Monday, August 10, 2009

Talking to Small Groups, Part I

I had the opportunity today to talk to a small group, about ten, businessmen and one businesswoman about the work of Central Dallas CDC over lunch. The club has been meeting once each month for several years and tries to bring in a guest to talk about a new issue each time. If it is affiliated with a larger organization (Rotary, Lions, etc.) no one mentioned it. I was connected to the group through a mutual friend.

I don’t know the politics of the group, but judging from the conversation before I started to talk, I would guess the majority of the people were conservative to moderate Republicans with a few moderate Democrats—pretty typical for Dallas. In short, though, not the sort of bleeding heart liberals that you would expect to be sympathetic to homeless people.

People act differently when you meet them as individuals rather then in large groups. I’ve found in general that if I explain what we are doing, why we are doing it and how it will work that people will give you a fair hearing.

I’ve never felt very excited about making speeches. For me, the personal connection is lost when I stand before a sea of faces with a microphone and make a speech. I’m perfectly comfortable, on the other hand, speaking to any group small enough (say not more than thirty or forty people) for me to talk with unamplified, take questions and engage in a conversation.

I have a pretty standard format for those talks. It begins with a little biography, who I am and how I got to where I am. I used to skip this part of the talk. It seemed too self-important for a boy raised on Midwestern modesty, but I no longer skip my biography. People want to know something about you and where you came from. Then they have a basis to begin thinking about your mission.

Then I try to include some stories from the time I worked at Central Dallas Ministries’ Legal Action Works, both tragic and comic. The stories I tell vary depending on what comes to mind. Today I talked about a woman I represented who was stabbed twelve times by her husband while the divorce was pending. In order to win her case, I had to put her daughter, twelve at the time it happened, on the stand to describe the stabbing. The stabbing took place in front of the daughter.

It’s also important to include heartwarming or even comic stories as well. The work we do, and the lives of the people we work with, are full of warmth and joy. I don’t think it’s healthy to present only the most desperate stories. Today I told the story of a man whose divorce I handled after he was separated from his wife for thirty-seven years. Judges usually are pretty bored during uncontested divorces, but this time the Judge looked up and asked my client, “Are you sure you’ve had enough time to think about getting divorced.” The courtroom broke out in laughter—not mean laughter but generous laughter at the absurdity of life.

The story usually gets a laugh for me as well.

After that I talk about one of the homeless clients I had as a lawyer and why it’s so difficult to help someone who’s homeless. That’s my opportunity to segue into talking about how I got into housing, especially for the homeless, and the topic of tomorrow’s blog.

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