For 50 years, the Iberia Parish-based Southern Mutual Help Association has improved the economic landscape of Acadiana’s “Sugar Curtain” for people who live along Acadiana’s coastline.
That work included initiating and encouraging health care improvements for impoverished cane field workers in Iberia and St. Mary’s parishes and beyond, people who had little in the way of reliable health or dental care.
It included creating literacy opportunities for adult field hands mired in poverty.
It meant working with farmers to promote better stewardship of the land.
It involved rebuilding homes and businesses and churches — more than 1,000 buildings in 120 villages and hamlets on the coast — after natural disasters like the 2005 hurricanes.
It meant coming to the economic aid of coastal fishers who struggled in the wake of manmade disasters, like the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
It meant evolution along the coastline and in nearby parishes. It meant evolution for SMHA itself, which began and operated for many years with sometimes bitter standoffs against rural, powerful interests — such as the plantation owners — but morphed into collaboration with community leaders and lending institutions.
SMHA’s struggles to help cane workers made “60 Minutes” and “Ms. Magazine” in the organization’s fledgling years. Nowadays, instead of an “us-against-them” environment, SMHA and Iberia Parish leaders are seeking “win-win” solutions and outcomes that benefit everyone.
SMHA was launched in the turbulent 1960s with the civil rights movements and War on Poverty as backdrops. Those were uncertain times, as some local, entrenched powers resented SMHA efforts to organize and educate cane workers about their economic rights and opportunities. It was hard to change the status quo.
To the local powers, SMHA’s agenda might have seemed radical. Rural health care clinics were unnecessary, the state said. So was an educated workforce, growers said. The ramshackle housing that cane workers inhabited was good enough, plantation owners contended.
And yet, over the course of a half-century, what seemed to be radical took hold as wisdom. Now there are some 50 rural health clinics in Louisiana. The Plantation Education Program Inc., or PEPI, is now part of the state and local education system. Housing improvements made everyone’s lives better.
SMHA is looking forward, not back, expanding its leadership efforts to the wider community. Its $150 million, walkable, mixed-use planned development now underway, Teche Ridge, involves housing built on “fair market value.” The middle class needs housing, too. The new project won’t include low-income housing.
Fifty years. So much accomplished. So much left to do.