By: AIF Staff
Following the 2012 Presidential Election, American Idea Foundation President and former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan set out to listen and learn from individuals who are fighting for change in communities around the country. Rather than relying on experts in Washington for answers, Speaker Ryan thought it was better to go straight to the source and he spent years meeting with local leaders and groups who are making a positive difference one person at a time.
The premise was simple: Speaker Ryan believed that there were bright spots in communities throughout the country: Organizations flying under the radar achieving success and taking on the tough issues, individuals embodying the best of America and helping their fellow neighbors, and communities improving themselves from the ground-up. His hope was to hear how these individuals were making positive contributions, see their work in action, and then touch more people’s lives by advancing public policies that incorporated these models of success. After listening and learning, Ryan collaborated with his fellow policy-makers to develop legislative solutions to enhance these organizations’ efforts to accomplish their mission and scale their models of success. It is a blueprint that the American Idea Foundation has continued to build on since Speaker Ryan left Congress.
One month after the 2012 election, Ryan laid out his reasons for this approach at the Jack Kemp Leadership Award Dinner:
“We must carry on and keep fighting for the American Idea – the belief that everyone should have the opportunity to rise … to escape from poverty…. and to achieve whatever your God-given talents and hard work enable you to achieve. That is the promise of American life. And for too many Americans, it isn’t being kept….
“We need a vision for bringing opportunity into every life – one that promotes strong families, secure livelihoods, and an equal chance for every American to fulfill their highest aspirations for themselves and their children.
“This vision leaves behind the failures of the past. It seeks instead to build on those reforms that have worked. It calls on government to encourage, not displace, the efforts of free people to help one another. It calls for a stronger safety net – one that protects the most vulnerable and promotes self-reliance. It calls for an end to the chronic inequalities in our education system.
“And finally, it promotes economic growth through free enterprise – because nothing has done more to lift people everywhere out of poverty.”
Working with his mentor and noted community organizer Bob Woodson, Ryan set about identifying those entities and organizations that were helping individuals achieve their version of the American dream and that were tackling the key challenges facing our communities.
Subsequently, some of the organizations that Speaker Ryan visited and developed relationships with were featured prominently in a video series entitled: “Comeback,” which told powerful stories of transformation, redemption, and rejuvenation occurring across the country.
The American Idea Foundation wanted to check-in on some of the groups that Ryan met, many of whom were featured in the “Comeback,” to see how they are still laboring to improve the lives of their fellow citizens. Here is a quick update:
Beyond the Walls: Operating in Elyria, Ohio, Beyond the Walls Church was founded by Pastors Paul and Cindy Grodell after they turned their lives around through faith and hard-work. The Grodells then felt called to help others do the same and their outreach-based approach to ministry has since helped countless individuals overcome addiction and rise out of poverty. Beyond the Walls Church meets people where they are. They showing people compassion and respect, offering a helping hand when it is needed most. Speaker Ryan got to know the Grodells after learning about their ministry in 2012 and returned in 2016 to see how their efforts were progressing.
Beyond the Walls captured the visit in a moving video entitled: The Gift of Redemption, which provided details on how the organization is making a tangible difference in the lives of Ohioans. John Hart described the visit, saying:
“The sanctuary was simple and inviting, but more industrial than corporate. There was no air conditioning, just fans blowing in the back to contain the thin film of sweat forming on a handful of staff and over-dressed convention-goers.
Ryan arrived without fanfare and made no grand entrance. He took his seat at two folded tables set up as an inverted “v” panel and prepared to listen to extraordinary personal stories of victory and grief.”
Urban Specialists: Bishop Omar Jawhar and Antong Lucky, two of the leaders of Urban Specialists in Dallas, Texas, continue to transform lives by working to end generational poverty and reduce violence among younger Americans. Their approach of “change lives, save lives,” was recently featured in the Dallas Morning News as they keep making progress to end senseless acts of violence throughout Texas. Ryan talked with Bishop Jawhar, Antong Lucky, and other front-line organizations in 2016 about how federal policymakers can better address systemic issues of poverty and income inequality. Their unique relationship was highlighted in Forbes Magazine which noted that while progress was being made, more work still needed to be done.
Outcry in the Barrio: Led by senior pastor Jubal Garcia, the ministries of Outcry in the Barrio have saved thousands of lives in San Antonio, Texas. Garcia and his team continue to help those struggling with drug addiction and substance abuse in a way that preserves their dignity and provides them with avenues to get their lives back on track. The San Antonio Express News profiled Outcry in the Barrio and touched on the expansive reach of their ministry in recent years:
“Those who come into Outcry in the Barrio as drug addicts and successfully complete the 90-day rehab program are eligible to enter the program’s leadership academy, which takes three and a half years. During that time, participants may be sent to minister in any of the other nearby Outcry in the Barrio locations across the state of Texas or elsewhere. Since 1970, locations have spread throughout Texas and Mexico, and into South America; in Peru alone, there are more 54 locations.” Garcia said.
Praising their faith-based approach in 2016, Speaker Ryan wrote in an op-ed: “There is a better way to fight poverty. I have seen it firsthand in San Antonio, at Outcry in the Barrio, a faith-based rehab program. There, they take drug addicts off the streets and get them on the right path. This isn’t a big government program. It is people helping people. It’s the approach we need to take around the country: see the person, not the problem.”
Local resident Steve Parkhurst visited Outcry a number of times and summed up their work succinctly:
“It was about a ministry, with a success rate better than any government recovery program can aspire to, doing what seems like impossible work. It was about neighborhood healers, first Freddie Garcia, then current leaders Roman and Alma Herrera, and every leader at Outcry who has ever stood or sat in front of a person who could be down to his or her last breath, his or her last moment, and simply said a prayer and led that lost soul first to acceptance and then to a safe place where healing begins. This is the stuff that leads to a renaissance.”
Rev. Dr. Deforest “Buster” Soaries: As part of his listening and learning, Speaker Ryan developed a relationship with Rev. Dr. Buster Soaries, who for decades was the head of the First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in New Jersey. With the help of Soaries, Franklin Township painstakingly worked to repair relations with the community and the local Police Department with the goal of increasing safety, protecting individual’s civil rights, and decreasing violence.
In a 2016 interview, Ryan praised the effort as a template for other communities to potentially follow, saying in part: “Buster and other black leaders in Somerset, a low-income community, worked with local law enforcement to set up a group that has instantaneous communications whenever something wrong occurs. And they’ve got – they’ve basically fused and merged the minority community with the police department in a very effective way and they have a community policing system that works really, really well.”
Soaries has continued to lead by example and following the killing of George Floyd, offered observations on how communities around the country could deal with issues of race, equal justice, and law enforcement. His comments are available here.
These are just a few amazing stories of inspiration that are taking place in pockets of America each and every day. At a time when cynicism and gridlock are pervasive parts of our political system, the American Idea Foundation will continue to hold up examples that show progress is possible. By looking to success stories in our communities, legislators can craft better and more effective public policies.
As Ryan said in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute: “We have an obligation to expand opportunity in America—to deliver real change, real solutions, and real results. And to do that, we need to stop listening to the loudest voices in the room—and start listening to the smartest voices in the room.”
The American Idea Foundation is going to do precisely that.