PISAB Organizing with New Orleans’ St. Thomas Residents Council
The People’s Institute has a set of principles that were developed some 40 plus years ago which still undergird effective antiracist community organizing today. “Learning from History” is one of these principles, though the story I am about to tell reflects other PISAB principles as well.
The story is about our organizing in New Orleans with the St. Thomas Residents Council from the mid 1980’s through the early 1990’s. This is an arbitrary dimension of time. There were those of us who helped found The Institute who had been working in the housing developments before the 1980’s ; some have continued to work in public housing not only in New Orleans but around the country. Over the years, a vast network of PISAB people organize around housing issues in their own communities and nationally. But this is about The St. Thomas Residents Council.
Some historical context is in order: By virtue of the passage of the Brooke Amendment in 1969, the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development (H.U.D.) was required to permit tenants living in public housing the right to elect their own local leadership (Residents Councils) in every locale where federally-subsidized housing existed throughout the country. Such Councils were empowered to represent tenants in collective bargaining proceedings with their city Housing Authorities. This amendment was the result of organizing on a national scale by tenant groups, welfare rights groups, and others seeking equity in nationwide housing policies. In Congress, Sen. Edward Brooke sponsored the amendment and led the federal process that secured its passage.
In 1986, Judy Watts, a PISAB board member and founder of a local child advocacy agency, heard of a plan that local developers were envisioning that would allow them to tear down public housing along New Orleans’ riverfront and extend the local restaurant and entertainment district from the French Quarter uptown to the University area. This would be a major component of an economic strategy that saw tourism as the foundation of New Orleans’ economic future. This plan, now known as the Rochon Plan, would displace the 5,000 residents in St. Thomas and many hundreds more in the surrounding neighborhood known as the Irish Channel.
But the residents of St. Thomas had a history of organized resistance to matters impacting their lives. They had run at least three successful rent strikes since 1980 and had been an integral part of the formation of a City-wide Tenants Association. They were determined to not go down without a fight. Neither would they succumb to racial intimidation by powerful systems that controlled New Orleans’ financial policies and redlined investment strategies.
Leaders of the St. Thomas Resident Council had been attending the “Undoing Racism” workshops since the beginning of PISAB. Ron Chisom, Barbara Major, Tyronne Edwards, Jim Hayes and myself had been active in organizing around housing issues since the early 1970’s. The workshops were not at first open to the public. They were more like in-service trainings for community organizers. They were designed to equip organizers to be more effective in their work and more accountable to the indigenous leadership of people of color, Black people in particular. Dr. Jim Dunn was instrumental in his mentoring of us to help us understand racism, what it is and how it functions. He would stress history and culture as the roots of our efforts instead of providing more mechanical aspects of organizing that was taught most often.
In New Orleans, once the Rochon Report was released, resident leaders began to call together their supporters both within and beyond the borders of St. Thomas. Barbara Jackson, as President of the Residents Council, asked Barbara Major to chair a consortium of all the agencies and organizations surrounding St. Thomas. Members of this new St. Thomas Irish Channel Consortium (STICC, as it came to be known) were to agree to a new method of operating, one that stressed collective accountability to the residents of the housing development as represented by the Residents Council. Members of STICC were required to sign a covenant to this effect and to agree that residents had ultimate sign-off and veto power over any decisions that were deemed to negatively affect their interests.
This was a radical departure from the way things had always been. Agencies that signed the covenant and agreed to be accountable first and foremost to St. Thomas residents were now being required to operate in a more collective fashion. Heretofore they had been independent agencies with their own mission statements and boards, functioning in programmatic silos. The Resident Council did not ask them to give up their programs but to work with STICC to ensure that St. Thomas survived by becoming powerful as it faced major economic and political pressures.
STICC meetings were soon attended not only by St.Thomas residents and agency representatives but by people from the larger N.O. community who wanted to witness this new way of functioning. These monthly 8:00 a.m. meetings were regularly attended by well over 100 people, who often had to stand along the walls. It was the first time any of them had witnessed a reversal of power, with agencies accounting for their activities to the Residents Council.
STICC required mutual learning on everyone’s part. At first agencies, as was their custom, sent their outreach workers or staff members to Consortium meetings. Resident Council members, understanding that a power shift would have to include agency decision-makers, insisted that agency board presidents and CEOs officially represent their agency on the Consortium and attend the meetings themselves.
The Resident Council understood, by virtue of having experienced the PISAB Power Analysis/Foot ID, that agencies’ tendency to manipulate interactions with the community was how racism is structured and maintained.
Eventually, the Resident Council began to require that any agency grant application that impacted the St. Thomas community – either to local or national philanthropies – needed to be reviewed by the Resident Council before it could be submitted to a funder. The reason for this was not to control everything about a given organization but to ensure that the agencies spoke about the residents of St. Thomas with respect and dignity. They prohibited agencies, for example, from referring to residents as “minorities.” They also insisted that their youth not be referred to as “at risk” and the community at large not be referred to as “marginalized.” This in the 1980’s!
Those of us working with the Consortium were not used to this new framework, so we all had to learn together what accountability meant, and how humanistic accountability could be demonstrated. The Resident Council soon recognized that new leaders were required to carry forth all the Consortium work. Residents beyond the Council itself would need to step up and assume new responsibilities if the community was to grow its power.
For example, inspired by the Consortium’s work, a group of Black men, brought together by St. Thomas resident Robert “Kool Black” Horton, created an organization called Black Men United for Change to address the persistent police harassment and violence in the community. They established the St. Thomas Peacekeepers, community residents who themselves had been frequent victims of such violence, to intervene where tensions arose, either between residents or with police. Their presence brought the violence down dramatically.
Another example of the Consortium impact was a program designed in cooperation with Planned Parenthood to reduce teen pregnancy in the area. The Resident Council objected to the premise of the program, and the data they used, which reflected negatively and erroneously on the residents. They felt if residents of St. Thomas used their relationships with the larger community to create their own data, that data collected on such issues as teen pregnancy would be much more accurate, humane and fair-minded. They worked with Planned Parenthood to establish “walkers and talkers,” women who would go door-to-door and talk with neighbors to find out what was creating the outcomes that were perceived by outside organizations as negative, but from the community viewpoint might not be so. Planned Parenthood leaders, like all STICC members, were required to participate in Undoing Racism workshops.
Literacy programs, sports leagues and legal services were all designed along the same principles of accountability. St. Thomas residents created their own law clinic to train established lawyers to be more effective in their representation of community residents. The St. Thomas Health Clinic, which had existed for years before this new approach, was required to revamp its board of directors and hire staff trained to be more sensitive to the effects of racism on health care outcomes.
From its founding in 1986 throughout the early 1990’s, STICC experienced tremendous growth and many accomplishments with its model of community accountability. The Consortium demonstrated, not just in New Orleans but in communities around the country, the impact of empowered community organizations on political and economic decision-makers.
Ultimately the passage of the Federal housing program called HOPE VI began to overwhelm the organizing efforts that defined the early STICC years. Power plus millions of resource dollars designed to “redevelop” entities such as St. Thomas began to be more than resident leaders and Consortium allies could handle. Key people in leadership positions began to leave; leadership among the Resident Council began to experience its own internal dynamics. Money began to play people against one another and divisions occurred that weakened the collective approach. Finally, these disorganizing political forces were able to reassert their power.
Yet the organizing efforts among St. Thomas residents and community agencies, all schooled in PISAB principles, offer an example of how a collective approach, rooted in an understanding of the dynamics of racism, culture and history, can bring about structural change and a shift in power. Reflecting back, we now recognize how this moment in history has played a significant role in the ongoing movement for racial equity and justice.
The People’s Institute Principles
Learning from History
Identifying & Analyzing Manifestations of Racism
Understanding Internalized Racial Inferiority/Superiority