As Rhode Island's poor and working-class citizens face a shrinking job market, social program cuts, and an avalanche of home foreclosures, a leading low-income advocacy group faces major changes. This spring, DARE — Direct Action for Rights and Equality — will have new leadership, as Progreso Latino staffer Wilfred Ordonez replaces executive director Sara Mersha.
PEOPLE POWER Board member Rosalina Collazo with Ordonez and Mersha.
Known for feisty and at times confrontational tactics, the South Providence-based non-profit has tackled Rhode Island's most impervious political bureaucracies. DARE has called for civilian investigations of misconduct by Providence police and state prison officers, demanded that Providence schools translate materials for immigrant parents, and pushed for good-paying jobs for city residents. Government officials who try to dodge meeting with DARE often find their offices packed with chanting demonstrators demanding to be heard. The group also makes global connections, sending delegates to the World Social Forum, busing anti-war demonstrators to Washington, and hosting migrant farm workers and Palestinian peace activists.
Mark Toney, its first executive director, recalls that DARE began in 1986 around a kitchen table at Sheila Wilhelm's house. With Mattie Smith and Cindy Mann, Wilhelm and Toney began a "politically progressive" group that was committed to organizing low-income people of all races around multiple issues. The group's first annual budget was $2645, says Toney, now the director of the Utility Reform Network in Oakland, California. The group agreed that if he could raise the money, Toney could serve as the group's executive director. A second staffer wasn't hired until 1990.
Since its inception, DARE has concentrated on issues of concern to the residents of South Providence. The group started small: "Our first actions were for putting stop signs up," Wilhelm says. In its early years, DARE also pushed to reverse gas and electric shutoffs and for clean neighborhood playgrounds. They also developed a plan for homeowners to acquire trash-laden vacant lots next to their homes for $1.
In 1992, DARE purchased a one-story cinderblock building within view of Providence's Central High School. The property transfer was another indication of the changing face of low-income advocacy. The seller was the jewelry workers union, which had rented offices to clothing, nursing home, and electrical workers unions. With plant closings and union mergers, however, the unions no longer needed office space. Today, the Lockwood Street building houses DARE's staff of six and a Hmong advocacy group. Next year DARE plans to add a youth room and a kitchen.
DARE has a 10-member board of directors but, unlike non-profit hospitals or social service organizations, its board is elected by its members. The group also has "Principles of Unity," which outline its opposition to racism, sexism, capitalism, and imperialism and note that the poor, working-class people, minorities, homosexuals, bisexuals, women, and youth "must be at the forefront in leading the way to our liberation." With an eye on its principles, a DARE membership meeting selects organizing priorities or campaigns. Currently, membership committees are pushing campaigns on prisons, Providence schools, and gentrification and foreclosures.
Many DARE members first join after clashes with the criminal justice system. DARE's vice chair, Rosalina Collazo of Woonsocket, became active in 2002 when her mentally-ill son was accused of murder and imprisoned at the Adult Correctional Institutions in Cranston. He was beaten in prison, she says, and her letters failed to stop the abuse. Then she joined DARE's Behind the Walls prison campaign. "I am listened to because of DARE. Before they totally ignored me," she says. "It has helped my son a lot, because right now he's not getting beaten up."
DARE's chairperson, John Prince of Providence, also works on the Behind the Walls campaign. A former ACI prisoner, Prince notes that DARE last year successfully lobbied for lower mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses and a requirement that probationers who are violated for a second offense must be released from jail if they are later found not guilty. Both bills were vetoed by Governor Donald Carcieri, so DARE is again pushing for them at the State House.
The Behind the Walls campaign has also won changes in prison procedures to allow family members to use bathrooms during visiting hours and let prisoners use debit cards for phone calls instead of calling collect. In addition, DARE campaigned to improve prison conditions for immigrants detained by immigration authorities long before the death of Hiu Lui Ng at the Donald W. Wyatt Detention Facility in Central Falls in 2008.
DARE's lead organizer, Mary Kay Harris, joined the group after her son clashed with the Providence police in 1998. "My son was assaulted. I had no other outlet. I felt powerless," she remembers. In response to similar complaints, DARE pushed for a civilian review board to investigate police misconduct. The effort climaxed in 2000 when a black off-duty police officer, Cornel Young Jr., was shot and killed by a white officer. Later, after Mayor Vincent Cianci refused to discuss reforming the police force, DARE organized more than 500 people to demonstrate inside City Hall.