Volume 1 Number 3
Pasadena's Long-Distance Runners
01 November 1987

Four years ago All Saints Episcopal Church asked one of their congregation, Denise Wood, to survey Pasadena's `quality of life'. For nine months she went around listening to people and their concerns. What she discovered was a 'city in pain', as she describes it, with alarming problems most people were unaware of.

Ask Americans what they know about the city of Pasadena and most will reply that it is the home of the annual New Year's Day Rose Bowl football game and Rose Parade. Known also for the California Institute of Technology, it has an image of palm-lined streets, excellent education, high culture and middle class comfort.

Few realize that Pasadena has experienced the same demographic turnaround which has recast so many American cities in the last 40 years. Its 128,000 citizens now include 15,000 Armenians, as well as Koreans, Hispanics and boat people. Thirty-six per cent of schoolchildren are black, and the second largest group is Hispanic.

Four years ago All Saints Episcopal Church asked one of their congregation, Denise Wood, to survey Pasadena's `quality of life'. For nine months she went around listening to people and their concerns. What she discovered was a 'city in pain', as she describes it, with alarming problems most people were unaware of.

Her report, which took the form of a 52-page booklet, Experiencing Pasadena - the needs, promises and tasks of an American city, was adopted by the city's Strategic Planning Task Force. It recounts statistics sadly familiar to the American inner-city scene: severe black male unemployment, with the jobless rate for black teenagers sometimes reaching as much as five times the total unemployment rate; heroin-connected deaths increasing over 400 per cent in the previous four years; people living in cars, in trashbins, on the streets; hot-bedding-where three people use the same bed in consecutive shifts over 24 hours.

At the same time the report identifies `green shoots of hope' -`a problem perceived, an individual who responds, takes leadership and kindles positive action by others'.

What Denise Wood began to realize in the course of her 104 interviews was that many of those working in the city's 192 social agencies did not know each other. She found that as well as talking to people she was linking them up with one another. This set her thinking. When she made her report to the vestry of her church, she suggested that the church could provide a useful service to the city by setting up an `office of creative connections'. At once they voted funds for the task and made her director.

Meantime Denise's husband had also been making creative links. Concerned about Pasadena's unemployment, John Wood had agreed to chair a 14-person volunteer task force to look into starting a city `skills centre', to train adults for skills leading to jobs in the Pasadena area. It would also provide a place for high school dropouts to complete their education.

Meeting twice a week at 7.30 am for 12 months, the 14 members of the task force had very different ideas of what was needed. John's part was to keep the momentum going and to help people listen to each other. They never had to take a vote.

The resulting project drew on three major resources in the city: the Board of Education, which provided a disused school building in an excellent downtown location; Pasadena City College, a community college that provided curricula, teachers and some state funding; and the city government of Pasadena which served as a conduit for federal funding and has helped with job placement.

Within four months of the task force's report, the skills centre was in operation. It has trained about 3,500 people a year since 1980: twothirds of them have got jobs immediately.

The State Superintendent sees the project's `tripartite' nature as extremely significant. `If we did that throughout the state of California, we'd save millions,' he says. When he asked the School Board how they managed to get City Hall, the City College and the school district to work together the Pasadena School Superintendent replied, `You just get John Wood to be the leader.'

The Woods are not professional social workers: Denise had just retired as dean of students of a private girls' school when she took on the Pasadena survey. John was director of development for the Braille Institute before his retirement last year. Both are 70. They speak with an accent which reveals their Boston roots - they only moved to California in 1972. Both feel they have had a privileged life. John's antecedents, who go back to the first generation of New Englanders, include several governors of Connecticut. A Harvard graduate, he draws inspiration from his father, an Episcopal priest and professor who ministered to the strikers on the picket lines in Lowell and other manufacturing towns in the Thirties. Because her mother was French, Denise was partly educated in France. Her father was an industrialist and amateur inventor, who applied for a patent for an electric clock only to discover that Edison had patented his own two weeks earlier. At the same time, Denise recalls, there were tensions at home which taught her how to listen attentively to what was going on around her.

Listening is essential to her present work. She particularly wants to use the Office of Creative Connections to give professional social workers the chance to talk to their peers and test ideas. `The professionals,' says Denise, `are where the heat of the day is, and the rest of us must nurture them.'

Typical of the work in her office was a talk Denise had with a Pasadena psychiatrist about the need not just to look after the mental health of a client, but the mental health of Pasadena. As a result the psychiatrist initiated a scheme whereby she and fellow professionals would offer low cost or free therapy to women who had been abused as children.

`One of the realities of sexual child abuse is that, if it has happened to you, you are predisposed to do it to your children. So if you are going to break the cycle, you have to get therapy and healing and conversion. Yet for the poor, professional help is financially out of reach,' says Denise.
When the project was getting under way, one of the doctors involved said, `I've always known those women were out there. But if I'd moved a finger I would have been inundated by them. Now with the 12 of us working together, I think we can do it.'

Another interest of the Office of Creative Connections has been the Summer Youth Employment Program, a federally funded project to find summer work for teenagers and pay them at the minimum wage. Denise and her colleagues wanted to ensure that such a scheme would enhance the self-esteem of the young people involved. `If you give a kid a job of picking up cans off the freeway, sure, he has a job, but he also gets a message about what you think of him.'

They have created a nine-week pilot programme that offers work to the young people while at the same time exploring what kinds of experience build most into their lives. Two days a week they care for horses on a ranch. `They can give their heart to an animal in ways they can't to a human being. And it is amazing what horses teach them: you have to care for them, you can't play a loud radio or be rough, you have to pick up manure.'

`On Thursday they go and paint out graffiti,' Denise continues, `or they paint a room for a non-profit child care centre. The centre provides the paint, we provide the kids and supervision.'

The YMCA, churches, ranch owners, the Urban League and World Vision are all helping with the project.

`We have only nine weeks with youngsters who have been scarred by their childhood,' she says. `You mustn't expect too much. But with the first group of 12, who came to us in 1986, nearly half were in jobs in February 1987. That's a small sample, I know, but it is a high percentage. To be in a job when you have no job orientation at all is a big leap.'

The Office of Creative Connections does not, in fact, `run' anything. Denise sees it as a catalyst. She believes it draws its strength from the fact that it does not threaten anyone else's budget, or anyone else's turf. One health care professional told Denise, `I deal with sick people all day, but to know that there is someone like you dealing with prevention enables me to go back.'

Denise underlines that this kind of encouragement can run in two directions. `I am constantly stimulated by those who need to be listened to and affirmed. When you do listen, something happens to you.' She points out in one of her reports that service providers rarely have time to build up community awareness about problems and needs. This is one area where her office can help.

What motivates a couple, who could be enjoying a leisured retirement, to work in the community - often six days a week?

Denise's answer is: `It's the most fascinating thing I've ever done.' When they get home at the end of the day each is competing to tell the other what they have been doing.

Anybody in education has to give of themselves, Denise says. `Young people recognize that quality when they see it. They respond, and they forgive your mistakes. It is enormously rewarding and you want to go on.'

Though they rarely speak about it, both the Woods believe their faith is what makes them into `long-distance runners', as Denise put it in a recent TV interview. `It gets you up in the morning, prevents burn-out, teaches you to listen to other people, to believe that things will happen. I used to play a lot of touch football. I believe my faith gives the courage to make a forward pass and believe someone up ahead will catch it.'

Denise has now produced a second report - Growing up in Pasadena - what are our children telling us? - and she has been appointed chairperson of Pasadena's Commission on Children and Youth. Most recently she and others have embarked on a city-wide effort to reverse the drug trend.

1986 marked the centenary of the founding of Pasadena. The mayor and vice-mayor wanted the event to bring the city together. They asked John Wood to chair the centennial committee.

`Above all my task was to uphold the principle that the year was for the whole community, that everyone would feel they had a part. I believe that all who took part in the leadership grew as persons, in understanding, in listening to each other, in expectations and in requiring high standards.'

All ethnic groups took part in the centennial parade, which covered Pasadena's history and gave high billing to one of Pasadena's most famous sons, Jackie Robinson, who broke down the colour barrier in major league baseball. A black community activist said it was `the first real people's parade' he had ever seen.

Denise has come to look out for the moment when the unexpected bursts in and rearranges her plans. She calls this the 'ah ha experience' - and sees it as the work of the Holy Spirit. `It helps reverse the tendency to control things. What we are talking about has to be born, has to be given.' As the city begins `to come together, to be aware of itself, to be healthy and responsible in the largest sense of the word', something begins to happen to the people concerned. `People find hope again about themselves and you turn around their cynicism to a "can do".’

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