That COA, it Goa
Perrin Lance, Chattanooga Organized for Action’s current executive director, welcomed the opportunity to talk about the citizens’ advocate group he now leads.
Cody Maxwell: Who was responsible for creating Chattanooga Organized for Action, and why was there a need to do so?
Perrin Lance: COA first began as a conversation between Megan Hollenbeck, Chris Brooks, myself. We had all recognized that there was something deeply wrong with Chattanooga. Here you had a city that had labeled itself the “Renaissance City of the South” but the newspaper headlines told a different story. There was the ongoing poverty and injustice and racism that were never talked about. So we decided to try to bridge the gap. Initially, we faced many tough questions: How do we create a more just city? Will activism do it? Do we march and petition the politicians? We tried that. Should we try to hold the politicians accountable? We tried that, too. Ultimately we decided that if we’re going to arrive at the kind of city we want to live in, it has to be the people themselves that do it. And that’s where we began our work of community organizing.
CM: COA is barely three years old. How has the group grown, and what would you consider COA’s proudest accomplishments?
PL: What started out as a small group of friends working to bring activist culture back has become something much larger. We had to engage in very real conversations about institutional racism, class, and privilege and how it is very alive and well in Chattanooga. Those conversations were the result of intensive, goal-oriented organizing campaigns that resulted in real wins for grassroots communities.
When I think of COA’s achievements that I’m most proud of, I think of our campaign surrounding affordable housing. This campaign got started in the last months of 2011 when Mayor Littlefield brought in Purpose Built Communities, an organization brought for the specific purpose of replacing affordable public housing with high-priced market rate condos and apartments. Its target was the Westside, a community entirely composed of public and subsidized housing. We worked with the residents to organize the Westside Community Association and to stop PBC’s attempt to steal their homes and hand them over to private developers. The Westside community was successful, but they didn’t just want to stop with protecting their own community—they wanted to ensure affordable housing for all Chattanoogans. So we worked with them to issue the Affordable Housing Report in the summer of 2012, which found that one out of every two households in the urban core are economically burdened with housing costs, and one out of every four households are spending more than 50 percent of their income on housing.
From this report came the proposed Affordable Housing Ordinance, a law that would mandate affordable housing units in new multi-unit residential developments built in the city. As far as I know, it’s the first time a group of citizens has worked together to create a full piece of legislation and propose it. The AHO was re-introduced to the new city council just this past week.
CM: In August 2012, COA was awarded a $40,000 dollar grant by the Benwood Foundation. How has this grant been used to further the efforts of COA?
PL: Since receiving the grant, we’ve worked to institute two programs to help grassroots individuals and organizations create the change they wish to see. The first program is the Justice School, which trains individuals in theory and practice of community organization. This year’s program will run in August. It’s entirely free and we only ask that students, upon leaving the program, lend their skills to future organizing efforts COA may encounter.
The second is the SPARC Initiative. SPARC stands for “Sustaining People and Reclaiming Communities,” and the keyword here is “reclaim.” Instead of professional planners and politicians determining the future of individual communities, we work to deliver the tools of community planning directly into the hands of the people.
I can think of no better example than our work with Lincoln Park. This community was told that a road was going to be built through their historic community park. City officials said the plans were set and couldn’t be stopped. SPARC changed this. They’ve won a promise from Mayor Andy Berke to be included in all conversations regarding their community and a promise that no road would be built through their park. Lincoln Park is now making plans for itself—plans that include a reunion and getting historic status for their park.
CM: Where do you see COA in the future?
PL: First you have to ask where Chattanooga is in the future. Chattanooga’s renaissance has not been equitable. Investment hasn’t been equitable. We may have more millionaires and luxury condos, but this renaissance has occurred in the midst of a 75.2 percent increase in poverty levels, according to the Brookings Institute. We have some communities with 23 percent unemployment rates, but some communities where the median family income exceeds $100,000 annually. This is not the Chattanooga I want to live in. But what this city becomes is up to us. This is what COA will be working on.