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Cynthia Peters interviews Klare Allen
K lare Allen is a mother of four children and a long-time welfare and environmental justice activist. When welfare moved her and her family into a hotel after she became homeless, she started organizing the other mothers. Later she brought her organizing skills to Alternatives for Community and the Environment (ACE), an environmental justice group. She co-coordinates the youth-based Roxbury Environmental Empowerment Project (REEP) and is a leader in the fight to stop Boston University from building a Level 4 security weapons lab in a highly populated urban neighborhood.
In April 2004, at her home in Roxbury, Massachusetts, she spoke to me about her ideas on activism and movement building.
Becoming an Organizer
W hen I first started organizing, I didn’t realize I was doing it. I got started when I was homeless. My husband and I and our kids got put in a hotel in Watertown (a suburb of Boston). We didn’t know where to go. I didn’t have any money. They were paying something like $1,500 every two weeks—or maybe it was every week—for us to stay in that hotel. With that kind of money, I could have had a nice apartment and enough food to eat. But as it was, we were staying in this hotel and we were hungry. We had $20.
We went to the store and got some formula for the baby and some Pampers. We got some bread and some cold cuts. The hotel didn’t have a refrigerator, though, so we stored the meat out on the window ledge so it wouldn’t spoil. The birds got it and that was the end of our food.
I didn’t know what to do or where to go. I started walking around the neighborhood. I found a service provider nearby. But they said they only provided services to people who lived in Watertown, and we didn’t count since we were just staying in the hotel. They mentioned that some other people from the hotel had been by.
So I started exploring the hotel and finding out that there were all these other mothers there from inner-city Boston neighborhoods like Roxbury, Dorchester, and Matta- pan. None of us knew how to get back to our neighborhoods or how to get services or anything. We started having meetings. We organized protests and rallies. After a while, some organizations—like the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless—started noticing us and came and asked me to speak about the conditions. So I did. The media started to pay attention and tell my story. Some guy in Roslindale who was following my story called me up and said he had a condo available and asked me if I’d like to live in it. “Hell, yeah,” I said. So we all moved to Roslindale.
But then I kept thinking about all those welfare mothers I had left behind in the hotels. I had the gift of gab so I got plucked out of the welfare hotel, but it didn’t seem right. So I went back. I kept talking with the mothers—not just in Water- town, but in Chelsea and all over the place. I helped them figure out how to get food stamps, where to catch the bus, how to find schools.
I was barely around for my own children. My old man raised them because every night I was off talking to these mothers.
You Need A Strategy
W hen I went to visit the other mothers, I would just hug them. I made packets for them full of information about everything they needed to know. I told them, “You have to be professional about your situations. You have to have a strategy.” I said, “You get a notebook and you write down the names and numbers of everyone you talk to. When you speak to someone, you’ve got to know who you’re talking to. Never talk to the middle man. Go straight to the Man. Start at the top.”
The Man is the decisionmaker. It can be anybody who makes decisions about your life and has control over what happens to you. People started getting empowered.
I developed expertise in all different areas—about how to search for a job, how to file complaints. I developed a good relationship with the woman at Client Services—the place you go to file a complaint—and it got so that I could send people to her and she would take care of them.
I never thought of myself as political. It just happens that the things that were attacking me and the things I had to fight back against were political.
Edna Bynoe, who was the supervisor of the homeless unit, took me aside once and told me I should get some skill through welfare’s Education and Training program. I noticed a class on environmental science. About 25-30 of us tried to take this class, but we couldn’t understand the material. The class dwindled to about five. We were studying chemistry, biology, computers, and all sorts of environmental terminology. It was some pilot program of Jobs for Youth. It’s not that we didn’t have the mentality for this work, it’s just the way they were teaching us, we couldn’t understand. There was many an evening we’d be sitting up crying with frustration, trying to understand what we were studying. They said not to worry—we would be graded on a sliding scale.
“What does that mean?” we asked. “That even if we’re all failing, some of us will still get A’s?”
This didn’t make any sense. It seemed like they were just shuffling us through their system, as usual—another program that some funders came up with that really wasn’t much use to us. I decided to find out who the funders were so that I could figure out what this was all about. Sure enough, it’s the Man again. He wants to shuffle some folks—even better if they’re Black folks—through the program so he can justify his spending and his job and get some more money.
Looks Like Garbage
E ventually, the few of us who were left graduated. Someone from ACE, which was new at the time, came over and told me to apply for the community organizer job. At the time ACE was these two white lawyers from outside the community and one woman from the community. No one trusted these two guys. They dressed like the FBI and when they walked into a room, everyone shut up.
When I went for the job interview, I didn’t even know what a community organizer was and I had no clue what environmental justice was. All I knew was it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to smoke. I just listened to them talk. I knew they’d eventually ask me what I thought about environmental justice and I was trying to get whatever information I could so I’d have some answers.
Finally, they asked me about environmental justice. I said, “Environmental justice means my community doesn’t have to look like garbage. The only reason it does look so bad is because of the way resources are distributed.” I had lived in Roslindale, where they’ve got shrubs and fountains—not old tires and broken glass like they do in Roxbury. It’s not like word was handed down from God, “Roslindale will get shrubs and fountains and Roxbury will get old tires and broken glass.” It’s a choice that gets made about who gets what.
They asked me, “If you could do anything, what would you do?”
I said, “One: I’d clean up those vacant lots that are full of old tires and broken glass; and two: I’d tell people that our kids are not criminals.”
I got the job. It was wide open. I could do what I wanted. I was out in Dudley Square talking to people. I was playing chess with the dudes, talking to the kids.
My father taught me that if you have information, you should share it. It makes people more powerful. I work towards building a strong group. Why? Because I want folks to teach other people what they know.
The Man needs to know that we have the right to speak up. But there’s a lot of us that just don’t speak up. We don’t get involved in activism because we’ve got too much on our plate. We’ve got to worry about housing, day care, health care, and whatever’s going on next door. There’s so much shit. It’s hard to get people to take on more. The problems are so big and they seem impossible to fix. Not only that, people are scared.
In my REEP classes with youth, when I first meet with a new group of kids, they’ll say, “Look, if we went around talking like how you’re talking, we’d be dead. We’re surprised you’re not dead.” If I talk them through the fear, then they get real serious. They want to know if I’m taking them down another dead end. “Look,” they say, “you better not be fucking with us. This better be something we can actually be successful at.”
ACE has been successful. Already, we’ve seen big changes in how people think about asthma, for example. It used to be that no one even noticed the epidemics in urban areas, but now it’s a big topic in the news and that’s because of the work we’ve done.
N ext, we have to figure out how to connect all these different issues that people are working on—like asthma, homelessness, welfare, and the bioweapons lab they’re building in our neighborhood. People are working separately on these things. Maybe they want to protect their contacts in the neighborhoods, so they’re not interested in sharing. But that is the Man’s game. He wants us all off working separately. Our organizing needs a much more holistic approach.
In my community, people are sometimes resistant to the idea of building citywide coalitions because we’ve been screwed before. White progressives with more resources might join our struggle and end up getting more of the funding and they’ll end up taking leadership on something that more directly affects our communities. We have to learn from our past and be cautious, but we also have to find ways to build coalitions that keep the core group of residents in the forefront. The people who are most immediately affected by the struggle should not get overshadowed by coalition members who might have more resources.
Sometimes progressive people who care about what is happening in the community are associated with powerful institutions. Here in Roxbury, we are surrounded by academic institutions that are nationally known and that seem to know everything in the world that there is to be known and yet there’s no clear way for us to benefit from all this knowledge that’s housed right next door.
We know we can’t work with Harvard as an institution. Instead, we’re trying to build a relationship with the people within Harvard. We’re asking them to organize themselves. We’re inviting them to come to our community meetings and listen. Then they can go back and report on what they saw and understood. After a while, they can figure out what they have in their pool of resources to offer. After they’ve been to the ninth meeting, then maybe they’ll be in tune enough to know what makes sense to offer.
This is what institutional folks can do. If the home-base organizers have made sure that people are at the center of the strategy, then they will have been very clear about what their needs are. There will be a strong enough core to evaluate what is being offered. Does it make sense? Will it help? These are babysteps, but this is how we have to do this work.
Part of our advocacy work has to include confronting all these big non-profit institutions that say they have our interests in mind, but are really just messing with us. I can’t even walk into the Urban League dressed like I am right now. The foundations are dealing in millions of dollars, and I’d like to know where that money is going. How is it that Project Bread has so much money, and the best they can do is hand out canned vegetables?
My neighbor, Nancy, who runs Fair Foods, gets fresh bread donated. She goes around to the vendors and gets all these fresh vegetables, watermelons, and things and she feeds people on a shoestring. They drive around in trucks that look like they’re barely going to make it up the street. But they get the job done. So when do we hold Project Bread accountable?
I think that needs to be the goal of our advocacy work. We need to target these big non-profits with millions of dollars running through them. These are the places that are supposed to help us, but they’re not accountable to us.
That’s one thing about ACE. We know it’s people that make the campaign, not the organization. You can’t do your brainstorming and strategizing inside the office and then take it out to the residents. They need to be part of that process. Understanding happens in layers. If you cut people out of part of the process, then they’re not really going to understand. Not only that, but you, as the organizer, aren’t really going to understand either. Because you have as much to learn as the people you are organizing.
If I don’t know something, I say I don’t know. It’s good for people to see that. It’s good for us to learn together. People are experts in their own lives. A lot of times, it’s the people that are told they don’t know anything who know the most. Organizers have got to lose this style of saying, “Ta-dah! Here are all the answers.”
We should also stop stressing about numbers. Don’t fall into the trap of feeling depressed because only two people show up at your meeting. That’s two more than you had before. At least you weren’t in the room by yourself. Maybe only two people came to your meeting, but if you held a good meeting, then you should expect those people to go out and bring you two more. Now you’ve got four people.
It feels like crawling, I know. We talk about taking baby steps, but sometimes you’ve got to be willing to crawl.
Cynthia Peters is a Boston-area activist and writer.
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