Posts Tagged ‘Tulsa Initiative’

I just wanted to give a quick thanks to all of my superb volunteers at the University of Tulsa and Professor Diane Potts’ class at Tulsa Community College. These undergraduates are helping us better serve our parents by interviewing them about their employment, educational, and financial situations. It’s a tough topic to discuss with people they’ve never met, and these students are doing a great job of it.

Also, they deserve thanks for showing  up even when I’ve sent them to the wrong site or when they don’t have a parent to interview. I’ve felt the frustration of being ready and willing to give time only to not find a place for it, so I know how committed they are to keep coming back.

Finally, thanks to the family support specialists, site directors, Innovation Lab staff, and everyone else that is helping get this project going.

I know we’re not through yet but it’s been a frustrating day and I want all to know how appreciated you are.

P.S.: I now have an endless amount of empathy for all the volunteer coordinators I’ve worked with in my day – at Tulsa Habitat for Humanity, the Tulsa Area Chapter of the American Red Cross, and with our own Jennifer Morgan at CAP. You guys (gals, actually) do an awesome job.


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A few days ago I mentioned that Oklahoma was holding somewhat steady in the face of the economic downturn, with several indicators worsening but not horrible. I meant to write that it felt like being in the calm before the storm, to make it clear that I wasn’t arguing that Oklahoma would escape the recession.

So just to further reinforce the point:

The highest number of people receiving food stamps in one month came in December 2005 with 443,045 people. Last month, 442,299 Oklahomans were given food stamps.

“That is the second-highest total in history,” Johnson said. “They are approaching the record. If things continue in the economy the way they are going, more than likely, that record will be broken.” (Tulsa World)

So food stamps receipt is about to break records (although this isn’t adjusted for population growth). The economic challenges are real, even in Tulsa.

The article, published Sunday, is about a Tulsa woman who lost her job just as she was beginning to get her financial affairs in order, including taking advantage of CAP’s financial services offerings.

At Tulsa Initiative, we’ve been thinking about ways we can help move families into economic self-sufficiency, even through the financial crises people face along the way. The challenge for all of us in the social service sector in Tulsa is how to keep making progress through these difficult times.

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When I think of innovation, especially in terms of how it applies to CAP, I see it as a tremendous asset.

CAP’s mission is helping low-income families achieve self-sufficiency—giving people the knowledge and tools to become economically stable. The role of innovation is a way to come up with new and effective strategies to solve a problem in a cost-effective way for a large group of people, so it plays directly in to our mission.

Innovation is a part of CAP’s DNA and culture. It’s a way of thinking that extends throughout the organization—it is a strategic goal of the agency, because innovation fosters new ideas and opportunities.

The benefit of innovation can be seen in Tulsa Initiative. The research from this groundbreaking project will allow us to go one step beyond because the project is specifically aimed at stopping the cycle of intergenerational poverty. In addition to helping families now, we’re planning for the future.

If there was a tried and true successful approach to ending poverty, we would copy that instead of trying to reinvent the wheel—but we don’t feel that wheel has been invented yet, so we have to keep thinking of new and different ways to re-invent the “wheel” that will solve this issue.

It can be a challenge to make innovation work because we have to adapt so quickly to a new and different approach, and sometimes the resources are not available immediately for that change. With innovation, non-profits must be willing to allow for more than a marginal degree of risk and failure tolerance. We must work outside our own boundaries and comfort zones to create impact. It’s important to remember that “failure” is still momentum and action that can lead to better and innovative solutions from lessons learned. The allowance of some failure establishes a benchmark for some risk tolerance. Innovation happens from mistakes and successes.

The blog that our TI staff has established here is itself a tolerated risk. It is an open channel of communication through which we can express our questions, our answers, our ideas, our successes, and – yes – our failures. (As you can see below in Micah’s post!) It is not filtered through our professional communications staff, posts are not vetted by supervisors, and we’ll try very hard to speak with our own voices, not that of an organization. I hope you get a sense of CAP’s spirit of curiosity out of this blog and that you’ll be inspired to participate in this broad endeavor we call Tulsa Initiative.

CAP seeks to be cutting edge in the way we do things in our rapidly changing environment, so change will always be what we are about.  But we and our partners have to commit to excellence—we don’t want to be static and rest on our laurels. As an agency dedicated to improving the economic stability of low-income children and their families, we should continue building relationships with a community that shares our ideals, aiming for superior performance, and embracing innovation every day.

Steven Dow is Executive Director of Community Action Project of Tulsa County.

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Humor my little bit of Friday New Yorker Profile blogging, as it pertains to our work here at the Initiative. Over lunch I was reading a piece on Santiago Calatrava (official website), a world-renowned Spanish architect perhaps known best in the US for his Milwaukee Art Museum. Anyway, in the article he defends his designs against charges that they are flashy or gimmicky:

“My station in Lisbon is in the old oil refinery. When you work in those places, you have to do very strong gestures. If you make a shy building, no one will go there.” (emphasis added)

Milwaukee Art Museum, by Santiago Calatrava. Image used under license by flickr user garydenness.

Milwaukee Art Museum, by Santiago Calatrava. Image used under license by flickr user garydenness.

That struck me, while sitting in a very cold Arby’s, as key to the point we are trying to make on our blog this week. We are doing Tulsa Initiative not just as a “new” anti-poverty effort or yet another community collaboration. We’re doing this because we believe strongly (and this is a point I’ve heard Jack Shonkoff make about our Tulsa Children’s Project) that it’s time to do something new in this field. Calatrava’s buildings replace the old warehouses and factories of a past industrial era, and merely building a “new” or even “beautiful” structure in its place simply isn’t enough. “No one will go there.” (Notice that he isn’t talking about beauty or aesthetics, he’s talking about boldness.)

The ground we stand on is strewn with new ideas, big failures, half successes, and – most often – inconclusive results. We can’t just make tweaks to the old programs and policies, even those based on all the best theorizing out there. Ending the cycle of poverty is what some call a “Big Hairy Audacious Goal” and it requires more than updates of stale architecture. Our work can’t be shy, or we won’t succeed. “No one will go there.”

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I can’t believe I am actually blogging. It feels like riding a bike on two wheels for the first time or getting up for a minute on the wind surfer, which is the best I ever did at that.

It should not be surprising that CAP is the cause for this new development in my life. Getting to know the work of CAP has been a source of awakenings throughout my life– whether it is the importance of early childhood education, the way an organization can transform the lives of thousands of people through the EITC effort, or added insight into how fiscal policy over the last 20 years has chipped away at the American Dream. CAP has always challenged me and brought me to new understandings about the world in which I live. So, bringing this work to the world through the blog is pure genious. Thank you Al Gore!

I work for one of CAP’s many partners in Tulsa and around the country— George Kaiser Family Foundation. We emphasize excellence in early childhood education as the best strategy to break the cycle of poverty. We developed that focus by way of research done by our donor, George Kaiser, and the amazing leadership of Annie Koppel VanHanken, who heads this core work area for GKFF.

But, as I have learned by working at GKFF, it does not matter how much financial capital is at your disposal it is simply impossible to make a difference unless you have partners on the ground who can implement your vision with excellence and integrity. CAP has been that for us–and more– every step of the way.

The proposed work of the Tulsa Initiative is exciting. I plan to follow it closely and learn from its unfolding. I hope that the work we have initiated with the Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University can play an important role in the project. GKFF has developed a project with Dr. Jack Shonkoff, who runs the Harvard Center, to assist GKFF and CAP in the next generation of excellence in early childhood education and in anti-poverty efforts. Jack talks about bridging the gap between what we “know” and what we “do.” For a guy from Harvard, he makes sense. And when he and Steven Dow get together, I always expect lightning to strike given the brilliance and dynamism that both personify.

Jack and his team plan to work closely with CAP and with the newly-created University of Oklahoma School of Community Medicine, which is ably led by Dr. Gerry Clancy. Ideally, these partners— CAP, Harvard, OU (tall cotton indeed)– with our help can make some positive things happen in the lives of thousands of low income Tulsans that otherwise might not occur.

Again, I salute CAP-TC and deeply appreciate the enormously important role it plays in Tulsa and, by its leadership in the field, the country. The Tulsa Initiative promises a new and important chapter in CAP’s journey. And, lastly, thanks for inviting me to blog. I could get into a habit of this.

Ken Levit is Executive Director of the George Kaiser Family Foundation.

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“Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.”

— Howard Aiken

Today is my day to post about my role in TI and function on this blog. For some reason this week, I’ve woken up every morning with a slight panic about this post. Like Micah, when people ask me about what I do and I say I work for an anti-poverty agency, I get the raised eyebrow or the “that’s cool…” Then I find myself giving a short dissertation on what CAP does and why it’s needed. You can only imagine what it’s like explaining TI. My elevator pitch these days is that it’s the non-profit equivalent to R&D in the context of solving intergenerational poverty. People seem to get it when I say that or maybe they just don’t want to touch it with a 10 foot pole.

In my contributor’s bio, I mention that I’m a Fund Development Specialist aka grant writer, spinner for Community Action Project (CAP). I also devote 20% of my time to studying innovation and how it is being applied or can be applied in the business, more specifically, non-profit world, and even more specifically, maybe Innovation Lab at CAP. At the end of 2007 and beginning of 2008 when TI was born, Monica interviewed candidates for the role of a Research Analyst for TI. Out of curiosity, I approached her about it and she basically gave me the job description that Micah has described to you in his post. They also wanted someone with quantitative skills- cue Micah – our recently graduated and incredibly intelligent economics and political science major.

I went on to tell Monica that I have been basically hoarding a wealth of information since I stepped in the door here. Part of it lays in the necessity of making cases in grant applications and a bigger portion from just pure inquisitiveness on how other entities are approaching similar problems. But what to do with all this information that I have and could we apply it? We’re still figuring that out as Micah is as well, being the resident reader. However, through some back and forth and eventual narrowing of focus we decided that I would study the issue of how a business incorporates innovation into its operation.

Why the 20%? Well, good question. 3M spends 20% of their R&D budget on innovation and Google mandates that employees spend 20% of their time on innovation. It’s fairly common in the larger companies such as the aforementioned and many others that some of the best ideas come from within.

There’s something to be said about being able to devote a percentage of an employee’s time to thinking about complex problems in an abstract and day-to-day sense and being given the freedom to explore and see where it takes one. One benefit is that employees are firmly entrenched in the day-to-day operation, so they have a thorough sense of the entity they are working within and to a larger extent- the industry. “Experts” are a great thing, but sometimes the answers are in your own backyard.

I intend to post on some of my findings on this blog and am curious to how others will respond and offer their own perspective on how we could use it here or readers can incorporate into their own workplaces/and or lives. One example was the post I had about the MIT Fab Labs. I must also mention the Stanford Social Innovation Review because they always highlight innovative organizations. I also hope to throw in articles and book reviews as this thing progresses.

There’s been a lot of talk about change lately on a national level. Innovation is a strong catalyst to change and we need to be alert to how we can apply the most seemingly far-away innovative concepts into our own work. We need to also remember that innovation happens from mistakes AND successes.

Did I mention that Google has gourmet chefs, an on-site doctor, and a massage therapist?

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So we just got our new, shiny Tulsa Initiative brochures (which we’ll post on here in PDF at some point) after having gone through many many drafts and proofs. Darlene, our executive assistant, hadn’t seen it yet so I gave her one.

And what did she find?

We could have benefited from our own early eduction program.

We could have benefited from our own early eduction program.

And that my friends, is why you can’t trust “researchers” and “directors” (including executive ones!) with anything that people with more typical interests care about.

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