Why was Bridges Out of Poverty such an easy fit for me? What was it about this process that, when I interviewed Phil DeVol for a webcast, resonated with me so strongly? This process called Bridges had been foreshadowed earlier in my life’s experiences.
Way back in the 1980s, before politics and policy work, I coached our daughter’s T-ball team.
First, a word about T-ball for those of you unfamiliar with this sport. There are ten kids playing on a team, usually ages 4–6, who bat each of the six innings by hitting the ball off of an upright, flexible shaft called a “T.” You can get called out on the bases, but you can’t strike out. All ten batters get a chance to hit. This means the most you can score is 60 runs; every batter gets a hit, and all make it home. This also means that if you get to 31 runs in the fourth inning and they have scored nothing, the other team simply can’t catch you even if they score every opportunity remaining. Our scorekeeper kept a running tally of when the game mathematically became won or lost.
In most cases defense is not in existence, and the smaller children stand listlessly in the outfield, picking dandelions.
I have always joked that when I die, I want my tombstone to read: “Never lost a game while coaching daughters’ T-ball teams.” The girls’ abilities on the field ultimately won the games, but we had a couple of “non-hidden rules” that allowed those abilities to be fully realized. First, when the game became impossible for us to lose, everyone switched positions, providing an incentive to stop picking dandelions in the outfield and to pay attention to the game. Second, the parents were allowed to shout words of encouragement but were not allowed to shout out specific instructions to the players on the field. I noticed that too often when the ball was hit to the girls, they would freeze until getting instructions from the sidelines, i.e., their mother.
If they made a mistake on the field, I would call time, go out, and ask them to look around and tell me what happened. They would pause, look, see what happened, have an aha! moment, inform me of what they did wrong, what to do in the future, and rarely make the mistake again. In contrast, the mothers could only shout vague words of encouragement. We crushed our opponents, plus the girls had fun. Yes, I used the word mothers but not fathers; of the 14 girls on the team, fathers were only present for four of them.
Coaching this team was the first time I had encountered the phrase “The Man,” with the use of capital letters implied. Some of the parents used this phrase, as in, “The Man won’t allow that” or “What The Man says goes.” Our farm is located in a low-income, rural area of Ohio, Preble County, and while I had gone to secondary and high school with many of the parents, this phrase was new to me. For those gentle readers who have opened J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, he spent much of his youth just a few miles down the road. Of all the parents, only my wife and I had both graduated from college. The idea that there was this mythical “Man” who ran everything was baffling to us, and indeed, slightly repulsive. You are in charge of your own destiny, but for some of the parents, no; it was this “Man.”
That is part of what drove me to coach in the manner I did: to give those young ladies the chance to be in control of their own fates and the fate of their team.
My wife and I wanted this to be a positive experience; sadly, it exceeded our expectations.
Twenty years later I was sitting in a doctor’s office for an annual checkup, and the young lady sitting next to me suddenly turned and said, “Are you Mr. Krebs?” (I get this a lot from a quarter century of politics.) Imagine my surprise when she said that I had been her T-ball coach and that those were the happiest days of her life.
Borderline obese and never married, she had three children by two men and lived with her mother in a trailer park, all at the age of 26. I left there saddened, with a bouquet of different thoughts, as on one hand I was glad that she did enjoy her time on the team, but highly disturbed to learn it simply did not stick enough for her to change her life. She is repeating the cycle, as several of the parents of the girls, including her own, were single mothers, with no permanent father figure for them.
A quarter century after coaching, in discovering the work of those developing and applying the Bridges Out of Poverty model, I found the same philosophy may be used to break the cycle of multigenerational poverty. The key is individual self-awareness—helping people understand the rules and develop the skills to “play the game.” It was Phil DeVol who helped me make the connection, and it was serendipity that brought us together.
But that story about serendipity is found in the book Bridges Across Every Divide. You’ll have read it to enjoy that part of the journey.
This post was written by Gene Krebs