Community organizers discuss power behind NC Fund

Nov. 13, 2013 @ 07:49 AM

Howard Fuller came to Durham in 1965 with 24 years of life experience, a degree in social work and a war to wage against poverty.

He led Operation Breakthrough, a community action program meant to reduce poverty in Durham, and later became a leader within the North Carolina Fund, a statewide effort created by Gov. Terry Sanford in 1963 to remove barriers of poverty and discrimination.

Fifty years after working on the grassroots level, neighborhood to neighborhood, from a little office on Pettigrew Street, Fuller said this anniversary is bittersweet, a somewhat painful experience.

Many community leaders and volunteers he worked with aren’t around anymore.

About 120 people crammed into the downtown office space of MDC, an offshoot of the NC Fund and organizer of the anniversary events this week, Tuesday night to listen to Fuller’s recollections and the opinions of community organizers working to achieve a second round of deeply rooted change in Durham.

Fuller said he remembers helping residents take a stand against reigning slumlords, of cleaning up the west end of the city “as just a way to get people feeling that we could do something about what surrounded us.” He helped organize a march in downtown Durham a day after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, when Durham police officers stood on rooftops with high-powered rifles.

He said the NC Fund helped change the dynamic of who held power in Durham. The lower class became organized and began to confront leadership about poor living conditions. Black students on college campuses were hired to become organizers and supervisors within the NC Fund.

“All of a sudden, you have all these community groups coming up in all of these places and beginning to demand change,” Fuller said.

The community panel after Fuller’s talk included Laurel Ashton, a UNC-Chapel Hill graduate and NC NAACP field secretary for the Western and Youth/College Division; Micah Gilmer, a clinical assistant professor of social innovation at UNC-Chapel Hill; Deena Hayes of the Guilford County Board of Education and community organizer studying subtle racism in society; and Ivan Kohar Parra, leader of the N.C. Latino Coalition, a network of grassroots Latino organizations.

Gilmer said he is tackling low graduation rates of African-American and Latino men within North Carolina. The state is No. 22 in the country for African-American male graduation rates and No. 44 for Latino males, tied with Mississippi.

He said he knows plenty of creative, tough and militant community organizers out there, but people need to take a chance on those young activists.

“Who are going to be the leaders of your generation who are going to invest in those folks?” he asked.

Parra said he works on a regular basis with Latinos who fear being deported. He said it’s easier for them to remain invisible, to get rid of the risk, but that makes it harder to organize a larger movement for Latino rights.

“There’s this idea that there is a nice way to get social change without any controversy or without any backlash, and I don’t really think that’s possible,” Parra said. “The best organizing happens when there’s a reaction. You anticipate it, you try to plan for it.”

Ashton said the NC NAACP is making strides in western N.C. mountain towns that are predominantly white and conservative - They recently set up five new NC NAACP branches in those areas.

Fuller said young activists today cannot try to retrace the steps of activists of the past, such as those involved with the Fund 50 years ago. They have different tools, different struggles to weigh, to determine how to wage the new war for change.

“You have to define it for yourself,” he said.