The allure of a red dirt road is romanticized throughout country music catalogs, but did you know that dirt roads can present a very real justice problem for the people living along them?
The members of ACT II, Ecumenical Ministries’ justice initiative, know this so well it became one of the first issues they tackled after forming 25 years ago.
ACT II is made up of member chapters across Baldwin County, each tackling the issues that rise to the top from the root of their individual communities. In the mid-1990s, paving the dirt roads became a connecting issue that joined the chapters as one.
“Marlow and Bromley were operating separately,” said Dan Hanson, Community Development Director. “Bromley decided they wanted to do dirt roads and Marlow decided they wanted to do it, too.”
The independent organizations worked separately for a year, meeting with Baldwin County commissioners and doing research but neither could make progress.
“They were always told there was no money,” said Hanson. “They were told it would take $400,000 a mile to pave a road, but eventually with research our people realized it would only cost about $50,000. One of the things in research is you don’t stop with the first person.”
“You talk to somebody else and somebody else and the story changes every time,” Hanson said. “It’s never the same.”
It’s also one reason a tenet of ACT II is to go in dumb and come out smart.
When Marlow and Bromley decided to do a joint action public meeting together, the movement gained some ground but not enough. As they began to bring in people from other parts of the county, ACT II began to galvanize.
“Until then it was two entirely different communities working independently,” Hanson said. “When they came together, they made progress.”
The progress was unstoppable and required extreme determination.
Katie Hall, a longtime member of the group, can easily name every safety issue the dirt roads presented.
“People were tired of living on dirt road and everything getting paved around them,” Hall said. “There were a lot of roads that I drove school buses on and we couldn’t get over them. Another one, they couldn’t even get to it on a rainy day with an ambulance to get to someone to get her to the hospital.”
In many cases throughout Baldwin County, members could point to road paving situations in which the county paved a road right up to a road that led to a wealthy homeowner - and then stopped. Today, members still point to those instances as proof of the rampant “good old boys” situation in the county.
“We just felt like they could do better so we started putting pressure on them,” Katie said. “We didn’t think it was doing us a bit of good, but we didn’t let up. And I think they got afraid to see us coming.”
Al Mullek, another devoted member, said residents of the dirt roads had to continually bear the brunt of the fallout caused by the failure to pave.
“The ones who work in the restaurants, the hotels, the convenience stores, these are the minimum wage workers who can’t afford to live in upscale housing subdivisions; these are the people who live on the dirt roads,” Mullek said. “They’re the ones who have to
buy the used cars that my mechanic says are torn apart by the dirt roads.”
What’s more, the hazardous driving conditions weren’t the only problems the dirt roads created. When band-aids in the form of clay were used, the clay ended up in watersheds resulting in an environmental problem.
With the power of the ACT II network behind them, the Baldwin County Grassroots Road Paving Organization was formed and began in earnest to help right the wrongs created by the plethora of dirt roads throughout the county.
“These guys live on the dirt roads, they’re the ones who do the research,” said Michelle Kurtz of Ecumenicial Ministries. “The strength of this organization is that there are maybe about 200 people who at one time have been involved - so when we want to know how the county takes care of it’s roads, we have 200 people who can tell us.”
When members of the road paving organization go to meetings with road officials or county commissioners, they make sure to have at least 10 different stories of road conditions from those who live on the roads. In many instances, that number has been far higher. In all cases, the power of the first-hand stories can move the mountains created by bureaucracy.
“We’ve had meetings where there have been over 100 residents who live on dirt roads present with the whole county commission,” Mullek said. “I think that’s what it took to make them realize there’s a lot of people who are concerned.”
During a meeting in 1998, Hall represented the county’s bus drivers during a Baldwin County Commission meeting on the road-paving issue.
“The commissioners were behind me in the room,” Hall said. “They kept saying ‘We’ve got this to do and that to do and the other to do’ and I got fed up. I turned around half-facing them and said ‘We’re not asking you to pave our streets gold, we’re just asking you to put asphalt on them.’”
Once officials finally began to understand how concerned the citizens truly were, changes began to take place. One such change was the implementation of a fairness policy championed by ACT II. The policy deals with myriad criteria: can a school bus go easily down the road; do any handicapped live on the road; how many families are affected; what is the environmental effect?
“We don’t complain, complain, complain - we find ways to fix the problems,” said Kurtz. “We started talking to people who live on dirt roads and asked ‘What is fair criteria as to where the asphalt should go down?’”
Armed with input from the affected citizens, the group met with and educated commissioners and go their agreement before having them sign boards that said they would abide by the policy.
“This is a good example of regular people developing a guideline that rules and affects their lives,” Mullek said. “We haven’t had an action meeting where we haven’t had success. Now you can go to the county commission and they have a handbook that has all the policies in it.”
The faith of members carries them through the successes and the frustrations. Mullek, whose family has lived in the county for more than 100 years, notes that the ecumenical spirit with which they operate extends to longtime residents as much as it does to newer ones.
“We’re not just parishioners of the same church,” he said. “We are concerned about the people of Baldwin County and we are pleased that there are so many people who find the lifestyle so ideal they would move here. But what about those of us who have lived here for years and call this home? There have been so many changes that I feel like some areas have been left behind.”
The institutional knowledge the core group of members holds allows them to strategize and go toe-to-toe with politicians and leaders. But even with the decades of work done by members, a large number of dirt roads still exist in the county today: 80 miles in Commission District 4 and 50 miles or less in Commission Districts 1-3. Until all the roads are paved - and all citizens have the same access - ACT II members will persist in their mission with a dogged determination to hold the feet of officials to the fire.
“By God’s strength and encouragement, I think about these people who need it and it pushes me to go on,” Hall said. “It’s just such a thing of injustice that if I’m going to do anything about it I’ll try. When you get to meet these people and see how deeply hurt they are with it, it ought to make a difference to anybody.”