Chattanooga Organized for Action is a local - if not always welcome - rallying point for justice

photo People participate in a "March to Support the Right to Housing" that Chattanooga Organized for Action helped set up in April. The group marched from Renaissance Presbyterian Church on Boynton Drive to the Chattanooga City Council in concern over the Purpose Built Community discussions going on then.

It started with a Facebook post.

Three people gathered at Greenlife Grocery store in spring 2010, just after five people had been shot and wounded in Coolidge Park. Megan Hollenbeck put out a Facebook message that something needed to be done.

Perrin Lance saw the message and felt the same way. So did Chris Brooks.

Chattanooga Organized for Action was formed.

"We walked out of that room saying we wanted to be an activist group," Lance said.

From that group of three, Chattanooga Organized for Action has grown to an organization that's now seeking nonprofit status and reaching out to a variety of groups, from neighborhood associations to organized labor.

The founders say they want to expand their footprint and establish the premier social justice center in the Southeast -- one that some day could equal the success and reputation once held by the renowned Highlander Folk School, now the Highlander Research and Education Center.

That facility acted as a leading social justice center for civil rights in the 1950s, when it was headquartered in Grundy County. Highlander helped train such noted black leaders as Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis -- now Congressman Lewis - and Rosa Parks just prior to her refusal to give her seat on a Montgomery bus to a white person.

COA, too, has a dream.

"We're going to work," Lance said. "We've got some big things ahead."

The group already has some big things accomplished. Members served as foot soldiers in an effort to recall Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield, helped improve resident representation at Dogwood Manor -- a subsidized senior citizen high-rise - and have thus far helped to thwart plans to tear down College Hill Courts public housing and replace it with a mixed-income community. The group now is trying to get rights for public housing residents established within the city.

COA has both defenders and detractors.

Tonya Rooks, president of the College Hill Courts Neighborhood Association, has run into COA members several times while discussions were going on about the proposed mixed-use development -- known as a Purpose Built Community -- in the Westside. She said COA tries to influence the decisions of those around it, and she sees its members as outsiders trying to stick their noses in the community's business.

"You can't make decisions by someone coming down and telling you how to make your decision," she said.

Roxann Larson, president of the resident council at Dogwood Manor, which sits next to College Hill Courts, sees a different picture. Without COA, people's homes would have been lost, she said.

"The city would have demolished College Hill Courts," she said.

Come to Jesus

Chattanooga Organized for Action acts as the central point of an umbrella group that assists with a host of suborganizations. The group's influence stretches to the Progressive Student Alliance at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, the Westside Community Association and the Hill City Neighborhood Association.

After that first meeting at Greenlife in 2010, Brooks and Lance made some signs, posted on Facebook that they would be protesting banks and headed to Miller Park.

No one showed up.

So the pair went to the North Shore and protested in front of First Tennessee Bank. At one point, a vice president of the company came out to talk to them, Lance said.

The group's next move was the mayoral recall. COA saw the Littlefield administration as having a history of corruption and social injustice.

The mayor's office wouldn't comment for this story, but it has battled the grass-roots organization.

In the heat of the recall effort, Littlefield sent out a news release criticizing the groups opposing him. He sent a letter to the media painting Brooks as a malcontent.

"Another prominent member of the small group is a young man who (in his own words) supports himself by donating plasma and through the largesse of friends and family," Littlefield wrote in August 2010. "In a recent newspaper article he arrogantly states that he refuses to be 'a wage slave at Walmart.' He should apologize to all the hard-working people who do work for that important employer."

To this day, the administration claims that COA paid people to gather signatures on recall petitions. Lance said no one in his group ever paid anyone for signatures and added that no one working for COA was paid for the recall effort.

In August 2010, the recall petitions were filed with the Hamilton County Election Commission, achieving what advocates thought was the required number of signatures.

"It was the most empowering experience of my life," Lance said.

But the mayor filed a lawsuit against the recall; the recall groups filed a countersuit. A date for a recall election was set, then set aside by a local judge. In the end, the mayor stayed in office.

That effort was a "come to Jesus" moment, Lance said, when they realized they needed to work bottom-up.

"With the recall, we tried to do it from the top down," he said.

A letter

A letter to the editor changed everything.

Lance saw a letter in the Chattanooga Times Free Press from a child named Caleb George who lived in the Westside. Caleb wrote that he was upset that the neighborhood's Dollar General store was shutting down, leaving the area with no grocery store. Lance immediately found George's grandfather, the Rev. Leroy Griffith, president of the Westside Community Association. COA and the community went to work on getting a grocery store.

The group helped build an official resident council at Dogwood Manor that held its own elections and voted Larson as president. Other people started joining COA, among them Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson, Rhiannon Maynard, Mark Gilliland and Dominique Pennington.

Working with the Westside community helped re-create COA, members said.

"It diversified the organization," Henderson said.

The group held a food march from Westside to Buehler's Food Market to bring notice to food deserts within the city.

COA members said they helped get a grocery store in the Westside with the announcement that a One Stop Shop planned to locate there. The store was being stocked late last week and could open any day, its owner said Friday.

The group went after U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., painting the congressman as a villain trying to take from the poor. COA said Fleischmann's policies had helped create high unemployment and that he had voted for a bill that would have changed Medicare and Medicaid.

COA also challenged the Hamilton County Department of Education on its zoning for the Hill City neighborhood and Normal Park Museum Magnet School, saying children from the neighborhood should be allowed to attend. Since then the school board has agreed to start letting in Hill City children.

Henderson and six others were arrested in Nashville as they opposed an anti-union bill going through the Tennessee General Assembly. They later were acquitted.

But COA lost battles, too. In 2011, Chattanooga let a sales-tax agreement with Hamilton County end after 45 years. The agreement spelled out the city's and county's financial responsibilities for jointly funded social service agencies. Several agencies' funding was cut, and COA stepped in to try to help save them.

"That's not a loss for COA," Henderson said. "That's a loss for the city."

Brooks had his own thoughts.

"It was like watching a slow-motion murder," he said. "They gutted the social service agencies."

Next steps

A month ago, COA received a $40,000 grant from the Benwood Foundation to help establish the social justice center.

Corinne Allen, president of Benwood, said the foundation knew of COA's activism.

"We took it under consideration, but this is not a political statement on the part of Benwood Foundation," Allen said.

The grant is meant to help COA foster its grass-roots organizing, she said.

Peter Moore, president and CEO of the Community Foundation, said his organization will monitor how the grant is spent, since it served as a pass-through for the money and part of its responsibilities is helping local small nonprofits.

COA has not applied for any more grants. Part of the $40,000 is being used to help make a documentary on activism in the Westside. The documentary will help promote and show a culture of activism members say has existed within the city for decades.

As for COA's financing, Lance said the group has never accepted any money from organized labor and funds itself through grass-roots donations. He and Brooks get small salaries from COA as executive directors, he said.

The group plans to file tax returns at the end of the year, but because it raised less than $20,000 last year, it will only have to file a shortened, postcard version.

Lance said the social justice center hopes to expand its organizing work, helping residents in neighborhoods throughout the city organize to be able to fight for their communities.

Henderson said COA is not a business; it's a "family" and the family is just trying to make Chattanooga a better place.

"We've had a glimpse of what this city can be," she said.

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