Thursday, June 23, 2016

How Did They Get To Here?

Oftentimes, we bumble along, moving forward mindlessly, when suddenly we are at a place we never thought we would get to. A job we never thought we would have, a city we didn't expect to live in. The history of several of the ACTS (Allied Churches Teaching Self-empowerment) staff fall into this, never seeking out a housing-based nonprofit but falling, head-first, into roles and positions within the organization almost effortlessly.

One rehab counselor, Sam, found a posting online, as he was scrolling through looking for something new. Ready to leave the city, he applied on a whim and four interviews later was offered the job. Now a homeowner and dedicated member of one of the ACTS neighborhoods, this job ties Sam to the place and gives him reason to stay in Milwaukee.

Blia, a real estate broker, began as a volunteer after pulling together a massive house showing simply by being an already-established member of the community. Unable to provide her with a salary, ACTS took her in as a volunteer until they received the necessary grant money. Blia now has spent over 20 years working with the organization and owns her home through ACTS.

An interview with Woody, who was on the board, reveals that he has worked in countless public office positions and in various industry positions. He was called to join ACTS' board simply because he was asked by his friend Father Dennis. Being asked by the founder was enough to prompt Woody to go beyond his previous commitments to various neighborhoods and help, in his own words, "throw the grenade down the aisle."

How did they get to here? Not one of these people expressed a life-long desire to work in the nonprofit sector, or even necessarily do something with housing. Though not in an official interview, another employee, Becky, mentions that she found her interest in housing when she was volunteering at a homeless shelter on the east coast.

Though at some point, each of these people made a deliberate choice to commit to ACTS, they never sought it out. And this is somewhat the story of ACTS itself. Instead of being a highly thought out endeavor, one of the founders, Father Dennis, refers to its origins as a "brain fart" that simply met the needs of the community in a way that he could feasibly do. As a Catholic priest in an inner city parish, there was not much he could do about crime or drugs directly, yet he saw housing as the way in, the way to expand neighborhood services in a meaningful way.

Perhaps without realizing it, housing actually brings stability to the neighborhood on a block-by-block level, bring down the level of transience and overall crime rate. So perhaps Father Dennis understood home-ownership as the gateway, the key, to bringing the quality of life up in areas that need it most. So while Father Dennis did not believe that reducing crime was within his reach, he actually did bring about these changes through a non-direct approach.

Executive director Michael fell into working for ACTS in a similar way. After spending time in the private sector, he felt that his individual value was not manifest in the work, and began to volunteer for ACTS after meeting the previous director. He created his own position and sought to push the ACTS message and model, and has been the director of both ACTS and its affiliate ACTS Lending for several years. Once Michael found the work, he threw himself, headlong into the patterns of nonprofit brokerage and social impact. And the results speak for themselves, in his own words, they are "working to put themselves out of business."

Again, none of these people sought this work out to the degree that this was their one dream. Instead, each woke up every day and moved forward, trying to make the world a little bit better. And suddenly, they're here, striving to make neighborhoods better, to connect people with places to live and spaces to build entire lives around, and to provide people with the tools to go above and beyond what ACTS itself can do. How did they get to here? Simply by being, by doing what was right for these families and for the greater Milwaukee area.

A history of unintentionality, yet also a history of unbelievable intentions. Each interviewee, each ACTS employee holds within themselves all the quiet intentions of social change--maybe without even realizing it.