Banyan Is an Institution that Lives Out Hope in A Low-Income

Neighborhood Called Phillips*



Banyan Dinner

Church of St. Edwards, Bloomington

Sunday October 13, 2013

Tim Essenburg—Co-Founder of Banyan and Professor of Economics at Bethel University

*This is a longer version than what was given at the dinner itself.




For many years I’ve resisted a visible role at this dinner, primarily for three reasons. First, I’m a professor of economics. A frequent comment I hear is “be less professorial.” But that’s like telling a venture capitalist to settle in as account executive at a company whose stock is tanking. Regrettably you are going to have to bear with me J. Second, the phrase “Behind every successful man is a good woman” hindered Joani’s work. Too often I sensed others were saying that I was a kind of Wizard of OZ pulling the levers behind the great curtain. So let me be clear. Joani is the power broker of Banyan and “Behind every successful woman there is a good man!” Third, the real heroes of the Banyan are the employees who daily do their work, volunteers who faithfully come to Kids Club and tutoring, Board members who direct Banyan in the way it should go, financial partners who make this feasible, and networkers who tell the Banyan story. And most of all, for me, the heroes of the day are the families and youth who everyday go to work, pay the bills, raise their families, do their school work and do all of this from a socioeconomic, racial, and cultural place in our society that few of us would covet, even if that didn’t violate the Tenth Commandment.


Nonetheless, my task this evening is to say something about the Banyan. And this is what I’m going to tell you: Banyan is an institution that lives out hope in a low-income neighborhood called Phillips.


I am going focus on two key words in that phrase—hope and institution—and do so by asking two questions:

  • What does hope look like?
  • What is an institution?

Following these answers I’ll offer a few candid remarks on the question “Why is Banyan so successful?”



What Does Hope Look Like?[1]

I think everyone wants hope, to be hopeful. But before we get to hope, we need to take up lament. Logically, lament precedes hope.

To me lament is giving voice to suffering and struggles, with God and others as the audience, crying out for relief from material, emotional, social, psychological, or physical struggles and crying out “Why?” or for release from the loss of meaning. Here the question is, in the context of abundant societal resources, “What is going on here?” or more specifically “What the hell is going on here?” I cannot give voice without acknowledging and naming the struggle, which can be difficult enough, but I must also own it. And owning this is challenging because it requires introspection, is emotionally painful, can feel embarrassing, is stress inducing, can be overwhelming, and may well leave me with unanswered questions. But lament goes beyond this naming and owning to include the “yet” of life; as in yet I will choose to remember all the goodness shown to me by God and others and believe this will continue. I will choose to hope.

Joani and I lament that many children in our neighborhood do not have a stable home life and access to good educational opportunities. We lament that for some, academic achievement is considered selling out. We lament the relative lack of household income which would allow parents to purchase stable housing, dependable transportation, and clothing that their children feel good in. We lament the histories of African Americans and Native American Indians, the social implications of which are evidenced by some of our friends and neighbors. We lament the situation of “Here I am working and paying taxes, but here I am not a legal immigrant.” In mentioning any one and all of these, I’m not claiming easy solutions. There aren’t any. I’m making public some personal laments.

Hope is having an extended family called Banyan, a community that offers a path to a more secure future. Hope is stable housing. Hope is watching your children embrace and acquire academic achievement. Hope is work which comes with sufficient income. Hope is opportunity. Hope is showing up for a job interview and your race, culture or socioeconomic class will not work against you. Hope is seeing each other at the soccer game or while out gardening. Hope is driving by the corner of 26th Street and 13th Avenue, looking northwards and seeing little green grass spouts on land where Banyan will build its own facility.


A piece of hope looks like an institution called Banyan!



What Is an Institution?

Frequently we think of terms “institution” and “organization” as synonymous. But right now I want us to put on our social science hats and separate the two, and think of an institution as being comprised of a number of parts.[2]

  • people engaged in activities,
  • rules giving structure to the activities,
  • enforcement of the rules which structure the activities, and
  • stories that answer the questions such as “Why these activities? rules? and means of enforcement?”


Institutions give a kind of predictability to life, by setting boundaries on permissible behavior. Banyan is and organization, but it is also an institution. Let me give two examples of how this works.

  • A week ago Saturday Banyan families went on our annual Afton Apple outing. We had approximately 175 adults, youth and children. Two DeLaSalle buses and a caravan of cars and trucks pulled away from the Banyan Center at 8:45AM. Each family was given an envelope of tickets—red for one bag of hand-picked apples, orange for one good sized pumpkin and yellow for a combo meal for each family member.

What’s the storyline here? Getting out of the city and spending time picking apples and pumpkins, taking hay rides, petting the goats and sheep, playing on the playground equipment, eating hot dogs, and drinking cider is good for the soul. There is a sense of openness and freedom that is not readily available in Phillips. Importantly, the activity also builds social capital—that’s academic jargon for trusting relationships built upon shared norms and experiences that allow the group to more efficiently and effectively address group challenges and that offer the individual improved access to education, employment and social mobility.

When each family receives an envelope of tickets, no one feels differently for having had to apply for and be given a grant based on need. Being needy is a humbling position to be in. When I take out my own yellow-colored ticket for a combo meal and Dang or Audrey or Martin takes out theirs, we are symbolically linked as a Banyan family; we identify with Banyan. It’s the green piece of papers in our wallets and purses that too often separate us.

Any everyone thought going to Afton Apple was about fun! Well, yes and no. Afton Apple is also about building social capital and identity.


  • In our society, more than ever, educational success is a key to achieving an appropriate level of economic self-determination. When you do not have a social network of family and friends who have graduated from college or trade school, and when your neighborhood has a high school, four-year graduation rate below 50 percent, then you are at a distinct disadvantage relative to Joani and me—all four of our parents are college grads and two have doctorates. The only thing we may have wished otherwise would be the letters of the doctorates. Alas, our fathers have Ph.D.’s and not JD’s or MD’s J. In fact, we might wish they had settled for MBA’s J.

How do you build a Banyan identity of academic success? You persuade parents to move their K – 12 students to higher performing schools. You make sure Banyan offers academic enrichment programming for K – 8 students and offers high school tutoring by people who know calculus, chemistry, physics, English writing, and ACT preparation. And you make sure Banyan uses gift cards and monetary fines to incentivize our high school students. Furthermore, building group identity helps individuals succeed. So you get everyone together for tutoring, coach them up and tell them to be responsible, individually and as a group, and that while at school or out in other public places you are to look out for each other, because you are a Banyan student. At the Annual Banyan Family Celebration middle and high school graduates are celebrated by all families as a visible reality of their own aspirations.


Why does Banyan do all of this? Because Banyan believes in everyone’s potential; because greater access to more equalized opportunities results in greater success; because group-identity builds success; because academic success is the foundation to healthy economic self-determination.

Trust me, for every activity at Banyan there are rules that are enforced and stories that are told. Banyan is in the community, family and youth development business. Just as middle and upper class parents plan for the success of their own families, so do we. Plan your work and work your plan. It’s that simple and that complex.


There is at least one rule at Banyan that distinguishes it from most businesses we at this dinner work at. The clients or customers are not the monetary purchasers of the services being sold. The investor class does this—that’s you, in case you were wondering J. And the investors do not get a financial return for their risk. In fact, they don’t even get back their principal! Your return is non-monetary and, in fact, is a contribution to the common good, embodied in particular people—the Banyan high school students, for example, that are seated among us. The customers or clients covenant with Banyan to do their part—attend Banyan gatherings, make sure their children attend after school programing and Kids Club, do their academic work, volunteer at Banyan, attend parent-teacher meetings, participate in home visits, attend parent meetings where a third-party professional gathers feedback on what is working and what needs changing and relays that back to Banyan staff so that it informs the practices of Banyan. If a student or parent fails to do this at acceptable levels, then the product is no longer theirs.


We, the investors, families, students, employees, volunteers, are Banyan. This is our identity. When we do right by the Banyan we are energized, internally so. When we go to work each day, when we participate in Kids Club, when we graduate from high school, when we volunteer to tutor students in algebra, when we offer financial support, when we work our networks for Banyan’s good, when we attend board meetings, when we do all of these, we not only benefit ourselves, we offer to others a collective identity which is not easily found in Phillips. When we slack off and focus only on our very narrow self-interests, we are all the worse for this.


The organization called Banyan is an institution that lives out hope in a low-income neighborhood called Phillips.



Why Is Banyan So Successful?

“Ok,” you might be thinking. “So far so good. But ‘How did the Banyan start?’ and ‘How it can be replicated?’” These are good questions. However, my fee for this evening’s comments is not large enough for in-depth answers to those questions J. But I will make you this offer. For dinner at a restaurant of my choosing, a contribution to Banyan equal to one percent of your take home income (and that is inclusive of interest income and realized capital gains), and a signed comprehensive “no compete” clause, Joani and I will tell you all we know. Think of this offer as a flat tax, very efficient and this case offers a kind of equitable opportunity for all. To sweeten this deal I’ll even throw in my thoughts on the government shut down and Janet Yellen, Obama’s nominee for the Federal Reserve J.

The answer to “How Banyan got started?” is through relational “blood, sweat, and tears.” And because of this, it is not a product that can be engineered, manufactured in mass quantities, purchased and plunked down in neighborhoods that would benefit from it. That is not to say it is impossible to replicate. It is saying that it is costly to replicate.

If Joani is the manager and strategic planner at Banyan, I am its visionary, and all six of our children are involuntary draftees J. You do not get the Banyan without a core family that will lament the realities outside its home, that will use as its motto “What’s good enough for our children, should be provided to other families,” that makes it their responsibility to bring change, from the inside out. And this family must do this over the decades with the fundamental belief that everyone has assets that can grow, that we can and must be good neighbors to each other, that we are better for working together. It must be a family that understands the importance of creating an organization that works for lots of people.


What does this kind of family life look like? What does it do? We all know of David Letterman’s Top 10 List. Well, here’s our Top 10-Plus List:

  • It uses extra bedrooms for neighbors, only to find out a week later that everyone has head lice.
  • It has children over each morning for breakfast and making sure they got on the school bus.
  • It walks the blocks of the neighborhood three and four times a week, for an hour at a time, day and night, and this for many years so as to feel comfortable in any and all circumstances.
  • It leaves the front door open and the lights on until 10PM and sometimes until mid-night so people on the block and passersby might take note that just maybe there is a family that is welcoming and good and willing to take a few risks.
  • Its children’s schoolmates and playmates play basketball or on the swing set in the yard together.
  • It invites neighbors over for Thanksgiving and Easter dinner.
  • It loans out its second automobile to families in need.
  • It restarts a block club and hosts the monthly meetings in their living room.
  • It creates and manages the National Night Out party for residents on the block.
  • It dies to race, socioeconomic class, culture and the more privatized family and publically lives for peace, justice and the enjoyment of all relationships.
  • It shovels the snow off the neighbor’s sidewalk, many times over many years, even when they more than figuratively represented a house from hell.
  • It invites neighbors over for Thanksgiving and Easter dinner.
  • It picks up the brick from the living room floor and gets its front window fixed because the neighbor kid told his associates that it was you who called the police on them when they were kicking in the car doors on the east side of the block.
  • It loans out your car because you have two and the neighbor’s car is out of commission for two months or has no automobile.
  • It sets aside time to critique their own upper-middle class upbringing and see how it was good for them but frequently excluded working class families, not actively so but systemically and passively so—not the committing of evil, but the omitting of good.
  • It dies to race, socioeconomic class, culture and the more privatized family life Joani and I grew up with and publicly lives for peace, justice and the enjoyment of all relationships.

And that’s just a small sample of the first decade of neighborhood life, taking us up to the year 2000.


Organizational building of the Banyan began in earnest around the year 2000, but not at the cost of giving up what roots Banyan—building social capital, being inclusive, creating group identity, looking for assets, developing steely eyes so as to get naysayers to blink first, where all of this is built on a foundation of sacrifice for the common good. And that is why, for example, we still have children playing on our swing set and coming over in the morning before they get on the bus; why Joani works long hours; why neighbors sometimes join us for dinner; why we walk the neighborhood with our yellow lab, Anza; why the front door is open at night and the lights are on.

Banyan overachieves, given its financial and physical resources, because we have:

  • great employees who work together for desired outcomes: develop youth, strengthen families and create community
  • strategic planners who are outcome driven and manage these processes with best practices
  • skilled and committed board and committee members, who understand business oversight and development
  • parents and their children who entrust themselves to Banyan programming, outcomes, employees, and other Banyan families
  • investors, who act upon their own philanthropic values so that Banyan families can succeed
  • volunteer high school tutors, having expertise in algebra, chemistry, writing, physics
  • networkers who will tell the Banyan story to others
  • partnership with DeLaSalle high school


Look around this room. We represent the various categories of Banyan people. Together we have found success. And together we will find success in the future.




Neale, Walter C. 1987. “Institutions.” Journal of Economic Issues. XXI(3). September. Pp. 1177-1206.

North, Douglass. 1994. “Economic Performance Through Time.” American Economic Review. Vol. 84 (3, June), pp. 359-368.

Searle, John R. 2005. “What Is an Institution?” Journal of Institutional Economics. Vol. 1 (1). Pp. 1 – 22.

Wolterstorff, Nicholas. 2001. “If God Is Good and Sovereign, Why Lament?” Calvin Theological Journal. Vol. 36. Pp. 42 – 52.

[1] Much of what follows in this section comes from Wolterstorff [2001].

[2] See Neale [1987], North [1994] and Searle [2005].