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Profiling Mary Croom-Fontenot and ACT, a Gulf Coast Relief Fund Partner
Mary Croom-Fontenot's office is a table in a restaurant—one that is favored by community activists in New Orleans and is ready to accommodate folks who have lost their homes and their work places and who now hold meetings in cars, on street corners, or wherever a few people can gather. Croom-Fontenot directs All Congregations Together (ACT) in New Orleans, a Gulf Coast Relief Fund partner organization. Fontenot has lived in New Orleans all her life, growing up in the lower Ninth Ward. She is a mother of three daughters, ages 25, 24, and 20, a homeless homeowner, and a child of the civil rights movement. She is a product of the New Orleans public school system, and she is angry. Her organization is working to support the survival of the citizens of New Orleans at the root level. "Our main focus is to ensure that each citizen has a voice, and that all people have the right to return to their homes if they wish to come back," she explained. "People need to benefit from the opportunity and the money in the city, coming from the grass roots, directly from the people. Right now the voice of the people is silenced...or if we don't act, it will be silenced. So in acting we ensure their voice will be heard."
So Croom-Fontenot is not sitting still, focusing her efforts into directing ACT, a congregation-based community organization dedicated to empowering people to effect change and to improve the quality of life for their families and communities in Greater New Orleans. ACT works to develop leaders and to teach them congregation-based organizing. ACT works in partnership nationally with PICO, the People's Institute for Community Organization, along with over 100 congregation-based community organizations (CBCO's) in more than eighty other cities across the United States. ACT is an interfaith, multiracial organization, drawing participants from all socioeconomic backgrounds and from all parts of the greater New Orleans area.
The challenges they face are huge. Croom-Fontenot says, "Depression and post-traumatic stress run rampant. People are trying to hold themselves together. If you look at Maslow's hierarchy of needs, we are down low because we are stuck on survival: food, clothing, shelter. In (nearby town) Tchoupitoulas, people are living in cars and tents. I have a friend who was living on the porch of her mold-infested house in Gentilly. People are desperate to find places to live, and the city has put a moratorium on places to live. We need housing. Right now, we are homeowners paying expenses for houses that we can't live in. After the storm we were fighting for a moratorium on mortgage payments. It wasn't passed. We are in the fight of our lives, and for all of us that missed the first civil rights and justice movement, this is what it's about."
The passion in Croom-Fontenot's voice is palpable: "The [New Orleans] East [community] isn't being revived, and the lower Ninth Ward is being choked off," Croom-Fontenot continued. The Bring New Orleans Back committee didn't ask any stakeholders for input. We spoke with almost 4,000 people, and they said, 'we want to come back, we're rebuilding, they are not taking our land.' My house is sitting there rotting, and the city is trying to claim it through eminent domain. We are going to march in the streets...We are fighting in Iraq for democracy? We don't have democracy here. This is ludicrous."
With all the commitment she has, Croom-Fontenot pours her life blood and energy and faith into ACT. She knows that New Orleans is likely to stand or fall on the development of successful coalitions, and ACT is a major player in that vision. "We have to identify the leadership—here in the city—that is going to be in place for twenty years. How do we create that vehicle? Should we pull together heads of churches? Sure. We had one hundred ministers gathered on March 18 th, but we have to create more than that. Where there are common issues, we have to come together." Other interfaith groups, including the Jeremiah Project, have come together with ACT to identify the ways in which they want to bring change. Rebuilding the city's education system is one major focal point.
The city's struggling education system is not a new problem that emerged post-Katrina; the hurricane just made it much, much worse. "We were in trouble prior to Katrina," Croom-Fontent said. "Even the poorest of people wanted to send their kids to private school. We had eighty failing schools out of one hundred twenty-two, and the state took over the school system...kids didn't have books, toilet paper, water. Before the storm, ACT held forums with the Chamber of Commerce, and the result was that five of seven school board members were ousted. Anyone entrusted with the life of a child is given sacred responsibility...and this is what is done with it? In a city where people used to say, 'this is just the way this is,' they now are saying something else. They have gone to other cities, and recognize that even if you are poor, you don't have to live this way."
In a city that faced the challenges of poverty and the blessings of multicultural diversity before the storm, now the very large hurdle is determining how to preserve those cultures and restore people to their homes. ACT, and Mary Croom-Fontenot, are in it for the long haul, working with other partner organizations to develop coalitions of the people that will help them reclaim their voices and their properties. "We are a city that reflects the African model of family staying together...and now, we don't have that...so many people died because they have been ripped away from the support they had. And while city officials sit on the sideline, mothers and grandmothers who raised this city up, are dying.
"Please tell people, New Orleans is not well. This is a city that is dying, and it could be any place...this could happen to your city. America has a short attention span and this is uncomfortable...but [people need to ask themselves] 'what if this happened to us? How would you react?'"
And with that, the conversation ended and Croom-Fontenot's roving office was ready to move to an automobile. Her commitment fueled by coffee, her cell phone ready to receive calls from constituents, she was yet again energized to do the work of revitalizing a city that has been her home all her life.
This is the work of the Gulf Coast Relief Fund, funded by donations in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. We are proud to count ACT as a partner in the effort to restore the Gulf Coast and to allow people of that region to return to their homes and lead dignified, decent lives.
The UUA's Deborah Weiner visited the Gulf Coast in May. This profile is one of three focusing on partners funded through the UUA-UUSC Gulf Coast Relief Fund.