Of Tacos and Transformation: The Amazing Taste of Collective Engagement

Of Tacos and Transformation: The Amazing Taste of Collective Engagement

A city and a university are in a reciprocal relationship: sometimes a dance, sometimes a wrestling match, sometimes a family dinner. It works best when all participants want the exchange. When that happens, it’s amazing. But it dawns on me that, when it works, it’s not too different from what goes on at the taco truck near my house. That truck is irresistible. It doesn’t matter that I already had lunch. It compels me. It beckons. It promises and delivers—I can get two for $1.35. My patronage is good for them. Their business makes me happy. This kind of win/win is what the best universities seek. Engaging the cultures and serving the cities by collective engagement means, in part, finding what the residents of our city and Valley want, what they value, the things that satisfy their felt need. And though my cardiologist might disagree that taco is a need, in matters of community engagement, we need to learn to listen better to what people, not the professionals, are saying.

Thankfully, FPU, which is set in a city with the second highest rate of concentrated poverty of any large city in the nation, is taking pains to listen, to know our region, link our greatest assets to its healing and engage collectively to create peace where residents are saying peace is most needed. Our approach has been to go beyond merely studying problems or exploring a menu of solutions, to actually activating solutions.

ENGAGING POVERTY

When FPU graduate students Seth Jordan and Jorg Leitkmann trained in the Center for Community Transformation (CCT) Faith & Finances curriculum for low income and vulnerable people, they had little idea of the vulnerability in Fresno, the fragility of people’s financial lives and the insurmountable barriers they face daily under tremendous financial strain. Sylvia was one of these. A graduate of the Rescue Mission, when she was in Seth’s class she quickly bonded with two other women also struggling with poverty. They learned about God’s desire to heal our relationship with ourselves, with others and with our money. They formed an accountability group to help each other to keep better track of and save the little money they each had. Learning that God could help them repair their financial lives Sylvia wondered if there was a way she could start her own hair salon, but the dream always seemed out of reach. But using the new disciplines she learned in class, and applying the faith-centered hope she acquired, an opportunity came from “out of the blue” to use a commercial space for free for two months. She now has a hair salon, has added a nail technician and a barber as well. She maintains the accountability group from the class, and she reports she has led many women to Christ as she does their hair.    

Because FPU has chosen to value the cultures and the cities of the Valley and invest in their well-being, we become part of the story of God making all things new, including people’s financial stability. The CCT has now trained more than 80 people as facilitators in this curriculum, and the Fresno Housing Authority has invited us to teach these faith-rooted courses to some of the 50,000 people living in Housing Authority complexes. Both Seth and Jorg as F&F facilitators have become part of God’s saving and healing approach in the city.

LEADERSHIP ENGAGEMENT

When student Laura Flores began helping to facilitate the CCT’s Certificado program, which exposes the Valley’s Spanish-speaking leaders to high quality leadership training in community transformation, regardless of their educational background, she was blown away that the university would invest in non-traditional students. Coming from this community herself, she saw how these leaders’ knowledge and skills are often overlooked, neglected and not developed to their full potential. Now more than 100 graduates of this program serve more than 40 churches in 17 of the Valley’s poorest communities, challenging community needs and seeking shalom in practical ways (Jeremiah 29:7). As a result, in the rural, migrant community of Raisin City a church is providing food and health outreach and improving the community’s only greenspace.

ENGAGING IN BATTLE

Engagement in the community is good for students and good for people in the community—a win/win. But this year it became apparent in a new way that the community desires, and even expects, engagement by the university. Fresno Mayor Lee Brand and the EOC’s Central Valley Against Human Trafficking tasked FPU with an action research project aimed at getting 23 anti-human trafficking agencies and law enforcement to collaborate on the Valley’s first centralized database to fight human trafficking.

Data is at the core of this fight. Both law enforcement and service organizations need accurate information on pipelines, on recruitment methods used by traffickers, the needs of and services delivered to victims, arrest patterns, demand, prevention and awareness efforts, street outreach, etc., in order to better allocate resources, train and assign staff and more. Until now, there has been no collaboration on data and no mechanism to get it. The CCT has completed the first year of the project getting nearly two dozen anti-human trafficking agencies to work together, and has now generated its first report, which is now in the hands of the organizations fighting the fight. These agencies will use the data in working with the 276 victims of trafficking identified by the process in 2019, as well as many others vulnerable to being trafficked, to improve their service. In addition, the CCT hosts annual on-campus trainings for human trafficking awareness with the Central Valley Justice Coalition to aid the work of prevention. This open wound on our Valley now has one more institutional champion working on healing solutions.

ECONOMIC ENGAGEMENT

The faith community also has economic solutions for our Valley’s concentrated poverty, and the CCT is stepping up to engage. In 2013 we launched the Spark Tank Social Enterprise Pitch Fest, which has helped catalyze 48 small Valley social enterprises, many of which have hired more than 260 people with barriers to employment and generated $3.7 million for Fresno’s struggling economy. Examples include:

  • Rock Pile Yard Landscaping at North Fresno Church, which gives formerly incarcerated men work experience and a paycheck to help them get back on their feet.
  • Rescue Ragz, a business of the Kings Rescue Mission that keeps unusable clothing from the landfill by converting it to shop rags. They employ homeless men and add to mission’s revenue.
  • Cornerstone Coffee Company and LightWear Apparel, which employ women coming out of rehab at the Lighthouse Recovery Program.

Our FPU School of Business has partnered with the CCT to offer training for social entrepreneurs, and this year we will launch a social enterprise emphasis inside the new online MBA so graduate students can solve economic and social challenges in the Valley through the best business thinking. Many of these social enterprises will be featured at our upcoming expo March 13 at Cornerstone Coffee Company, 1463 Fulton Str., Fresno. It’s a free, fun way to see the kind of community engagement that the university is accomplishing for the economic healing of our Valley.

We could go on, talking about the university’s role through the CCT in: leading Next GEN Philanthropy, comprised of 40 young professionals, each paying in $1,000 a year to help research and fund community philanthropic efforts; leading the Mayor’s Faith Based Partnership Cabinet, comprised of 24 leaders from every religious tradition in Fresno, which advises the mayor and works together on projects that contribute to shalom; stewarding Sacred Streets, which has trained nearly 50 congregations in homeless outreach.

I am encouraged by this collective engagement, this activation of solutions in our Valley. We could say more—But hey, I believe it’s time for a taco.

Connections
Randy White, D.Min.

Randy White, D.Min.

Associate Professor/Program Director, Community Leadership and Transformation; Executive Director, the Center for Community Transformation