Jul 10, 2009 Walt Shepperd Uncategorized
Q&A with Walt Dixie: PACs from communities of color contemplate candidates
Walter Dixie grew up in the inner-city, went away to Ithaca College, and came back to dedicate his energy to the local communities of color. He is the sparkplug for the local-based Alliance Network and the local chapter of Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network. He has provided energy and direction for Jubilee Homes, rehabilitating almost 100 houses over the past two decades on the city’s near southwest side, and more recently for Youth Build, an educational and skill training program for youth in the building trades.
“As long as we don’t understand business and opportunities, we’ll be living with the results of a failed system,” he says.
An advocate of self-reliance, he was buoyed by the campaign of hope waged by Barrack Obama last year, and by the enthusiastic response from local voters of color. He had hoped to see a similar emergence in this year’s mayoral race, but so far he has been disappointed. Mostly he misses the energy and idealism Howie Hawkins brought to the race with his Green Party campaign four years ago. “Alfonso is raising issues, and that’s good,” he observes. “But it’s really coming down to Joe and Stephanie.”
He recalls growing up in what he describes as a melting pot in the old 15th Ward, and the strong sense of community shared by his neighbors.
“The question is,” he says, suggesting a focus for dealing with the issues of today’s inner-city, “how do we get back to that?
I could live in Madison Towers if I wanted to, but I live on South Geddes because I want to. Some of us need to live in the community, and walk out of the house in a suit and tie doing business and show it’s not all selling drugs, homeless, unemployed. It’s taking a moral responsibility to say, ‘What can I do to come back and help build our community?’ It takes one person at a time to come back, to embrace community.”
Eight years ago you maintained that if Alliance Network endorsed Matt Driscoll in the Democratic mayoral primary, you could show that the communities of color swung the election and you’d get a seat at the table. Did you get a seat at the table?
I think we’ve always had a great relationship with the mayor, personally. Part of politics is a slow grind. You don’t realize things over night. You have to financially invest in a campaign.
Then we’re torn between social issues and economic issues. How do we do both? If a community is divided, you can’t blame government for not healing us. We have to heal ourselves. If we’re united, and we have solutions, we have to move together, no matter who’s mayor, no matter who’s governor. We don’t need to have someone with solutions for us, we need to bring solutions to the table. I don’t want to get caught up in blaming. We have to do better ourselves.
I think we do a disservice when we allow the establishment to speak for us, and we don’t have a real seat at the table and we’re not bringing solutions to the table.
Bea Gonzalez is someone who has the ability to bring consensus to the table for sharing resources in a strategic way. We have to do the homework. We have to be the entrepreneurs in the business community.
A lot of folks don’t understand how government works. The mayor only can do so much because the city’s not generating tax revenue. You have to have local, state and federal forces all working together to generate the resources.
Does partisan politics prohibit that from happening?
Look at Joanie Mahoney. Even though she’s a Republican, she’s done some great things, especially on diversity issues. She has to work through a culture of men institution-wise, and she has to pick her battles.
I can’t pick any battle with the mayor. You have to pick some battles. You can’t win all battles.
The National Action Network had a forum and it gave us a snapshot of the candidates, especially on the issue of how they would handle sensitive police issues, coalition building and crisis management and meeting with community stakeholders.
Then Alliance Network had its own debate with questions of diversity and economic development. There hasn’t been a home run hit, and we’re not going to release the results of our polling, but we have a sense of who folks are comfortable with. The mayor needs to be a consensus builder.
What’s the difference between the two organizations?
National Action Network is under the Rev. Al Shapton, in which we don’t engage in partisan politics. At Alliance Network we do. We’re independent, but we’re more partial to the Democratic Party.
At the Alliance Network forum we focused on the Democratic candidates. For National Action Network we invited all announced candidates.
What have you heard from the candidates, and what do you need to hear?
When you think about President Obama, and we were an early backer of his campaign, it was a revolution of hope and folks being involved. From this mayoral campaign, you don’t get that sense. You don’t get a sense that those young folks from the Obama camp are really engaged. You don’t get a sense that the community feels inspired.
But when you look at this election, it’s going to be pivotal to Syracuse. Where is the Carousel Mall going to land?
I think Minch Lewis’s comment that the mayor did a good job to get the money up front so he wouldn’t have to raise taxes and could invest in Say Yes and other programs is accurate.
But what’s going to happen down the line? As they’re saying with Obama and health care, Okay, if you want it, how are you going to pay for it?
At the beginning of Roy Bernardi’s second term in 1997, we began exploring whether Syracuse was ready for a black mayor. Now three candidates of color have announced their intentions to run. Will they cancel each other out?
As you know, we were supporters of Bea Gonzalez for mayor. We thought that Bea probably had the best chance of understanding the needs of all neighborhoods. Probably had really great relationships in all neighborhoods. In her life’s work from Le Moyne College to being Dean of University College at SU, she had all the right ingredients. She’s been a true collaborator.
Her personal reasons not to run were her own decision. Also, you have to raise a lot of money in this business, and some folks don’t like to raise money. Dr. Pritchard reminded me that it’s not who works the hardest, it’s who works the smartest. In order to have a message, you have to have money. In those days we ran on ideals and moral victories and we lost a lot of races. Today I’m not interested in moral victories.
Joe Nicoletti has always done well in the African-American community. Stephanie has just been a good candidate, elected twice. You could see the African-American and Hispanic vote split all over the place. It’s important that we know what real strategies these candidates have. Government has to change, get leaner and meaner. You have to incorporate the next generation of leaders into city departments.
With a 50 percent drop out rate in city schools, are we losing out on developing some of that next generation of leaders?
There has to be a connection to community based groups. We know that when a kid goes to kindergarten, the parents are pumped up, they’re involved. As the years go by, they take less of the responsibility. We all know this. But we have to think out of the box to engage that conversation. That’s an important conversation for us. If you look at the school budget every year as shear numbers, if the dollars increase only for salaries and health benefits, it has nothing to do with the kids, with the innovative programs that are necessary. There has to be a give and take. I don’t know what the answer is, but I don’t think we’re having the conversation to address it. We keep going along with the same old model, but this model doesn’t work.
Some people see the Say Yes program as a cure all, others see it as a gimmick to get white folks back in the city. How do you see it?
I know what they’ve done in Harlem. I know that program is very sincere. When Say Yes came here I was not at the table. It wasn’t that the University or the School District said, “Well, who are some of the folks who are strong advocates?” We were not at the table. We came to the table through the back door. What we would attempt to do is bring in grass-roots organizations, also the Ministerial Alliance and the Urban Coalition. They know this program can’t work unless we are at the table.
One thing the Say Yes program does do, it puts the emphasis not just on the education component, the other elements, the crisis in families, the need for doctors, the need for attorneys.
Other things are coming into place. The relationship with the Community Health Center, finally. Real estate companies see the opportunity to sell houses. Compared to marketing in Liverpool, Manlius, if folks see this as an incentive, I can’t begrudge them, because it helps the city. But the in the spirit of the Say Yes program, it was designed historically to work in impoverished communities to uplift folk who don’t enjoy the same kind of resources that others outside our neighborhoods have in support services to go to college. We have to make sure that doesn’t get lost. African-American students don’t do well in Syracuse Challenge, a similar program.
We have to take ownership. We can’t wait for others to deliver and not deliver ourselves. From our perspective, we can’t allow this program to fail.
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