I spent the week of this past Spring Break in the small rural community of New Road Virginia with my Grassroots Community Development class from Umass. Situated in Exmore Town in the County of Northampton Virginia, New Road is an inland community of predominantly low-wealth African Americans. I cannot say I have understood every aspect of the experience, however, I can say with certainty that the week in New Road started to re-define the changes I believe we can imagine are possible.
On the first day of our visit, Ms. Ruth arrived at the center where we were being served food by a group of women from New Road. My entire class of 23 students, despite having been on a 26 hour ride from Massachusetts the previous day, stood in expectation as she stepped out of her car. Ms. Ruth Wise is the executive director of the New Road Community Development Group and would be in charge of our volunteer work in the community throughout the week. She was wearing a yellow pant dress made out of traditional African fabrics, patterned and bright, her graying dreadlocks hung elegantly above her waist. A young boy emerged out of the car and wiggled around her legs smiling brightly, Ms. Ruth ushered him in front of her. “This is my grandson Alphie folks,” she said. He flashed us a smile and ran to snatch Ms. Ruth’s cell phone from her hands. As she tried to follow, he ran quickly out of her grasp and held the cell phone up to record her at a distance. We laughed with Ms. Ruth as she shook her head abandoning the chase.
She introduced herself very briefly and invited us to go on a tour of the community with her. New Road stretches behind the community center for a few houses and most other houses are on the other side of a densely transited highway. We waited for a long line of cars to pass the wide highway and followed through an unpaved street. Ms. Ruth explained one of the most recent projects in the community has been the re-naming of streets which were previously predominantly standard names after African American role models. We walked on Thurgood Marshall, Ida B. Wells, and C.J. Walker amongst others.
“Anybody know who she is? Madam C.J. Walker?” Ms. Ruth asked our class. We stood in silence. “She was one of the first successful African American women entrepreneurs, and she became a millionaire selling hair products to straighten African American women’s hair. So we could look more like you,” she added with a straight face. I laughed at her off hand social commentary, no one else seemed to react audibly.
As we continued walking up the streets Ms. Ruth talked about the beginnings of the New Road Community Development group. Ms. Ruth said to us jokingly, “you know, New Road was discovered twenty five years ago.” That is, when developers first realized there were people living there, and began to bring in ‘development,’ to help ‘industrialize’ the North Eastern Shore. Part of the reason for the formation of these community organizations like the one in New Road, was intended to defend the interests of the people against developers coming in unannounced.
We walked over to Ms. Ruth’s office where she runs the community organizing. She made a point of calling it a ‘substandard condition office’. Our group of students stepped into the wooden structure, Ms. Ruth raised her hand above in warning, “watch your step,” she said, “you never know when the things will collapse.” As she walked over to her desk, an older PC stationed over it, she pointed behind her to an entryway with a plastic screen hanging in place of a door. “And there,” she said and waited a moment for us to listen. “Don’t go in there.”
On the streets around the office there are a number of other houses, all in considerable better condition. There is a type of house that stands out as new construction, it is light blue, it is two stories tall and has a white porch. There are several that look just like it around the community. Ms. Ruth explained the thirty-eight homes have all been the product of the New Road Community Development Group’s efforts to build affordable housing for low-income people. The building project was initiated only after the installment of a communal sewage system, the first material victory that later allowed for the building of houses to materialize.
Back in 92, eighty-five percent of approximately 300 members in New Road had no indoor plumbing, which meant that most people lived having to collect water from outdoor spigots and used outdoor pit privies. The Accomack Northampton Planning District Commission, was planning to bring in Mexican and Haitian immigrant seasonal workers to New Road. “In order to bring them in,” Ms. Ruth said, “they needed to build housing for them, and they needed a sewage system, so the USDA said they had to attach it to a blighted community, to get the funding they needed.”
When the people in the community heard about this, they were highly suspicious. There was a lot of talk about the sewage system not reaching New Road, and this doubt became the initial spark that drove the community to get organized. Ms. Ruth gave up her administrative position at the local community college and decided to work full time within her neighborhood. A board developed headed by Ms. Ruth and members from neighboring communities that included both African American and white members, which as Ms. Ruth mentioned, meant that often the issues that surfaced at meetings were divided along racial lines. White members tended to lean towards supporting issues surrounding environmental conservation, while the African American members were more concerned with obtaining affordable housing and a communal sewage system. A number of committees then originated around different people’s concerns, which included the preservation of the aquifer, jobs and employment.
Ms. Ruth said, when New Road began to locate contacts to begin the process of grassroots community development, non-profits kept telling them, “you gotta have a community organizer,” Ms. Ruth explained, and she said shrugging her shoulders, “we didn’t really know what that was.” Nobody at that point knew exactly how to go about it. It was then decided that Ava, Ms. Ruth’s daughter, would be hired as the community organizer as she had had experience in New York with similar work. “And she understood a bit about activism, because she had grown up with me,” Ms. Ruth said pointing at herself laughing. The issue of the sewage system was coming up in the Exmore town council.
“Ava walked around door to door saying to people, ‘if you want indoor toilets, you better show up to the council meetings!'” Ms. Ruth said embodying the urgent tone of her daughter’s words. When Ms. Ruth asked the residents of New Road why it was that they did not attend Exmore town council meetings or speak out for what they needed, they told her of their fear and their lack of formal education. She responded by asserting, “If you think it, I’ll say it.” And that is what started happening.
“The town of Exmore had never seen so many African Americans before and it scared their socks off,” Ms. Ruth added with a slight smile, “and it spread. There must have been 250 members in the following meetings.”
After years of struggle and persuading, the town of Exmore voted to accept a Virginia Community Development Block Grant of $1.25 million for New Road’s sewer system and housing rehabilitation. Since then, N.R.C.D.G. has overseen the installation of a community-wide sewer system as well as the building of housing for low-income residents. Actualizing the goals of the New Road Community Development Group meant that they had to stand against the opposition from community members themselves as well as the legal and monetary obstacles. Some of the people who already had a sewage system opposed the installment of a community system, arguing that it would disrupt the already existing ones and other people argued it would pollute the rivers around the area. Ms. Ruth said to us, “it is easier to build buildings than it is people.” In this kind of work, it is rare that there will ever be a time when everyone agrees on what is best for everyone’s interests, but perhaps ‘building people’ can mean that it can be possible, shown through example, that what is good for one person can also be a good for an entire community.
In trying to understand the historical framework I asked Ms. Ruth about the biggest changes the community had undergone in recent years. I was sitting on the steps of the center after lunch with Ms. Ruth on the third day of our stay. The day had finally cleared after a few days of rain. I was feeling the heat of the sun burning bright on my skin and it was making it hard to see, and Ms. Ruth, she never seemed to be bothered enough to sit down. She stood by the road eyeing her surroundings with attention.
“Ms Ruth,” I said, “what did New Road look like before you began the construction of the houses?”
“For fifty years, it was what it was,” she said putting her hands up. She looked around, “it all looked like my office.” Ms. Ruth had told our group how before she had taken that property over to run the N.R.C.D.G., a family of eight had lived in the two room house with no insulation, no heat, no running water and of course, no sewage. Her grandparents moved to New Road when she was three years old, “back then most people owned their own houses, we had a three room house. My grandparents would hire Jack Lake carpenters.” Ms. Ruth noticed my puzzled face, “Jack Lake carpenters are those who are not trained in the field, but who can practice it. People couldn’t afford professional carpenters. And so we added five rooms. Now it wasn’t a nice eight room house, it was in substandard conditions,” she said nodding, “but it was very important for people to own their own property because we were still in Jim Crow’s laws.”
When she started organizing, Ms. Ruth realized the source of a variety of problems could be traced back to the renter mentality that had overcome New Road in the last decades. Dr. Carter, who had come to speak to our class at dinner the previous night, Ms. Ruth’s friend and another pioneer of the community building efforts, explained how African Americans came to own property. After the civil war, many African American war veterans had gained enough capital to afford to buy property and there were groups of African American families who were pooling their money to buy property together.
In the mid 50’s that began to change. Two white absentee landlords bought the property in New Road and very subtly as people became renters, the whole character of the community began to degrade.
“When the New Road Community Development started,” Ms. Ruth said to me, “we said, lets see if we can turn this back to a community of homeowners to see if we can regain our pride.”
The process of turning New Road into a community of homeowners has meant that people have had to learn the responsibilities that come attached with owning property in the United States. It is mandatory to attend classes on homeownership where tax paying and home maintenance are covered for the members who choose to participate in the project. It is still not a seamless project.
Ms. Ruth said to me, “you know you should speak to Dr. Carter, he remembers a lot of things I don’t, he can fill you in some gaps.”
So on the last day of our stay we were all gathered outside the office. Ms. Ruth had just performed genesis for us and was following it with the speech by Sojourner Truth, “Ain’t I a woman?” My class stood by Ms. Ruth as she performed the words with poignancy. She read to us: “If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again!” We all laughed as she paused to let the words sink in. After she was finished, a few minutes passed and people began to leave. By the time the sun was setting, most everyone had dispersed except a few of us. I sat on the steps of the office, Dr. Carter stood tall by the ramp and Ms. Ruth stood by the light pole at a distance, always alert.
“Dr. Carter, so I’ve spoken to Ms. Ruth about New Road quite a bit,” I said to him. “She said you could fill in a lot of gaps. I’m interested to know, in your opinion what are some of the biggest obstacles you face as of now?”
“For me,” Dr. Carter began to say, his voice a low raspy sound, “on a macro level are a continued influx of resources so that organizations like the New Road community Development, and the low wealth communities can have the resources to do their work.”
“The point is that this survives because of sacrifice, personal sacrifice. We need human resources, financial resources in order to sustain what’s been started here,” he paused. As he was talking, the street lamp over our heads began to fail and the light began to flicker from white, to orange to blue and the whole post began emitting a loud electric hum, which seemed to emerge from the ground. I looked up almost certain sparks would be raining down on us, I was afraid it would explode, but neither Dr. Carter nor Ms. Ruth paid it any heed. Dr. Carter carried on over the electric backdrop. At that moment I felt my presence as an outsider immediately.
“Ms. Ruth needs somebody to help her in this office.” He then looked at me. “Ms. Ruth has done all that she can do, she has done more than anyone I know can do in addition to maintaining an organization,” he spoke softly, I had to come closer to listen.
“It’s leadership development that is key,” he said. “Many of our organizations that have done such wonderful work in the past two decades, need the influx of resources and younger energetic people to learn from the elders about how things are done. They need to learn the nuances that cultivate how the organization works so that when we die and or retire, there is continuity and institutional memory within our low wealth organizations to continue forward. That is what is so key.”
He ended there in a rush, the van with the rest of our classmates had just arrived to pick us up. We would be driving back to Massachusetts early the next morning. “Thank you,” we all said quickly. I thanked Ms. Ruth, I wish things didn’t have to be so rushed. I would have wanted to have more time. But the night was set and our time here done, the electric hum and the bugs filled the departure hour with activity. I stepped closer to Ms. Ruth “Ms. Ruth,” I said, “thank you so much, really.” She seemed to be slightly shocked by my gratefulness. I don’t know what startled her, but I felt the need to express gratitude, or to say I will try to not let the story you have told us disappear.