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
For more information contact web @ uua.org.
This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations.
Please consider making a donation today.
Last updated on Thursday, August 2, 2012.
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