to open up space for 12-by-4-foot raised garden plots.

Jason Fields went door-to-door asking timid residents — some who spoke Spanish and others who hadn’t had the courage to answer the door to a stranger in years — if they were interested in taking care of a free plot. A few families agreed to join in.

“Our hope is that this model becomes way bigger than the church,” he says.

The Urban Farming Guys

Candy Fields stands inside a hoop house made of arched PVC pipes and plywood covered with plastic sheeting that intensifies the sun’s rays. Within minutes she is drenched with sweat, but her voice remains cheerful as Jason points his iPhone, which is rigged with a single-reflex lens, to shoot a video.

“Candy, what are we doing here today?” he coaches.

“We are harvesting sweet basil. You find it in every Italian dish,” she says, pointing to the herbs that grow from rock beds above the fish farm. “This is sweet basil. The lemon basil is around the corner. And this basil has a licorice flavor … you can use them on … peaches …?

“Awww, start over!” she says, giggling at her flub. “I’m just going to say it tastes like licorice because I haven’t used it before.”

When the basil clip wraps, Jason and Candy catch a half dozen of the 1,000 tilapia. Jason Fields and Stan Butler, a friend and now neighbor, started exploring sustainable technologies four years ago and formed Urban Farming Guys last spring. They ventured into urban fish farming almost by accident.

“I was just looking for other methods of providing for each other,” says Butler, a rock band dropout who works as a computer software developer. “At first we had no plans. We just wanted to see what the fish would do.”

The fish grow to market value in eight to 10 months. For now, they are harvested for personal use, but Fields and Butler would like to scale up to 10,000 fish and sell them live to local Asian food markets. The pair figure selling live fish is a creative way to skirt the expense of a processing plant.

Jason F
ields’ only previous agriculture-related experience was as the owner of a successful lawn-care business that he recently sold. Butler recently moved his family into Lykins and agrees most of what he and Fields know about urban farming has been gleaned from information on the Internet.

Like a couple of self-styled MacGyvers, they often adapt the tools needed to fit their limited budgets. For instance, one 10-minute video offers step-by-step instructions on how to fit a vortex filter into a 55-gallon, food-grade plastic drum to clean the fish waste from the tank water. A vortex filter retails for about $4,000. The guys’ do-it-yourself version? About $100.

“Guys were doing this sort of stuff back in the ’80s when there were still rotary phones,” Butler says, “but it wasn’t as easy to share information until the advent of social media.”

Youth movement

At 9 a.m. and 9 p.m., Zoe the goat is ready for milking.

In a backyard a block east of the Fieldses’ home, the two oldest Kubicina children, Caleb, 10, and Elizabeth, 8, coax Zoe to her homemade milking stand.

As Zoe nibbles contently on Purina Goat Chow, Caleb guides her neck into a PVC pipe stanchion to steady her head, while Elizabeth deftly fastens Velcro straps around her back legs to prevent kicking. Elizabeth gives the udder a swipe of iodine for cleanliness, and soon her small hands are extracting a steady stream of milk that hits the stainless steel pan with a tinny ring.

Kortni Kubicina chose the Nigerian dwarf breed because the milk is sweeter and contains more fat, which makes it an especially good choice for cheese and ice cream. Since she is feeding young children, Kubicina lightly pasteurizes the milk to 140 degrees.

“I actually think the kids drink way more milk than they used to,” she says.

Kubicina never imagined herself living in Lykins. She wanted to be a career woman, and she wasn’t so sure about adding kids to the mix. Now she lives in a converted convent, raises goats and home-schools her five children, ages 2 to 10. The “Kubis,” as the family is affectionately known, were the first family to give Lykins a go.

“It was hard to be the first one,” Kubicina recalls. “But once we were here, I had a surprising amount of peace. Nothing is as scary as it seems. We love it. This is our home.”

Flashback to 2002, when the couple arrived with 3-month-old Caleb, and Lykins was “still a war zone.” Back then, single guys came to live in Lykins. But with the 2008 real estate crash, young families started to make the leap of faith: “We have a lot of young families on a pretty tight budget who were put in proximity to walk out a vision,” Ryan Kubicina says.

Rock members have tried to be sensitive to existing community dynamics, aware that the influx of outsiders might be viewed with suspicion. To reassure their neighbors, Rock community members helped to vote a long-time resident in as president of the neighborhood association, taking lesser positions for themselves. And Rock Solid Urban Impact encourages a range of partnerships that will reach beyond the church.

When they’re not donating their time to work on urban farm projects, Rock members earn money in a variety of jobs, such as computer programmers, architects and schoolteachers. They do not tithe, and services do not include an offeratory, which might interrupt the flow. Instead there’s a box at the back of the church for donations. There’s also a “Change the World” button on, and Jason Fields’ next goal is to begin applying for grants to help create paying urban agriculture jobs for neighborhood youth.

They were recently awarded 20 fruit trees through a grant sponsored by the Missouri Department of Agriculture, and they’re currently soliciting online votes for a crowd-sourced grant from for $50,000.

“A lot of kids join gangs because nobody showed them how to make money. We’ve done a lot with nothing,” he says. “A couple of shots in the arm, and we’re off and running with the farm.”

Moving day

On moving day, Dan and Jamie Gidman are surrounded by an army of Rock members who quickly unload the moving truck and spirit their belongings to the correct rooms.

Between moving van drop-offs, Jason Fields takes a call for help from Kyle Van Kirk. He needs to unload some drywall. The army heads down the street. Twenty minutes later they have lifted 24 sheets of drywall through the second-story sliding glass door of a home he bought for $12,000.

“We’re like the Amish raising barns,” Jason Fields says. “If you get enough people together, you can really knock it out.”

Van Kirk is 21 and unmarried. He’s rehabbing his first house with his dad, Bill Van Kirk, a Rock member who lives and runs a business in Olathe. Kyle has never rehabbed a house, so he winds up spending a lot of time standing around watching others show him construction basics.

Meanwhile, the Gidmans lucked into a lovingly restored $94,000 turn-of-the-century two-story with a charming built-in buffet, lovely high-gloss wood floors and a distinctive cobalt ceramic tile fireplace.

Their four-bedroom house is bigger than they need for now, but Jamie Gidman is eager to become a stay-at-home mom. Whittier Elementary is across the street from the Gidman house, but she intends to home-school. Most families say they are reluctant to send their children to the Kansas City public schools because of low graduation rates. The 2010 Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education puts the district graduation rate at 64.4 percent, compared to 85.7 percent for the state.

It’s no coincidence that the majority of “sold” signs in Lykins bear the name of Realtor Laura Field. Field lives in the neighborhood and is a church member.

“If you want to make an impact, you have to move into the community,” she says. “But we’re not moving in to take over. It’s not ‘Here comes the cavalry, now everybody do what we say.’ Nobody has that mentality.”

The Lykins Neighborhood Association meets the third Monday of the month in the stone basement of the church. Willie Hough, a 12-year resident, is the association president. Jason Fields is her vice president.

A no-nonsense woman, Hough keeps the agenda moving, all the while taking notes on her yellow legal pad. The agenda includes a crime and graffiti report and a discussion about ongoing problems with local thieves who steal metal from air conditioning units and sell it to a nearby scrap yard. There’s an announcement about block watch training and an update on the community garden. Councilman Scott Wagner stops by to ask for support to shut down a proposed packaged liquor store.

Hough fosters 12 children with severe disabilities. She is not one to give up, even when the neighborhood gets tough: “There’s too much at stake for us to quit.”

Long-time Lykins resident Ron Heldstab, a former association president, thinks it’s time for the older residents to hand the reins to a new generation. “I thank God for these young Christian kids. … There was a little tension, and everyone was a little leery at first,” he admits, “but we’ve become good friends.”

Sixty-year-old Richard G. Ramirez carries his Bible in a leather case to the meeting, but he is not a Rock member. Ramirez likes the energy that his new neighbors bring to the table, adding their ideas to a strong foundation that he says was already in place.

“What I’m seeing is growth. You had 40 years of people who did the best they could,” he says. “Now we’ve got new blood joining with the long-time residents of the neighborhood. I really believe you’re seeing a group of people that together are the new patriots in taking the first steps for the lord, like in the 1700s.”

House church

Despite the random gunshots, Candy Fields has never been afraid t
o live in Lykins: “When God calls you somewhere, he’ll protect you.”

At 43, Fields looks a decade younger than her actual age. In her 20s and early 30s, she lived in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and England, often in rough neighborhoods with gang activity.

She did drugs. She got tattoos. She wore combat boots.

She divorced her first husband when Raven, now a senior at Kansas City Christian School in Prairie Village, was a toddler. They moved to Spring Hill in Johnson County, where she got help from family raising her daughter. But the help also enabled her to continue partying and doing drugs, until one day she bottomed out and checked herself into a 30-day rehab program.

“I met God in rehab,” she says.

Candy went on to become a dental assistant. She joined the Methodist church. Then one day someone invited her to a house church.

Jason, 30, is definitely the more conservative of the two — and a “sneaker wearer,” Candy Fields adds with a huge grin. He grew up in Raytown in a family that “had morals but didn’t attend church.”

He was a good student in high school, and he was voted “best looking” by the class, a title that bummed him out because he wanted to win “best partier.” After gradation, he headed to the University of Missouri-Kansas City to party, studying intermittently.

The lawn-care business he started when he was 13 had not only bought him a car at 16, it had also taught him that money makes more money. Jason orchestrated extravagant bashes, spending $1,500 upfront, then selling tickets and making a profit. “But at the end of the day, I would wander off, and I would just have these moments with God,” he says.

As those moments became more frequent, he stopped partying and started reading the Bible. For eight months he lived like a hermit after work so he could read it cover to cover. “The Bible was way more vibrant and colorful than church,” he says.

Jason began to think about moving to the inner city to work with kids. One day while hanging out at the Broadway Café in Westport, he overheard the founder of the Rock discussing a move to make his ministry more responsive to urban youth.

A month later, Jason rented a room and moved into Lykins to be a part of a house church. He lived in Lykins for about a year in 2005. He continued working in the neighborhood while living elsewhere, all the while looking to buy a house in Lykins with a big garage to store all his lawn-care equipment.

He and Candy found what they were looking for in 2008.

Nourishing souls

Jason and Candy Fields met at house church, and these days they are house church leaders.

Members of the Rock meet in homes, just as Jesus did with his disciples. There are currently five house churches in Lykins that meet on Wednesday nights.

One summer night, church members gather at Paul and Camilla Barrett’s stately old home off Independence Avenue and Benton Boulevard. The front door leads guests directly into the living room, where babies and toddlers play. The Fieldses’ toddler boys, Titus and Asher, dive into the fray as a baby boy pulls himself up on the coffee table and starts to teethe on the edge.

For an hour or so the adults fill their plates with food from the kitchen and enjoy a potluck and fellowship. When it’s time to worship, guitar cases are positioned at the entrance to the double staircase so the children don’t wander off. Stan Butler’s wife, Dana, strums her guitar and sings in a clear voice the refrain: “Allelujah for the Lord, God Almighty.” She is accompanied by Jackie Golden of Grandview, who bows fanciful harmonies on the violin.

At one point Candy Fields rises from the living room recliner and crosses the room to stand closer to the musicians. She sways back and forth, her hands extended heavenward. All around the room, eyes are pressed closed, bodies sway. The singing continues for almost two hours, with interludes for prayer and discussion.

All the while, the babies and young children play in the background. Asher crawls onto his father’s lap, and thumbs the pages of a well-worn Bible, while Titus sits in the recliner waving his toes in time with the music.

Jason and Candy Fields make leadership look easy. But Jason says that even though they are having the time of their lives, they pray several times a day, both alone and in small groups, so they don’t lose their way.

“We can’t really survive without what we call some juice from heaven,” he says later. “We need God like we need food. We have a lot on our plate.”

Common ground

Sandy Morrison walks a block from her house to the community gardens. The novice gardener stands under a walnut tree for shade and surveys the grizzled plots. The corn has shriveled, the herbs need trimming and pests have invaded.

“We’re on quite a learning curve,” she says.

Morrison and her husband, Joe, used to live in a 4,000-square-foot home in Liberty near William Jewell College. She had mostly raised their seven children and retired from teaching art at a Christian school. Still, she wasn’t ready to sit on the front porch and rock herself into old age.

Morrison is 59, and although she had grown up in a small town and attended Lutheran church, she was immediately attracted to the youthful spirit of the Rock and its urban ministry.

“You don’t have time to sit down. We are a community, and you’re involved with each other. That’s why I had a heart to move here,” she says. “I’ve been in church my whole life. It always seemed to be a corporation, and the pastor the CEO. It’s not that way here. It’s hard to describe, but you can really sense when things happen, and you know God is leading.”

It took her husband time to get used to the idea of uprooting, and she admits her grown children had concerns. “You do have to think about safety,” she says. “I did have the police come and tell me how to make my home more secure when we first moved in.”

Morrison has quickly become a grandmother figure for many of the children in the church and neighborhood. She’s also teaching art again. On a Thursday evening, 14 children from the neighborhood show up at an arts-and-crafts class. The project of the day: making birthday party hats to celebrate Tommie’s birthday. The shy girl with the Pebbles ponytail and shoes two sizes too big sets to work coloring her paper cone so she can make its crowning touch: a yarn pom-pom.

Two brothers from the neighborhood, Israel and Anthony, start to giggle while using Scotch tape to affix yarn beards to their chins. The week before, they made papier-mâché volcanoes, using one of two methods to make them erupt: either Diet Coke and Mentos or good old-fashioned baking soda and vinegar.

“I like to do things that little boys like,” Morrison says with a satisfied grin.

Jason Fields, Kyle Van Kirk and Chris Pirman, a Rock member who lives next door to the Fieldses, spread out between the tables and work with the children. Morrison likes to have male role models for the boys who don’t have fathers at home.

Fernando, a shy 9-year-old who lives across the street from the church, colors with crayons. His 16-year-old sister, Mayra, brought him to the class. She fiddles with her cellphone.

Fields and Van Kirk try to strike up a conversation by asking Mayra how her quinceneara ceremony went. She perks up slightly and on her phone pulls up a picture of the formal white dress she wore for the traditional Hispanic party celebrating her entrance into womanhood at 15.

“Hey, can I have a quinceneara?” Van Kirk jokes.

“You can,” Mayra drawls slightly, “but it’s kind of weird for a guy to have one.”

“Yeah, I know that. I know that! What about you Fernando? Are you just going to throw your own party?” Van Kirk continues.

Fernando smiles shyly and continues to color.

Roll call

From the sidewalk, little T
itus Fields looks up at the towering uniformed police officers.

“Want to be a police officer when you grow up?” Candy Fields asks him.

He nods his blond head “yes,” so she hoists him up on her hip where he can more easily admire their shiny badges.

Sgt. Chris Price and seven uniformed officers from East Patrol Division gather outside the church. Price has decided to start the shift in Lykins with a “roll call” briefing, an effort to develop better face-to-face community relations.

“We want to create a better bond, so we don’t think you’re all bad and you don’t think we’re all bad,” he tells the 40 or so Lykins residents who take a seat on the cement steps of the church at 6 p.m. one Sunday. “We’ve had barriers for a long time, and we want to break that down.”

The East Patrol is one of the busiest in the city. That means vandalism calls often get lost in the race to deal with more violent crimes. Days earlier, Jason Fields recorded a video on his iPhone as two guys hauled a metal grease trap away from the abandoned Chinese-Mexican buffet on 12th Street. Meanwhile, scrap metalers have stolen the siding and gutters from homes while the occupants were at work.

“The thieves didn’t even seem to care I was filming. I just ran at them repeating their license plate number,” Jason Fields says.

These are the days when the frustration gets to these urban homesteaders, and it would certainly be easier to high-tail it back to the suburbs.

“The learning curve is steep, but everyone keeps going because there is no sideline,” Ryan Kubicina says. “All of our chips are at the center of the table. Our kids’ lives are at stake. We need to do something about the vacant lots, the illegal drugs. We need healthy, organic food. We have a common purpose, and we want to unite the people around us.”

So they work to re-form a Boy Scout troop, they cover over gang graffiti and they pull weeds in a community garden. It may seem like small stuff, but they pray the payoff will be big.

In the Lykins neighborhood, violent and serious crime, including homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault and burglary, has plummeted 21 percent since 2008.

“You don’t go into a neighborhood that doesn’t care and see a garden,” Price observes after the meeting. “The farming portion of what they’re doing brings everyone together in community, and these kinds of things help.”

As Jason Fields walks through the community garden, he points to new graffiti that has appeared on the backside of the school’s brick wall.

No one seems to know just who sprayed a sun’s rays peeking through a cloud, the word “hope” rising above it.


The Morality of Profit

Dan Pallotta entered this essay in the competition hosted by the Seven Fund, in 2011.  The SEVEN (Social Equity Venture Fund) is a virtual non-profit entity run by entrepreneurs whose strategy is to markedly increase the rate of innovation and diffusion of enterprise-based solutions to poverty. It does this by targeted investment that fosters thought leadership through books, films and websites; supporting role models – whether they are entrepreneurs or innovative firms – in developing nations; and shaping a new discourse in government, the press and the academy around private-sector innovation, prosperity and progressive human values.

Dan writes: The following is an excerpt from the essay I submitted to the SEVEN Fund’s Morality of Profit essay competition. The full essay will be available in a published collection that the Morality of Profit project will be publishing in 2011, along with the essays of other winners and thought leaders.


“…In America, at least, our notions about the evils of profit come from the early Puritan settlers to the nation – people who, ironically, came here desperate to make profits in everything from fur-trading to selling soap and potash.


But there was a problem. The Puritans were also Calvinists – taught to hate themselves – taught that self-interest was a raging sea that was a sure path to eternal damnation. This creates a real problem for these people. They come to the new world to make profit and profit will get you sent immediately, directly, and permanently to hell. What were they to do? So they created two economic worlds where there was only ever one. Charity became this other world – this economic sanctuary where they could do penance for their profit making tendencies. So, of course, how could you make money in charity, if charity was your penance of making money? So the merchants, farmers and carpenters of the world got free market practice and profit, and the needy got this religion, whereby everything that worked in the market was pretty much banished.

And this was called good. This was called charity. This was called morality.

John Winthrop, the first Governor of Massachusetts who led one of the first contingents of ships carrying Puritans to New England, and who had his sights set on handsome profits himself, wrote a famous sermon entitled, “A Model of Christian Charity,” in which he wrote that, “if our heartes shall turne away soe that wee will not obey, but shall be seduced and worship . . . other Gods our pleasures, and proffitts, and [serve] them; . . . wee shall surely perishe out of the good Land whether wee passe over this vast Sea to possesse it.”[1]

Thus was born the “non-profit” ethic. The word “profit” comes from the Latin noun profectus for “progress” and the verb proficere for “to advance.” So the term “nonprofit” means, literally, non-progress. It is a dangerous unconscious statement of intent, or lack of it. No advance. No progress.

And the sector that has been given this name is the sector charged with addressing the greatest moral issues of our time – hunger, disease, extreme poverty, and the others. We ask the one sector that has been stripped of the power of financial incentive to solve the world’s most urgent problems. It would be like sending the ambulance with the flat tires to the man dying of a heart attack. And, like the Puritans, we call this morality. Morality could not be undermined with more reverence paid to the notion of morality.

And the evidence of the immorality of this paradigm is overwhelming. This system isn’t solving problems. In 1997 UN AIDS estimated that 1.1 million adults and children died of AIDS in the world. Ten years later, despite the introduction of protease inhibitors, that number had doubled to 2.1 million adults and children. In 1997 43,000 American women died of breast cancer. Ten years later, that number hadn’t changed very much. 41,000 American women died of breast cancer in 2007. Poverty has remained stuck at about twelve percent in the U.S. for decades. In 1992 the UN estimated 824 million people malnourished in the world. Ten years later, that number hadn’t changed very much – in 2002 they estimated 820 million people malnourished in the world. And this past Christmas the estimate was upped to 1 billion people malnourished in the world.

This system of no profit isn’t solving social problems. It’s leaving a trail of dead bodies.

The scale of the nonprofit organizations charged with addressing these issues is microscopic compared to the scale of the problems. And without the fuel of financial incentive they can’t attract capital and they can’t achieve anything close to the scale of the emergencies we face.

Since 1970, the number of nonprofits that have crossed the $50 million annual revenue barrier is 144. The number of for-profits that have crossed it is 42,136.[2]

This is the morality of no profit. These are the effects of stripping away financial incentive. The system works as it is supposed to. A system with no profit was never designed to eradicate social problems. A system with no profit was designed to guarantee their persistence. Winthrop wrote, famously that:

God Almightie in his most holy and wise providence hath soe disposed of the Condicion of mankinde, as in all times some must be rich some poore, some highe and eminent in power and dignitie; others meane and in [sub- mission . . .] soe that the riche and mighty should not eate upp the poore, nor the poore, and dispised rise upp against their superiours, and [shake] off their [yoke].[3]

The Puritans didn’t want social problems to get solved. Their world order depended on the existence of the poor. If there were no poor there would be no opportunity for penance. The Puritans needed penance because they were taught that they were despicable in the eyes of God. John Calvin wrote that:

Original sin, therefore, seems to be a hereditary depravity and corruption of our nature, diffused into all parts of the soul, which first makes us liable to God’s wrath . . . we are so vitiated and perverted in every part of our nature that by this great corruption we stand justly condemned and convicted before God . . . even infants themselves, while they carry their condemnation along with them from the mother’s womb, are guilty not of another’s fault but of their own. For, even though the fruits of their iniquity have not yet come forth, they have the seed enclosed within them. Indeed their whole nature is a seed of sin; hence it can only be hateful and abhorrent to God. . . . For our nature is not only destitute and empty of good, but so fertile and fruitful of every evil that it cannot be idle . . . the whole of man is of himself nothing but concupiscence.[4]

Belief in the evil of profit is rooted in belief in the evil of mankind.

We can no longer afford the luxury of this self-centered self-hatred. It is the ultimate form of greed to be more concerned with the degree to which we are properly self-sacrificing in our own eyes than on the degree to which we are making progress on stemming the tide of death. This is a new time that calls for new ideas. Love for others will never come from
old ideas about hatred of ourselves.

While we wallow in our high-minded rhetoric about the evil of doing anything that smacks of self-interest, or worse, ordain unilaterally that others who want to earn a profit for solving the great social problems should be exiled form the playing field, little kids are dying. If the system were truly moral someone would ask the dying little kids what they think about the issue. It’s revealing that no one ever does. Do we really think it is of some comfort to the mother whose child just died of diarrhea to know that at least no one made a profit in the failed effort to bring clean water to her son?

Mankind is not evil. Ergo a man or a woman’s interest in his or herself is not evil. The truth of our underlying belief in this is revealed in our excitement about micro-financing’s ability to help poor people in developing countries start businesses that will allow them to earn a profit. We hardly expect that once they get a leg up they should give it all back and return to the original state of poverty out of which their own self-interest and a little capital lifted them.

The fact that charity exists at all is a testament to the tenderness of the human soul. On the question of whether or not mankind is basically good, this reality speaks for itself. If we can accept that there is nothing wrong with a man doing some good for himself while he does some good for the world, we will see a lot more good getting done for the world.

This is the morality of profit.

[1] Perry Miller and Thomas H. Johnson, The Puritans: A Sourcebook of Their Writings, Two Volumes Bound as One (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 2001), p. 199.

[2] George Overholser and Sean Stannard-Stockton, “Philanthropic Equity,” January 21, 2009, “Tactical Philanthropy” blog,

[3] Perry Miller and Thomas H. Johnson, The Puritans: A Sourcebook of Their Writings, Two Volumes Bound as One (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 2001), p. 195.

[4] John Calvin, Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 vols., ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville, KY: Westminister John Knox Press, 1960), pp. 251–252.

What Community Development Means to Me


A butterfly captures the mood on the Lykins Neighborhood Community Farm

In honor of the [recent] NeighborWorks America Young Professionals symposium, we have collected several blog posts from those under 35 asking their feelings on the meaning of community development. Share your comments on Twitter using #NextGenCD or follow Jason using @RepresentKC.
A community is a place where people live, usually defined by a geographic region or another characteristic.  Community development  is a highly multifaceted field.  For some, it is a chance to own a home.  For others, it is an opportunity to build a career around helping people.  For underserved neighborhoods, it is often English as a second language classes, rental assistance, or after school student services.  A simple definition might be: “Community development gives people a chance to live their lives.”  

In today’s world that is no easy thing. Globalization has reached into every corner of the planet, affecting our economies in a way that is still not understood. Shifting demographics have challenged our cultural and economic landscape, prompting us to learn new ways of doing things (see Sir Ken Robinson’s video on revolutionizing education).

My home state of Wyoming is built on the country’s largest coal reserves. That meant that I would enter either a low-wage service economy or the energy industry. So I did what many young people do. I left. I served with the Peace Corps in El Salvador for two years, and, when I returned, I saw my country with new eyes. There were opportunities literally everywhere. There were also enormous challenges.  While I had never been very motivated by climbing the career ladder (perhaps that’s why I was in the Peace Corps in the first place?), I found that I was now driven by a strong desire to do…something. This is not an unfamiliar story.  The question was, what? That is how I found myself living in Kansas City, studying entrepreneurship. I joined a young community of urban farmers with the goal of bringing local produce to market.  

My dream as a community development professional is to live and work in the same community. I want my children to belong.  I do not want to build a career as an outsider, delivering services to people who view me as an extension of some federal policy.  I want the life that I have been promising to people.  Do I still want to serve people?  Of course.  The difference is that I want to do it together.  And this time I am on familiar turf.  I speak the native language.  This is my home.  Lykins Neighborhood of Kansas City
In the last year of my service in El Salvador, I was befriended by several families.  They welcomed me into their homes and taught me about their way of life.  I was tremendously encouraged to have these relationships, since cultural isolation is very real.  I now hope to bring the same attitude to my work here in the states.  While our various cultures and family heritage are very diverse, we are all participating in a global economy.  The future will be an exciting and diverse place, and hopefully one where we can work together for a thriving and healthy community.

KC Renaissance Benefits from China Partnership

Well here goes.  As most of you know, we live in a hyper connected world.  As we recently learned at the Kansas City Digital Storytelling forum (#digstory), we are now in a many-to-many world.  This is a dramatic shift from the age old publishing industry.  I am wondering how our beloved KC Star will fare in the new economy.  You are now my reader, and I am yours.  Read if you like, share it and tweet it, or unsubscribe, unlike, unfriend, or hide from your stream.  If you like what you read, jump on in!  I appreciate comments or suggestions.

Kansas City is sitting in an interesting place.  As Dean Teng Kee Tan recently noted, our relationship with our sister universities in China is a vital ingredient in the economy of the future.  We stand to benefit immensely.  Our privileged position in this global economy is a direct result of the work of Edgar Snow.  If you follow the literati and Silicon Valley influentia like Sarah Lacy, you know that relationships with China are important in the economy of the future.

Of course, as my mentors in the Peace Corps taught me, there are two kinds of development.  On the “bottom”, people will naturally seek to organize and express themselves in the economy.  They may go it alone, as a sole proprietor, or organize into a partnership, LLC, or corporation.  They may choose to launch as a nonprofit.  This is the grass roots side of development.  These are the hair salons, auto shops, and landscaping crews.  These are the men with a Ford Truck who go into business.

On the “top”, governments and institutions will seek to invest in or subsidize the hard work and resourcefulness of these workers.  Governments will pave roads and educate children in anticipation of the future commerce.  Private firms, banks, investment firms, and government actors will seek to join human with financial and social capital.  The point is that there is a huge pile of money that is trying to find a home.  The challenge of our modern era is to account for the vast excesses of the global economy while finding a responsible investment for the future.

At the top of the list for would be investors, we find that local and regional food sourcing is among the most desirable investments.  There are several reasons why food is such an attractive investment.  We all need to eat.  Food justice is the relatively new idea that people need to eat even if they can’t afford it.

My great grandfather, a gentleman named Thurman Arnold, argued in his 1938 book “The Folklore of Capitalism” that it costs more to feed and house the unemployed than it does to put them back to work.

“In our rational and sophisticated age [speaking of 1937] the Devil and the Hell become very complicated.  The true faith is Capitalism.  Its priests are lawyers and economists.  The Devil consists of an abstract man called a demagogue.  He is the kind of person who refuses to be moved by sound economists and lawyers and who is constantly misleading the people by making the worse appear the better reason.”

The roots of the New Deal were grounded in the idea that supporting the working class was not welfare as we know it, it was an investment.  In making this argument, Arnold was breaking the faith in modern economics and capitalism.  He would, of course, be labeled a socialist and a rabble rouser, but in the end he was chosen to lead FDR’s anti-trust campaign.  He spent his time in the presidential cabinet breaking up the trusts and promoting the Sherman Antitrust act.  He would also go on to face these same peers and colleagues when they were under scrutiny by Senator Joseph McCarthy.

The same foibles and symbolic struggles exist today.  When faced with unemployment, with all its emotional, social, economic, and spiritual challenges, we have two choices.  We can invest in our people, or let them go it alone.  We seem to have a distaste for providing services to the working classes, even when it might mean that our productivity increases.  It is a moral sin to give someone something that they would otherwise be unable to obtain.  It violates the principles of the free market and self determination.  “Each man for himself”, we declare.

The New Deal philosophy faced this distaste head on and declared that these principles were not inviolable, they were a product of our modern folklore.  We all know what happened next.  The U.S. did indeed ramp up production.  Spurred on by Hitler, the U.S. saw it’s industrial revolution.  Was the New Deal a factor in the new industrial age?  It was a philosophy that looked at all the unemployment and said, “what a waste.  Let’s get everyone back to work”.  It was a way to build capacity in the workforce.

While I am no philosopher, or lawyer, these conclusions seem more relevant now than ever.  At the very top of the lessons that Thurman Arnold taught is this one: have sense of humor, don’t take yourself too seriously, and don’t let the demagogues influence you.  Wise words in our current media climate.

Beyond this, we have learned that it costs less to put people back to work than it does to provide services for them.  

We will need to put that giant pool of money to work for us.  Invest in solar, or food, or supply chains.  A well read investment banker could probably find at least a dozen ventures that will hold promise.  GenY and Millennials are among the most environmentally sensitive generation ever.  They know that we will need to find supply chains that use less oil.

I am not really the best person to write this column.  I am not very political, I don’t enjoy debating.  My hope is that I can continue to build relationships with folks throughout Kansas City, and focus on the Renaissance that is taking place in the Historic Northeast.  You, dear reader, are proof that new things are possible, especially in the most entrepreneurial city in the world.

What Community Development Means to Me

A community is a place where people live, usually defined by a geographic region or another characteristic.  Community Development (CD) is a highly multifaceted study.  For some, it is a chance to own a home.  For others, it is an opportunity to build a career around helping people.  For the most critical neighborhoods it is ESL classes, rental assistance, or after school student services.  A simple definition might be: “Community Development gives people a chance to live their lives”.  

In today’s world that is no easy thing.  Globalization has reached into every corner of the planet, affecting our economies in a way that is still not understood.  Entitlement spending is being questioned.  Shifting demographics have challenged our infrastructures.  Image

My home state of Wyoming is built on the country’s largest coal reserves.  That meant that I would enter either a low-wage service economy or the energy industry.  So I did what many young people do.  I left.  I served with the Peace Corps in El Salvador for 2 years.  When I returned I saw my country with new eyes.  There were opportunities literally everywhere.  There were also enormous challenges.  While I had never been very motivated by climbing the career ladder (perhaps that’s why I was in the Peace Corps in the first place?), I found that I was now driven by a strong desire to do…something.  This is not an unfamiliar story.  The question was, what?

My dream as a CD professional is to live and work in the same community.  I want my children to belong.  I do not want to build a career as an outsider, delivering services to people who view me as an extension of some federal policy.  I want the life that I have been promising to people.  Do I still want to serve people?  Of course.  The difference is that I want to do it together.  And this time I am on familiar turf.  I speak the native language.  This is my home.  If you are an outsider, a foreigner in this community, I want you to know that you are welcome here.  That is how I was treated and I can offer no less.