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‘Doing nothing is not an option;’ Northside coalition creates black community agenda for local elections

The gist: Several Northside community organizations co-authored a comprehensive agenda calling for school board and LCG candidates to see generational poverty, lack of economic progress and failing schools as a local crisis deserving urgent intervention. 

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Housing, economic development, education and racial equity take top billing in a comprehensive document designed to force candidates for local public office to reckon with the Northside’s challenges on the campaign trail. The topics range across 13 areas of focus, also including criminal justice reform, public transit access and even drainage. Viewing the election as a leveraging point, the agenda criticizes local institutions and leadership for failing to address long-festering problems in the area. You can read the full agenda here. It includes a comprehensive list of participating organizations.

“We felt it was unfair to allow anyone to run for office, whether it’s in a council district or it’s the mayor-president, and we don’t have a framework for what our needs are,” says the Rev. Ken Lazard of Destiny of Faith Church. Lazard served on the coalition in his capacity as president of the Oasis Coterie in north Lafayette’s Truman neighborhood. 

The document has influenced two recent forums. Completed in several sessions over the summer, the “consensus” agenda was used as source material in probing candidates for mayor-president and the city and parish councils about issues facing north Lafayette at recent forums hosted by 100 Black Men and the Greater Southwest Louisiana Black Chamber of Commerce. 

Doing nothing is not an option. That’s the agenda’s message, top-to-bottom. Policy initiatives target contracting and hiring disparities with LCG, calling for consolidated government to set a 10% benchmark for contracting minority-owned businesses and a 30% target for hiring black employees. Vacant and collapsing businesses have come to dominate the economic landscape in the area over the last few decades. The median income census tract covering Truman is $28,000. In some Northside blocks, income averages drop below $20,000. Parishwide, the median income is $52,000, boosted by affluence in much of south Lafayette. The agenda demands that the next crop of elected officials do something to stem rampant decline and change course from planning practices they say have intensified income gaps and contributed to high concentrations of poverty. 

“When you look at the data, the trend line is going down, not up,” activist Greg Davis, the coalition’s facilitator and lead organizer, says. “The outcomes are not good. If the outcomes are not good, that means the entities that do exist need to step up, renew themselves and reinvigorate in order to reverse that trend line.” Davis, a longtime education advocate who chairs the board of T.M. Landry College Prep, points to failing public schools in Lafayette’s poorest neighborhoods as towering obstacles to prosperity in the area. The agenda itself calls the disparity a policy failure at LPSS, crystallized by a prejudiced view that black families don’t value education.  

“Without the proper education and training, too many north Lafayette residents will continue to work in part time jobs, with no benefits and receive near minimum wage pay,” the agenda reads. “Turning around the underperforming schools of north Lafayette must be a top priority for LCG and LPSS.” 

The agenda highlights dismal school performance among black students. Only 22% of students at Alice Boucher Elementary in the Truman neighborhood performed at grade level, according to 2018 data provided in the agenda. The school’s population is 95% African American. While 34% of Paul Breaux Middle School broader student population performed at grade level, only 19% of its black students did. Paul Breaux is in a predominantly poor, black neighborhood, the agenda says, yet the gifted program that buoys its numbers serves primarily white students from higher income families. 

Fixing schools isn’t just the school board’s job. The agenda argues that the mayor-president and council both have a role in prioritizing education and addressing access gaps, despite the lack of immediate oversight over public education. The coalition calls for the planned Northeast Library branch to be built near Northside High School and J.W. Faulk Elementary. 

Hopes remain high on Opportunity Zones. The agenda frequently cites the federal tax incentive program, designed to channel big money into low-income census tracts, as a key tool for economic progress in the area. But the leadership behind the agenda remains skeptical about the threat of development or infrastructure projects that would push out residents or exacerbate blight. While viewing the I-49 Connector as an opportunity for investment, it pushes future leadership to reconsider the planned elevated design of the freeway spur through the heart of Lafayette’s urban core. The Department of Transportation and Development has purchased $11 million in properties along the Evangeline Thruway corridor, leaving many homes and businesses in neighborhoods vacant and in limbo while the decades-old project continues to limp forward. The Senior Pastoral Alliance, organized and previously led by Lazard, supported One Acadiana in the business organization’s efforts to rally the completion of the Connector when the design activities revived in 2015. 

Ground-up redevelopment is the preferred strategy. Calling for a “reconstituting” of the defunct North Lafayette Redevelopment Board, the agenda pushes for future redevelopment strategies to work with existing neighborhood organizations, like the McComb-Veazey Coterie and others, to encourage small business development and community-oriented housing that attracts mixed-income families. Most of the 1,500 adjudicated properties in Lafayette Parish are in Northside neighborhoods. Consolidated government has put few resources into moving the orphaned, tax-delinquent properties back into commerce. LCG’s planning and zoning department inherited the task, and doesn’t have dedicated staff for processing. Lafayette Habitat for Humanity is one of the few organizations that have taken advantage of the program, using the program’s preference for donating the properties to nonprofit and neighborhood organizations to patch together owner-occupied pocket neighborhoods. 

“There definitely aren’t enough resources,” Lazard says, explaining the rationale for revisiting an independent development board. “It needs to be an entity by itself, because the government is very slow, especially planning and zoning. We need an entity that moves and does what it needs to do and moves at its own speed.” 

The document reflects a consensus of those who put it together. The coalition intentionally excluded politicians and candidates. Mayor-president hopeful Carlos Harvin was asked to excuse himself when he declared his candidacy late in election qualifying. Organizations responded to what Lazard says was a “clarion call” to participate.

What to watch for: How the agenda surfaces in the final stretch of campaigning before the Oct. 12 primary and beyond. Some of the coalition’s talking points have made it into the election dialogue, but issues like parishwide drainage, a somewhat less urgent issue in most Northside neighborhoods, have dominated the campaign trail. Northside’s decline is generations in the making, and an about-face will require a commitment from leadership not limited to districts and seats of power that traditionally represent the black community.

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