new exhibition celebrates Baton Rouge’s decade of work | Louisiana News

By GEORGE MORRIS, The Lawyer

BATON ROUGE, Louisiana (AP) – Since its founding in 2010, Together Baton Rouge has lobbied for issues as small as the replacement of a neighborhood bridge and as important as the fight against tax exemptions for major chemical industries.

While the collaboration of faith-based and civic groups has not won all of its battles, thanks to it, many residents have gained a voice that reaches out to local governments.

Last year the group turned 10, but in the midst of the pandemic it was not a good time to celebrate. The delay of the year gave the organization time to get it right.

A new exhibition “Towards Greater Freedom: Ten Years of Organizing Citizen Power with Together Baton Rouge” is now on display in the new Cary Saurage Community Arts Center.

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Using photos and oral histories, the exhibit tells how the group has shaped the city over the past decade.

“There were things that were really needed, and they (TBR) were there,” said Dorothy Thomas, a northern Baton Rouge resident who got involved with the group in 2011. “If there was any thing they could do, they would. All you had to do was let them know.

Thomas, 79, provides one of 40 oral histories and is one of 100 people whose photos are featured in the exhibit, an brainchild of Phillip Norman, who joined the staff of Together Baton Rouge as AmeriCorps volunteer. Having studied oral histories at Haverford College outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he believed the group had a plethora of individual stories that could illustrate their impact on the community. The exhibition runs until December 16.

“This is the story of the people,” Norman said. “It’s a bottom-up perspective of ordinary people’s history rather than top-down. I think it’s really important to document. … I was really blown away by the quality of the leadership of the organization.

Norman, Abel Thompson, and Maggie Conarro spent about a year recording the oral histories, and Lily Brooks, an assistant professor of photography at the University of Southeast Louisiana, did the black and white portraits.

In 2008, a coalition of black pastors from northern Baton Rouge began discussing ways to address issues they believed were being overlooked.

But, as Reverend Lee Wesley, one of the organizers, said at the time, “It was clear to us from the start that if we were to have an impact on the Baton Rouge community, it wouldn’t. could African-American pastors. It was to be a representative sample of people across the city and parish.

Over the next two years, more than 100 faith and civic groups, black and white, banded together to become Together Baton Rouge with plans to bridge religious and racial gaps and help address the growing prevalence of the scourge and disease. crime in the community.

In a press conference to announce the new organization, Wesley described the group’s three main goals:

– Build trust and relationships across the lines that usually divide us.

– Identify and train community leaders so that problems can be solved from the inside out rather than from the outside in.

– Build a sustainable organization.

Thomas recalled that one of the group’s first efforts involved a bridge over Blue Grass Drive. The city abruptly blocked the bridge after an inspection failed and more than a year went by without repairs. Thomas said residents near the bridge had to walk through an apartment complex to enter and exit the area. It wasn’t the worst problem.

“Someone got sick. The ambulance didn’t even know how to get in here, ”Thomas said. “The next thing, a house before I got to my house caught fire, and the fire truck didn’t know how to get in here.”

Thomas attended a Together Baton Rouge meeting at his church and talked about what was going on. She began working on the issue with the group and eventually spoke at a meeting of the East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council, objecting not only to the long wait for repairs, but also to the decision to abruptly close the bridge without any warning to the neighborhood.

“They (TBR) would coach us on what we need to do, how we need to talk to people and how we need to ask them,” Thomas said. “We didn’t know how. “

The bridge was replaced and reopened to traffic on November 19, 2011.

One of the organization’s biggest victories came in 2012 when the group rallied support for a dedicated tax to support the cash-strapped Capital Region’s transportation system. Little used by more affluent residents, the bus system was vital for those without a car. The chances of his passage seemed long. Thomas was part of a group that knocked on doors in northern Baton Rouge.

“It’s a good walk from Mickens Road to Plank Road, and we (did) every night,” she said. “We have enough people in our district to go and vote. “

This is the kind of grassroots activism envisioned by Wesley and his fellow founders, Reverend Charles Smith and Reverend Melvin Rushing. All three have passed away and their passing is one of the reasons Together Baton Rouge adopted the idea of ​​an exhibition to retrace the last decade of work.

“We have to do this to make sure the leaders of Together Baton Rouge get their flowers now, and we are not talking about them in the past tense, but we are talking about them as current important players in Baton Rouge and the world. ‘State of Louisiana,’ said Khalid Hudson, the group’s lead organizer.

As the exhibit sheds light on the past, Hudson said the group is impatient.

“My job is to find out who the next Reverend Wesley is, who is the next Reverend Rushing, who is the next Dorothy Thomas to create a path where the average person can say that working with this organization is a way to make sure my voices are being heard in East Baton Rouge and this community is evolving the way people want it to, ”said Hudson.

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