Ronell Guy and the Women’s Walk for a Peaceful Community
- Women’s Walk for a Peaceful Community
- When: Saturday, September 8th
- 10AM to 1PM
- Where: Pittsburgh Project (N. Charles Street) to West Park
- For more information go to http://www.womenswalk.org/
On September 8th, before City of Asylum/Pittsburgh’s annual Jazz Poetry Concert, another annual community event will draw Pittsburghers to the Northside. The Women’s Walk for a Peaceful Community is a two-mile march which concludes at West Park, where poet Patricia Smith and Atlanta hip-hop group Arrested Development will perform.
The Women’s Walk for a Peaceful Community is sponsored by the Northside Coalition for Fair Housing (NCFH), which has been working to improve the quality of housing and develop stronger communities in the Northside since 1998. Executive Director Ronell Guy sat with Sampsonia Way on the porch of her home in Perry South to talk about the history of the Coalition and the Women’s Walk as well as the obstacles facing Northside communities today.
How did the NCFH start?
In 1998 there was a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) program called Mark-to-Market. At the time I was living in HUD multi-family housing, and they sent all 330 families eviction notices. I called a couple of people, and we started organizing.
About ten neighbors started meeting at my house to find a solution. In our research we found that the evictions were unnecessary because the owner of that particular property was actually exempt from the Mark-to-Market program.
And what happened next?
We got him to sign an agreement saying he would sell us the properties. After two years, when we had raised the $1.5 million to buy the properties, he said he had never agreed to it.
Ten years later, the owners of the properties were separating and dissolving their partnership and we were able to buy 56% of the equity partnership of Northside Properties, the same properties we were once evicted from.
Since you started, how has the organization grown or changed?
We realized the Northside had been changing and gentrifying over the last ten years and decided to make sure that the community stayed diverse and equitable. To me a healthy community is one that has housing options for everybody, no matter your income, physical ability, or anything. We need to have homes for people with disabilities, for people who make a lot of money, for people with medium income, for people who make no money, and for people who really don’t have the ability to negotiate the market. We’ve rehabilitated and modernized almost 80 units in the last couple years, and I think we’ve got 120 to go. We’re slowly working on providing quality housing for families.
What are the strengths of the Northside? What would you like people who don’t know about the Northside to know about it?
The strengths are the people and their love and commitment to family and community. Real brilliance exist in the creativity of people like Dorothy Richardson, Bill Strickland, and Stanley Lowe. Northsiders are so beautifully diverse that you become your best self to make the community great for the people who have shared your unique experiences.
What are some of the biggest obstacles that the Northside is facing?
Lack of resources for redevelopment, crime, culture clash, community gatekeepers, failing schools, disinvestment, and blight, not in any order. Another issue is that there is a real disconnect between what the community needs and what the policy makers and judicial system do. The police do their job for the most part, they come out and arrest people. The problem is that the next day the people who caused the problems are right back out.
One of the biggest issues is to create a community where adults can walk without being afraid and kids can play outside. We have really made a lot of progress in cleaning the lots, making the streets safe, even working with families and individuals to get them to report what they see.
Another problem is that the resources for work with low-income and minority communities—which have been coming into the city since 1974—have not been spent strategically.
In what ways has the community failed its youth? How are organizations in the Northside helping the youth?
The schools and the city are failing them. They have a responsibility to educate the kids and prepare them for their futures, and our kids are just not prepared to take the next step, whether it’s trade school, work, or college. There’s always some remedial process or prep process that they have to take after they achieve their high school diplomas, even though twelve years of school should prepare you for something.
The community is failing our kids by being afraid of them and not providing real opportunities. If we, as community, see that the schools are failing then we have a responsibility to step up and do something about that. Nobody’s doing that. There are a couple of organizations who are trying, and I can’t get mad at them, but it’s not enough to try.
How are organizations like yours working to address such problems?
I am working hard to educate kids to make sure they understand that they have choices. We got involved with the kids after we purchased the housing and realized that they were just hanging out and getting into trouble while their parents had to work. We realized that both the kids and the parents were afraid. Kids weren’t playing in the streets, they weren’t allowed out. There were a lot of programs that were getting resources to help, but they weren’t really working. It’s one thing to sit down and watch somebody watch TV; it’s another thing to connect with them and get inside their minds and help them really understand the responsibility they have civically, socially, to their country, their state, their city, their community, their family, and to themselves. We work to help them be responsible and understand why that’s important.
Why the Women’s Walk for Peace? What role do women have in changing their communities?
When I think about a lot of the churches and community organizations, at least in African-American communities, it’s the women who really step up and do what needs to be done to make sure things are taken care of.
We showed a film, The Children’s March, to a group of teens, and they were so amazed. It was something they’d never seen, and they had no idea that the children had really turned the tide. They said, “Those people really cared. We can’t even play in front of our houses, and nobody’s speaking up for us. Why can’t we have a march against violence?” So we fleshed the idea out, and they had the responsibility of getting their parents to the next event. Then the kids asked their parents, “Why can’t you guys do something? ” It evolved from that.
Poet Patricia Smith is performing at the Walk. Why her?
I met with Henry Reese who told me that she was coming to the Jazz Poetry Concert. He gave me her book Close to Death and told me to check her out. The book was about young black men, and the things she had to say were relevant to our circumstances. I shared the book with the committee, and we realized she’d be perfect for the Women’s Walk for Peace. Henry said he’d try to arrange that.
So now these kids that asked for change will hear Patricia Smith’s poetry. How important is it for kids to understand the power of writing and reading?
It’s important that our kids grow an appreciation for writing instead of just watching a film. I can’t tell you how many kids come to our office and say “Ms. Ronell, this book right here, is there a movie of it?” I say “I’m not sure. You should read the book.” But they’ll get on a computer and find that film and get it from the library instead of reading the book.
If you can’t read then you can’t write. We really need to make that connection and make them understand how valuable being able to write is in a lifetime. I want there to be some writing classes and exercises for kids in the neighborhood. They just added the writing portion to the SAT/ACT, and our kids are already under- or mis-educated.
Besides coming to the walk, what are some ways that Northside residents can help their community?
It’s just about engagement and being respectful of people no matter who they are, whether they’re a gang-banger, or they work at the bank, or are a student, child, or parent. People want to help and get involved, but sometimes they just don’t know how. We provide opportunities for individuals to get involved and not be afraid and work with others to find out what’s going on and how they can change their realities from negative to positive.
We engage a lot of the guys as soon as they get out of incarceration as well as work with women to help them understand their responsibilities. It’s about different types of education. You can’t give what you don’t have. If they have the knowledge then they want to change and want to do positive things.
While I have the biggest mouth and the most to say, the Northside Coalition is comprise of many amazing people, both staff and volunteers. They are the ones who are the actual agents of change and are my superheroes.
I would like to add that the walk is for everybody, it’s not just for African-Americans, it’s not just a Northside thing. It’s about connecting people in the community to change agents in the city. We want people to get connected, to join campaigns, and put their passion and energy behind change instead of complaining. We want policy and advocacy programs to come so they can continue to build their organizations. In Pittsburgh there’s not a single, large group of people who are really working for change, so I want to give all these groups a chance to build their capacity by being able to engage new people and educate them to be useful in the struggle for change.