MDiv, MSW '16
Kevin Pranoto currently serves as the Executive Director of Mission Oak Cliff in Dallas. Kevin’s career path began as many do – with a degree seemingly far from where he would end up. A calling that he knew would lead toward ministry followed, pulling him back to Baylor and the George W. Truett Theological Seminary and the Diana R. Garland School of Social Work. He would graduate in 2016 with his dual Master’s degrees in Divinity and Social Work. After Baylor, Kevin moved to Atlanta, Georgia, where he worked for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and for Buckhead Christian Ministry, a nonprofit combatting homelessness and hunger in the Atlanta community.
Formerly from Houston, Kevin returned to his home state in 2019 to lead Mission Oak Cliff. He is a proud Baylor alumnus and currently also serves as a part-time lecturer for the Garland School, teaching Human Diversity and Leadership. He spoke with Baylor Alumni recently about his service in his adopted North Oak Cliff community and what a calling to serve looks like for him.
Q: Kevin, so, you came to Baylor and graduated with your Bachelor’s of Science in Nutrition Sciences, went out into the workforce and then came back for your MDiv an MSW?
Kevin: “Yes, so I graduated from Baylor a semester early (in 2011) from my undergrad, and during those six months I worked at MD Anderson cancer center as a nutrition specialist, and then I went back to get my MDiv and MSW at Baylor.”
Q: So tell us about that. What solidified for you that you wanted to go in a different direction?
Kevin: “My senior year at Baylor, I felt the call to ministry. I didn't know what that would look like. My dad's a pastor, so I never wanted to become a pastor myself, but I felt a strong call to service. I knew that I was going to go to Truett seminary. A lot of my mentors while I was at Baylor were Truett students or Truett alumni. So, I knew that I wanted to go to Truett seminary, but I didn't really know what would be after that. It wasn't until I started my MSW program, that I felt strongly called to the field of social work as my form of ministry and the fulfillment of my calling. Since graduating with my MDiv and MSW, I've worked in the faith-based nonprofit setting.”
Q: Mission Oak Cliff. Is that within a church there in Oak Cliff?
Kevin: “Yes, Cliff Temple Baptist Church. It has strong ties to Baylor, and especially to George W. Truett, Truett Seminary’ namesake.”
Q: Tell us about your mission there in the North Oak Cliff neighborhood.
Kevin: “Our mission at Mission Oak Cliff is to break the cycle of poverty in North Oak Cliff through improving food security, providing homeless services, and adult education. Those are our three main pillars of the organization that we really focus on. Especially since the pandemic, we've just seen a lot of need.
This area of North Oak Cliff is experiencing a lot of change and gentrification. There's a lot of development happening. There are people who are being pushed out, people who don't know how they're going to afford next month's rent with prices increasing. There's just a lot of uncertainty in this area, and so we are trying to really strengthen this community by providing them the resources that they need in order to flourish and thrive. That looks like partnerships with other agencies, with our community leaders. We serve over 2,000 individuals a month currently through our food pantry alone. We see over 60 people through our homeless services every day.
We've seen a 50% increase in the number of people that we're serving. The immigrant community here has been hit the hardest, I feel. Jobs have been taken away from them, and there's just a lot of insecurity with their immigration status because of that, too, when their visas require them to be working. So, we interface with a lot of people.”
Q: How big is your staff at Mission Oak Cliff?
Kevin: “We are only a staff of four. Two of us are Baylor alumni, actually. Our new director of volunteers and development is a recent 2019 Baylor graduate. He just started last week. Even though we're a staff of four, we have volunteers who are really faithful and great to help us.”
Q: How many volunteers does your team manage?
Kevin: “Over a given year, we probably oversee about 300 total volunteers. Because of the pandemic, we're only allowing one volunteer to come in per shift, so our current numbers are lower. We do have a lot of senior volunteers who are concerned about their health, rightfully so, and so they're just on a hiatus right now. But I'd say our regular volunteer base is about 30 people regularly coming through our organization.”
Q: And how long have you been there at Mission Oak Cliff?
Kevin: “I've been here less than a year. It'll be a year next month.”
Q: So you basically came in and had about six months before the pandemic?
Kevin: “I did, yes. (laughing) So, as soon as I got here and got settled, the pandemic hit, which has been a lot of learning and growth for me. I'm glad that I at least had that five months to make connections and get settled and learn the organization before all the chaos started happening.”
Q: How did you prepare? That's not even a fair question, but do you think that your time at Baylor helped to give you a base or a foundation? Do you feel like your time at Baylor gave you tools to cope with the situation that you've been put into?
Kevin: “Yes, I definitely think so. I had often wondered, why did I take the path that I took? I feel like when people look at my resume, it doesn't make sense. (Laughing)
Starting off Nutrition Science/Pre-Med, and then moving to getting my MDiv and then my MSW on top of that, and it's just super scattered. But now, I feel like all of my education at Baylor has helped prepare me for this role. Our food pantry ministry is the largest ministry of the organization, and my nutrition science background has really helped me with that. We learned about food delivery systems through the nutrition science program. We learned all the nutrition education and how to provide nutrition counseling, which I hope to do one day with our client base, and trying to integrate healthier options for lower-income families and trying to educate them on how to prepare the spaghetti squash that they've never had to cook. So in that sense, my nutrition background has really helped me, and, especially during this pandemic, my MSW education has really kicked into gear.
The one lesson that might not even have been the most important lesson during my studies at Baylor, but one that has stuck with me throughout these whole uncertain times, is (Garland School) Dean (Jon) Singletary's lesson on emergent planning. How we always have to adapt to situations. Sometimes, the things that we plan for just need to be adapted and tweaked in order to be more effective. Situations and systems are constantly changing, and we need to evolve with the situations and with the times. I think that's one thing that I've taken away that I implemented here and have tried to share with my staff, that it’s OK to constantly adapt to new circumstances and new situations.
There's been a lot of trial and error during this time. I'm grateful that I was also trained to be a community practitioner in the MSW program so that I could look at things from a bigger picture and from a macro perspective. (I don’t) just look at the tiny, minute details of individual client interactions, but to really look at the bigger picture during this time and see, ‘okay, where do we need to take the organization? How do we need to change in this climate?’
One of the things that's come out of this pandemic is that we're planning to start a delivery grocery system right now through our food pantry. We're seeing that a lot of kids are going to be at home and doing virtual education. There are a lot of families that don't have transportation to go to the grocery store or to go to a food pantry. So, how do we partner with the local public schools and identify families who are food insecure and transportation burdened and get the food to them? So that's something that's launching next month for us to start this delivery system in collaboration with Dallas Independent School District.”
Q: Do you see your calling as kind of equipping the people in your community? Is that something that rings true for you in your life and your career?
Kevin: “Yes, I really do think that is. I am so fortunate to be able to live out my calling in multiple ways. Not only do I serve in this capacity as the Executive Director of Mission Oak Cliff, but I also get the opportunity to pour into future social workers as adjunct faculty for the School of Social Work at Baylor. I teach one class for the online social work program, Human Diversity and Leadership, which I absolutely love as well. So I am fortunate to be able to do things that I love and also get compensated for doing things that I love. I feel like that's so rare. I feel like I am called to equip people and to, I guess, equipping people to stand on their own, in a sense. So at Mission Oak Cliff, I am trying to equip people to become more self-sustainable, and I'm trying to put the right investments in the right programs so that people don't need our services anymore.
I just love this: the other week, there was this one guy who came into my office. He was one of our homeless clients, and he didn't need anything that day. Instead he was said, 'Here's $20. I want to invest in this ministry now that I have a job, now that I am more stable. I want to invest in y'all because y'all have helped me so much.' And that's just amazing, right? That's the dream story for every person who walks through our doors.
At Baylor, I love being able to invest in future social workers and hope that they will become even better social workers than I am. Through them learning about human diversity and leadership, I hope they will be able to question their presumptions and to challenge stereotypes and biases. That is something that I'm also passionate about in advancing social justice in this world.”
Q: Being a person of color and being in a leadership position, do you think that that has been an asset in opening doors for you among the people that you're trying to help?
Kevin: “Yeah. So as a person of color in this field, I feel like I've had to overcome a lot of obstacles. In nonprofit leadership, you see a lot of people of color working in non-profits, but you don't really see many of them in leadership positions or serving on boards. I have so many stories of being discriminated against by donors and board members, and so I feel I can better empathize with how someone walking through our doors could feel. I feel like I can better understand how there can be a lack of dignity and a culture of ‘savior-ism’ within a nonprofit organization. So it is my commitment to build an organization that emphasizes dignity and worth.
For me, that looks like not allowing there to be an option in our clothing closet of, like ripped jeans, or anything with a stain or missing buttons, you know? Even to the way that we celebrate our community. For example, we had a Thanksgiving feast for our homeless clients, and we made it restaurant style. We had volunteers as waiters, and they took down people's orders. I feel like I can be more attentive to some of those smaller things that just are sensitive for the population that we serve. I do think that a lot of our clients relate to me as they see me trying to speak their language. Having experienced discrimination and prejudice myself, I want there to be an even higher standard for our organization to be more equitable and inclusive of all people.”
Q: And then, you're turning around and teaching that to your students through the class that you teach at Baylor.
Kevin: “Yes. Every experience that I've had, I share. I try to be as vulnerable as possible with my students. I've been personal because I feel like this is a personal topic. Diversity and inclusion is personal, and there are so many emotions tied up with it. For them to be able to learn how to lean into understanding, not that they'll fully understand what different marginalized communities experience, but for them to be able to lean into that and try to seek understanding, is important to me.”
Q: You've already accomplished so much early in your career. What do you hope the next five to 10 years hold? Where do you go from here?
Kevin: (Laughs) “That's a great question. Well, I see myself in this community, still, in the next five to 10 years. I hope to grow Mission Oak Cliff, and for us to be able to serve even more people. I feel like the first year has just been me listening and learning and absorbing the culture of Dallas, the history of Dallas. Listening to the needs of the clients that are walking through our doors. Hopefully in the next five to 10 years, I can really be a true stakeholder in the city of Dallas and really push for more policy changes, more social changes, that will be beneficial to all people. Right now we have a limited geographic area where we're focusing our efforts to, but maybe in the future we can expand and integrate even more programs that are focused on development rather than just relief. I would love for us to be a 50/50 organization where we can provide 50% relief and 50% long-term development services in the community. Personally, I see myself continuing to hopefully teach at Baylor, if they will have me come back. This will be my third term teaching class this fall. It's something that I absolutely love doing! In the next five, 10 years I want to continue being an advocate for the community and learning how to do that alongside the community I'm serving.”