Esther Gallow, President and Chief Executive Officer, Booker T. Community Outreach - Monroe, LA
The Booker T. Washington neighborhood in Monroe, Louisiana, has become a lesson in what can go wrong in a community. Monroe is the third-poorest U.S. city with a population of more than 50,000, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and Booker T. is the poorest community in Monroe. This once-vibrant African-American neighborhood had never been rich in resources, but 30 years ago, local businesses flourished and the community was rich in spirit. The social fabric began to unravel as younger residents left a downward-spiraling economy to search for jobs. Houses began to deteriorate, crime rates worsened, and government services were cut back. By 1990, about 38 percent of the population lived below the poverty line. Today, 65 percent of Booker T.’s residents are over the age of 65, and most of them are low-income. “Booker T. became a casualty of urbanization and time,” Esther Gallow says. “Hopelessness and apathy settled in to stay. Whole generations were effectively disenfranchised.”
Seeds of commitment
Esther Gallow was a bank executive working with a nonprofit group in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles when she returned to Monroe to help care for her ailing mother. What she saw there saddened and distressed her. “I rejoined a cheerless neighborhood that had abandoned itself to blight, neglect, and despair,” Gallow says. As she tended to the needs of her elderly parents, Gallow grew to understand the problems her neighbors faced. “We needed to improve the lives of the elderly, starting with housing, and restore the culture of caring I remembered from my youth,” Gallow says. She went to work for the city of Monroe as a community-outreach coordinator. In 1996, she joined with others of her generation who shared her concerns to form Booker T. Community Outreach Project, the area’s first community-development corporation.
Booker T. Community Outreach initially focused on the well-being of the area’s elderly population. The group began by rehabilitating 24 houses and renting them to older people in need of better housing. Since then, Booker T. Outreach’s joint ventures with banks, city and federal government, and nonprofit groups have led to 100 homes being built or rehabilitated. Another program helps renters become first-time homebuyers. Perhaps its most visible contribution is the Booker T. Senior Village, which includes 28 apartments for the elderly, day care for adults (the first in northern Louisiana), and an assisted-living facility for 26 elderly people (the first for low-income people in Louisiana). When complete, the $3.5 million village will include a unit for Alzheimer’s patients and a childcare center that will enable young people to visit residents of the assisted-living center. Booker T. Community Outreach also helps older people maintain their houses through its Handy Man Program, which provides basic services such as painting, repairs, and minor electrical and plumbing work. Its community garden provides fresh vegetables for more than 200 seniors and has inspired others in the neighborhood to plant their own gardens. The group also distributes food at Thanksgiving and works with both a local food bank and Meals on Wheels. With help from area businesses and the state, Booker T. Community Outreach built a mini-mall for startup businesses that includes a thrift shop, security agency, florist, and medical office. Booker T. Outreach also persuaded the city to fund a community-policing program. A campaign to register voters and consequently demonstrate electoral power has gained the residents of Booker T. new respect, attention, and action from officials.
One of Gallow’s first goals in her campaign for change was to rid the Booker T. neighborhood of rusting cars and appliances. At her urging, the city removed 47 abandoned cars, a gesture that she says sent the message that hopelessness could be replaced by hope for progress. Gallow also made strategic connections with people at various levels of government. When local government funds proved scarce, for example, Gallow obtained federal money for housing projects. She created partnerships with the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word; with Louisiana Tech’s school of architecture; with banks and companies that could supply financing, land, money, and encouragement.
Gallow credits her mentor, Los Angeles community organizer Ted Watkins, for her creative leadership style. Watkins, who died in 1993, helped rebuild riot-damaged Watts in the 1960s. “Ted Watkins’ forte was his ability to attract and inspire,” Gallow says. “After articulating his vision, he encouraged like-minded people to help rebuild the strife-torn community. I believe, as he did, that when given the chance, people will rise to the occasion and take control of their own destiny.” Booker T. Washington residents say that Gallow’s roots in the area have inspired support from the community that would have been difficult for an outsider to gain.
Gallow sees a future where Booker T. Community Outreach is considered the place to go for services that range from job training to housing and food. She believes that the organization can also serve as a think tank for new initiatives, a resource center for those who “want to become self-reliant, productive members of society. We want to be a model for communities looking to rise from despair to prominence.”
More about Esther Gallow and Booker T. Community Outreach
“What began as an improbable dream is now an astonishing reality. The city of Monroe and the Booker T. Community is fortunate to have the leadership, dedication and energy of Ms. Gallow and her staff at Booker T. Community Outreach.”
- news release from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 2003
“For Esther Gallow’s having forsaken a lucrative and comfortable career to come home to care for her ailing mother, hundreds of that community’s most vulnerable people live better lives, and many more know for the first time they have reason to hope.”
- Glenn Nishimura, Senior Program Director, Mid South Delta Local Initiatives Support Corporation
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