Cover Story

Mutual Respect

by Mary Tutwiler

For 37 years, Southern Mutual Help Association has defied the odds in its fight against rural poverty.

The phone never stops ringing inside the little green cottage on the banks of Bayou Teche. The receiver pinched between her ear and shoulder, receptionist Monica Broussard mouths a hello while Executive Secretary Andrea Ordodi rockets between her computer and the copy machine down the hall. Stacks of neatly numbered boxes line the hallway, thanks to archivist Fannie Godwin, who is cataloging Southern Mutual Help Association's 37 years of activism.

At the end of the hall, SMHA loan officer Clem Mathews works a client through the intricacies of borrowing money to buy a house. Dashing out the door to meet with a fisherman whose boat was destroyed in Hurricane Rita is Family and Community Development Director Judy Herring. Rural Recovery Response Co-coordinator Jackie Ducote manages relationships and accountability between SMHA and the organizations helping with hurricane recovery. Upstairs, shoehorned into the dormer under the roof, Housing Administrator Marva Mimms Porter continues Southern Mutual's long-term goal of helping first-time home owners. Back downstairs, on a sunny porch converted into an office, Mary Delahoussaye oversees the finances of SMHA. Down the hall in a newly built addition to the bulging cottage are Gordon Reese and Lynn O'Shea, who write grants and find major donors for the nonprofit organization. Construction Director Lurcy Marceaux is nowhere to be found; he's out in the field, working with volunteer contractors who are framing up a house in hard-hit Delcambre.

At the center of this hive of intense activity are the two women who run Southern Mutual Help Association ' and they could not be more different. Nobody gets in the way of Executive Director Lorna Bourg. She's wearing a blazing red western shirt and a bolero tie, the shirt tucked into pants cinched at the waist by a leather belt. Her graying hair springs into a halo of fine curls that frame her rosy-cheeked face. Sister Helen Vinton, assistant executive director, seems slight next to her colleague. Her short-sleeve blue shirt floats on her thin frame, slacks and flat soft-soled shoes finish an unobtrusive outfit. Vinton's ascetic face is narrow, and she speaks in a quiet voice, halting its flow as she fine-tunes her phrases, intent on exactitude of meaning. Bourg can be heard from everywhere in the building, her Gatling-gun delivery punctuating a barrage of ideas on how to fund housing, small business loans, bonds for hurricane rebuilding, sustainable agriculture and mixed-income developments.

As opposite as the pair seem, they are working together to change the way poverty is addressed in this country at every level of bureaucracy ' both in the public and private sector. And in a world where government policy changes at glacial pace, they move like an avalanche.

In 1965, 23-year-old USL student Bourg found herself in Dr. Ben Kaplan's sociology class with several French nuns from the Dominican order. "They were the most interesting people in the class," Bourg says, "and through them I met Anne." Sister Anne Catherine Bizalion, then 40 years old, was sent by her order as a missionary to Louisiana to help bridge the gap between race, class and gender. "I was living in Lafayette," Bourg says, "when our lives became intertwined." Bourg moved with the nuns into a house on Rabbit Hill in Abbeville. "It was a very poor, forgotten section of town," says Bourg. "We decided to remake Rabbit Hill."

President Lyndon Johnson launched his War on Poverty during his State of the Union address Jan. 8, 1964. The Office of Economic Opportunity was the agency responsible for administering most of the War on Poverty programs, including VISTA, Job Corps, Head Start, Legal Services and the Community Action Program. Bizalion, a professional social worker, started the first Head Start program in Vermilion Parish, and Bourg was her assistant. Head Start is designed to prepare young children in low income families for school.

"Part of our mission was to integrate Head Start," Bourg says. "When we began it was 100 percent African-American. But there are many more white people living in poverty in Vermilion Parish than black. When you combined the two numbers, it was 52 percent of the parish." Civil rights battles were still plaguing the South, and Bourg knew it was going to be difficult to find a white family willing to integrate an all-black program. "I started driving the back roads," she remembers. "One day, after a heavy rain, I drove down a dirt road and got stuck in the mud. The house at the end of the road belonged to a family that was so poor they didn't have any furniture. I think the man was trying to pull his own plow to make furrows. The mother didn't have any teeth. She had three little blonde children.

"We talked for a while, and I asked her what she wanted for her children. She said she wanted better lives for them. I told her about Head Start, and I told her right up front that her children would be the first white children in the program. She didn't care, she wanted them to go to school. After that it was easy, and we integrated all the Vermilion Parish Head Starts."

Funding flowed into the program from the federal government. Edwin Edwards was the congressman for the district, and Bourg says Louisiana politicians saw controlling the money as a way to create political patronage. According to Bourg, Edwards created a super board over the Head Start board to handle the money, relegating the Vermilion Parish Community Action Agency to advisory status.

Meanwhile, Bizalion and Bourg were busy expanding their duties. "We found that we couldn't simply teach the children six hours a day and expect a societal change ' we had to reach out to whole families," Bourg says. "We helped the Abbeville Head Start group plant a garden. They were selling vegetables to raise money to supplement their own meager incomes and improve nutrition in their own families. The super board sent a message that they had to turn in the money they made to be put into the general pot, and then make an application for how they were going to use the money they raised themselves."

Bourg says she and Bizalion relayed the message, but also told the parents they could decide whether they wanted to send in the money. "After all, they had raised it themselves; it wasn't government money," Bourg recounts.

The pair were fired for insubordination, although Bourg says the real threat they constituted to the status quo was their work in integration. "We were sitting in the little house on Rabbit Hill the next day, and there was a knock on the door. The minister of the congregation in the neighborhood where we lived was there with a handkerchief with $26 tied up in it. They had raised the money and told us it was for our legal fees, to get our jobs back. That's when the idea of an independent agency free of government control, which would in 1969 become Southern Mutual Help Association, was born."

The fledgling organization's mission was to help fight the poverty and racism endemic in rural communities. "We went looking for the poorest of the poor," Bourg says. Bizalion had done some work with health care in her job at the tuberculosis annex at Our Lady of Lourdes in Lafayette in the early 1960s, but neither of them had seen the living conditions of workers on the sugar cane plantations.

In 1969, little had changed on Louisiana's sugar plantations since sugar cane was brought to the French colony in 1751. Many field workers, the descendents of slaves, still lived in the tumbledown shacks their parents and grandparents occupied. Award-winning journalist Patsy Simms describes living conditions in the "quarters" in a 1981 book, Cleveland Benjamin's Dead!, based on a series of 1972 articles she wrote about SMHA for the New Orleans States-Item. "Gray boards showed through the tattered imitation-brick tar paper, and the tin roofs were patched, and the porches eaten away by time and weather. Rusted screens bulged from windows and doors ' some shielded on the inside by faded fabric. Muddy tractor ruts separated the houses from the road, with an occasional plank from a torn-down shack stretching over the puddles, connecting the two."

Until mechanization arrived in the '60s, field hands cut cane with machetes and loaded it into mule-drawn carts. As tractors and harvesters came to the plantations, families already living on starvation wages lost not only their livelihood, but their homes as well. Over the next 15 years, more than 100,000 men, women and children would be displaced. Southern Mutual began its work with sugar cane families on several fronts. The first effort was the Self Help Housing program, started in 1969 in the Rabbit Hill neighborhood. Thirty homes were renovated, which drew attention to the group and helped garner federal funds for a Community Development Block Grant that financed 49 new homes for sugar cane worker families. In 1971, SMHA founded the state's first dental and medical community health center for farm workers, the Teche Action Clinic, in Franklin. Before the clinic's inception, farm workers had to go to Charity Hospital in New Orleans or Lafayette for any major health problem. Most didn't make the trip, and poor health was a way of life for field hands on the plantations.

A lack of education and basic literacy also impeded cane workers, most of whom dropped out of school to work in the fields by the time they were in their early teens. In 1974, SMHA started the Plantation Adult Education Program, a basic adult education and job training program teaching functional literacy ' how to read the gauges on machinery, how to register to vote, how to obtain a driver's licence, how to understand the federal Sugar Act. For the first time, plantation workers learned what their rights were under U.S. law.

The most dramatic step for SMHA and the plantation workers was a class action lawsuit filed against Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz in 1972 by Huet Freeman and Gustav Rhodes, cane field workers from plantations around Thibodaux. The workers sued over illegal wage freezes, and the 1974 landmark decision won more than $1 million in back wages for workers. Part of the ruling was a freeze in subsidies to sugar farmers until SMHA, as court-appointed inspectors, examined the grower's books to determine the amount of money owed to workers.

The cane growers had begrudgingly tolerated Southern Mutual's efforts with field hands, although some growers felt that education was causing dissatisfaction within the traditional patronage system of sugar plantations in south Louisiana. But freezing subsidies planters counted on to help finance the next year's crop while SMHA pried into their private finances was a violation the proud farmers could not tolerate.

The threat of violence became real. "It got really, really hot," Bourg says. "Our cars were run off the road at night." At a meeting in Broussard one night, former Lafayette City-Parish President Walter Comeaux, who had deep ties to the sugar industry, showed up uninvited and railed against SMHA. "The farmers blockaded the roads around the hall," remembers Bourg. "They filled the meeting room upstairs and started screaming at us. One farmer walked up to Sister Anne and stuck his fist in her face and told her he was going to beat her up if his subsidies weren't released. The police, outside, instead of protecting us, were taking down the numbers on our licence plates. We didn't feel safe."

It took about 90 days for SMHA to review hundreds of books and pinpoint the wage numbers before the subsidies could be released. "As a result of the lawsuit against the Agriculture Department and other civil rights stands we took," Bourg says, "every single program we ran that had federal funds in it was defunded. Week after week, we'd get a letter. Finally, [the Department of] Health, Education and Welfare illegally defunded the Teche Action Clinic. We had a five-year contract that had only run for three years. We filed suit against HEW." These were tough times for the women, who, like the farm workers they were trying to help, lived on almost nothing. SMHA won again and used the settlement money in 1980 to buy the property it now occupies on Bayou Teche outside of New Iberia. At that point, they divested themselves of all remaining federal funds they had previously used for operating costs. The funding came with too many strings. "Government money was too expensive," Bourg says.

In the early 1970s, Cesar Chavez was earning rights and fair wages for migrant farm workers in California, but federal dollars were slated specifically for migrants. "We had to have federal law rewritten to bring the monies to Louisiana," Bourg says. "We did this to ease the job displacement from mechanization. At the same time, people who expected to live their entire lives on plantations were being thrown out of their houses. Plantation conditions were still bad, but we made a lot of progress in health, education, and job-training programs."

The 1980s brought a major change to the SMHA dynamic. Sister Helen Vinton, who was raised on a Nebraska ranch and had a master's degree in biology and experience writing public policy for environmental stewardship, was hired as an agricultural specialist. "Helen came in and challenged our thinking," Bourg says. "She told us there had to be a better way than constant confrontation. It was hard to swallow. [The farmers] hated us. We were enemies in the courts and in the news."

Vinton insisted her colleagues listen to the farmers' point of view. "Our work needs to be comprehensive," she says. "My coming meant that we wanted to build bridges, solve problems."

There was a growing sense through the 1980s and '90s that government tinkering with the Sugar Act removed protections for sugar farmers. Bad agricultural practices ' including heavy reliance on chemical fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides ' were also harming the land. Mechanization brought huge increases in expenses, and small farmers were getting squeezed out.

Commissioner Butz's favorite saying, says Bourg, was "get big or get out." Smaller farmers were plowing money into leased land, which could be turned into a subdivision the next year. "As their expenses rose," Vinton says, "we began to see that the farmer's lives had similarities to the workers. It is our belief that if they didn't own the land, farmers are in as much danger of losing their connection to the land as farm workers. And that makes rural communities vulnerable. We began looking at ways to farm more economically." In an effort to connect Louisiana's isolated sugar farmers with national farming movements, Vinton created the 13-state Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group in 1990. Organic farming was a stretch for traditional sugar planters, but chemical farming, coupled with toxic herbicides like 2-4-5T and Silvex, was taking a heavy toll on the soil and farmers' health. Vinton formed an alliance with fifth-generation sugar farmer Jackie Judice, a member of the American Sugarcane League's board. "In the early beginnings of Southern Mutual," Judice recalls, "the farming community looked at them as the enemy. One day I decided to listen. That week, they were hosting the annual SSAWG meeting in New Iberia. Helen and I sat down. We realized both sides wanted the same thing. Instead of throwing hand grenades at each other, we'd accomplish more if we'd sit at the same table."

Through SSAWG, Judice met Mennonite farmers who used a very different approach to soil science. "They made me realize we had to pay attention to not just the chemical composition of the soil, but the soil life," he says. "We had to feed the life of the soil." Convinced that the organic approach would enrich his soil and cost less than chemical additives, Judice gambled with his cane crop. The first year, his fellow farmers scoffed at him. But the second season, after he won the High Yield award for producing the most sugar per acre, area farmers started to watch what Judice was doing.

"That was the beginning of change," Bourg says. Vinton continued to branch out, helping traditional fishing and shrimping communities struggling against state and federal legislation that favors recreational fishermen and inexpensive imports.

In 1989, Southern Mutual began working with displaced field workers ' mostly women ' in Four Corners, Sorrel, Glenco and St. Joseph in St. Mary Parish. The communities were destitute, in need of decent housing, sewer and water, and SMHA aimed to turn them into self-help organizations. That's when Bizalion and Bourg walked into IberiaBank President Larrey Mouton's office. "They came into the bank out of the blue," Mouton says. "They were nice ladies. They had a nice story. They'd been in existence a long time, and they'd worked for years here in St. Mary and Iberia. I was impressed with their demeanor, what they had to say and the good they were doing.

"They were trying to rebuild some houses that had originally been part of a sugar cane plantation, some small two- and three-room shacks," continues Mouton. "They were in pretty bad shape. I agreed to lend them some money." The bank pledged up to $50,000 in loans to the self-help organizations ' $25,000 of the loans guaranteed by SMHA. A grant from the Federal Home Loan Bank of Dallas, brought the total up to $250,000. The federal government had recently passed the Community Reinvestment Act, a new law requiring banks to loan money to low-income borrowers to build houses. "When they came in," Mouton says, "they were looking for a small loan, but I told them about the home loan bank program. They got more than they were looking for." Every year after that, IberiaBank made another loan, matched with grant money.

In 1992, Bourg was recognized by the MacArthur Foundation with a Genius Grant worth $305,000. She spent about $30,000 locating and interring the remains of her brother, who was shot down over Armenia during the Cold War. She used the rest of the money to support her work. Sister Anne Catherine Bizalion died in 1997 of cancer, and Bourg took over as executive director. The organization was learning how to leverage money, working with the USDA Rural Housing Service, private foundations and local banks like IberiaBank, Teche Federal and MidSouth. It was selected as one of nine community development organizations in the nation to pilot the Rural Home Loan Partnership, a multi-million dollar initiative for revitalizing rural America. Bourg began creating nonprofit corporations to fund the expansion of SMHA's mission. The organization was recognized by the Fannie Mae Foundation in 1998 with a national Sustained Excellence Award, one of 10 in the nation, for a decade of excellence in housing.

Mouton retired from IberiaBank in 2000 and offered SMHA his expertise to help them set up another nonprofit, Southern Mutual Financial Services, Inc., as a community development financial institution. SMHA received a $200,000 donation to its fledgling financial arm from IberiaBank, part of a $3 million capital campaign. "We were charged with making low-interest loans to low-income folks," Mouton says. "We made home loans and a couple of business loans, mostly to women and minorities."

"We got engaged during the capital campaign," says Rusty Cloutier, president of MidSouth Bank. MidSouth gave SMHA a below-market rate loan of $500,000 as part of the housing drive, as well as a $100,000 grant to help with associated costs for first-time homebuyers. "We think they do good work to develop the community we serve," Cloutier says.

The main thrust was to get low-income renters into their own houses. "Most of their people had abnormally low income," Mouton says. "Eighty percent of them made $24,000 or less. People who are making $15,000 to $20,000 a year are stable but probably can't buy a house. If you could get them in a house, most of the time it required some down payment assistance. They could make the payments and build some equity. We had to determine how much they could afford and then find or build a house in that price range. I bet they have 300 or 400 by now."

The bankers became impressed with how faithfully the poor paid their loans, despite their financial struggles. "That began the whole piece of work we're doing now, where IberiaBank invested $10 million into SMHA's lending arm," says Mouton.

By 2005, Southern Mutual had expanded into 24 parishes, investing millions of dollars in housing, sustainable agriculture and public policy education. They were working at the national and international level, redefining philanthropy, intellectual property and food security and new financial products for community development. On Aug. 25, 2005, MidSouth Bank hosted a dinner for Southern Mutual at the City Club in River Ranch, an event designed to introduce the organization to the movers and shakers in Lafayette and discuss how to end poverty. That night, IberiaBank announced a $10 million investment in SMHA. Gov. Blanco and Rep. Charles Boustany were in attendance.

Four days later, Hurricane Katrina struck Louisiana.

"I was sitting there thinking, 24 hours after Katrina hit," Bourg remembers, "and I said to Helen, 'This is so big; the rural areas have to be devastated.' Air Logistics provided us with a helicopter. We landed in all the little rural communities in three parishes. We started listening to what people said they needed."

Then Hurricane Rita hit. Because of its expansion, Southern Mutual was already on the ground in communities that were devastated and uniquely poised to help in the rural areas of the state. "We developed a framework for all the work we would do in the future," Bourg says. "That became the Rural Recovery Response."

SMHA hired Jackie Ducote to oversee the hurricane recovery effort. Ducote, former executive vice president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry and former president of the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, reached out to her myriad connections. Judy Herring, SMHA's director of Family & Community Development, took over as field coordinator for the Rural Recovery Task Force. Herring coordinated nearly 1,000 volunteers from 35 states, while Ducote identified new policies and innovative approaches to facilitate rebuilding and redevelopment in the 17-parish area hit by the two storms. To date, while many Louisiana homeowners continue to wait for federal aid to rebuild their homes, SMHA, operating entirely on private donations and volunteer efforts, has worked to rebuild 446 homes, helped 80 farm families with cattle feed and small cash grants, and assisted 15 small businesses and two churches. Acknowledging SMHA's ability for swift and innovative response, the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund recently awarded a $1.25 million grant ' the largest awarded by the organization ' to SMHA for its recovery efforts in the eastern parishes of the state struck by Katrina.

In February of this year, Bourg and Vinton attended the Louisiana Recovery Authority charrettes led by Andrés Duany to create safer, stronger communities in south Abbeville, Erath and Delcambre. Talking to Duany and Lafayette architect Steve Oubre, who designed the new Erath and Delcambre plans, Bourg came up with the idea to build a smart-growth community in New Iberia. A percentage of the homes would be designated for low-income buyers through SMHA's financial arm. Called Teche Ridge, the Oubre-designed traditional neighborhood development will be built with private dollars by Southern Mutual. "Look at all the housing stock we lost," Bourg says. "We need to think about how to redevelop Louisiana and do it better. We can't segregate our housing by income levels or anything else. If we don't use smart growth strategies we're going to use up all our agricultural land, and our beautiful rural communities will end up looking like urban sprawl.

"The very foundation of our work is getting rid of the things that divide us," she says. "We cannot ghetto-ize poverty or ghetto-ize wealth. We need to build diverse, vibrant communities. Southern Mutual's mission is building healthy, prosperous rural communities. It was our mission from day one, and it still is."

For more information about Southern Mutual Help Association, go to their Web site,