A New Vision, A New Voice ~ The North Texas Conference
New chief Shellie Ross steers Wesley-Rankin in fast-changing neighborhood
Once an intern and now executive director, she’s committed to West Dallas residents in the upheaval of gentrification.
After eight years at the helm of Wesley-Rankin Community Center, Sarah Squires retired as executive director of the West Dallas organization in December 2017.
Squires didn’t have to look far to find her replacement.
Shellie Ross, who began as an intern at Wesley-Rankin in 2010, is now leading the center through its present-day period of growth. She recently sat down for a question-and-answer session to give insight into the direction she sees for Wesley-Rankin.
Please tell us about your background and what drew you to service, broadly and specifically at Wesley-Rankin.
I’m a Mississippi native who was raised on the Gulf Coast, fishing and visiting the islands. And I’m the product of parents who were ministers of music in The United Methodist Church. As children, my brother and I would sit through countless practices while my father directed choirs and my mother played the piano. I attended every Sunday school class and youth group meeting/mission trip I possibly could. Pretty soon, all the teachings and music get into your bones and you begin to believe that a world of peace, compassion and unconditional love can possibly be attained. I still do.
After an education at Ole Miss, I became a youth pastor for six years at Oxford-University UMC. I questioned a lot about theology and why we do what we do in churches. I felt God tugging on my heart to learn and applied to Perkins School of Theology. After receiving a great scholarship, I packed my bags and moved to Dallas in 2007. Wesley-Rankin was my internship for my Master of Divinity degree. I asked for an internship not in a church because I already had experience there. I specifically requested a place I could learn and be challenged, and Wesley-Rankin was the placement. That was 2010. I luckily was hired by Sarah Squires after my internship, and executive director is now my fourth title at the organization.
I can say that I’ve always had a desire to learn and live in friendship with diverse people. It’s less about serving other people. It is more about existing in authentic relationships with those we misunderstand and being open to my own life being affected because of new relationships. Service is loaded with power distance. Authentic friendship allows everyone to contribute and receive.
In your mind, how does an investment in what Wesley-Rankin offers — be it volunteerism or financial — enhance the community’s well-being?
Wesley-Rankin has been in West Dallas for more than 80 years. Although staff, volunteers and even community members may come and go, the entity of Wesley-Rankin is seen as reliable, stable and committed to the West Dallas community. We continue to offer programs that reflect the needs of our neighbors, and we partner with community members to move the bar in education. The greater community is active in our decisions, our teaching, our tours. We take pride in being the center of this beautiful community.
The truth is, we are now in the midst of gentrification and changes in a neighborhood that has looked the same for years. After the housing crisis last year [when many renters were forced out as land values soared], our landscape is spotted with vacant lots where homes and families once resided. Old, rusty warehouses have been replaced with shiny new apartments, and what once had been overlooked is now the center of attention for developers. And even in this change, we are still the center of community.
Wesley-Rankin needs even more volunteers and financial support than ever before. Our work to bridge different people, heal feelings of bullying and neglect, and build a new path forward that includes a larger table with new faces will require creativity, additional relationship-building and soul work. Investing in Wesley-Rankin is investing in a community. … It is at the core of what we do and who we are. And my, do we have our work ahead and could use monetary and physical support!
Wesley-Rankin Community Center has a rich history in Dallas. In what areas do you see opportunities for Wesley-Rankin to further extend its outreach and impact?
West Dallas families have existed in crises the last few years, and — if only reading the newspaper — I’m unsure the public really understands what our neighbors across the bridge are facing. We have been living in a domestic refugee crisis. Whether you are looking at the housing landscape and viewing these acts of violence or following the Dallas Independent School District’s school board [proposal] to remove the only middle school in West Dallas, one cannot help but see the need for community voices in these issues that impact them the most.
Wesley-Rankin is currently in the process of positioning itself as a resource and source of accurate information and building a network to keep all the constituents informed of changes in the neighborhood. Through these networks, we can better impact housing and education in not only West Dallas but greater Dallas. In addition, Wesley-Rankin is better positioned than any other organization in West Dallas to provide healing and peace/reconciliation within all the changes and diversity of this neighborhood.
I truly believe when new people join a community, there is room for everyone at a common table. And, when differences come together, true signs of the Spirit are noticeable. I can’t help but dream of a place in Dallas in which such diversity can co-exist, [we] appreciate each other’s worth and advocate for issues that affect a neighbor.
What is something about Wesley-Rankin that the public may not know already but should?
I feel like West Dallas has a reputation of being a lower-income, poor area of town in which individuals can easily get their community service hours. What the public doesn’t know unless they visit is that the community of Wesley-Rankin is beautiful, sacred ground. We’re not a community that can pretend when things are going wrong. We are honest, transparent and authentic. And when someone struggles, we are family. And family is not just an arm around the shoulders and a hug, but family is an invitation to live in an already crowded home or adding another seat at a dinner table that already has a meal stretched on a dollar. Why? Because family takes care of family. This is what West Dallas teaches me.
It’s an unexplainable, undeniable, unconditional love that I have yet to find anywhere else. Here’s the strange thing: I could hold up a blinking light advertising that I’ve found God’s kingdom on Earth, and I still wouldn’t have people believe me. But I can tell you, for those who have come in our doors and experienced the goodness of this beautiful community, they continue to return. And we, metaphorically, remove our shoes, acknowledge the space for the joy and life within, and give thanks that this sacred ground exists.
What does the future hold for Wesley-Rankin Community Center in 2018, and what recommendations do you have for those who want to get involved?
2018 will bring collaborations with new partners that will aid in our bridging this new community and old community of West Dallas. In addition, Wesley-Rankin is an instigator. We seek to create and generate sparks where need is the greatest in order to promote equity. West Dallas children and families deserve the same opportunities as others in Dallas, so anything we can do to generate awareness, build new programs and create partnerships so that we can narrow the gap, we will do.
Pay attention to Wesley-Rankin and get involved in our efforts! We have a big road ahead, and the more minds, hands to help and better financial support, the more productive we can be in focusing on the faces of the community first.