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Grassroots Activism in NOLA is About Making a Difference in the Community

by Anitra D. Brown

Members of the Take “Em Down NOLA coalition, led by Malcolm Suber (center) demonstrate, calling for the removal of confederate-era monuments in public spaces throughout New Orleans.

Retired army major and businesswoman Tracey Riley is a member of a local organization called The Collaborative, a group that advocates for economic equity and access, particularly for Black-owned businesses. It is as a member of this group that Riley says she became more aware of the millions of dollars in public money controlled by boards and commissions across the city and of the fact that Black New Orleanians rarely benefit from this spending.

“You’ve got special interests groups called to serve on these boards and commissions and, in great part, excluding our community,” Riley says. “The public has a right to know. And I am okay with going up and asking questions.”

Eventually, she and other community members such as Belden “Noonie Man” Batiste and Kim Ford began making the rounds at various board meetings, calling attention to the fact that Black-owned businesses are often left out of the public contract and procurement processes and demanding change.

Last spring, Riley sent an e-mail to the head of the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation, asking questions about how it spends the millions in sales tax money it gets each year to market the city. And she and others showed up at NOTMC board meetings.

This is one area where Riley is happy to report some results.

“The (New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation) was the first board meeting that I attended and spoke up at in March.”

Leaders at NOTMC did not just listen to their concerns. They acted, she says, by reaching out to tourism-related Black-owned businesses, exploring ways to help them increase capacity and even providing business opportunities for Black photographers, videographers and event planners. NOTMC also reached out to McKenna Publishing Company, long-time publishers of The New Orleans Tribune; The New Orleans BlackBook, a comprehensive directory of Black-owned businesses; and Welcome magazine, a guide for Black tourists to New Orleans, published since 1999.

Spurred by the concerns lodged by the activist citizens, NOTMC turned to the resources available in the New Orleans BlackBook. And they partnered with McKenna Publishing on the 2108 edition of Welcome magazine to heighten the visibility and distribution of the directory of tourism-related Black-owned businesses in print and online just before Essence Festival. The goal was to spur more economic activity at more Black-owned businesses, many of which in recent years have reported feeling left out of the boon during the annual music and culture event, which brought more than 500,000 mostly Black visitors to New Orleans and generated more than $200 million in economic activity this year.

Riley says she saw the positive impact of those efforts.

“It was just a matter of establishing relationships, linking us all together and sharing data,” Riley says. “And we saw an increase in tourism activity during Essence festival, not just within a few blocks of the convention center, but at businesses across the city. One small change had a huge impact. NOTMC is actually intentionally making decisions. That is success.”

Riley, Batiste, Ford and others are now focusing on the redevelopment of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, another agency that gets millions in public funds each year. They have become regulars at the convention center board meetings, speaking up and airing their concern that Black businesses and workers will get left out of the convention center’s planned $558 million redevelopment if deliberate action isn’t taken.

“Our intent is to go around the city and get before other boards and do the same,” Riley says.

Riley, Ford, Batiste and others that sound alarms, demanding accountability, equity, and action are what we call Tree Shakers. They are not afraid to make a lot of noise . . . to shake some trees, so to speak, raising their voices and even a few eyebrows for the causes of equity and justice.

Those who aren’t ready or willing to hear what they are saying might take to calling them rabble-rousers, trouble makers or even gadflies—busybody meddlers. Those words are code used to discount such activists.

But the truth is tree shakers are the folk that undertake important causes with little regard for their own time and resources. They don’t get paid to attend meetings, make public comments for the record, research information, send e-mails, post to social media or organize protests. Sometimes their own livelihoods suffer as a result of their activism. Yet, when their work yields result, they don’t necessarily directly benefit from the results of their own actions. Still, they do what they do in order to shake the trees so that the fruit will fall.

The visible, tangible increase in economic activity at many Black-owned businesses during the recent Essence Fest, the long lines at neighborhood restaurants, visits by tourists to sections of the city other than the French Quarter and downtown – that was fruit falling from shaken trees.

“What harms my sister or my brother harms me,” Ford says. “I have children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews; and I need for them to be in a world where they have opportunity. (Injustices) are so prevalent, yet so unnoticed, I feel compelled to speak out. It’s a calling on my life.”

It is impossible to talk about tree shakers without mentioning the important role of the jelly makers, those individuals who are in the right place at the right time with the right skills. They are able to pick up the fruit that falls from the trees and turn it into power and resources—sweet jelly. Whether they acknowledge it or not, there is hardly anyone in any community of color that exercises real political power or enjoys significant economic success – a jelly maker  – that did not benefit from the work of tree shakers. In a perfect universe, jelly makers appreciate the tree shakers and show it by using their political might or economic resources to improve community. Sometimes the universe is perfect. To be sure, New Orleans has some jelly makers that help complete the circle. It’s kismet. Creating power and capacity that strengthens and serves the community is why tree shakers do what they do. Unfortunately, far too many jelly makers conveniently forget just how they got the fruit they enjoy. They don’t use their success to build community. They may even ridicule, ignore and treat tree shakers with disdain despite the reality that they very success they enjoy is rooted in the tree that was shaken by someone else.

A City of Tree Shakers

New Orleans is a city with a deep history of selfless activism. Some have become institutions in this city whose traditions of community activism have become models for others to mimic, such as the legacy left by Dyan French Cole, better known as Momma D.

Cole, whose legacy of activism in New Orleans stretched 50 years at the time of her death in 2017, was one of the outspoken voices to ring out in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. In December 2005, barely three months after the storm, she testified passionately before a bi-partisan congressional committee convened to investigate the government’s preparation and response to Katrina.

French Cole boldly used the national stage to talk about the treatment of storm victims and the signs that even then, barely 90 days after the storm, that the rich and powerful were eyeing a broken New Orleans with plans to push out poor and working people, land grab and gentrify the city.

“I didn’t go anywhere,” Cole told members of Congress during her testimony. “Why? Because I didn’t have to. Why? Because I live in America. I’m free. Katrina didn’t do this. The isms of America did this…My neighbors want to know where their children are…They want to know where their deceased are…And they want to know where there rights are…We ain’t going nowhere.”

Local activist Angelina Elder has been inspired by Mama D, counting herself among what she calls Mama D’s Village. Elder fights today in the same defiant spirit and has consistently raised her voice regarding injustices in public education, with special attention to the poor conditions at and privatization of John McDonogh High School.

And French Cole’s own son Byron Cole has picked up the mantle left by his mother. In addition to being among those raising questions and demanding equity in the economic arena, he recently organized a community boycott against a 7th Ward convenience store after a Black man who had reportedly stolen a six-pack of beer was allegedly chased down and killed by another Black man at what some contend was the behest of the owner.

Byron Cole has also made a few bids for elected office, including throwing his hat in the race during the last mayoral election. And while he has not yet won an elected position, his attempts to translate his grassroots work to elected office follows a long-tradition of tree shakers who become jelly makers to serve the community in a different way. Consider that the Rev. Avery Alexander, who served nearly 25 years in the state legislature, Mayor Ernest “Dutch” Morial, former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, and U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) were all community and civil rights activists before they were political leaders. And they are just a few examples.

While activists like French Cole must be remembered and honored, there are veteran tree shakers still with us today, who have not allowed the passing of time to hinder their fight for justice.

Longtime activist Malcolm Suber, a driving force behind Take ‘Em Down NOLA, the coalition of individuals and organizations that pushed for the removal of confederate monuments in public spaces across the city.

And while the last of four monuments earmarked for removal was razed in May 2017, Suber and Take ‘Em Down NOLA have not slowed their social action.

In March 2018, Take ‘Em Down NOLA held a first-of-its-kind summit designed to commemorate the removal of the four monuments and strategically align efforts to remove other statues and monuments that are symbols of White supremacy. The three-day summit ended with a demonstration to promote a new ordinance to remove all symbols to White supremacy in the city of New Orleans.

Meanwhile, Suber and others, including Angela Kinlaw, another prominent member of the Take ‘Em Down NOLA coalition, have lent their voices to the battle Gordon Plaza residents are fighting as they demand to be relocated  from the Ninth Ward neighborhood they now know was built on a toxic landfill.

Another veteran tree shaker is Carl Galmon, a local civil rights activist and member of the National Voting Rights Museum & Institute who is one of the grandfathers of local community activism movement. He has fought against voting obstacles in the U.S. and Louisiana for decades. He has been an tireless advocate for equity in public education, economic parity. And he has challenged racism across the globe, organizing the Louisiana State Committee Against Apartheid in the 1980s.

From voting roll purges and voter ID laws to gerrymandering to a lack of polling places, Galmon continues to point out tactics that keep African-American and other people of color from voting.

“Voting is a sacred right” Galmon maintains, citing the hundreds of African-Americans who have died for the right to choose who represents them in government. When one considers the power vested in elected officeholders, the ability to make laws—even if the law is unfair, unethical, and oppressive—it becomes clear that voting is critical for maintaining democracy.

In 2015, Galmon called attention to a lack of polling sites, particularly in Ponchartrain Park. He pointed out that the majority of the city’s African-American population lives east of Canal Street, but that there were only two polling places for the residents of that community since Katrina.

Pontchartrain Park residents were thankful for his advocacy.

“We only have one place where we all go to vote, on the highway,” said Gretchen Bradford, president of the Pontchartrain Park Neighborhood Association. “Prior to Katrina we had locations at schools and churches, now if you don’t have a car or you’re disabled, it’s inconvenient. Over 65 percent of our residents are over 70 years old. Carl is setting the pace for this movement and we appreciate him for that.”

Voting rights are also important to Ford who has focused on helping senior citizens, a group she calls “chronic voters”, by teaching them how to use social media and technology to get and share information.

Riley also points to the use of social media as a tool to share information and mobilize people, noting how social media fueled the Black Lives Matter movement and the focus on police brutality and disregard for Black life in the wake of killings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown.

“There is more than one way to get a message out and to get access to information,” Riley says. “(Activism spurred through social media) has shown us that it is okay to stand up and speak out—to go to our government and leaders and say ‘we have a problem’.”

To be sure, there is no shortage of challenges to face and trees to shake.

In addition to her efforts surrounding economic parity, an issue she describes as detrimental to the Black community by comparing it to “modern-day lynching, Ford is also at the center of a movement address issues in the criminal justice system.

In the meantime, she continues her efforts to push for change and encourages others to do the same.

“We try to help other folk stand with us,” Ford says. “We go out and support them and they support us. We have to be willing and working.”

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