Saving Black Lives in West Dallas (Forbes Magazine)
Howard Husock, contributor
America’s “independent sector”—its civil society—is the best-funded and most robust in the world. It consistently develops new and effective approaches to some of the nation’s most serious social problems. Since 2001, the Manhattan Institute has sought to identify and recognize some of the most promising social entrepreneurs and the new non-profits they’ve founded, based on their own original ideas. The more than 50 winners of the Richard Cornuelle award, named for the writer who coined the term independent sector, have addressed challenges as diverse as teaching English to new immigrants, building facilities for charter schools, helping older Americans “age in place,” developing science and engineering curricula for high schools, and helping African-American college students continue through to graduation. Most are supported entirely by private philanthropy. In this column, I’ll profile this year’s winners of the Cornuelle award. This week, I'll feature Reid Porter, founder of Advocates for Community Transformation--a group led by white evangelicals whose calling is to save black lives.
To meet him, Reid Porter might be the last person you expect to spend his days in the gritty, predominantly African-American neighborhoods of West and South Dallas, trying to figure out ways to reduce violence. The Thirty-nine-year-old white, evangelical attorney is a Tom Cruise look-alike--but one who has decided he was willing to face real-life danger. Notwithstanding a budding, successful career as a civil-litigation attorney, Porter found himself drawn to parts of Dallas in which few, if any, of the members of his church, Park Cities Presbyterian—5,000-strong and affluent—lived. But Park Cities was active in recruiting volunteers to help in dangerous, drug-infested West Dallas. Porter’s volunteering there led to a profound change in his own life and in the neighborhoods in which he believed himself called to serve.
Today, Porter and the 20-strong staff of the organization he founded, Advocates for Community Transformation, are at work a long way from a pristine law-office environment. Instead, first Porter and now ACT’s troops are knocking on doors in non-booming Dallas, the West and South Dallas black and Latino ghettos pockmarked with vacant lots and old frame homes which house the drug trade. It's no exaggeration to say that they're dedicated to the idea that black lives matter.
Over the past four years, Porter has done as much as anyone in the city to lower crime, through the combination of community organizing and his own background as a high-end litigator. ACT recruits neighborhood homeowners to file suits against absentee landlords whose properties provide havens for the drug and sex trades—asserting that they are creating a public nuisance.
The possibility of legal liability and substantial fines—in a neighborhood where the homes may be worth as little as $20,000—has forced the eviction of tenants or the demolition or sale of more than 70 such houses over the past four years. Only three cases have gone to court, and all three were decided in ACT’s favor. ACT has even been able to identify property owners who specialized in renting to drug operations (likely because they are reliable rent-payers and may even be willing to pay above-market rates, in effect cutting owners in on their profits).
He may be “faith-inspired” but Porter has drawn the support of a long list of individual donors themselves inspired by what ACT does. Those include more than $1 million from one of the largest Dallas philanthropies, the Caruth Foundation, who’s giving is directed by the Communities Foundation of Texas, which has been instructed to make what the Communities Foundation president Brent Christopher calls “big bets”.
One cannot visit the ACT office in a small strip mall without getting a sense of the religious commitment which fuels the staff. It gathers daily for mid-morning prayer meetings, and its legal strategy draws on top Dallas law-firm volunteers, many from Park Cities Presbyterian, still Porter’s “home church,” a socially conservative institution established in 1991 to be independent of the politically liberal Presbyterian Church USA. While taking on what some might describe as a mission of social justice, Porter speaks the language of the evangelical church. “I felt led,” he says, “to put my law degree to use in West Dallas.”
His is an initiative that speaks the language of faith but brings to its work the sophistication of GIS mapping, innovative legal tactics, and an alliance with city government. The Dallas Police Department regularly provides ACT with up-to-date crime data for its targeted neighborhoods; the city’s legal office refers cases to Porter because it lacks the capacity to take up the cases of dozens of individual homeowners.
Because ACT must gain the cooperation of homeowners who have long lived in fear, he’s steeped himself in community-organizing literature—even including that of the Left. Yes, he says, he’s read Saul Alinsky. ACT’s results have been closely tracked and are impressive. In the four West Dallas neighborhoods where ACT has been active since 2008, crime has fallen by 52 percent. That’s a decline in major crimes, including murder, assault, burglary, and rape: from 1,701 incidents in 2008 to 1,124 in 2015.
The trend has largely continued in 2016 in the neighborhoods in which ACT is active. The general improvements in the ACT neighborhoods come at a time when the Dallas Morning News reports that the city’s murder count, overall, increased over the first quarter of 2016 by 71 percent.
The crime rate in the ACT neighborhoods is still not an insubstantial number: in 2015, four murders and 147 home break-ins. But in the neighborhood where ACT first began its efforts—Westmoreland Park/Ledbetter Gardens—there were no murders in 2015 and crime, since 2008, is down by 70 percent. There, the Rev. William White, who leads the tiny whitewashed Saint Mark AME Zion church—and has himself faced down gang threats—points to what he considers the most important data point of a program, one led by white outsiders in a black neighborhood and of which he was initially skeptical. “Kids are riding bikes in the street again,” White observes.
Porter reports, matter-of-factly, that both the Dallas Police Department and the City Attorney’s office regularly refer complainants to ACT for assistance—notwithstanding ACT’s avowedly religious roots. (ACT regularly leads prayer walks, for instance, in the neighborhoods in which it’s active.) He’s taken aback when asked if that might spark controversy. Its religious dimension is no hindrance and, indeed, surely helps to drive voluntarism, including the volunteers from Park Cities Presbyterian and other churches who help Reid Porter clean the alleys of West Dallas.
Volunteer attorneys from 13 law firms and the Southern Methodist University School of Law provide an estimated $2.4 million in pro bono assistance. As ACT puts it, “Our work gives attorneys an opportunity to carry out Christ’s call to pursue justice on behalf of the oppressed.”
Porter and ACT will begin this fall to transplant their approach to troubled South Dallas, where there were nearly 1,600 major crimes, including nine murders, in 2015 (of 136 in the entire city). But crime reduction, if it occurs, will be only part of the story for Porter. ACT’s fundraising literature puts it this way: “You will not be disappointed in the social and Kingdom returns on your investment with ACT.” It may not be the language of Black Lives matter--but saving black lives it is.