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Action Center Organizes Poor On Economic, Not Racial, Basis

By Ellen Lake

Election campaigns seldom leave tangible results--especially unsuccessful ones. But Noel Day's attempt to unseat House Speaker John W. McCormack last fall, while an electoral failure (he received less than ten per cent of the votes), gave birth to a bold experiment in organizing poor Negroes and whites in the North.

At the Dudley St. Action Center--one-quarter of a shabby frame house in Roxbury--five staff workers and approximately ten part-time volunteers are trying to organize a political movement based on class, rather than race. Most of the volunteers are Harvard and Radcliffe students who make the 45-minute subway journey to Roxbury several times a week.

Day originally planned three centers as a cross between campaign headquarters and offices for a mass movement. They would be places where people could find help on personal problems concerning jobs, housing, and schools. The idea was that voters who had been aided by Day would support him while becoming part of a large, militant, self-help organization--"a union of the unemployed."

But Day's resources were never adequate for his plans, and the Harvard-Radcliffe chapter of Students for a Democratic Society soon assumed responsibility for staffing and running the Dudley St. project. The Boston Action Group, a radical Negro organization, took over the center on Blue Hill Ave, and a lone woman worker became director of the Washington St. project. Day's influence continued to wane, and in February all three centers formally declared their independence.

In the seven months of working in Roxbury, the Dudley St. staff members have probably learned as much as they have taught the people of the community. Their major problem has been simply learning how to organize urban residents of very different backgrounds. Only two of the staff had ever done organizing before; and all were new to the particular problems of Boston. No one even knew why Day had chosen to locate the centers where he did.

What's Wrong?'

The first step was meeting the community. To do this--and they still use this method to break into a new area--the workers divided into pairs, chose a block, and went knocking on doors. "What's wrong with the neighborhood? What would you like to change?" they asked local people.

The answers they got generally concerned small and immediate problems: "The landlord won't fix the stairs;" "We should have a stop sign on the corner." When the same problem occurred several times within one block, the workers usually convinced a few neighbors to present a joint petition to their landlord or to city officials. Often they were successful; John M. Mendeloff '67 proudly tells visitors, "That's our sign," as he passes one stop sign in the nine-block triangle in which the Center operates.

But this method proved a deadend. The volunteers had neither the time nor the experience to transform a stop-sign protest into full-fledged organization on each street. And each block remained a separate unit, rather than fusing into a larger movement.

But as the students got to know the neighborhood, general issues began to appear. They discovered, for example, that large numbers of women were receiving welfare aid; at the same time, they learned that Boston, unlike most large cities, had not joined a federal program to give surplus food free to welfare mothers. Surplus food seemed a perfect issue around which to organize.

In December, a leaflet went out to all families: "DO YOU WANT 27 POUNDS OF FREE FOOD? COME TO A MEETING . . ." Thirty women showed up, and returned in a few days with 1500 signatures on a petition asking for distribution of surplus food in Boston. Fifty mothers delivered the demand to Mayor Collins, who promised the food by March 1. When it failed to appear, 150 women descended on city hall.

The next day, welfare officials asked for an appointment with the action center staff, and announced plans for six distribution centers for surplus food, instead of the two originally scheduled. The first one is scheduled to open next Tuesday; a center in the Dudley area is supposed to open shortly thereafter.

With the surplus food controversy, the project turned to organizing around issues, rather than by blocks. A parents' committee has been formed to improve the schools and, with the aid of the Center's staff has circulated a questionnaire asking other parents what they think are the key problems.

Community Action

But another issue has arisen which may change the Center's perspective again. Recently, the staff members learned that approximately one-third of Roxbury is slated for urban renewal during the next two or three years, and they have been unable to discover whether there are any plans for housing the evicted families. They view this issue, coupled with that of distribution of war-on--poverty funds, as the basis for a single neighborhood community union, which would incorporate all of the center's special issue groups.

Implicit in the attempt to give a larger perspective is a desire to radicalize the local people. Mendeloff describes one of the meetings between the welfare mothers and city officials almost gleefully: "It was a great confrontation. Power was the issue. They were saying in effect, 'we'll give you people food if you don't ask to make decisions.'"

But the radicalizing goes beyond local issues. Often workers talk about Vietnam with members of the community, stressing that money should be spent to help the poor at home not to fight a foreign war.

How successful has the Center been in achieving its goals? Perhaps its greatest success has been to teach the workers how to begin organizing; in a sense the past seven months have been largely a training session. But there have been more concrete accomplishments. The surplus food project, for example--now MAW (Mothers for Adequate Welfare)--certainly demonstrated the potential power of organization to women who had probably had no consciousness of the meaning of political participation.

But there have been many failures and difficulties. One of the major problems still facing the organization is how to inter rate white Irish and Italian families into what is now an almost wholly Negro movement. As one worker put it, "Even if you organize ten per cent of the people (Boston is one-tenth Negro), you'll need allies."

No Single Cure

Another difficulty is that of finding meaningful issues on which to focus. Organizing Southern Negroes is in many Ways much easier, because there is a readily identifiable enemy, an easily defined problem, and a built-in unity in race. But the problem of poverty is much more diffuse; there is no single enemy, no single cure. How can better garbage collection be related to a larger vision of a better society?

And finally, there is the ultimate question which is largely left unspoken by the project staff: Can one action center--or even a hundred action center--really make a dent in the problems of poverty and unemployment in the United States? That is should be asked reflects not the adequacy of such projects but rather the enormity of the need for them

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