Lorna Bourg remembers that helping the poor in rural Louisiana initially took confrontation with sugar plantation owners, with doctors, with politicians, with court adversaries. The War on Poverty in its infancy, a half-century back, felt like war as Bourg and associates tried to improve lives in Acadiana for “the poorest of the poor.”
Bourg, now 77, president and CEO of the Iberia Parish-based Southern Mutual Help Association, looks back on the organization’s 50 years and sees evolution. It’s no longer us against them, she said. Now it’s “win-win” — seeking the best result for all concerned.
Bourg in January will start a three-year hitch as president of SMHA, whose roots rest in the ‘60s and ‘70s struggles to eradicate poverty. Her own efforts to offset poverty started straight off the campus of the University of Southwestern Louisiana, where she’d met some Catholic nuns with social service and civil rights missions to which she signed on. Sister Anne Catherine Bizalion of the French Order of Dominican Rural Missionaries was the heart of the fledgling organization.
Hilda Curry, former three-term mayor of New Iberia, will assume the role of SMHA chief executive officer Jan. 1, as the organization’s leadership marks 50 years in operations by looking ahead. As CEO, she said, she expects to oversee daily operations for the same progressive efforts the organization has promoted for years.
“We started in the cane fields,” Bourg recalled of SMHA during a recent interview. There, she said, SMHA staff members found thousands of impoverished cane workers who, a century after the Civil War’s conclusion, still lived on the plantations, shackled by a system that kept them in economic chains.
Workers then still harvested sugarcane by wielding ancient tools just like their ancestors and lived in plantation housing — mostly ramshackle structures without plumbing or modern amenities. In some cases, their grandparents and great grandparents had lived in the same shacks. They lived on subsistence wages — barely — by shopping at “company stores” that supplied them but that ran tabs for debts that could never be paid in full.
“By the end of the year, buying at the company store, located on or near the plantations, people’s pay was being deducted for doctor visits, transportation, food, clothes and more,” Bourg recollected. Typically, the worker would end up more in debt than when he or she started working the sugar cane season.
Cane workers desperately needed health care; the government, which operated clinics in larger cities, thought it unnecessary for the rural workers. So the SMHA itself coordinated dental and health services for the poor, first in a clinic in Franklin. Some 10,000 medical visits were made by rural residents that first year. Today, there are more than 50 rural medical health centers.
Cane workers needed basic literacy, which the SMHA offered through adult classes delivered near where the workers lived. The program, Plantation Education Program Inc., or PEPI, was run by the sisters. To deliver it, the SMHA had to overcome bitter resistance from plantation owners, who feared they might lose control over their workforce. In 2018, the state and parish transferred PEPI into their education system.
Cane workers needed money, as well, and when the Agriculture Department froze farm workers’ pay in 1972, the SMHA filed suit on their behalf, winning a judgement that also froze subsidies for cane growers. That led to confrontations with growers and the threat of violence, even against a Catholic sister who worked with SMHA. The successful suit pressed by SMHA won $1 million for workers.
Finally, mechanization in the cane fields made the farmhands’ jobs unnecessary. Without work, they were driven off the plantation and out of their homes. Displaced, the workers presented a new challenge to SMHA, which was determined to find them affordable housing. That’s when SMHA began to explore housing as a mission.
The fight for sugar cane workers marked heady times for the organization, which was featured on one “60 Minutes” television program. Feminist Gloria Steinem visited the organization.
Since then, SMHA, initially feared as a radical organization, has become part of the fabric of the community, participating in widely accepted progressive efforts to improve life in that corner of Acadiana. It may be better known nationally than it is locally, its leadership says.
In the ‘80s and ‘90s, Bourg said, Sister Helen Vinton joined the SMHA as an environmental specialist. Raised on a Nebraska farm, she was trained in biology and was adept at writing grants for environmental stewardship. She moved the SMHA closer in spirit and in cause to the farmers, with whom she had empathy and understanding, and sought collaboration rather than confrontation. Growers had challenges, too, she said.
Vinton promoted organic farming approaches, created a regional sustainable farming organization and sat down with farm groups to see where the SMHA could help. She later extended the SMHA’s reach to those who were fishing for their livelihoods along coastal Louisiana.
More recently, Bourg said, SMHA’s efforts have been focused on housing. Now, she says, the organization that began by challenging the status quo has become partners with banks. Working principally with IberiaBank, SMHA “makes deals” to advance housing for the poor.
“Our work with poor people, that transformed IberiaBank,” Bourg said. “Once you get to the business of IberiaBank, you try to get to win-win-win,” she said of agreements that involve low-income homebuyers, the bank and SMHA. IberiaBank has committed some $22 million to rural housing efforts.
She said the SMHA has worked with the banks through federal programs, by seeking private grants and by seeking federal loans. Participating banks through those programs learned that low-income homebuyers could be faithful in their payments and good customers.
SMHA has also worked in recovery efforts, first during the coastal hurricanes of 2005 and then during the Deepwater Horizon spills in 2010. SMHA efforts helped rebuild more than 1,000 structures in 120 rural areas after the hurricanes. Curry said SMHA will continue to stand ready to address such coastal disasters.
Eying the future, the SMHA’s interests in serving the poor has found expression in such projects as Teche Ridge, a $150 million “intergenerational, walkable mixed-used development” in Iberia Parish that offers a variety of housing options. That, Curry said, is part of building a stronger rural community.
So is the Gulf Coast Fisher Loan Fund, which is lending money to those who fish along the coast and which is poised to grow into a million-dollar investment fund. That, too, will continue.
SMHA continues to hold interest in supporting improvements for New Iberia’s West End.
The poor, it seems, will always be with us. To serve them, Curry said the organization will continue to work with people who want to be part of systemic change that will benefit the area.
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