The Third Way: Creating Space for Everyone at the Table
Three signs hang up on the wall at the office of Portland Leadership Foundation (PLF), the nonprofit organization that launched Every Child in 2015, which read:
- 90% of life is showing up
- The who is more important than the what
- Leadership has no shortcuts
These principles guide everything the organization does from providing college scholarships to first generation college students from historically marginalized communities to inviting community members to transform the child welfare system.
In 2012, a dynamo foster and adoptive mom approached PLF with a conviction, and an idea. The conviction: The community needed an overt invitation to engage with children in foster care. Every day, children were being dropped off at child welfare offices (run by Oregon’s Department of Human Services, or DHS) across Portland and most of the community had no idea; yet, these children and youth were the most vulnerable in our community.
The idea: A Welcome Box
These small photo or memory boxes full of items that community members curated would be the launch point for what would lead to the Every Child initiative across the entire state of Oregon.
Welcome Boxes provided an entry point to child welfare offices and provided easy ways for community members to 1) engage with the foster care system; and 2) learn about the needs of the most vulnerable youth in our community.
These boxes began to crack the door to a robust government agency—DHS—that historically looked warily upon community partnership in any capacity.
Relationships move at the speed of trust.
Up until 2012 trust was un-established. Four faith communities agreed to embark on a quiet pilot project with us to adopt their local child welfare office and to simply love the heck out of the people who walked through its doors—children and families in crisis, and those who care for them.
They showed up with rusty barbecues to grill hot dogs for DHS staff, brought cookies with signs that said “thank you for caring for the most vulnerable”, and began to rally their connections in the community to beautify spaces where families spent time with their children in foster care each week. Businesses came on board to donate paint, furniture, décor, and volunteers. Trust was established day-by-day as people kept showing up with a collaborative posture to serve children and families through DHS.
the stream of community involvement became a river, and the river became a flood.
Today, this effort is active in counties making up more than 50 percent of the population in Oregon. Across the state, more than 150 churches, 200 businesses, 25 social clubs are working together to serve the most vulnerable in the community in partnership with DHS. Last year alone, 867 families inquired about becoming foster parents through the Every Child effort (nearly an 80 percent increase from the year before), and volunteers are coming forward in droves to participate in any way, shape, or form.
What is the secret?
It comes down to building bridges.
In my living room hangs a large painting of a bridge. In the past year, it’s become a constant reminder of the role Every Child plays as a bridge between the community and the state’s largest government agency. But, the bridge-building doesn’t stop there. Every day, bridges are built between churches and other important contributors in the community, or amongst churches who have not collaborated intentionally with one another before. Under the umbrella of “caring for vulnerable children”, Every Child provides easy ways for the entire community to come together for the sake of kids.
Our community, like yours, has three sectors that are all designed to serve the local neighborhood:
1) The social sector: non-profit organizations, churches, social clubs, and more
2) The private sector: businesses, professional clubs, and business-focused service groups
3) The public sector: government agencies
Our conviction—in line with an article by Stanford Social Innovation Review–is that the only way to move the dial on complex social issues is to facilitate a non-competitive environment that allows for leaders in the social, private, and public sectors to come together. In essence that means creating pathways for government agencies to work with church leaders, and it also means creating space for church leaders to work alongside brew masters, tattoo shop owners, and LGBTQ organizations.
This “third way” is marked by collaboration, positivity, hopefulness, and with one key goal in mind: to holistically engage the community with the most vulnerable. It does away with any scarcity mindset. It requires people of peace to love, care for, and support those who may never walk through the doors of a church. And, it requires the lines established in the separation of church and state to be respected. It’s about building trust, building relationship, and laying aside differences for the sake of loving our community better. It lays agendas down at the door for the benefit of community healing and redemption.
This posture does not require us to lay aside our conviction that the Church in Oregon should be leading community to better care for children and families in crisis. But, it does require us to think outside the box, to celebrate the value of each sector of our community, to get proximate to need in our own backyard, and to commit to faithfulness and longsuffering alongside DHS to see the impact on our community’s most vulnerable.
It’s this commitment that has led the Every Child community—stretched across 13 counties and counting—to become DHS’s best recruiter of foster families, the strongest voice reframing foster care and sharing positive stories of impact [i], and the most generous volunteer base to Oregon’s child welfare system.
As both its initiator and steadfast leader, that’s quite the legacy for the Church.
Every Child Overview from Every Child Oregon.
i. Every Child and Embrace Oregon (Portland Metro focused) Facebook pages collectively share stories with 15,000 followers.