My name is Zach deMoya, and I serve as the Executive Director of Owenwood Farm and Neighbor Space. I’ve been with Owenwood in a variety of roles for around 18 months, and in my current leadership role since last June. I moved to Dallas in the middle of 2020 to work on my doctorate in religious ethics at SMU, and a lot of my background is in education, particularly on the financial side – a core part of our vision at Owenwood and what type of programming and services we offer to our neighbors.
Can you tell me a little about Owenwood Farm & Neighbor Space? What is its history and how is the space used now?
So Owenwood is actually – albeit not necessarily functionally – the second campus of White Rock United Methodist Church. Owenwood operates in the former Owenwood United Methodist Church, whose congregation ceased worship in 2015, and the building remained in the stewardship of the Methodist conference in North Texas. The vision for Owenwood was to be a missional campus, combining faith-informed missional outreach with using the building and farm space to host community partners who helped address access gaps in Far East Dallas, like healthy food, or literacy, and so on. Over time, it has developed into more of a place-based non-profit. The aim of Owenwood is to be responsive to the needs of our neighbors – which there are many, and are quite diverse – and to equip and empower individuals, groups, and existing organizations to do what they do best and serve the community within our space. We don’t want to reinvent the wheel, we just want to be good stewards of our resources and provide support to our neighbors to serve their fellow community members, and ensure that the things that happen at Owenwood are directly correlated with the needs of this community. This entails a lot of youth and senior programming, direct aid through food and diaper distributions, hosting community celebrations, events, and forums, and bringing on permanent partners who work collaboratively with us and with each other to offer services to the neighborhood.
How were you introduced to PT? Why did Owenwood want to partner with PT?
I was introduced to PT through the executive director of one of your former sites, Wesley Rankin. PT came highly recommended as a literacy-based after school provider that worked well with churches and faith-informed non-profits to offer meals and engaging programming to students. We had provided after-school programming internally in the past, but our capacity as a small staff and small organization to do that effectively was always going to be stretched. We also care deeply about the goals and outcomes of the elementary schools nearest us, as they are some of our closest partners, and above all else, administrators, teachers, and parents are concerned about students falling behind in reading – which is of course a great predictor of many other metrics, like student retention and attendance, graduating high school, socialization, and so much more. PT being embedded in the United Methodist Church, caring deeply about student literacy, and being willing to be flexible to the unique setting of a non-profit as opposed to a traditional church space were really attractive as a potential partner, and I’ve been really thrilled with what I’ve seen so far and excited for what’s to come in our long-term partnership!
In what ways does the local church partner in the work you are doing?
Yeah, this is always an interesting question on my brain! We are, of course, the second campus of a local church, and just by nature of being in a city like Dallas, are surrounded by local churches who make up the composition of a lot of the missional and outreach organizations and volunteer bases that our work relies upon engaging. Most of our students, parents, active adults, and neighbors are ingrained in the local church in one way or the other, so we’re always working with churchpeople in that sense. The local church that “planted” Owenwood, White Rock United Methodist Church, is integral to our work, both with PT and otherwise! Their financial, logistical, personnel, and prayerful support has been the backbone of Owenwood since day one. Their pastoral staff are some of my closest thought partners and cheerleaders of our work. Their congregants play important roles on our board, as core volunteers for our outreach and social service programs, and just as participants in our programs. I don’t think it’s at all a stretch to say that without even the day-to-day roles that so many WRUMC folks play at Owenwood, we’d be struggling! It is an interesting balance to strike with being a faith-informed organization, as a lot of our community partners don’t necessarily hold those same faith convictions, nor do we necessitate that for partnership, whether in-house or collaborating on programming. In a lot of ways, I think that’s good – in the same way that our neighborhoods are diverse and come from a variety of Christian and non-Christian faith backgrounds, so too are the people at Owenwood that serve them. Certainly my understanding of mission and the work beyond the walls of the conventional church drives me, and the local church is integral, and at the same time, Owenwood is a cool space where the work of the local church meets the work of the broader, sometimes secular community, and ultimately the work looks the same – we’re all here to better our neighborhood, help those in need, and build relationships.
What do you see as the best parts of the Owenwood neighborhood?
Is it a cop-out to just say the people? Because that’s really the answer here. The “Owenwood neighborhood” is a bit of a false moniker – a history of gentrification and redlining has ultimately moved the neighborhood called Owenwood further into South Dallas, so what actually constitutes the area around our space are a diverse range of people and communities and neighborhoods that represent so many different income levels, races, political orientations, and so much more. There are plenty of folks in our area that have the means that if we equip them to offer their time, skills, and passions, they can come into our space and make a huge difference to so many in Far East Dallas with what they bring to the table. There are also plenty of folks who see Owenwood primarily as a service provider – which is totally fine and great, as we seek to provide social services and direct aid that makes meaningful difference for our community! These diverse collections of people form local churches, non-profits, community organizations, school staffs, and neighborhood associations, all who we work collaboratively with to leave no stone unturned in terms of what our neighbors are asking for more of or what they say they need the most. Owenwood is and aims to be a place that brings diverse groups together, providing for some, equipping and empowering others, and perhaps doing both at the same time. That’s the aim of being a place-based, community-center style organization – being the place where unlikely friendships and relationships are born and bear fruit.
How do you see PT as a partner in the work Owenwood Farm & Neighbor Space is already doing?
75228 and Far East Dallas are one of the biggest childcare and daycare deserts in the country, and that’s not hyperbole at all. Many of the elementary and middle schools nearest Owenwood are made up of awesome students with tons of potential, dedicated teachers and administrators, and yet suffer from the systematic failures of political and social systems to provide them the resources they need to really shine – and this shows up the most in elementary-age reading levels. Something like 95% of students who are behind on their reading level at the end of their third grade year will never read beyond a fifth-grade level – that’s wild to me, and also is something I remember all the time when thinking about how best to position Owenwood to serve these schools and their students. I think PT shares my sentiment that the best way to address these systemic gaps in local schools is to supplement their work with literacy-based programs, whether through after-school or summer opportunities with dedicated staff, and still working closely with the local schools. As a literacy-based organization, the outcomes and goals of PT are not far off Owenwood’s own goals at all – we want to plug access gaps with programming and social services. Two of the biggest – and related – needs in our community are literacy resources for students, and childcare/after-school programs where students can go outside of school hours and be loved on, supported, fed, and be safe. Our collaborative partnership serves both of those needs really well! PT’s aims fit into the aims of Owenwood, and the work thus far is already bearing fruit for our students. We’re really excited to watch this partnership grow over time!