People Power, from the community for the community

Originally published on the Texas Methodist Foundation's blog. Reposted with permission.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of my work is that I get to engage with people in urban areas who are trying to improve their communities. Over time, I learned a truth that I did not understand when I started here 22 years ago. That truth is, ”People possess the power, the capacity and the desire to solve their own problems. All they need are the resources that will enable them to seize the opportunity.

I didn’t understand this truth when I arrived at CitySquare in 1994. During that time, I spent five days a week interviewing low-income people from the neighborhood to see if they could benefit from our Food Pantry. On Sundays, I went out to churches further away from the inner city, seeking money and volunteers. I wasn't doing very well at either task.

Then one day my world changed forever in a single, clarifying moment.

I was struggling to communicate with three Hispanic mothers who were with their children. They were doing their best with their limited English skills to overcome my complete inability to speak Spanish. Together we weren’t succeeding very well, and I could sense their growing frustration.

As we sat there talking past each other, Josefina Ortiz, an older woman whom we had already assisted, walked by with her arms laden with groceries. I stopped her and asked if she could help me. She seemed startled by my request, but jumped right in and saved the day with her translation skills. We were able to understand what the women needed and provide assistance.

Then something startling happened. I thanked Josefina profusely, but still failed to realize the enormity of what had just happened. Thankfully, when she reached the door, she turned back to me and said, "Larry, I could come back tomorrow and help you." Josefina came back "tomorrow" for nine years.

That afternoon when the pantry closed, I realized that I had been looking at things all wrong. I only saw the community around me in terms of what they needed. I should have been seeing my neighbors in terms of what they offered – which was a lot.

Over the next forty-five days we set out to change our entire organizational culture and change it quickly. Every person who came through our doors was encouraged to talk not just about their needs, but also about how and where they could help others. We invited every person who came to us to return and serve the community as a volunteer.

Almost overnight we had more volunteers than we knew what to do with. Our team grew from about 20 to well over 300! And that growth came from the real experts: people from the neighborhood.

Over the years we've stayed with this model. It is the one essential, fixed, non-negotiable ingredient in our culture. And it has paid dividends beyond our wildest dreams. Our success in the years since is directly related to this approach and to the principle of "people power," from the community for the community.


Larry James attended TMF's recent Forum on Wesleyan Potential, hearing from peers like Mike Mather who shared a similar transforming experience of tapping into the gifts of the neighbors surrounding the congregation he leads. In this post, Larry explains how he discovered God’s direction for improving his organization through a voice he didn’t expect – from one of his clients.




Larry James

Larry James is the CEO of CitySquare, Dallas.

About This Blog

Read and comment on a range of personal reflections and perspectives about poverty and Ministry with the Poor. Our goal is to attract diverse voices and points of view from United Methodists and friends, including people and communities living in conditions of poverty, other experts, religious leaders, community organizers, advocates, policy makers, volunteers, and all engaged in Ministry with the Poor.