Christian Gray – Executive Director of inCOMMON

[quote style=”boxed”]Everyone doesn’t need to start new companies or nonprofits. Sometimes the best solution is to join in and contribute to something that already exists.[/quote]

Christian Gray was born and raised on the sunny beaches of southern California. For university, he moved to Tucson, Arizona, where he earned a B.A. in communication, and more importantly, met his future wife (Sonya Gray).

In 2004, Christian accepted the position of U.S. director with Word Made Flesh (WMF), relocating with his family to Omaha, Nebraska. While with WMF, Christian had the extraordinary opportunity to cultivate a deep passion for the poor, through extensive international travel. His experiences during this time fueled his primary domestic role with WMF, promoting local advocacy efforts on behalf the word’s poor.

After completing his contract with WMF in 2006, Christian became the executive director of inCOMMON Community Development. During his tenure at inCOMMON, he’s found great joy and satisfaction in the work of asset-based neighborhood development and social capital formation within vulnerable neighborhoods. Most of all, however, he’s enjoyed developing personal relationships with residents and friends who have taught him that the greatest asset of any neighborhood is the people living there.

In recent days, Christian’s passion for neighborhood development work has expanded into the realm of urban planning and design. This growing interest has come naturally through an increased holistic concern for the well-being of his friends living in poverty and through a growing desire to not only witness their individual, immediate well-being but also the well-being of their entire community. In pursuit of this interest (as well as in his long-standing interest in the human and social components of poverty), Christian is currently pursuing an urban studies master’s degree through the University of Omaha at Nebraska.

In addition to these pursuits, Christian is also actively engaged in the civic life of his community. Christian’s current involvement includes serving on the board of directors for The Neighborhood Center and Neighbors United, as a steering committee member of VOICE Omaha, as a board of trustees member of The Business Ethics Alliance, and as a grantmaking member of the Omaha Venture Group.

What are you working on right now?

My team is currently working on developing a community resource center in the low-income neighborhood of Park Avenue (Omaha, Nebraska). The Park Ave Commons will be a safe and hospitable place for residents to come together to build community, receive services, and take part in empowerment-based opportunities and trainings. Commons’ programming will include community-building activities, social services, individual development services, and job readiness workshops.

Where did the idea for inCOMMON Community come from?

I took on the leadership of the organization a few years after its conception. Although it’s changed and evolved in many ways over the years, inCOMMON has held on tightly to its original core value: developing relationships with people who are poor and marginalized in our city. We’ve been inspired by many great community developers around the country. One writer/practitioner who we’ve especially taken cues from is Dr. Bob Lupton in Atlanta. Lupton argues, “The single greatest cause to sustained poverty in our cities is isolation.” This idea–that people are held in poverty primarily because they are disconnected from the resources and opportunities –has been hugely influential in our work. Our motto, “transforming communities through community,” is evidence of this powerful influence at play.

What does your typical day look like?

Currently I spend a great deal of time developing funds and networking in support of the Park Ave Commons project. It’s super boring, but I plug away at it because of the vision I have for the next season of our organization, which involves relocating our entire operations into the neighborhood we work in and are so passionate about seeing transformed.

How do you bring ideas to life?

I’m pretty tuned-in to what I’m good at and what I’m not, so for me, a huge part of bringing ideas to life comes through teamwork and collaboration. I’ve been extraordinarily blessed over the years to have a very gifted team at inCOMMON. Each team member individually brings crucial pieces to the mix. In addition, Omaha is an amazing place in which to collaborate, particularly in the realm of community development. We’ve found huge success in bringing like-minded partners–both nonprofit and cross-sector–together around a common table to work toward the common goal of a healthy, more vibrant community for all. In this way, I’m very cognizant of the fact that accomplishing our mission to alleviate poverty on the neighborhood level can only come about through playing together intentionally in the same sandbox.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

I’m a social capitalist, so I get really excited when I see people get personally involved in working with others for the good of their own communities. I think the idea of social capital is particularly salient within the work of community development and poverty alleviation. When people get personally invested in the future of their communities and the lives of others around them, powerful things can and do happen. Millennials in particular seem driven to “get their hands dirty” by being a part of something meaningful and personal. Soup lines, albeit important tools for providing emergency aid to people in crisis, no longer have the volunteer appeal they once did. Emerging generations want to move to the other side of the service counter and share other people’s stories. This new-found personal investment, I believe, has the potential to radically change social service as we know it, not to mention the world.

What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

The worst job I ever had was an admin role at a corporate office. Through that experience, I learned how important it is for me to have sufficient opportunities for creative expression at work. For the good and bad of it, I came to see that I’m much more valuable to a team or project as a conceptualizer/strategist than as a task-master.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

The way we began this work was fairly typical of any young, grassroots organization–we simply identified the felt needs of our community and addressed them in simple, practical ways. Over the years, as we began to mature little by little, we became much more strategic in our efforts. Although I wouldn’t necessarily go back and change our origins (those experiences were a vital part of us forming into what we are today), reflecting back on our history serves as an important reminder of the various phases an organization undergoes throughout the course of its development. I’ve learned the sobering reality that if the lifespan of a startup is limited to only a couple of years, the possibility exists that the best expression of that organization will never be fully realized.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Include people in the process. Like anyone else, I’ve had a lot of great ideas and a lot of terrible ones as well. It can be so difficult to get out of our own heads and see things from a different angle. Immersing yourself within a trusted community of people who can kill your idea from point-blank range is a gift. Furthermore, ideas (good or bad) obviously don’t come about in a vacuum. The best ideas are almost always adaptations of preceding ideas (there’s nothing new under the sun). Therefore, working and living in community is key for an entrepreneur, because he/she must be continuously exposed to new thoughts and paradigms.

What is one problem you encountered as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

Like any entrepreneur on a shoestring budget, I’ve had to become good at doing a bunch of things for which I’ve never had formal training or even really had the desire to do. I got into this field to pursue my passion for offering authentic relationships and hope to people suffering in the midst of poverty, but quickly had to learn how to develop organizational budgets and write grants. As I’ve added these new skills to my repertoire, though, I’ve become a better overall leader/entrepreneur. This, of course, is the gift challenge brings; if we can stick with a challenge and get beyond obstacles, we’re all the better for it.

If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be and how would you go about it?

I’m passionate about neighborhoods, because, as the context for where life is lived, they play a huge role in forming who we are and who we become. If my neighborhood is strong and thriving, and rich with opportunity, vision, and creativity, it’s much more likely there’s a positive future in front of me. If, however, the opposite is true, I face immediate challenges right out of the gate. So, if I could change one thing in the world, I’d give every kid the opportunity to grow up in the first type of neighborhood I mentioned. Of course, the way to begin making any dream come true is to just begin simply in your own backyard. My family and I have committed to living in under-resourced neighborhoods as a way to live-out–and hopefully inspire in others–a vision for neighborhood revitalization in our own daily rhythm.

Tell us a secret.

Charity and other seemingly altruistic forms of philanthropy often succumb to shallow piety and tokenism. Social change tactics rooted in consumerism and self-interest–the preferred method of the modern social entrepreneur–can be insincere and unsustainable. As trite as it sounds, I believe any measure of long-term, transformative social change must be driven by and rooted in love. Dr. King said, “At the center of non-violence stands the principle of love.” I think this is universally true for all varieties of social change–violence, poverty, or otherwise. All social change movements that desire real, deep, world-altering change must therefore learn to cultivate and inspire pure actions of love.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Toxic Charity by Robert Lupton. I think it’s crucial that we begin to approach our social change efforts with as much head as we do heart, otherwise we risk bringing further harm to those we intend to help. Veteran community developer Lupton probably has the best handle on how to make this important shift from charity to empowerment.

When was the last time you laughed out loud? What caused it?

The last time I laughed out loud was this morning. My kids are the funniest comedians on the planet. Seriously.

Who is your hero?

One of my heroes is Dr. John Perkins of Jackson, Mississippi. Dr. Perkins has inspired an entire movement of living-out what he calls the three “Rs” of community development: relocation, reconciliation, and redistribution. This movement encourages folks to move into under-resourced communities, to reconcile relationships across races, religions and socioeconomic levels, and to share their time, talents and treasures with those in need around them. It’s powerful, counter-cultural stuff. Most importantly, he hasn’t fathered this movement simply as a thinker, but as a practitioner. He and his family have lived out these values–even in the face of violence, imprisonment and tremendous heartbreak–for the past 40+ years. In a world of pop-up social causes and “slactavism,” Dr. Perkins is a true giant of authentic, sustained social action.

What trends are you most concerned with?

I love the entrepreneurial spirit that is alive and well across the country. However, as with anything, there are two sides to this coin. In my opinion, the underside of entrepreneurialism is “proprietary-ism.” Although a substantial drive toward innovation exists, there is great temptation to work in independent silos for the purpose of making a name for oneself. Everyone doesn’t need to start new companies or nonprofits. Sometimes the best solution is to join in and contribute to something that already exists. Not only is it expensive and time-consuming to run an organization, but it’s also possible to steal away the attention and energy of people who should be pushing powerful, world-changing ideas forward rather than running a back office (which, of course, is also a significant role, albeit a different one).

As a community developer, what is your vision for community?

For a community to function at a high level, it is essential that it capitalize on all the resources at its disposal. Since people are the foundational building blocks of a society, the only way to realize the type of community we all desire–a truly unique, vibrant, and inspiring places to live–is to ensure every community member is given the chance to contribute. Embedded within this notion is a strong belief in the concept of mutuality. We need each other because we all have something unique to offer, even the most unassuming of us. My vision is to see this type of inclusive, mutually benefital and empowered community emerge from the rocky, self-sufficient soil in my city, as well as in cities across the planet.


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