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Interview with David Jordan, Agape CEO
Agape celebrating 50th anniversary next year
Posted on 05/20/2019
By Leah Kraus, Digital Content Coordinator

In 2020, Agape will celebrate its 50th birthday. Agape is a non-profit organization that serves both children and parents in the Memphis community in several ways – including adoption and foster care, school-based support, workforce readiness, homeless services, and counseling. We spoke with President and CEO, David Jordan, to learn more about the organization’s goals and how they’re celebrating 50 years of service. 

Tell us about Agape and what makes it such a unique organization? 
David Jordan: This is our 50th year anniversary, actually April 1 of 2020 will be our 50th birthday. We’re spending 12 months in the 50th year celebrating the work we’ve done in Memphis and in anticipation of the future for our work. This is my 24th year as president/ CEO. Our first 25 years was given exclusively to foster care and adoption. The last 15 to 20 years, we’ve really been asking questions within our mission – “what does it look like if we don’t wait for kids and families to come into a system like foster care, what if we moved upstream?”  We looked at where kids and families live before they come into a foster care system. In Frayser, Whitehaven, and Hickory Hill -- if you put those communities together, almost every month, up to 50 percent of all the kids that come into foster care in Shelby County, come from those three communities. 

Over ten years ago we launched what is called “place-based strategy,” where you go to the places that people live, and serve with those in the community. We call that “Powerlines Community Network.” We’re connecting communities with resources and services that they say they need and they want based on their strengths. The philosophy is a “two-generation model,” so we serve both generations – parent and child -- simultaneously. A lot of organizations either serve the youth or the adult, but not always the whole family. Research is pretty clear, if you’re not serving the whole family, and if you’re really trying to have movement, then it’s going to be difficult. 

Talk about your goals and how you work to achieve them?
Our overall goal is poverty reduction. We’re measuring a range of matters in the places that people live. Hearing their voice is a significant part. What do they say is working and what is standing in the way of their being successful? We do what’s called “Community Cafes” – sitting around tables and talking about the strengths and what’s not working. Number one is almost always safety. Our families say “I don’t feel safe in my community.” It may be gang activity, maybe people victimizing living spaces, it may have to do with domestic violence. Just a range of matters that make families feel unsafe. 
Education is also a significant matter for our families as well as having a job, or having more of a job. Nearly 50 percent of our families work but they’re under-employed. One of our goals is at least 20 percent of our adults make at least $15 an hour or more living wage. In the past year, 28 percent of our adults have actually had a living wage. 

Matters of trauma, safety, things like ACES (An ACE is an adverse childhood experience such as abuse, neglect, or witnessing domestic violence or substance abuse), housing stability, a sense of hope and hopefulness – those are the kind of matters that were raised with us. We’re very relational in what we do. We have about 100 – 110 staff members who all work out of the communities that we serve in, so they’re in the office, apartments, schools, churches, etc. It’s a de-centralized model – let’s be where the people are at, let’s hear their voice, -- walk with your neighbor. 

Agape MemphisThe platform has over 100 partners serving together through this focus. With the family in the center, if you have a child that’s birth to five years of age, then we have a focus called “thrive by five” to make sure kids are ready for kindergarten. For children kindergarten through 12th grade, we’re now in all the schools that our kids attend. We’re serving about 700 kids in schools and our kids out-perform their peers in schools. 

Can you talk more about trauma and PTSD that you see in children?
There’s a lot of clear research, at 0 – 5 years of age, the trauma you live in impacts your brain development. For families living in communities they can’t up and out of -- “my income is X so I can only live in certain areas,” -- most often those are places that people are victimized around a lot of trauma matters. And so, building in factors of resilience in those communities is important. Overall, we’re trying to address matters of resilience -- with a young child, with a mentor in the school, with parents having jobs and being able to provide for their family. Transportation is important-- like our partnership with MATA where we have bus passes for families -- our data shows for those that received the bus passes, 67% used them to either get and or keep their job. We all know transportation is critical, but having data from the families saying “this is helping me have and keep my job” is important. 

A sense of hope and hopefulness – that is polarized to matters of trauma. Do I have some sense of hope or do I feel like I’m just drowning in this stuff? As a faith-based organization, we connect with churches in the community. If people say “I’m looking for hope and I’d like to talk to a pastor,” then we have that available to you. If they say “I don’t want to have anything to do with that,” we’ll say “that’s fine, but we’ll still walk with you in terms of whatever you need.” It’s all completely on people’s volition – it’s just matching where you’re at, and walking with you. The last two years we’ve served over 700 families deeply with this holistic model.

It’s almost your 50th anniversary – looking at the next 50 years what do you hope to accomplish?
In 2015-2016, I challenged my board and asked “What is Agape committing to long-term?” In 2016, we said we’re going to have a strategic direction for the next 18 years. My board approved a 2016 -2034 direction for the organization. For the next 18 years, we’re committed to doing exactly what we’re doing – going deep in Frayser, Whitehaven, Hickory Hill. We want to go deep in the work that we’re doing with the largest two generation poverty reduction model in the nation. We’re asking what does it look like to replicate this model? Do we think Raleigh would be the next community? We’re being asked even outside of Memphis in other places, might this be a replicable model in other places?

Agape MemphisHow can people volunteer with Agape?
We have about 1,000 people that volunteer annually with Agape. Agape is going to be able to expand to serve 70 more families with transitional housing. To do that, volunteers are important.  We need volunteers who will say “you know what, I’ll help equip an apartment with bedding” or ‘I’d like to walk along-side a mom who’s experienced domestic violence” or “I want to be a mentor to one of her children.” If you want to be in the school system, we’re always looking for volunteers. To be able to say “I’d love to work with one or two kids making sure they’re in school and helping them do as well as possible.” 

Why is working at Agape such a rewarding experience for you?
I was in Nashville, my wife and I, we had two young children, and I got a sense of a calling to come here – to be at Agape. That was one reason we were brought to Memphis. From a faith perspective, it really is about a sense of calling and purpose. I believe in the mission we have and I believe that we are about matters that are critical for our city. Agape has remained in this innovative, missional focus. We’re not being trapped by this idea of “this is what we’ve always done, this is how we do it” but we’re saying “let’s stay nimble on our feet and listen to the people in the community. Let’s respond in a way that is helpful to people.” That’s hard for non-profits to do. It’s hard to be that nimble – to go from “all we used to do is foster care, now we’re in the community where the kids and families live doing a whole bunch of different kind of things” -- that is a hard move. I appreciate Agape and the board who have that kind of commitment to what is best for the people. I love being in a place where people feel a sense of calling and purpose and the energy around that. We often describe what we do as like “running into the fire – we’re going into communities that people tend to run away from.” But the beauty and the strengths of Frayser, Whitehaven, Hickory Hill – there’s so much good that’s going on. 

Click here to connect with Agape. 
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