Teaching as a corps member in his hometown of Oak Cliff, Dallas, put Taylor Toynes (Dallas-Fort Worth ’14) on a path to advocacy. Now, he’s leading a fast-growing movement to bring lasting change to the community that helped shape him.
In 2017, three years after Toynes founded the community organization For Oak Cliff, a post from Facebook co-founder and tech mogul Mark Zuckerberg thrust him into the public eye. While in Dallas, Zuckerberg had spent the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday working side by side with Toynes and volunteers to build a community garden in Oak Cliff’s Tenth Street Historic District.
“Oak Cliff is a food desert, so the garden we worked on is going to be a source of fresh fruits and vegetables for the community,” wrote Zuckerberg.
While Toynes remains grateful to Zuckerberg and his team at Facebook for shedding light on the issues facing one of the most poverty-stricken neighborhoods in the city of Dallas, for him, Oak Cliff is home, and there’s still much work to do.
Nourishing a Community in Need
In the same Glendale Shopping Center where his grandfather once owned a convenience store called Ben & Son, Toynes is busy working with his interns to plan the third-annual “For Oak Cliff” back-to-school festival.
The festival—a voter registration, job fair, college fair, and school supply giveaway movement—has expanded rapidly from its grassroots beginnings.
“What started as a block party to raise money for school supplies became a corporate-sponsored event with more than 1,000 backpacks donated. Last year, we had about 3,000 people in the park and gave away over 2,000 backpacks,” says Toynes, enthusiastically. “This year, we’re expecting 5,000 to attend.”
How does a small army of volunteers, interns, and one full-time employee get 5,000 people to attend a one-day back-to-school festival?
“By showing love and listening to the community,” says Toynes.
For the Love of Home
Toynes’ South Dallas roots run deep. A third-generation resident, Toynes holds fond memories of his childhood in Oak Cliff.
“I was very fortunate,” he recalls. “I grew up surrounded by positive friends and family who always supported and encouraged one another.”
However, despite his nurtured upbringing, Toynes was mindful of the poverty and violence plaguing his community.
“While I was always aware of the trauma and neglect in my community,” says Toynes, “it wasn’t until I got to college that I really appreciated what it meant to real lives for a community to lack resources and suffer inequity.”
Toynes went on to attend the University of North Texas, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in political science. With his eyes set on law school, he secured a job at the Dallas County District Attorney’s office as a Victim Advocate in the Family Violence Division.
“Here I was, sitting at the DA’s office, when I read the article that changed everything,” says Toynes.
Being the Change He Wanted to See
Taylor had stumbled upon a statistic from the Children’s Defense Fund’s “Cradle to Prison Pipeline” campaign. It explained that in the zip code where he grew up, there were 681 inmates and only two college-ready graduates.
“I knew that being a teacher would allow me to reach kids in my community early,” says Toynes. “So right away, I left my job at the district attorney’s office and applied to join Teach For America in Dallas.”
During his time in the corps, Toynes taught fourth-grade reading and writing at W.W. Bushman Elementary School in Oak Cliff.
His goal—to be the change he wanted to see in his community.
“In the classroom, I met some of the most beautiful and resilient kids in the world. I learned to check my privilege in all situations, step back, and learn from my students.”
Toynes witnessed the struggles and challenges of growing up in poverty firsthand from his students.
“From school supplies and backpacks to positive role models, there was an opportunity deficit in my community, and my time in the classroom showed me where I needed to organize,” says Taylor.
Moving Forward, Together
After finishing his two-year corps service, Toynes earned a master’s degree in education from Southern Methodist University in 2016.
Now, he devotes his passion and energy to being both the executive director of For Oak Cliff and a dedicated father and husband. His daughter, Wednesday, is one year old, and his wife and high school sweetheart, Ariel Toynes, is a teacher.
For Oak Cliff continues to expand. It offers education fairs and mindfulness workshops, provides camps and pre-K programs, and partnered with El Centro College and WorkReadyU to offer GED classes. The organization also recently launched the For Oak Cliff Freedom School with the Children’s Defense Fund.
Yet Toynes refuses to rest on his laurels and looks forward to cultivating even more opportunities.
In an area where more than 75 percent of children under the age of five live below the poverty line, Toynes sees his work as just getting started.
“If we want to build a culture of education, it’s going to take a lot of us. But it’s worth it. I love Oak Cliff. It’s my hood, my culture, where I am from, and where I choose to raise my family. I believe that if we come together, we can move forward together and build a better future for my daughter and my students.”