My goal was to bring powerful thinking tools together in one place and tell stories about how those tools were used to transform various organizations in business, education, and community development.
Through a series of synchronicities, I met Charlie Soap, a community development leader of the Cherokee Nation and husband of Wilma Mankiller, activist and the first female Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. Charlie told me a story of community development that surprised me as it began with building a ball field. In a poor community with endless needs, it seemed like an odd place to start … until I heard the story and saw the field for myself.
Here’s the story excerpted from Transformation Thinking (out of print), time early 1990s:
State Highway 59 winds south out of Stilwell through the gentle Oklahoma hills. This is heartland America: a person-to-person place not much concerned with high tech problems and international feuds. The two-lane blacktop cuts through farm fields and pastures fringed with buck brush and scrub oak woods.
However, the serene, muted beauty of the countryside belies the troubled history of Cherry Tree, a community just off the almost-deserted highway. It is familiar territory — a poor, rural community plagued by drugs and alcohol, crime, and a sense of defeat. Kids with nothing to do, adults with no hope … more a cluster of misery than a community. However, Cherry Tree had something special … and it did something remarkable.
Most of Cherry Tree’s 300 residents are members of the Cherokee Nation, and by 1990, The Nation had participated in several uniquely successful community development programs under the leadership of Chief Wilma Mankiller. Hearing of those successful programs, the Cherry Tree parents who were tired of losing their kids to drugs, crime, and alcohol, thought there might be a way to solve their problems. They approached Chief Mankiller for help but her schedule was already over-booked so she volunteered her husband, Charlie Soap, Director of the Christian Children’s Fund for the Oklahoma area.
“I remember the first time we met in 1990,” recalls Soap. “The parents came and asked me to help them do some youth projects. They didn’t know what to do or how to get started.” Charlie Soap’s life is deeply etched in his strong, dark face. His voice and eyes are gentle and protective as he speaks with passion about the Cherry Tree project.
Among that first group of parents was Ron Gonzales, father of three boys. For years Gonzales had gazed across the pastures and scrub oak but instead of seeing the northeastern Oklahoma hills, he saw a baseball diamond and players in white uniforms standing on an emerald green field. He heard shouts and cheers of families and friends. He saw a community of people playing together. But, the vision had always faded into the reality of trees and weeds.
When Soap asked the parents what they wanted, Gonzales immediately replied: A ball field!
“I was amazed,” stated Soap. “They had all these problems — vandalism, drugs, school drop-out … an amazingly high suicide rate. And they wanted a ball field. So I asked why.”
Gonzales had an explanation, “The kids don’t like each other. They’re fighting all the time and always getting into trouble. If we could form a baseball team or several teams throughout the community, they would become teammates. They’d support each other and become friends. They wouldn’t be fighting; they’d be playing ball together.”
The underlying principle of the community development process used by Soap is that everything comes from the community. If they wanted a ball field, it was his job to help them organize and build a ball field. The group formed a Youth Council and began to hold fund raisers. The kids were excited about the possibility of playing ball and they started pushing their parents to help even more. A temporary site was found and work started with some of the kids working from early morning until late at night.
However, change doesn’t come easily. Several young bullies delighted in tearing up the field as fast as Gonzales and his Youth Council built it. Gonzales is a quiet, patient man and he kept the kids calm. He would say, “Don’t get mad. Don’t retaliate. Let’s just fix it back up and then ask them to come play.” But the bullies refused to join them and continued to vandalize the ball field.
The turning point came when the Youth Council was offered tickets to a Texas Rangers game. No one in Cherry Tree had ever been to a professional baseball game. The kids were all crazy to go, but they looked at their bigger goals and decided to share some of their precious tickets with the bullies … who accepted this offer. The trip made the bullies part of the group and they became champions and protectors of the project.
After that trip, momentum started gathering and more and more people wanted to be involved. In the group meetings, people began to think bigger. They wanted something more than just one temporary ball field. They wanted a permanent place where everyone could play … from the little kids to the adults. Someone remembered a plot of land owned by the Cherokee Nation, currently being used for cattle grazing but big enough for a recreation area for the entire community. They approached the tribal council with a proposal and suddenly Cherry Tree had 115 acres to develop. Gonzales’ vision flickered back to life.
Of course, it’s one thing to design something on paper and quite another to make it happen. Without tractors, bulldozers, or a building loan, Cherry Tree’s field of dreams didn’t look very promising. However, almost everyone in the community showed up with their garden rototillers, hoes, shovels, spades and rakes. Painfully, rock by rock and root by root, they carved a ball field out of a cow pasture.
Today (1990s), if you take State Highway 59 south from Stillwell and turn right at the Cherry Tree Head Start Center, you can follow a dirt road through the woods till it opens up to a broad expanse ringed by oak trees. If you’re lucky, Gonzales will come down from the brand new community tractor and you can sit on the bleachers facing the first ball field and listen to him describe the rest of the Cherry Tree project: three additional ball fields, a t-ball field, a walking/jogging path through the woods, a bicycle motocross designed and built by the little kids, a gymnasium, a wellness program, and a Cherry Tree Project store.
And, the bottom line? Local law enforcement officials report that before the ball field project, 50 percent of all the calls they received were from or about Cherry Tree. Today that community generates only 5 percent of the total calls. Each member of the community “owns” the Cherry Tree Project and there is a lot of pride in what they have accomplished and what they intend to accomplish. Cherry Tree has become a community with a future … a field of dreams with very real results.
Charlie Soap shared his three basic rules for all of his community development projects:
1. Definition of the problem and all potential solutions have to come from the people.
2. Participation has to be voluntary.
3. Find a way to involve the holdouts.
These principles transformed the movie fantasy of “building a field and they will come” into “if they want a field and they help build it, it can change everything.”
Not as catchy, of course, but transformative.