THE SALT AM (A LEGACY STORY )
Pepper almost thirty years from the defining moments.
It was a defining time in our community history. It was the eighties and there were diverse approaches to solving our societal ills. In some cases it was more of a suppression than an approach. Our local city government was bent on beginning a big economic growth initiative and that was a good thing, but reality dictated that other initiatives had to be dealt with as well for those who lived in the community below “eye level”. I always preach that “a chain is only as strong as it’s weakest link”, and that cities are chains and the poor their weakest links.
Several entrepreneurs of the “social active kind” had begun small works with only a lick and a prayer to support them . Fate would intervene and there would be a ground swell of change. Some of us called it a God thing, some called it social justice and still others called it politics. But to those who lived it and shared the blood sweat and tears of the times. it was real, viable and sincere. And each of us can say we made a difference.
In the inner city at that time was a precious African-American woman named Ida. Now Ida had some love and concerns about the welfare of the children in her area and began a work in her home that became “United Neighbors”. At that time she and I aligned to help each other. Each from our own perspectives and with our own target groups were striving to strengthen the “weak links” of our community. She was just moving her organization into a white frame house on eighth and Gaines street where United Neighbors would be visible to the community and send the message, “We Shall Not Be Moved”.
For my part, I was developing housing for special need people. Known as “Project FINISH (Furnishing Independent Needs In Special Housing) we included the mentally ill, retarded, homeless and special need people who were routinely in and out of safe housing or institutions. It grew to include; elderly persons abandoned by their families, domestic violence victims, people trying to get off drugs and alcohol, and judicially compromised people just out of prison. It was a great and audacious dream, but born of a life time of championing the underdogs. We grew from three houses to 120 apartments in two states, in a little over a year.
People would often challenge me with statements like, “Why in the world would you want to work with “those” people when you could do so much more with your talents?”
The answer was always simple and the same. “Because if I were in my home state of Oklahoma in the forties, these would be “my people”, “my family”. A large part of my family was dysfunctional and fell into some of these categories. Some people think I say that for dramatic effect, but no, I truly mean it. Had I not been given mentors and met “angels unaware” during my lifetime, I too could have been trapped in that society.
If you are reading this and know me or my family you might be thinking, “Why in the world would you flaunt your “dirty laundry” for the world to know?” I have literally had that question phrased exactly like that more than once and shoved in my face in a challenging way.
I would answer simply as Ronald Reagan once said, “Those who don’t learn from history, are destined to repeat it”. I never want another generation of my family to have to “crawl” through what we did in my childhood.
So here we were, Ida and I, sharing the same inner city trying to help people with a hand up instead of a hand out. We were both struggling for money to make this all happen and we shared some of the same challenges. Lord knows we needed money, but we both agreed, the biggest problem wasn’t about the money. It was first that we were women. We still laugh about the times we would be soliciting help or funds and we’d be asked to “produce the man that heads the organization.” It would have been a cheerful and promising conversation up to that point. Upon finding that women headed up the organization, there would be an obvious and sometimes critical concern.
“A woman can’t do that kind of work in the inner city with those risks” they would point out. We would patiently point out that not only could we, we were the only ones doing it independently.
Ida being African American, had her special set of circumstances and was often called a racist to her face. On the other side, I too was called a racist and periodically the two of us would come together to cover each other’s backs. The tears that have been shed in commiserating with each other and seeing the pain inflicted by the barbed words of our critics are long since spent. But steel resolve would replace those sessions and we would return to the “war” for another battle.
Local politics had to get involved . The Agencies had worked so harmoniously together and then came the time when our City government wanted to sweep some of the housing and homeless issues under the rug. It was like an unspoken mandate to the news folks that news stories on this would be bad for economic development so we couldn’t get stories in the papers or on television. If only we’d had the “web” and “You Tube” in those days.
We enlist police officer Trula Ann Godwin;
“The Inner City Whisperer”
A favorite news reporter at that time told me the homeless were a “non issue” and would never become a political hot potato in the city or the country. I was stubborn and personally took him on tours of the homeless encampments and let him interview homeless people who were usually not available for comment to media. I enlisted my sister, a police officer and specialist on the inner-city beat, to give him the benefit of her expertise. He later apologized and said that I was right and he had been blinded by the rhetoric of the times. Homelessness became the hottest issue of the election cycle.
I throw myself to the Wolves
It was then that I made a momentous and life changing decision. My crusade would become political.I decided to run for city council so that I would be able to participate in every forum and discussion there was. No one could “shut me up” about the homeless issue or poverty. When I let it be known I was going to run, I had offers from both sides.
My Democratic friends tried to convince me to run as a Democrat, but the incumbent I faced was a Democrat. I didn’t know much about politics yet, but I knew the statistic that 96% of incumbents are re elected. I also knew who would draw the funding between an incumbent and an upstart white woman trying to preach poverty and homelessness.
The Republicans also courted me and my son was a die-hard Republican, so with his encouragement, the dye was cast. I am sure in hindsight I was known to the Republicans as a “Demo-publican” and to the Democrats as a “Republi-crat” because I always voted a split ticker, voting the issues and the candidates. My boundaries seemed somewhat indefinable to some. For my part, I created a bumper sticker which said “Independent Voter, Convince Me”.
There are consequences; Trust is a fragile thing.
I could never have realized the repercussions of that decision. The agency people I had worked with for years wouldn’t speak to me or take my calls. I was shell shocked at the thought all those years of blood, sweat and tears working together were gone because I ran as a Republican. I was abandoned by my own peers.
Well, not all my peers. Ida stood by me like Goliath in high heels. She was also friends with my opponents and a Democrat so while she couldn’t endorse me solely, she wouldn’t endorse anyone else. She saw to it I was treated courteously, included in forums and meetings, and more importantly, “heard”. I always remember how she championed me.
My aim had never been to win the seat. I wanted only to be able to get the homeless and housing issues before the public forcing the city government to deal with it. This much was definitely accomplished. It took a second angel named Dan Ebener to set it up, and he did it by optimizing on all the publicity and momentum of the campaign to leverage people into a desire mode to “fix it” with a social justice approach.
Enter the genius and fervor of Dan Ebener Guru of Social Justice
Dan was the right hand man to the Bishop of the Diocese of Davenport. He was a born “Mediator”. As the head of Diocesan Social Action he controlled the funds and influence of the Diocese in our area for outreach in social action issues. He laid the ground work for a new organization as I was moving my Project Finish forward. At the same time, Ida was becoming a force to be reckoned with in her endeavors. Dan did what no one else could have done. He brought together as many as twenty diverse non-profit agencies into an umbrella organization known as “The Q.C. Coalition for the Homeless”. Formerly they had been competitors in many ways, but he brought it all together. Even me.
I had steadfastly refused to be “beholding” to anyone and was a true maverick when it came to my organization. I didn’t want any strings attached and I surely didn’t want any government intervention or government money so I did my own thing and raised my own monies. Trust issues were not my strong suit. But Dan changed all that. He won me over with his vision for a coalition that would not compete with each other for grants and funds, but would ban together and apply for things as groups. The cooperation paid off and funds did start coming into all of the agencies. We met regularly and those of us who had issues with each other put them aside in the interest of growing the influence and success of the Coalition.
We Snag the most famous of all homeless advocates: Mitch Snyder
The organization brought in the most famous of all homeless advocates, Mitch Snyder. Mitch ran the largest homeless shelter in America in the very heart of our governmental base, Washington DC (1400 beds). I had the privilege of meeting him and giving him a fabric patch with my Project logo for his famous jean jacket sporting logo patches all over it. He was the catalyst to the Coalitions efforts to bring attention to the local homeless issue.
Diversity in Protesting was never so evident as in this Coalition.
The Quad City Coalition for the Homeless included diverse members who had used diverse methods to bring attention to their issues. At one point we decided to utilize the bridge from Illinois to Iowa to do a March On Poverty. This would give participants a voice with marching, singing, signs, and we could receive coverage by the news media. One faction of our group had experience in marches from the sixties and had been arrested for civil disobedience. They proposed that we have an act of civil disobedience take place to draw more media by having members arrested.
The strength of the Coalition was shown when we hammered out a compromise which showed how united we had become. I knew we could not function as a group that got it’s members arrested as there were city officials and people with jobs that would be affected. But in the interest of harmony and democratic decisions, I suggested that if a splinter group wanted to commit an act of civil disobedience they could do it independent of the march. The larger body of participants could have a sleep-over in the inner city park at the base of the bridge . We would be crossing the bridge as an alternative event to the act of civil disobedience for others to participate in. That way, everyone could participate and it was a “new and fresh” approach to drawing attention to the issues. More “marketing” of the issue instead of relying only on “protesting”.
The Sleepover to end all sleepovers
We held the sleepover in Lafayette Park in the inner city and gave the City Council, Mayor and Civil Rights Commissioner an invitation ‘they could not turn down’ . It was to spend the night with us sleeping in the park on the ground and then going to work the next morning. Sleeping with us were homeless families, homeless individuals and the Salvation Army fed us supper. There were only the park bathrooms to clean up in the next morning which made the point to people who expect homeless to go for job interviews all nice and neat. Day old breakfast rolls and doughnuts were offered but no way to make coffee and I didn’t allow donations to bring it to the site.
The idea was accepted and it was attended by all, but it was hardest on our Civil Rights Commissioner Brenda Drew Peoples. She was not used to the outdoor life and “critters” and sleeping in an inner city park was foreign to her and scary. I insisted she could sleep in the middle of the group to feel safe. I used to blackmail her “tongue in cheek” by threatening to reveal she’d slept with every member of the council and the mayor and I had pictures to prove it. Her eyes would sparkle and she’d laugh showing those beautiful white teeth and scold me.
Local music groups filled the air with music and the melodies of old gospel songs abounded. It was a very festive atmosphere which was also different in the presentation of such a serious subject as Poverty. But it was a moment of coming together for citizens of all areas of our community and a lasting visual impression for all of us to carry to the ballot boxes.
The event was spectacular as a fundraiser too, filling a large moving truck with donations folks would drive by and drop off. We were able to supply new organization endeavors for the homeless with many of the donations received that night. Clothing, food and money were dropped by the event. Some families and citizens stopped by to talk with the folks and politicians in the park. It was an amazing and successful event never duplicated since. Some local employers even stopped with job offers, now that’s success.
From the small ban of about twenty agencies evolved the first local “street entry” homeless shelter that would take in anyone in need. The shelter brought them in from the cold and they were safe. It grew into a multi-million dollar organization known as the John Lewis Housing with services that built shelters, food programs and transitional housing.
R-E-S-P-E-C-T MADE THE DIFFERENCE
My sister was on the police force for over twenty seven years and refused to be transferred out of patrol in the inner city. She worked with Ida and was supportive of her organization. She also admired Ida for being a “real person,” not in it for personal gain.
My sister, in her perspective as a police officer, pointed out that cops marked the onset of winter by the first frozen body they find in a dumpster or outdoors trying to stay warm. With the coming of the shelter and services of John Lewis, it has been rare in these years since, to have a frozen body found. My sister believed a great deal of the credit was Ida’s.
Ida at the celebration of her 35 years of service to the community.
Ida’s program has grown into a prestigious program that serves the community youth as no other. United Neighbors has; educational programs, peer programs, a strong alliance with the community policing issues programs, and oh so much more. They now have a beautiful building that will stand for generations as a place to bring the African American community together as well as support the neighborhoods . They will continue in a way that fights gangs and drugs.
Ida is now Dr.Ida Johnson and has won the Martin Luther King Award for service and other national awards. Though she could have retired long ago, it is not in her vocabulary. Like me she thinks of retirement as being when you cut your work week to five days instead of six. Long after we are gone, she will continue to be known as the “Mother of the Community”, and I will be her greatest fan.
While I relocated to other work eventually, the seeds that were planted and the lives that were changed were many and significant. I never doubt for a moment that God brought Ida and I together to work in that risky area of the inner city and to be there for each other so many times and in so many ways.
It is in the covering of each other’s backs that we developed into the “Salt and Pepper Team”. Many times the clients would try to manipulate us, or threaten to make a complaint . They did not know of our close association so they would try to pit us against each other . Our mutual standard answers were, “If Ida said it, I said it” and she would say “If Joyce said it I said it”.
In those times when people would complain that I was racist Ida would throw back her head and laugh that lusty, low ,laugh of hers and say, “Now I know you don’t have that right”. It was a comfort and a privilege to be held in that kind of esteem by such a great lady.
For more than thirty years, Ida has been my friend, my peer and my “she’ro”. She is a beautiful Christian woman who took all the snarling racists could throw at her and is still standing. She has suffered great personal loss, family tragedies and many health changes. But, as of today she still pulls eight to twelve hour days at her organization. She knows there are good people in all races and sometimes she, like me, has to stand up against some of the ones who aren’t. In those times we are still there for each other.
Ida and my sister were great friends when my sister was a police officer working the inner city beat for over twenty five years. They had occasion to work together on many things. When my sister died she had intended to leave Ida a special picture which hung in her apartment of two African sisters aptly entitled,”We Are Sisters”. She believed it personified the connection we had with Ida. Unfortunately it was never able to happen as the picture had been given to someone else before her wishes were known. But, Ida knew it was the heart’s desire of my sister and that touched her and was enough.
In our own way, we are sisters. My sister Trula often signed some of her artistic works with “Sister of the wind, blood of the wolf” in deference to our Oklahoma heritage (it being the state of the Five Civilized Tribes). I would like to end this legacy story by saying that we, Ida and I, are “Sister’s of the Wind, and ever shall be”.
I love you Ida and ours is a legacy worth leaving.
I had the honor of presenting Ida with two signs for her United Neighbors building. She was thrilled and expressed the feeling she had when he was elected. The told the story of her grandfather going into the south and “stealing” slaves to help them to freedom. Then she told of her godly father who marched in non violent protests when she was a child and took his family along in the marches. She was spat on, things were thrown at her, and as she says, “she was called everything but a child of God”. Yet, her father instructed her to return only good and keep doing right. And she has. This was taken November 8, 2008 at the Luncheon honoring her 35 years of service.
November 8, 2008 Dr. Ida Johnson was honored for 35 years of service to our community and the cause of equality and opportunity for all. Seen here with a picture taken with Michelle Obama before the election. One of the attendees who was also African American actually asked “who is that with Dr. Ida”. We all got a chuckle that Ida was better known than Michelle at this time.