“Start Where You Are….”

(The below article is a re-post of a piece I wrote in 2012 in honor of my mentor, Robert C. Penn)

I was a socially conscious go-getter as a young adult. In 1996, I graduated Suma Cum Laude from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in sociology with a concentration in the social construction of race. My own whiteness was something I now wore with a tiny ping of understanding about what that meant in a social world built on the dehumanization of people of color. I graduated college on fire to change systems for young people. In particular, young Black people.

By age 25 I had my own thriving consulting practice in the non-profit sector. I wore suits and carried a cell phone the size of a shoe box  (It was the late nineties after all), and flew around the country supporting local communities in their efforts to organize resources around youth and families in the poorest neighborhoods in the U.S.

I engaged with people at every level of these local initiatives, from the policy makers and funders to the kids on lock-down in juvenile hall. I worked with churches, schools, non-profits, community groups, local businesses, police and probation departments, juvenile justice and foster care systems, District Attorneys and City Council representatives.

We were trying to answer big questions, like: What do young people need to thrive? How can we funnel resources to the kids and families who need them most? Who do we need to partner with to create lasting change?


I had an amazing mentor in this work named Bob Penn. A Vietnam veteran who came back from the war a change-maker for under-privileged communities, Bob Penn was rough around the edges, jovial until he wasn’t, and he had the keenest radar for talent and trouble of anyone I’ve ever known. He always sat with his back to the wall and knew where the nearest exit was. He could befriend anyone, anywhere. He remembered everyone’s name–and the names of their children–in every community we visited in our five years of traveling the country together. He wore a business suit every day of the week, at every hour, and sported a mustache that hung like a thick curtain over his mouth. He drank only herbal tea.  Everyone respected Bob–the PhD’s, the mayors of major cities, the neighborhood Old Heads, the gang bangers, and the teenage mothers, everyone.


Bob Penn had a pithy saying for every occasion. These were teaching tools he would dole out when needed at a community meeting or on the airplane when we debriefed after our visit. “A ship without a destination, any port will do.” “You can buy capacity or you can build capacity.” “Just remember: it always takes longer and costs more.””We’re riding this bike while we build it.””Don’t plant the victory flag yet!”


These sayings made themselves useful in locations around the country–sitting around conference tables at foundations, while meeting with staff of a local YMCA, while eating fried chicken and collard greens at a local joint with clergy and other community leaders, and over late-night sushi dinners after all the meetings were done.


I hadn’t talked to Bob for a few years when at thirty five my (then) husband and I realized we were expecting a baby. I have to say, the entire time I was pregnant, I never once thought of any of Bob Penn’s sayings. But once my baby was born, and refused to nurse, sleep or stop crying… and I lived for two years in a haze of overwhelm and exhaustion, surrounded by stacks of parenting books… I found myself repeating one of Bob Penn’s sayings like a personal mantra to keep me roughly on track: 


“Start where you are, work with what you have, do what you can.” 
This one saying was still useful when I separated from my husband and became a single mom with a toddler–she’d be tantrumming, dinner would be burning, the phone would be ringing… And I’d be silently repeating Bob’s words to myself to keep me moving forward in the chaos as best I could. 


Even now, years later, the mantra comes to mind, when my daughter’s homework is spread across the table, looking like an endless field of worksheets we must hack our way through before bedtime… Or when at the end of a play date I open her bedroom door to discover that every single item she owns is now on the floor. In these many, many moments of motherhood, I thank you, Bob Penn for these wise words:


“Start where you are, work with what you have, do what you can.”
These weren’t words that resonated with me when he said them back in the day. Honestly, they kind of rubbed my inner perfectionist the wrong way. They sounded like an invitation to…mediocrity. Couldn’t we aim for something a little more… I don’t know… Polished? Precise? Thoroughly planned and implemented? Start where you are, work with what you have, do what you can? Doesn’t that sound a lot like just muddling through? I shuddered to think.


Bob used to tease me for being “a little bit Ivy League” in how I approached things. He’d say with a twinkle in his eye, “Well, out here in the community we do things a little different.” Sure, he counted on my uptight ways when it came to writing summaries of our whirlwind community visits for our funders, or keeping all the details straight for the local initiative work plans. I mean “overly organized white girl” was practically my job description on these visits. But when things got messy and daunting–as they often do in community-based initiatives with many collaborators and lots of moving parts–and my voice would get shrill as I said, “This wasn’t on the agenda, Bob!” He’d look at me calmly and say under his breath,


“Start where you are, work with what you have, do what you can.”
I hated that. I was still under the illusion that things should go as planned. And that a well crafted agenda should address any possible contingencies. I’d be sweating in my little business suit as things went haywire around us: arguments breaking out between the researchers and the community leaders, or the youth refusing to get with the program the clergy and police officers had laid out. I remember one meeting that everyone remembered as the “blood on the walls” meeting.


Bob was unphased. I look at him hard, silently demanding, “Step in there and tell them what to do!” He’d blankly look at me from under his sleepy lids, glance at his watch, and get up to put more hot water in his herbal tea.


Working on multi-faceted community initiatives with a skilled mentor turns out to have been the 101 course that more or less prepped me for the advanced course of parenthood. I had no idea that this is what I was preparing for, but here I am: I don’t fit in those little suits anymore, and my phone is a lot smaller now but does more things than make calls (thank god–how did anyone parent before iPhones?). But the biggest change: I started to really *get* the “winging it” nature of life once I had a child. And I so deeply appreciate Bob Penn’s words that help me muddle my way through, more or less on track, no matter what life throws at us. Mediocrity is a pretty darn good goal after all.


I’ve been a parent educator for five years, so I’d like to be able to tell you I’ve got it all figured out by now. I’d like to be the Master Workplan Developer and Overseer for my smoothly run and predicatable household, and I’d like to be able to hand you the keys for that kind of life. But between lice infestations, mean first grade teachers, big unruly emotions (mine and hers), early onset “girl drama,” IBS flare-ups and other curveballs, I’ve had to learn the art of “doing the best I humanly can under the circumstances.” 


I don’t like a lot of parenting advice that’s out there because it’s too easy to tell parents to follow “three simple steps” and have stress-free mornings, or permanently end sibling rivalry.  And then of course, we parents feel like failures when it doesn’t work out that way. Online there’s a technique or a tool offered up to solve every possible parenting dilemma. I’m all for making things easier when we can, and tools and techniques can be great stop-gap measures, but in the end, great parenting is more about developing the courage to be this well-meaning-but-limited, sometimes-messy, cracked-open-by-life human that you are, asking for help when you need it (like every day, many times), and continuing to reach for this gorgeously complicated little human who graced your life with hers (or his).

So today, take a deep breath and start where you are. Look around you and see what (or who) you have, and just do the best you can (without too much efforting). And from time-to-time, catch your kids’ eye and say with a twinkle, “I know, kid, this life is nuts, but don’t worry, we’re in it together.” And then go add hot water to your herbal tea.


Because in the end the very best thing you can give them is the courage to be here, moving forward as best they humanly can, knowing you’ve got their back. 


I finally get it, Bob, muddling through together, in more or less the right direction? That’s pretty darn good.

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