Change Is Gonna Come

With some help from his friends, Don Williams intends to save South Dallas one block at a time

And that, says everyone interviewed for this story, is precisely what Williams has done for 11 years. Which is why, only now, the Foundation for Community Empowerment is beginning to have the kind of impact Williams hoped. In this month's issue of Governing magazine, there was a lengthy piece that asked "Can Dallas Govern Itself?" The answer was: Sorta, maybe, not really, it's getting there. Among the bright spots cited in the story was the Foundation for Community Empowerment, which, the magazine insisted, "has developed into a civic force by becoming a repository of hard data and creative ideas for the city as a whole."

It also cited some of its accomplishments since the foundation's inception, including how, in 2002, Williams approached Mayor Laura Miller about the city's need for affordable housing and not only got himself appointed co-chair of the affordable workforce housing task force, but also entirely reshaped the city's housing department. Then, in October 2003, Miller and Dallas County Judge Margaret Keliher made Williams co-chair of their jobs task force, which was charged with trying to lower the city's unemployment rate.

"After that," wrote Rob Gurwitt in Governing, "Williams took aim at the city's dismally performing public school system, putting together another task force to figure out how to transform it. A few months ago, its recommendations were adopted by the notoriously fractious school board. The schools--and the school board--still have a long way to go, but for the first time in many years, there's a sense in Dallas that they might be salvageable."

Yvonne Sparks at the Foundation for Community Empowerment says before Frazier can be reborn she'll have to find out what residents want and need--and then help them get it.
Yvonne Sparks at the Foundation for Community Empowerment says before Frazier can be reborn she'll have to find out what residents want and need--and then help them get it.

Williams, of course, is not a one-man band. The foundation's president is Cecilia Edwards, a former business consultant to Fortune 500 companies who essentially wrote the housing task force report. Its director of community building is Yvonne Sparks, who worked in nonprofits and community development programs in St. Louis before moving to Dallas last November at Williams' behest. Sparks is charged with perhaps the most fundamental piece of the foundation's agenda: talking to folks in South Dallas, finding out what they want and need to happen to their community and then making it happen. In short, she's there to make sure the Foundation for Community Empowerment gives the power to the people.

"Dallas is a big little town," Sparks says. "It has many of the same characteristics of St. Louis, which is also a medium-sized little town. But from a historical perspective and a psychological perspective--and, to some extent, a pathological perspective--neither city ever came to real reckoning about issues of race, and that does something to the psyche of the city. Even though they go through the motions, maybe they keep the peace, and then everybody assumes everything is OK...the power structure is never challenged to the degree that it has to examine itself, nor are the minority communities ever going through a truly empowering process. It's the accommodation."

Also working with the foundation, and Tate in particular, is Paul Yelder, a Maryland-based community development consultant who was instrumental in reshaping the Dudley Street neighborhood in Boston, a slum so infamous during the 1980s that its rebirth a decade later was the subject of a PBS documentary called Higher Ground. Yelder says Frazier is "remarkably similar" to Dudley Street in terms of the decay and benign neglect on the part of the city; Boston, like Dallas, was "well-meaning," Yelder says, "but did nothing."

And like in South Dallas, he says, "we weren't the first to try and save Dudley Street. There had been tons of studies, tons of plans, tons of initiative. But what happened was there was patient philanthropic capital coming in. We had a foundation at Dudley Street that was willing to invest in the long haul and wasn't looking for a quick hit here or there. They understood that this was going to be a long initiative."

And earlier this year, former Dallas Morning News columnist Victoria Loe Hicks joined the foundation as well, with the hope she would begin something similar to the City Journal, a public-policy magazine published by the enormously influential Manhattan Institute in New York City. Hicks will edit and contribute to The Williams Review, an academic journal that will debut in October. And the foundation counts among its board members the likes of Rafael Anchía, the local attorney and DISD school board trustee being courted by Ron Kirk and others to run for mayor; former EDS Vice President John Castle; Dallas Cowboy-turned-businessman Pettis Norman; and Internet billionaire-turned-movie producer Todd Wagner, who runs his own foundation for inner-city kids.

When Governing said the foundation was a repository of hard data, it was referring to the J. McDonald Williams Institute, which employs professors and social scientists to study and write papers about such things as the crime and mortality rates in South Dallas and the potential for private investors in low-income neighborhoods. Their research is used not only to sell private investors on the need for getting involved in neighborhoods such as Frazier, but also to affect public policy--or, in the case of Fair Park neighborhoods, to create a public policy that doesn't involve walking away from problems created over decades of neglect.

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