Interview with Dan Crow
From The ODA Blog
Category: Q and A
Open Door America interview with Dan Crow, Chairman of the Board of Open Door America, September 1, 2014
ODA: Dan, you are the sole remaining member of the original Board of Directors of Open Door America. And, you’ve been the board’s only chairman in its 9-year history. As a starting point for our readers, to what do you owe your longevity in the organization? What is it about ODA that inspires you to stay involved in such a committed way?
DC: There is a combination of things:
(1) I love the passionate purpose of our CEO Bill Simpson. Bill has never gotten distracted or bogged down by peripheral issues. He has doggedly stayed the course of addressing the effects of intergenerational poverty with practical wisdom, creative perspectives, and compassionate solutions.
(2) Open Door America has produced a vibrant and energetic analysis of complex problems to bring long-term, transformational solutions to perplexing social ills. It is vastly satisfying to witness long-term life changes as the American Dream is introduced to those for whom it has long been a bad dream.
(3) ODA has always been a growing experience. Bill Simpson and I feel that we have always “been on the move” – geographically, as we moved closer to the “real life” of the urban poor; intellectually, as Bill is an insatiable learner and loves exploring possible solutions with me; experientially, as we have shared incredible highs and lows in treating the compounding problems and issues of intergenerational poverty in the lives of clients who have become friends; and organizationally, as we have grown from a neighborhood outreach to a city-wide organization, and now nationally, as we launch into our new future as Open Door America.
(4) Our time together has brought us before bright thinkers and compassionate leaders. The list is too long to name but it has been most rewarding to see industry leaders like David Procida of Component Assembly Systems realize the potential of the urban poor and provide employment for well-vetted and prepared workers. He has then worked to bring other business leaders along the journey to helping change America’s cities.
ODA: You came of age in segregated Mississippi in the 1960s in a middle-class family, the son of an Army engineer. At one point in your formative years in Vicksburg, you were headed for a career in business or law. Somewhere along the way, however, you decided on a seminary education, entered the ministry, and eventually headed north to Pittsburgh before coming to the Baltimore area. That’s a lot of change for a son of the south and a statement of sorts. What triggered the change in your life trajectory and what is the statement you’ve been making with your choices?
DC: I was blessed to have parents who were compassionate and caring and instilled a sense of responsibility to consider those less fortunate. My mother experienced deep poverty personally as one of 4 children born to a couple of dirt-poor, but industrious sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta. Hard work and an optimistic faith were their biggest assets in living and working under oppressive and uncaring landowners who treated them poorly and unjustly. Hearing those stories (told in an incredibly positive perspective that emphasized “good people can overcome bad circumstances if they work hard, love much, and have some help from the good Lord”) marks a little boy’s life. Those stories and a loving atmosphere made me sensitive to how much blessing I received undeservedly. I had done nothing to be born into my family. It was just what was.
Coming to grips with that reality and grappling with a growing awareness of the revolutionary message of Jesus during the days of what is called the “Jesus Revolution” in the late 60’s and early 70’s fueled an inner change of values that affected my career choices. My first pastorate was in the Delta town of Marks, Mississippi, that “poorest hamlet in America,” as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Dr. Ralph Abernathy described it as they chose Marks as the starting point of the “Poor Peoples’ Campaign March to Washington.” My four years working to bring Jesus’ Good News to the people in Quitman County etched the issues of poverty, injustice, and social responsibility into my psyche. I realized the Good News of Jesus cannot be contained in a church building or a closed social circle -- it must be shared in the words and gracious behavior of Jesus followers toward all people, especially the more needy.
I moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1983 as steel mills began to close and gave birth to what has been described as “the Rust Belt” across Middle America. When massive employers close working plants, entire communities are disrupted, families are destabilized, and life spirals in a depressing downward swirl. The needs of the urban poor came close to home again. We developed ministries to help with retooling people for the new realities, opened food banks, and worked with a growing influx of immigrants. We had direct ministry with people from over 30 countries teaching ESL classes and working with Catholic Charities to help re-settle immigrants to a new life. The life message was underscored again: “The poor are with you always” — it is as if Jesus was saying, “I am giving you a lifelong lesson of how to live out your faith by bringing before you those enmeshed in poverty. Treat them as I would.”
When I moved to Howard County, Maryland in 1998 I thought dealing with poverty issues would recede as Howard County is repeatedly ranked among the wealthiest communities in the US. But, as my compatriot, Bill Simpson, repeatedly shares, “Poverty is a growth industry.” I initially answered Bill’s invitation to work in after-school programming initiatives in Baltimore neighborhoods before we began Open Door Community Development Corporation to address urban poverty issues. The Church at Covenant Park has been gracious to accept my pastoral challenge to be “a suburban church that makes an urban difference.” While working with and supporting Open Door Baltimore, poverty issues came to our community and Covenant began to partner with Grassroots of Howard County as a host church for the Cold Weather Shelter, a hosting of homeless families for a week each winter. This year, Covenant is stepping up to host our homeless friends for two weeks in January. I love seeing our people adopt the homeless and walk with them to understand their challenges and life situations. As we provide transportation, shelter, showers, shared meals in a family atmosphere, haircuts and styling, massages, pedicures and manicures, smoking breaks, quiet rooms and fun nights together, we have found our homeless friends are just like us. Most of them have jobs; some have children they are sacrificing for to get a good education in Howard County schools. All of them are precious. And I see it again: “The poor are always with you.” I find that when we love our neighbors, we find God’s presence and Jesus’ love most real. I am most blessed to have a supportive Elder team, staff, and church family who desire to apply the Good News of Jesus to real people with real problems that God can bless as we invest on multiple levels of life.
ODA: Dan, you are an accomplished speaker and writer, a person of demonstrated capacity and influence. In the Baltimore region, you are recognized by your peers and associates as a passionate leader on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised. To put it gently, you have been known to occasionally rattle the cages of the powerful on behalf of ODA’s mission and clients. Without naming names or pointing out entities that have clearly failed in their moral responsibilities to the poor, could you share with our readers the kind of challenges you have had to meet in your role as board chairman over the years?
DC: When addressing those in the religious community, the biggest challenge is to ask them to notice the world in which we live. If we don’t see and hear the obvious, life direction is quite confusing. When blind and deaf to real life, it is a short step to adopting self-absorbed and self-perpetuating goals. Humans love the appeal of bigger and better. For the religious, it is not long before bigger and better is equated with “God’s will.” At that point, all is lost. Unhealthy direction grows an addiction to whatever achievement is valued. When my appeals fell on deaf ears, I realized sadly, “They are convinced it is better to try and start a church than to apply the Good News to life in inner cities.” I don’t think it is better, but I know it is easier.
But, if we open our eyes and ears to the obvious, life direction is not difficult – a simple reading unfolds a continuing and deep theme in the Scriptures. Please indulge me to share a thread of redemptive hope woven throughout sacred Scripture — God is a God of justice and mercy who has acted to help us with our deepest needs. From the early chapters of Scripture to the prophets and the teachings of Jesus, God spoke out against injustice and neglect of the poor. The great stories of the faith: the exodus from slavery to freedom; the building of a city for the formerly dispossessed; the return from captivity to freedom; Jesus’ ministry of “preaching the gospel to the poor”; the incredible sacrificial exchange where God gives His best to cancel out evil and humanity’s worst; the creation of a spiritual culture where “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female”; the end of this age where injustice will be finally stopped and sorrow and deprivation ended in the new heavens and earth. These stories are not hard to see unless your paradigm blocks them out. If you think God is not concerned about these things, you will “see it but not see it, or hear it but not hear it.” Our eyes and ears must be opened. No wonder Jesus said, “If you are able to hear, listen!”
A challenge that cuts across all social strata is to become personally engaged. Change is possible if we will become engaged. Our generation is confused about the powerful effect of personal involvement. We cannot wait for “someone else” or “the government” to fix it. We engage on a micro-level: one life. That’s where Open Door America starts: with one client who is ready. We cannot change everything, but we can change some things. And that incremental change produces an opening of light that can change a family, a neighborhood, and a community. Change is possible. Notice the world we live in -- live life with eyes that see and ears that hear the cries around you. See life. Hear life. Get engaged. Bring good change.
ODA: In rising to these challenges, what are the critical “lessons learned” that now shape your leadership of the board going forward? Where does the board need to grow and improve in 2015 and how can our readers assist the board’s efforts to create a viable national response to intergenerational poverty?
DC: We have learned the importance of being continual learners, wise networkers and creative partners. Large social problems must be addressed in ways heretofore unexplored. Treating poverty and related urban issues as a “war to win” has left many victims and produced far too few victories. Poverty is not a war to be waged with might -- it is a struggle to be entered with heart. We must not be afraid to see the data and interpret it wisely. We must network with intention to become a powerful catalyst for social change by bringing together groups that have operated independently of each other in the past. ODA has done the remarkable work of bringing together the faith community, the government social services, and the business sector to give a multi-tiered and well-orbed support to help people begin the climb out of poverty. ODA does not merge these 3 entities: ODA has learned to leverage the strengths of each, producing a steady rise from dependency, to a growing independency, to a sustaining interdependency.
Open Door America’s board must be committed to rigorously learning the best of all three entities (faith, government social services, and the business sector) and engage in wisely networking the areas of leverage in their personal arenas of life. This commitment to personally apply and engage by our board will produce a culture of creative partnering on a macro-level that brings a powerful merger of the three basic building blocks of growing society on a micro-level: family, faith, and work.
Our readers can become engaged as well by linking together in supporting our work as a “think tank” on poverty issues. We need your financial support. The work we have done has been localized, but it contains real help and solutions that can work across our land. We need businesses to step up and offer employment opportunities to those who have been properly vetted and prepared by ODA. Readers can become doers by investing in ODA and then working in their own locale to create a catalytic network using the wisdom and blueprint that ODA is sharing. Community leaders can dream again for their communities and become a part of the ODA story by connecting to our networks and beginning a conversation of bringing the American Dream to reality, one community at a time.
ODA: More than any middle-aged white guy I know, you are genuinely interested in Hip Hop music and other inner city cultural connections. Where does this curiosity and affinity come from and why is it so important to you to be alert to cultural influences and changes?
DC: I’m amazed that a 60-year-old can be called “middle-aged” but I’ll enjoy it! I think I grew an affinity for the “music of the people” during my days in the Delta. Hearing the spirituals and the “make it up from the heart” singing of field-hands was like listening to very early seminal rap music. That “heart music” would move from a wailing to a lifting melody that did not require poetic harmony but rather moved along in a rhythm that that explored the disappointments, pain, and inequities of life. Those Delta songs of the working poor grabbed my heart. One day when working with the University of Pittsburgh football team, I pulled out “We Shall Overcome” as a team song during a chapel talk. The song lyric could not have been simpler and it did not rhyme. But it flowed from the heart and spoke to the heart. We sang it every meeting thereafter. On that Pitt team, black and white came together in solidarity. Polish names, Italian names, African names . . . ethnicity and culture did not matter. There was a bonding effect of shared struggle, disappointment and hope. That’s the nature of Hip Hop -- it’s not a music style -- it’s a cultural mash up of flavors, colors and pursuits. It’s the language and expression of a generation. And, it touches everything. It’s about the people we meet and the life we are living. Hip Hop is aging but it has served a great purpose to remind me to always engage, even when it’s outside my comfort zone.
ODA: Dan, the board has made an intentional choice for 9 years not to accept government funding. Talk to our readers about how you view the funding of poverty programming, the importance of volunteers and partnerships, and the role of organizations like ODA in leading the nation on poverty solutions.
DC: How I would have loved early on to have landed some grant or government funding instead of calling our Board to raise every dollar Open Door has ever received! At least that’s what I thought “once upon a time.” Our CEO, Bill Simpson, always kept the mission in front of us. He said it hundreds of times: “If we receive a grant, we will have to work for, and toward, that grant. The grant could become a taskmaster that keeps us from growing as an organization.” I hated hearing Bill say that, but he was right. We likely would have fallen into the trap that some well-meaning and well-intentioned groups stumbled into as they become slaves to a system of producing the metrics that a foundation or funding group requires.
I can say with confidence that ODA would not have persevered to press toward a merger of the faith community, government social services, and the business sector if we had become dependent on a grant. ODA believes that the best solutions are not the easiest or most common solutions. Better solutions require a level of risk and buy-in from partners that brings the momentum to a higher level of understanding and success. When business leaders began to see that they didn’t have to hire the urban poor to merely satisfy a government edict, but instead, could do so to fulfill a social responsibility, a marvelous thing happened. They began to see that the locations where they were working could be the source of a most powerful resource -- a strong workforce. That can happen when businesses make an investment to find and develop that workforce through groups like Open Door America. ODA clients are receiving excellent performance reviews and are being asked for referrals for new employees. That’s what I call money well spent and acceptable risk. My business sector friends might call it good business. Open Door America can help that come to pass for you.
ODA: As a result of ODA’s growth and development over the past few years, the board has concluded the time has come for the organization to reach beyond the Chesapeake into other cities and settings across America. In fact, ODA is currently developing a suburban model to respond to the dramatic increase in non-inner city poverty identified by the 2010 Census. As you look to the next 5 years, where do you see things headed and what excites you the most about ODA’s future?
DC: I see maturity and I see opportunity. It takes some time for dreams to become reality. It takes strong effort to bring a dream to maturity. There is a Jewish proverb I value: “The dream comes through much effort.” King Solomon, a great builder and expansionist, penned those words as his influence spread across the ancient world. Open Door America has matured through lessons learned and lives lived in the inner city. We are ready to stretch out across our country. I see opportunity in that ODA will not only expand geographically, we will also expand our focus from inner cities to the growing poverty in suburban areas. As I noted in an earlier question, I live in one of the wealthiest area codes in the U.S.A. and we have a rapidly growing problem with poverty issues. This happens because people gravitate to areas where they think life will improve. We are planning to open an ODA center that will serve the needs of 3 neighboring counties and population centers. Our ODA center will meet the needs of some in our church as well as reach out to others in our communities. Opportunity beckons as ODA centers can be established in suburban areas as local churches, governments, and businesses pool resources to provide solutions for their communities. Open Door America is the perfect partner to train local leaders and provide the transformational “Individual Life Plan” for local clients. ODA is poised to provide resourcing and training for a growing number of centers.
ODA: Dan, as we close this interview, is there an issue that hasn’t been raised that you would like to address? Perhaps something you would like to communicate to your clergy and human services peers, or the nation as a whole?
DC: First, these were most excellent questions! I loved recalling my journey with Open Door America through these 9 years. Here’s my parting observation and appeal: there has been a growing awareness of poverty issues in our national conversation. The faith community has addressed theological implications in a number of good works. The business community has contributed a few outstanding books that address social conscience. Government has continued social efforts but has been bogged down by the criticisms (some true/some false) of what is often called “ineffective government programming.” All of these efforts are good on their own merit, but they lack something. They explore a topic but they do not chart a way out. That’s where Open Door America has done some heavy lifting to make a simple reality emerge from complex problems. The simple reality is that good business is good for the community. Good government is good for the community. Good faith communities are good for the community.
If these efforts are not good for the community, are they really good?
It’s a valid question. And we can’t parse the problem by separating life into “spiritual” and “social” and “physical” sectors. Life is best lived as a whole. Healthy life is interdependent and interrelated life. A healthy body has systems working interdependently within that body. Good life, in an individual or community level, has multiple components. Open Door America bridges the gaps to bring together what have been isolated entities into a working, productive whole. At Open Door America, we don’t think that any one entity has the solution nor is any one entity the cause of the problem.
Open Door America believes in bringing the American Dream to reality. We believe America is too good to have people who cannot find work in times of prosperity. America is too good to desert her cities. America is too good to write off her people. When faith communities will lead the way with compassion and the business sector will invest in developing a productive work force and the government social services work to point people to a growing civic responsibility, the American Dream comes true. Open Door America is prepared and ready to help open the doors of opportunity and transformation across our land. And, you can help make a difference. You can make a donation to ODA today. You can dream and formulate a local plan and ask ODA how to start in your community. You can influence your business or employer to grow in developing a productive work force and contract with Open Door America to advise, coach and train. You can help our country reverse outsourcing American jobs and instead invest in American workers. Open Door America is a wise choice for you to consider for your contributions. Throughout our website, check out the stories of life change and community difference an Open Door can make.
Open Door Baltimore, a nonprofit that fights poverty by working with businesses to provide living-wage jobs, is expanding beyond the beltway. To better reflect the organization’s larger mission, the board of directors recently approved a new identity and logo.Read More