As I talk with Taylor Toynes in his office at For Oak Cliff, at the corner of Marsalis and Ann Arbor Avenue, he points out the window at what is now a service station.
“My grandfather’s grocery store was across the parking lot from here. He sold the best burgers in Dallas. Promise.”
I ask him if he got paid. “I ate for free,” he says with a smile. “I ate for free and I got a lot of knowledge from my grandfather and a lot of love from the community. Now, when I come around, everybody already knows me.”
These days they know him not as the kid who took their burger order, but as the community organizer who got Mark Zuckerberg to help clear a vacant lot for a community garden. And they know him as the guy who has big plans for this part of Oak Cliff, starting with backpacks and school supplies for thousands of kids (this year’s Back to School Festival will take place August 12 at Glendale Park) and ending with college-ready graduates prepared to give back to their community. Recently, his organization joined forces with Strong Schools Strong Dallas to advocate for a Tax Ratification Election (TRE) to raise more than $100 million for DISD, which is facing a $60 million shortfall.
On Thursday, four DISD trustees, including Lew Blackburn, voted against the TRE, which would cost the average taxpayer an additional $220 per year and save the district millions in interest by allowing it to pay off its debt earlier. Blackburn was quoted as saying, “I don’t know what we’d do with an extra $100 million a year. I’m sure if we had the sandbox, we’d figure out some kinda castle to build.”
But Toynes isn’t daunted. He grew up in this community. He knows what it is capable of and what it needs. Sand castles aren’t on his list.
So, you share an alma mater with C.J. Miles and Larry Johnson? We went to state this year in basketball. Skyline High School never went to state before. This was the first year. You ought to take a trip up there. It’s like a university. It was the first magnet school in the country. They have the aeronautics cluster where students can graduate with a pilot’s license. They work on planes in the school; there’s a hangar at the school. The cluster that I was in was called Man and His Environment, and it included sociology, psychology, and law. Those were the three tracks that you could take. My first year, we learned sociology. By the end, I was taking AP Human Geography, which was the coolest subject. We learned about people, and the movement of people, and different cultures. It prepared me so much for college.
Did you end up going to law school? I decided not to go. When I attended the University of North Texas, I majored in political science because I knew that was the track to go to law school. Then, when I graduated, I worked at the District Attorney’s office in the Family Violence Division. I had taken my LSAT and did okay on it. I had written my personal statement. I had gotten recommendations. Heath Harris, who was the First Assistant to the District Attorney at the time, wrote me a letter of recommendation to the Thurgood Marshall School of Law in Houston. And then I read the article.
What article? It was an editorial on the prison pipeline, and it had the number of inmates in the state of Texas compared to the number of college ready graduates broken down by zip codes. I saw 75216—the zip code where I grew up, where we are right now—and it had 681 inmates and only two college ready graduates. Right then, as I was sitting in the DA’s office, I thought, I don’t know if I want to do this because I’ll probably be a prosecutor. I thought, Man, I want to be a teacher. I want to get to kids before they get to this point. So I signed up for Teach for America. I could’ve ended up anywhere in America, obviously, but I chose DISD in South Oak Cliff. And they granted me my wish.
Where did you end up getting assigned? I was placed at W.W. Bushman elementary school on Bonnie View. I grew up in Oak Cliff and have lived here all my life. I’ve seen a lot and experienced a lot, but, as a teacher at W.W. Bushman that year, I recognized the little privilege that I did have just growing up in a different neighborhood, off of Red Bird Lane, when I was working with my students. I really began to understand what poverty looked like.
How did For Oak Cliff come about? It came out of my classroom at Bushman Elementary School. A lot of my students didn’t have backpacks when the school year started. I ended up saying to one of my close friends from growing up, Kenny Reaves, “Man, let’s have us a block party to raise money for backpacks for my class.” He was like, “Cool. What we going to call it?” I was like, “I don’t know, but we going to do it for Oak Cliff.” He said, “So you want to have a block party for Oak Cliff?” I was like, “Yeah. Let’s call it that.” That’s literally how For Oak Cliff happened.
How did the first backpack block party turn out? Another friend, Juliana Bradley, helped me organize. By the end of that summer—the event was August 13, 2015—we had over 1,000 people in Glendale Park, the most beautiful park in Dallas. We partnered with the United Way, Texas Instruments. William’s Chicken donated a lot of chicken to us. A whole lot of chicken. People ate for free. We registered 75 people to vote. We got 10 people employed. We gave out a thousand backpacks to kids. That was the first year.
Has it grown since then? Our goal with the Back to School Festival is voter registration, job fair, college fair, and school supply giveaway. Last year, we had over 3,000 people in the park. We gave away over 2,000 backpacks, fed over 2,000 people, and registered around 200 or so people to vote. We worked with Uber and the Express Job Professionals and got a dozen people employed. I realized, man, if we work together, we can make something happen. And if we listen, if we really listen to the students and to the community and what they want, they are always going to support us when we bring it to them.
Have you expanded beyond the school festival? On Mondays and Wednesdays, we have partnered with El Centro and WorkReadyU to offer GED classes. We currently have 10 parents that come in here to get their GEDs. It’s a two-generation model, so we’re working towards not only teaching the parents, but educating the children as well. Parents can bring their kids and we work with them to reinforce some of the things they are learning at school. We just really want to build a culture of education over here.
What do you think are some of the biggest challenges this neighborhood faces? The stat that’s getting thrown around a lot is Dallas has the highest childhood poverty rate. But if you look at where it’s concentrated, this spot is burning up. In this neighborhood, more than 75 percent of children under the age of 5 live below the poverty line. I heard Geoffrey Canada [president and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone in Harlem, New York] say one time—and this was very profound to me—he said he remembers the day that he realized Superman wasn’t coming to save the day. That’s when I realized we’ve really got to do it ourselves.
Why do you think this area of Oak Cliff has become the hottest spot for poverty in Dallas? It’s a systemic issue. Segregation was a very real thing in this community. My grandmother’s from Dallas, too. Once I asked why she didn’t go to W.H. Adamson or Sunset High School, near where she grew up in the Tenth Street Historic District. I asked her one time, “Why did you go to Madison? That’s so far away from where you grew up.” I thought about it right when I asked her. I was like, “Man, segregation. I forgot.” It’s that close in our history. It’s neglect of a community. It’s a lack of resources. Where can people go work over here? People don’t understand. Food deserts are one thing, but job opportunities come along with having a grocery store. You can employ 20 people or more with a grocery store. Not even a Walmart, but just a neighborhood grocery store. A lot of people have been oppressed for so long in so many different ways, but the main thing is that people are starting to see it now and understand it a little bit more. It’s going to take a lot of work. It’s going to take a lot of work from the powers that be within Dallas, as well as from within our own communities. We’re going to have to come together, work together, start loving one another more, and start building a culture of education.
How you think a TRE can help? I think people should have the opportunity to decide what they want for their schools. That’s my whole thing. Let people make the decision because we are underfunded. From a national level, to a state level, to the local level. It’s all the way down. When you look at it, which are the first schools to get hit? How are the first schools going to miss that hall monitor, that urban specialist, or that additional principal? Some schools can be okay without that. They have things like PTAs and booster clubs, a lot of parental involvement. They could thrive still. When we talk about schools that need these resources, that have been at the bottom of the totem pole as far as just about everything, what are we going to do? We have got to make sure we are educating our children. Not only educating them, but giving them the best quality of education possible.
The next DISD Board of Trustees meeting, with presentations of TRE town hall findings, will be Thursday, May 25, 6:00 PM, at the DISD Administration building in the Ada L. Williams Auditorium (3700 Ross Ave.).