BURLINGTON - Burlington adopted Moss Point, Mississippi, as its first U.S. Sister City in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. But, a year after the flood, questions persist over how best to help the small, Gulf Coast community.
Thanks to Burlington's designation, numerous Vermont organizations have held fundraisers and sent volunteers to help Moss Point rebuild. The city of Burlington itself has proven a powerful conduit; it has already raised more than $30,000 for Moss Point, and relief money continues to arrive. Faye Lawes, the Mayor's administrative assistant, just deposited a $285 check from a local woman who recently held a tag sale to benefit the cause.
But a debate over how the city should spend that money has been simmering since the creation of the Moss Point Relief Fund. Representatives of Burlington's African-American community complain that Burlington's efforts have primarily benefited Moss Point's middle class.
Former Burlington Mayor Peter Clavelle, who visited the city last spring, says the money has done much good. Clavelle attended a May reception in Moss Point at which 200 residents cheered Vermonters. "Folks were really grateful," he says. "The people of Mississippi, they know Vermont. They're really appreciative of the support they've been given." Moss Point public officials have echoed Clavelle's comments in the Mississippi and Vermont press.
But Allen Robinson, Executive Director of Burlington's Imani Health Institute, charges that so far, the neediest poor white and black families in Moss Point have yet to receive Burlington's charity. And, he complains, "There's not been a clear accountability in what happened to those funds."
Robinson is one of the founders of UMEUS, a group of African-American activists who organized last winter because they felt left out of the city's efforts to help Moss Point. The Southern city is 70-percent black, Robinson points out. "When it comes to needs of people of color," he says, "who better knows what those needs are and who better to address those needs than people of color?"
Last September, Burlington held a fundraiser which raised more than $20,000 for Moss Point. A check for $21,845 was sent in September to the nonprofit Katrina Relief Fund Moss Point Incorporated.
The fund was created - at the request of Moss Point city officials - by Moss Point resident George Byars, a former Mississippi Public Service Commissioner. Reached by phone, Byars says that he and his wife worked with faith-based leaders to distribute the funds, recruiting pastors white and black to find needy families in their congregations.
Burlington was one of 15 communities to contribute to that fund. Byars says the money bought emergency supplies and helped meet the immediate needs of 200 Moss Point families.
But Robinson says that when he visited Moss Point on a UMEUS-sponsored trip in February he found no evidence that the money had reached the people he met. "When I went to Moss Point, there's clearly your East and West sides," he says. "On the East side, there's a huge population of low-income people." The people on the East side, he suggests, "felt no benefit" from Burlington's efforts.
Robinson says the contacts he made, including a transitional housing coordinator and administrators at Kreole Elementary School - the city's largest, poorest school, which also has the highest percentage of black students - have been telling him that members of their communities need food and money for school uniforms for the kids.
These are needs that Byars, who lives on the West side, does not describe. "The need now is building material," Byars insists. "Moss Point has recovered relatively well. The things that are left now are building materials and roofing materials, like sheet rock, like paint, things like that. So we're way past the food distribution. Way past by months on that."
Robinson says this kind of response proves his point. "That would just confirm that there's such a disconnect in terms of where people are located," he says.
Robinson also questions the $5000 Burlington donated from its Katrina fund to the Institute for Sustainable Communities, a Vermont-based nonprofit founded by former Vermont Governor Madeleine Kunin that works to address environmental, economic and "social concerns" in its project cities, all of them except Moss Point outside the U.S. "They reaped a benefit from this," Robinson charges.
Betty Weiss, ISC's Washington D.C.-based director of U.S. programs, says ISC consultants, herself included, have visited the area several times to help "strengthen the civic infrastructure" of the ravaged city. "We're in and out of there on a regular basis," she says. "We'd like to make a long-term commitment."
Weiss says ISC got involved with Moss Point because of Peter Clavelle, who until June served on the organization's board of directors. Clavelle and his wife Betsy Ferries raised more than $20,000 toward the ISC's efforts at a reception last spring in their Burlington home. According to Ferries, the ISC has now raised $150,000 to fund work in Moss Point.
Clavelle directed $5000 from Burlington to the ISC during his mayoral term.
Robinson and other members of UMEUS would like to see future monies go towards meeting the immediate needs of Moss Point's struggling minorities before financing ISC's long-term rebuilding efforts. They expressed this sentiment at a meeting of the Moss Point Sister City Committee held August 28 in the Mayor's Office. The committee, formed in August, will determine how the money in the city's Moss Point fund will be spent. Robinson notes that until now, it was at the discretion of the Mayor's Office.
Robinson and fellow UMEUS members Larry McCrorey and John Tucker attended the meeting, along with Chris O'Donnell and Helen Overeynder, two teachers from Champlain Valley Union High School, Dick Hibbert, the pastor of the First United Methodist Church, Betsy Ferries, Faye Lawes and Mayor Bob Kiss. The three UMEUS members were the only African-Americans at the table.
Ferries presented the group with the ISC's current 18-month plan to "create long-term strategies for building stronger and more inclusive communities with effective leaders." Tucker, a long-time community activist, told the group that he approved of it, but didn't want to work towards ISC's goals. "Those long-term goals are good ones," he said, "but we have people who don't have enough clothing. I want to address some of their more immediate needs."
McCrorey, a professor emeritus at the University of Vermont, explained that he wanted the city to give direct aid to the people who need it. "The government agencies and the private agencies always miss a certain segment in these communities - they miss the African American and the poor community every damn time," he said, raising his voice. "We want to make sure everybody in the whole damn city gets the benefit of what we send down there."
Tucker, Robinson and McCrorey outlined their plan to work with the Burlington Police Department to bring non-perishable food to Kreole Elementary School and to a largely black housing project across the street.
The others present offered to help, and to expand the effort to include money for school uniforms for struggling families. The UMEUS members said they'd be happy to accept help. "The more the merrier," Robinson quipped. He plans to organize the drive in the next few weeks. The committee will meet again on September 18.
The city's Moss Point account currently has a balance of more than $6000, some of which could be used to fund a food drive. When asked how the money would be spent, Mayor Bob Kiss said he wasn't sure. "I think it's up to the Sister City Committee," he said.