That’s how Pearline Harper describes her childhood growing up in West Dallas.
It was an experience that would squash hope in most people. For those living in low-income communities in Dallas and across the U.S., hope is often one of many resources in short supply.
“In the early 70’s no matter what we said, or what we did, was always wrong because I lived in a poor neighborhood” she says.
After a traumatic early childhood, Harper says she was falsely convicted and incarcerated for a crime she didn’t commit as a young adult.
“As a young woman, I didn’t know any better, and I served time I shouldn’t have…and I kept silent for over 40 years.”
In 2016, however, Harper’s silence and feeling of powerlessness would be broken in a series of events that make her an inspiring and impactful community change maker and leader.
The Housing Crises
Harper has lived in West Dallas for 65 years. Her family has lived there for generations; Harper’s mother lives in the neighborhood, as did her grandmother and great grandmother.
In late 2016 Harper’s mother, Pearlie Mae Brown, was one of over 300 West Dallas residents in the Los Altos Neighborhood that were suddenly told they were being evicted from their homes.
HMK Ltd, the landlord of the rental properties, claimed that evicting and tearing down the aging houses was cheaper than bringing them up to codes the city required.
The saga went on for months and left many residents in the dark about where they were going to live.
Harper watched as the burden of losing her house took a toll on her mother.
“I saw my mother struggle through nearly dying” she says “I saw her deteriorating, she lost about 40 pounds worrying about where she was going to go.”
The issues with the landlord didn’t just start with the eviction letter. Harper says the condition of the houses were run down and little had been done to bring them up to acceptable standards.
West Dallas has also seen rapid development in the last several years. As is often the case, lower-income residents that have called it home for decades, many of which are African-American, Latino, and senior citizens, are finding it hard to remain.
“…they’re [senior citizens] are on fixed incomes” says Harper, “and with the new housing, that makes their taxes go up. And they can’t afford them.”
Texas has some of the highest property taxes in the United States, with Dallas residents paying more than twice the national average.
For people already living on the edge of a crises, the increased taxes are too much to bear.
For Harper, seeing her mother struggle was a catalyst for her get involved. She knew she had to make a change.
Knowing she needed help, Harper reached out to the Texas Organizing Project (aka TOP), a membership-based organization that works on behalf of low-income families in Texas with offices in Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio.
They immediately got to work on behalf of Harper’s mother and the other residents in the neighborhood.
Harper says “TOP got together with us. We had weekly meetings, educating the community [on] what they needed to do to change things. Things began to change.”
TOP and the residents took the fight through courts, the city council, and eventually to the Mayor of Dallas.
Through the work of TOP, the residents, and others, some of the residents were eventually able to buy their homes, while others received helped finding new and affordable homes or apartments.
Catholic Charities of Dallas stepped in and gave residents funds for deposits or to make the needed repairs to their homes.
“We also had a tax lawyer that helped them to lower their taxes…which made a lot of them happy” Harper says.
While at times terrifying, Harper walked away from the fight knowing she could actually make a change in her community and in her life.
“That was some of my greatest moments” she says, “is being able to win that fight of housing in West Dallas.”
From hopeless to empowered
Getting involved in community organizing to save her mother’s house allowed Harper to find another home in West Dallas – the people and community of the Texas Organizing Project.
She says “When I came to TOP, my main goal is to have justice for the unjust.”
Since joining TOP, Harper has gotten involved in other issues that affect her life and the lives of others in her community, such as criminal justice reform.
But for Harper and TOP, change starts with getting people involved in the foundations of our civic life that many of us take for granted.
“We educate the people about what’s going on” says Harper, “a lot of them don’t know about how to make changes in their neighborhood. Because a lot of us don’t vote.”
Brianna Brown, TOP’s Deputy Director, says “Part of our work is also just about the kind of civic engagement in helping folks connect those dots.”
TOP provides training and leadership development for people to become active in their communities, with campaigns focused on issues such as neighborhood standards, education, criminal justice, immigration, and more.
On a personal level, being apart of TOP was life changing for Harper.
“I was really low when I can into the organization” she says, “I carried secrets around that shouldn’t have been…that tore my life up as a young woman.”
The community she found took her from feeling powerless to stepping into to leadership roles within the group.
“I felt empowered, that I had power to overcome and do anything.”
Housing for low-income families in West Dallas and beyond remains a struggle, but for Harper just knowing she has a community and support gives her security to move forward and make change.
She says “you know I wake up at night, I think about how good it feels to know that I belong to an organization that’s actually doing something for the communities.”
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