Click here to read this full story in the Dallas Morning News by Sharon Grigsby.
The young homegrown leaders of For Oak Cliff and their community partners weren’t about to let a little thing like a pandemic slow their work.
While many of us found even business as usual a tall order this past year, the For Oak Cliff team spun off into an independent nonprofit, handed out a million pounds of food and held their sixth back-to-school festival.
They topped off this year of living boldly by announcing last week their move into the long-shuttered Moorland YMCA building on East Ledbetter Drive in South Oak Cliff.
For 32-year-old executive director Taylor Toynes, the opportunity to set up shop in the former Moorland facility, with its significant historical roots, is nothing less than evidence of the divine.
The original Moorland YMCA, which opened on Flora Street in 1930, was a favorite gathering spot of the surrounding Black community and the meeting place for the NAACP. The late Muhammad Ali and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall were two of the well-known figures who stayed at the Moorland when segregation locked them out of local hotels.
After the Moorland relocated to Oak Cliff in 1970, it continued vital neighborhood services.
Toynes and Xavier Henderson, For Oak Cliff’s 29-year-old director of strategy, stood on the building’s roof Friday and tried to put into words what it meant for a Black-led nonprofit to get the chance to buy this community institution.
“Every day I walk in, I think about that,” Henderson said.
The 20,000-square-foot building and surrounding 10 acres is a gargantuan upgrade of possibilities from the nonprofit’s current home in the nearby Glendale Shopping Center.
The nonprofit has put $400,000 in escrow toward the final purchase of its new home and is launching a capital campaign toward the $2.1 million needed to fully pay for the building.
“To be stewards of this responsibility, to be a portal for young people and adults to be able to walk in and say, ‘I can make my dreams come true,’ it’s a lot to be grateful for,” Toynes told me.
Growing up in South Oak Cliff, Toynes and Henderson watched the plagues of murder, mass incarceration, drug addiction, poverty and inadequate education and health care resources beat down their community.
Both young men graduated from Skyline High School and became close friends while attending the University of North Texas. Many of their peers opted for suburban life after finishing at UNT, but Toynes and Henderson returned to Oak Cliff and in 2015 began building a nonprofit to address the state of emergency they saw all around them.
Toynes credits community members, neighborhood associations and Dallas ISD campuses — including the fourth-grade DISD students he taught after college — as co-founders of For Oak Cliff. “For us to get to where we are right now has taken a lot of community support.”
Education, advocacy, the arts and community-building are the heart of For Oak Cliff. Toynes acknowledges that they don’t have all the answers, but the nonprofit is determined to find them within the neighborhoods.
“We are not here to change the community but to make it a little better over time,” Toynes said.
Southern Dallas residents understandably have long wanted to see homegrown, grass-roots movements such as For Oak Cliff, but finding the dollars to stand up a nonprofit can be next to impossible. Toynes isn’t the first person to have an idea like this, but he has persevered to create key connections.
The invitation for others to partner with the nonprofit to help the community is right there in the name: For Oak Cliff.
Put any worthy subject in front of that phrase and that’s a partnership the organization is excited to talk about. Maybe it’s finding a way for young people to create video games or new music. Maybe it’s a “Jay-Z in the Park” event or workforce training in one of the Moorland classrooms.
“I hope we are setting a really nice precedent for folks to see they can do similar movements,” Henderson said.
Just days after getting the keys to their new home, For Oak Cliff’s punch list is long: building inspections, details of a deep clean, architectural designs, local artist-inspired murals.
Henderson pointed to one room and envisioned a café for young people “with smoothies going and a stage for open mic.” Toynes talked of knocking out one wall to provide more views of the surrounding community.
“Right now just seeing fresh paint on the walls will be something,” he added.
While priority one is to grow all the programs that respond to urgent needs, Toynes and Henderson also aim for the space to reverberate with a joyful family reunion vibe. They want the new space to launch the careers of musicians, doctors, lawyers, nurses, educators, business owners and athletes.
“The trauma from systemic oppression is showing its face in so many ways,” Toynes said. “They have the dreams buried deep in them, and it’s our job to bring it out.”
The nonprofit’s first offering will be a summer learning camp for 25 to 30 kids staffed, in part, by local teen interns.
The team hopes to open the facility to the community on Juneteenth, the same day For Oak Cliff debuted its Glendale storefront four years ago. Back then, the nonprofit was under the umbrella of the Commit Partnership, a North Texas education nonprofit where Toynes previously worked.
The first board meeting of the newly independent For Oak Cliff was in April — as the reality of the pandemic was beginning to sink in and the nonprofit focused on weekly food distributions.
Toynes and Henderson credit their board — especially the business and philanthropic dynamos who serve as co-chairs, Froswa’ Booker-Drew and Lynn McBee — with helping secure the former Moorland building.
For Oak Cliff’s efforts focus on what the nonprofit calls the superblock of 75216 and its adjacent neighborhoods. But pointing to various zip codes listed on his sweatshirt, Toynes said, “You might come from here or you might come from here, but when you’re in this space, this is for everybody.”
Toynes and Henderson reflected repeatedly during our conversation on the blessing of having navigated growing up in South Oak Cliff and now being able to do consequential work for future generations.
Toynes referenced a friend from high school who was sentenced to 35 years in prison at age 17. Another friend from his elementary school days was killed this month.
“With those deaths and those passings, it makes you snap to what reality is,” Toynes said. “That’s why every day I jump out of bed excited because I say, ‘Man, I’ve got another chance.’”
That’s also why Toynes, Henderson and their team are going big and taking risks to do the best they can on behalf of their community.
It’s daunting work — especially without the security of a long-established nonprofit’s infrastructure or experience. But Toynes reminded me that his team is not in it alone.
“People mess up when they forget to take God with them to the next levels of their life,” he said. “That’s really important for us to do.”