The news cycle is loud, but we need to hear those who can’t shout
Our last issue included profiles of 2016 Hope Award regional winners east of the Mississippi and our International winner from China. This issue includes profiles of our Southwest and Northwest winners. All the profiles are online at wng.org/compassion. Once you’ve read them, please vote online (any time from July 13 through Aug. 29) for the group you think should win the $15,000 grand prize.
Our reporters have eyeballed all five regional winners—each receives $2,000—and looked at their finances, so you can be confident that all five are solid and would each be a worthy winner: Please vote for whichever warms your heart the most. One computer, one vote. We plan to announce the winner on Sept. 2.
Southwest Region winner: Advocates for Community Transformation
DALLAS—If you’re a homeowner with a family in a poor area, your next-to-worst nightmare is a drug house across the street or next door. (The worst nightmare is a drive-by shooting in which your son or daughter is killed.)
The theme song of one hit movie asked and answered a good question: “If there’s something weird and it don’t look good: Who ya gonna call? Ghostbusters.” But in reality, if you call the police, they may bust the dealers, but those little drug lords (or their replacements) will soon be back in business.
In some poor areas of West and South Dallas, no one yet has created a catchy new song celebrating the work of Advocates for Community Transformation (ACT), a Christian nonprofit working to make neighborhoods safe. So maybe we’ll have to use the old tune: “If there’s something strange in your neighborhood: Who ya gonna call? Christian lawyers.”
ACT’s volunteer Christian lawyers, to be precise. The problem they face is old: Amid “He is Risen” signs and placards for Cajun fried turkeys, owners of drug-selling houses in those neighborhoods have for years forced law-abiding citizens to feel like prisoners in their own homes.
Listen to Linda Portillo, 20, who grew up in such a neighborhood: “I couldn’t step out of the house because there were bad influences outside—buying and selling drugs. … I would be so jealous seeing people on TV going out with friends. We were all isolated. [My parents] put barbed wire around the house, bars over windows with a lock, a gate in the front with a lock. We were prisoners under our own roof.”
Some 17 years ago I wrote admiringly about South Dallas residents who fought drug dealers (see “Labor Day,” Sept. 4, 1999). They were battling uphill: It’s hard to close a drug house and keep it closed when it’s not clear who owns it. ACT levels the playing field by learning who the owners are and going after them.
Before engaging dealers, ACT had to win the trust of residents, and that was hard. Baptist pastor Henry Green explains why: “The history has been that people come in from the outside and do little things and disappear.” Many of those people were white and middle-class. They would parachute in with a quick-fix program, but black residents learned to say, in Green’s words, “Don’t bother with that. They aren’t going to be here long.”
An AME pastor and neighborhood association president, Billy White, initially had a similar response. In 2009, as he shopped at Walmart, an elderly parishioner called and said: “I’ve got somebody I want you to meet. Right now.” White pushed his shopping cart aside. He “came and saw this young fellow—I mean young. … I heard his plan and wasn’t buying it. Young fellow out of law school trying to make a name for himself. It’s not going to work. He’s going to make a name and then go on.”
The young fellow was Reid Porter, who had moved from a University of Texas history major to law school to six years as a trial lawyer. He had just founded ACT and he had a dream: to free the prisoners in their own homes. He hoped to build relationships with inner-city pastors and residents, connect them with volunteer lawyers, and use law, community pressure, and prayer walks to close down drug houses.
Porter’s ultimate goal: spiritual transformation in individuals, physical transformation in neighborhoods. Pastors White and Green were impressed that, in Green’s words, Porter didn’t “come in with all the documents [saying] ‘This is what we’re going to do.’ … So many people come in with the prescription of how they’re going to fix this thing.”
Porter, instead, described the legal expertise ACT could bring to bear but said his organization couldn’t do much by itself: “We need people who want to testify. We need you to be involved in this.” He knew just busting drug dealers did little good: As long as the drug houses remained, other dealers quickly replaced them.
Porter showed me street after street that ACT had helped to change, including one that in 2009 had many active drug houses and dealers. The center of the blemish was two houses next to each other and one across the street—a standard triangle. House 1: the storehouse, where dealers keep high-volume drugs. House 2: the selling house. House 3: the flophouse, where buyers do crack and other drugs.
Typically, guys hang around such houses much of the day. That means arguments at times, and argument often leads to gunshots. Neighbors hear them and hunker down. But near this particular triangle, two neighboring families—young, Hispanic, with children—got fed up. The families lived next to each other but didn’t know each other. In the process of fighting the drug houses they became friends.
This triangle was typical in that ownership of the flophouse wasn’t clear: The owner had died and one of her multiple children used it and let others do drugs there. Since the flophouse was obviously a public nuisance, ACT went to trial to have the building torn down. One of the Hispanic neighbors testified: Her strong, stoic, sarcastic, and funny testimony made an impression, as did her tears when she talked about one bullet going through a window in her home next to her special-needs son. The bullet didn’t hit him, but her testimony touched the judge, who ordered the property demolished.
ACT was eventually able to get a court order to demolish the selling house as well: An old woman owned it, and her grandchildren and their friends were dealing. Without the other two houses the run-down storehouse had little value. Drug sellers gave up using it, as well as a partly hollow tree in the yard that the sellers had also used for drug storage.
Similar stories could be told 60 times. Crime is down by 50 percent in ACT’s first three target neighborhoods. Porter and his associates teach residents how to testify: “Attack the owner until the owner gets sick of it.” ACT’s volunteer lawyers have also helped to draft 200 wills to reduce the prospect of homes falling into the wrong hands and becoming crime magnets.
But Porter, a preacher’s son who is now 39, quickly says those neighborhoods have not gained new life by law alone: With prayer walks and Bible studies, ACT-allied church groups have proclaimed Jesus as the redeemer of individuals and communities. Monthly prayer walks from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. show community residents they don’t have to hide. One West Dallas drug dealer on Shaw Street tried his most intimidating stare on 125 prayer walkers, but they didn’t run—and they also brought trash bags to clean up the area.
Havens for those drug dealers are disappearing. On Pueblo Street in West Dallas, a drug house for 30 years had been the scene of periodic police arrests that amounted to whack-a-mole (new sellers would pop up). That spot is now an empty lot. Key to the change were three Hispanic families willing to testify, including a mom who came from a Mexico ravaged by drug violence and didn’t want to see the same horrors here. ACT made wooden coasters from the wood of the former drug house and hands them out to supporters.
Some criticize ACT’s approach as a variant of whack-a-mole: Yes, drug dealers might leave a particular neighborhood, but won’t they go to another? Dallas Police Lt. Daniel Carolla says, “Keep hitting the mole.” Sgt. Gerald Runnels adds, “I want them out of West Dallas.” Runnels said West Dallas in 2009 had 68 active drug houses: Most are now gone. Since prostitution and theft tend to be run through or out of dope houses, and since every house is a recruitment office for kids, evildoers now have fewer opportunities to steal childhood.
Law and police only go so far: ACT lawyers pray every morning at 11 and invite to pray with them the real heroes, residents willing to anger drug dealers by speaking up to protect their families and neighbors. Porter adds, “We get to knock on the doors of the people in the community and ask, ‘How are you doing? How can we pray for you?’”
ACT’s volunteer lawyers usually work behind the scenes, since most drug house shutdowns don’t go to trial. When one did, volunteer attorney David Harper had the opportunity in his closing argument to speak about “doing the right thing … despite your own personal safety or security. … When three families step forward and say drug dealers and criminals are not going to run my neighborhood anymore. … That’s moral courage.”
Billy White at first distrusted the young white lawyer, but seven years later he says about Porter, “He hasn’t let us down.” And Linda Portillo, now a college student, recalls, “I couldn’t ride my bike up and down the street … but my little brother can ride his bike as long as he wants, any day, every day.”
2015 revenue: $1,552,825
2015 expenses: $1,748,156
Net assets: $1,267,901
2016 budget: $2.4 million
Number of staff members: 23
Volunteers with law backgrounds: 68
Other volunteers: 375
Read profiles of all five 2016 Hope Award finalists.
Listen to a WORLD Radio profile of this Hope Award finalist on The World and Everything in It.