By the Book

My wife belongs to a book club, a monthly, no-men-allowed assembly at the home of one of her girlfriends where the gossip and red wine flow as freely as the discussion of that month's book. It's more of a social gathering than anything else, and the books under consideration are not weighty tomes, usually a step or two above beach reading.

There are plenty of book clubs in Dallas, and they are all more or less like that one. With one notable exception: Central Dallas Ministries' Urban Engagement Book Club. Well, it's not completely different. The incessant chattering is the same.

"It's hard to shut people up," says Larry James, CDM's executive director. "We cut it off exactly as we said we would, but people didn't leave. They wanted to stay and talk."

That said, the setup resembles a business meeting more than the chummy atmosphere the last two words of its name imply, mainly thanks to its current home in a conference room at the Transition Resource Action Center (TRAC) on Live Oak Street. Everyone is in the full dress uniform of serious 9-to-5ers, rarely even loosening their ties. The box lunches from Jason's Deli go untouched. Small talk is at a minimum and usually drifts back to more pressing matters. And the books being debated are not frivolous fiction.

For example: At the first meeting, they discussed The Working Poor: Invisible in America, David K. Shipler's examination of the millions of Americans living "in the shadow of prosperity, in the twilight between poverty and well-being." Today, in early May, it's Sweet Charity?: Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement, Janet Poppendieck's look at the "price tag" that comes with free food programs.

The price tag that comes with this afternoon's free food is one the book club's participants are happy to pay: applying Poppendieck's ideas to the city of Dallas. The couple of dozen people in the room mostly hail from agencies like Central Dallas Ministries. The man who seems to command the most respect is Don Williams, chairman emeritus of the Trammell Crow Co. and founder of the Foundation for Community Empowerment, a nonprofit organization seeking to revitalize low-income neighborhoods.

For an hour, ideas are traded like Yu-Gi-Oh! cards, the book's themes serving as a jumping-off point for everyone at the table to make the kind of off-the-cuff comments they make sure are kept off the record. So far, James' plan seems to be working. After all, James didn't start the Urban Engagement Book Club to just discuss books. He wants something else entirely. He's just not sure what it is. Yet.

"We're going to try to, you know, move toward the creation of something beyond just a talk group," James says. "Try to figure out some way to create an influence group or--I hate to use the word 'movement.' That's way overworked and probably a little too ambitious. I don't know where it's going, but it's going somewhere. There's definitely a camaraderie and an interesting mix of people. Everyone does not agree on outcomes and solutions--which is also pretty neat--but there's just really healthy dialogue."

The Urban Engagement Book Club has had only three meetings thus far, and its members are still busy asking questions. The answers will come later, when James and Central Dallas Ministries decide where all this is headed. The important thing, James points out, is that it's finally going somewhere.

Since it started as a food pantry in 1988, Central Dallas Ministries has grown to a full-service community organization with medical and legal clinics, children's education and job-development programs, and affordable housing developments. It has an operating budget of almost $3.8 million. But until recently, it didn't have a voice. Or, more to the point, it wasn't using it. Now, it is.

"We have said for years that our organization does three things," James says. "We do compassion stuff. We do life-preparation, equipping, education stuff. And we also want to do advocacy. So, this is sort of that step."

In March, CDM hired Kendall Anderson, a former Dallas Morning News reporter, to head its new communications and public policy division. Anderson has the media contacts to help get the agency's message out to the right people, and the passion for the job to make sure they listen.

"There's a huge need in this city for advocates for social justice," Anderson says. "It's a foreign concept to so many people in this city. There's a lack of understanding about what social justice is. You generally have a bunch of social service organizations, you know, handing out food, doing whatever. Which needs to be done, but the other part of that is what about trying to impact public policy?"

Councilwoman Veletta Lill, who attended the book club's June meeting (subject: Dr. William Julius Wilson's When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor), thinks CDM could eventually do just that. She was impressed with the variety of people at the meeting--an economist from the Chamber of Commerce, an editorial writer from The Dallas Morning News, University of Texas at Dallas professor Dr. Paul Jargowsky--and excited by the arguments they raised.

"Central Dallas Ministries has been on the cutting edge of these types of initiatives, and I'm glad to see them pick up the banner of community discussion of these issues," Lill says. "Because I don't think anybody else is going to take the lead if they don't. I think they are in the best position to raise the issues and advance to a position of advocacy."

James' plan is to continue the book club for a full year, then evaluate the program, reach out a foot for the next step. He has no complaints right now. All the meetings have been well-attended, to the point where he's trying to find a new location for future get-togethers. He also feels they're about to turn a corner with the discussions, from talking about problems to working on solutions.

Still, he can't help playing the role of the pessimistic optimist, someone who hopes for change but knows that, more than likely, it won't happen. He has almost two decades in the business to back up his feelings. Shorten that time frame to two months, and it still frustrates him. If Dallas County was willing to give Jerry Jones $425 million, he wonders, why wouldn't they put a fraction of that money into community development corporations? That's just one of the things that bother him about being a social advocate in Dallas. As he says, "We've got a steep hill that we're climbing here."

He hasn't given up climbing yet.

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Zac Crain
Contact: Zac Crain