Dirt roads become ACT II's first big issue

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.”

From small beginnings to big impact: ACT II makes Baldwin better

The Ecumenical Ministries office on Fairhope Avenue may be small but it produces the mightiest of work.

And for 25 years the office has been the hub for its social justice initiative, ACT II, an organization quietly making deliberate steps of great change for Baldwin County to the tune of more than $50 million in impact.

From paving dirt roads to ensuring clean water for citizens, lobbying for sidewalks to restoring homes in dire need of repair, this faithful group of faith-filled members has courageously tackled justice issues in their own backyards.

Since 1992, Dan Hanson has led the group step by step through a model created by the PICO Network, a national faith-based group in which congregations of all denominations and faiths serve as the institutional base for community organizations. Early on in the process, Hanson enlisted the help of Bishop Manuel Watson of the Bromley community.

“He was interested but didn’t want to step on other clergy toes, and he wasn’t even sure about me so he asked me to go and talk to other clergy in Bromley,” Hanson said. For two months Hanson worked to engage other clergy in Bromley and for two months he was rebuffed.

“While everybody talked a good talk, we just couldn’t get good follow-through,” Hanson said. “I was talking to Bishop and he finally just stood up and said ‘Somebody’s got to do it and if the church doesn’t, then who will?’”

Watson remembers well when Hanson returned to him and even better when they finally convinced six clergy members to sit down for a conversation.

“We finally got together and started talking,” Watson said. “We were meeting at different churches in our area - Catholic, Baptist, Holiness, Full Gospel, Presbyterian - we were all meeting there in different churches. That’s how we came up with the name All Churches Together.”

The process

“Our model works community justice through faith,” Hanson said.

It’s a model that has served the group well. The interdenominational and non-partisan members use their faith to help their fellow neighbors seek justice for the issues that matter most to them.

“When you begin a group, you train people to do one-on-one visits,” said Michelle Kurtz, Community Development officer at Ecumenical Ministries. “Then you come together twice a month. We make a graph, list the issues and after about three to six months what happens is you start hearing the same things over and over again and you know you’ve probably done enough interviews.”

The one-on-ones empower and equip ACT II to do work for their fellow citizens.

“Talking to so many people is what gives you the right to say what people want,” Hanson said. “We as an organization have talked to the community, when we say this is what the community wants it comes from all of our research and you can prove it.”

After the one-on-one interviews are completed and the most pressing issues from the community have risen to the top, action meetings are held.

“When it’s time to pick an issue, we invite everyone who participated in the one-on-ones  to the meeting where we review the issues that have been talked about,” Kurtz said. “We don’t fight it out, we don’t listen to the person with the loudest voice. We ask what would Jesus do. And not just that, also some very pragmatic things like how many people are affected, is it tangible, if we worked on this issue would people actually see a difference.”

This community-driven process is key for the model.

“Community leaders are the top, but if you really want to do good democratic stuff you want the people in your community to tell you what they want,” he said. “Sometimes the leaders tell you right, sometimes the leaders tell you wrong. The question is what do the people really want.”

Through 25 years, and lots of trial and error, it has gotten better. And though ACT II is no longer a member of the PICO Network, both Watson and Hanson credit that rock-solid model and the faith of those practicing it for the success.

It’s also helpful that the ACT II model is the only one of its kind in the region.

“There are some groups that don’t really have that kind of aggressive training and that national expertise; it’s one of the things that kind of makes us unique in this area,” Hanson said. “Since much of what we do is based on their model, there are other organizations around the country that do what we do, but we’re unique in this area.”

Across all aisles, the group has a simple goal: to make systemic change in communities and to remain faith-based.

“It’s important that it be faith-based,” Watson said. “If we want to get something done we have to make sure the Lord is involved in it.  We can’t do anything without the Lord. We want to make sure what we do is right.”

One of the criteria for selecting an issue is what the spiritual ramifications are on a community, and organizers genuinely want to make sure that God is first in their processes.

“One way to see a church is that it is a tightly organized organism that can do the work for you; you have people who’ve already agreed to what their values are,” Kurtz said. “The second thing is called instrumentalizing the church, talking to people about doing the right thing but not talking about their faith in a genuine way. The organizer has totally different presuppositions and is not even tapping into the real reality, which is the spiritual reality. We’re all fallen and we all need the forgiveness that comes from Christ. What good does it do if Joe Schmoe says he forgives me? It comes from Christ. Other organizers don’t do that.”

The longevity of the organization is due, in part, to staff along with a group of committed volunteers.

“We don’t build our leadership around a specific issue,” Hanson said. “The issue is always the healthiness of the community. That’s why being church-based is so important, people kind of naturally think that way there. We’re about healthiness and justice in our community.”

For Watson, the first clergy member to say “yes” to ACT II, the hard work is worth it.

“I love seeing things being done in our community to make it a better place to live,” said Watson. “We want our community, and this county, to be the best in Alabama.”

Deep-dive with ACT II

 During October, Journey to Justice will host  “Deep Dive” discussions of justice, the Bible, the church and Baldwin County at Eastern Shore churches beginning Oct. 5.

These discussions will be small conversational groups of about 15 people, counting clergy with no lectures but genuine conversation for about 90 minutes. 

Deep Dives will avoid current hot-button issues, and certainly avoid the partisanship that divides. Instead, Deep Dives will explore the nature of Justice itself and wonder how it relates to our faith. What is the Biblical definition of Justice and does it matter? Is there a difference between Justice and Charity? If we extend Mercy, do we deny Justice? Should churches engage in community justice issues, and if so how? We’ll ponder these and other questions, including the judicious character of our own communities.

Clergy from several churches and representatives of ACT-II will facilitate these Deep Dive discussions. ACT-II – All Churches Together – has quietly and successfully engaged significant community issues in affluent and poor, black and white Baldwin communities for 25 years.

Participation is limited in order to keep the experience conversational. To participate, email Dan Hanson at dhxtwo@yahoo.com.

Participate in a group read!

In celebration of ACT II's 25 years of justice work in Baldwin County, Ecumenical Ministries is hosting a series of events to celebrate is accomplishments and create awareness and support for the future. Through a group read of "Just Mercy," by Bryan Stevenson, we hope to examine justice work presented by Bryan Stevenson and discuss justice work being done here and now in Baldwin County. 

Our goal is to bring the community together while creating awareness of the need for equal justice and presenting actions that can be taken to bring about real change.

To obtain a book discussion guide that ties the major themes of Stevenson's work to the past 25 years of work by ACT II and EMI, email jessica@jms-communications.com. 

Here's a list of book discussion events currently scheduled. To have your event added, please email jessica@jms-communications.com.

Thursday, Oct. 12, 10 a.m.: Fairhope Public Library board room

Wednesday, Oct. 18, 5:30 p.m.: The Book Cellar at Page and Palette, Fairhope

Sunday, Oct. 22, 1 p.m.: Fairhope Brewing, Fairhope. Join the Rev. Thack Dyson of St. Paul's Episcopal in Daphne and the Rev. De Freeman of St. James Episcopal in Fairhope for an afternoon discussion of "Just Mercy." 

Want more? Find out about our Deep Dive discussions here.

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