When he was first informed he’d been selected by NeighborWorks America for its Dorothy Richardson Award for Resident Leadership, 65-year-old Johnny Carter from rural Moorhead, Mississippi, was shocked. “I’ve never been in a leadership position,” he said.
But that is what the award is essentially all about—recognizing residents who step up and do what needs to be done to bring about change, even when they have no position of formal authority. Carter indeed proves anyone can be a leader. All it takes is his kind of can-do spirit.
Born in Moorhead and a lifelong resident except for a few years when he lived in Chicago (“it’s some kind of cold up there!”), Carter worked for 38 years as a forklift operator for a lawnmower factory.
“I worked in that factory from the time I started until it moved,” recalls Carter. “There weren’t many other jobs and a lot of people—I’d estimate about 1,900 across eight towns—depended on it for a living, for sending their kids to school. And then it retired me and everyone else.”
He was 57 at the time, and then had to rely on “odds-and-ends jobs”—first in other factories and then cutting yards and tasks like that. Carter lived in a mobile home he loved, but was lonely out on the highway. “I like to be by other people,” he says.
The move to Eastmoor
So, in 2003, he moved his mobile home to the Eastmoor neighborhood. While he loved the company, he soon discovered the residents had been struggling with a variety of challenges for years. Like many Mississippi Delta communities, Eastmoor suffered from an inheritance of racial inequity. The cluster of approximately 80 home sites, first developed in 1969, was located just outside city limits, excluding them from voting in the town’s elections—although residents still were expected to contribute taxes. City officials had agreed to own and manage the sanitary-sewer infrastructure and the county agreed to do the same for the storm sewer and roads. But none of the parties maintained their commitments.
Sewage ran in streets and yards and backed up into bathtubs. Rainfall had no outlet, since the storm sewer pipes had degraded. The road through the development was nearly impassable for small cars, and neither of the electricity providers would take responsibility for the leaning power poles or the tenuous connection to individual homes. As for the property owner, he had entered into questionable lease-purchase agreements with a number of the residents and refused to maintain the properties despite receiving low-income-housing tax-credit dollars. Resident complaints fell on seemingly deaf ears.
Time for to push for change
It was about four years after Carter moved into the neighborhood when a few residents dropped by his house and began talking about their multiple problems.
“It was my time to speak up,” he shrugs. “If one white person lived in this neighborhood, would someone have done something sooner? But for us, all they did was holler about ‘private property.’ They said there’s nothing we can do.”
The result was the Eastmoor Residents Association, which began meeting to figure out a way to force the owner and various officials to fulfill their duties. The members spent countless hours gathering information and recruiting other residents’ input and support.
“I used my small voice to help the president and the secretary get the people there. I was like an usher or doorman at the movies; I just got out there and brought the others in,” comments Carter. “In the beginning, it was really hard to get some of the people just to open their doors and listen to us about what was going on and how they should come meet with us. Some of them even cursed me out!”
Carter also inspired by example. Once, when residents were asked to pay $8 each to participate in the filing of a lawsuit and many were reluctant, Carter not only knocked on doors, he joined two other resident leaders and paid more than his fair share.
“I said, ‘You’re telling me you ain't got $8? You put that much into gas just to ride around and sightsee. Three of us paid the extra money so we could get this thing going.”
Once the residents decided to file the suit against the city, county and owner, they attracted the attention of the Housing Clinic at the University of Mississippi School of Law. That was a pivotal development, Carter notes: “We got action then. We didn't know how to use the proper words to get attention, but the university lawyer taught us how to use the right language. We learned from her and we're still learning.”
The residents association won its suit.
Carter also credits Hope Enterprise Corp. for motivating residents to begin taking better care of their properties. One of several new partners that came on board as the neighborhood improved, Hope secured funding to rehabilitate a number of the homes. In addition, a new playground was constructed in 2017.
“At first, residents didn’t really believe Hope would do all the things they said they would do,” Carter explains. “But when they saw the improvements start to happen, a lot more wanted to do better.”
Hope, however, credits Carter with much of the clean-up.
“I like for our neighborhood to be clean. So yeah, I cut the yards,” says Carter. “In front of my home is another lot and I clean it up too. When most people get their paychecks around here, that’s the time when they go out to celebrate, eat a little food in their cars and just throw it out the window. So, on those days, when I wake up in the morning, I look out my door and if I see some paper, I go out there and pick it up. I walk maybe four or five hours looking down each side of the street, trying to keep this corner clean and hoping somebody else will start doing the same thing in another part of the community. I figure, if somebody else sees you cleaning and taking an initiative, they’ll wanna do it too.”
And they have. Today, Carter says more than half of the residents are serious about working to maintain a nice neighborhood, including improving their own lots.
“Now, a lot of things have changed. As time went on, people saw there is something at the end of the rainbow. I feel good about it; I really do,” he says modestly.
But when asked if he was ready to give an acceptance speech at NeighborWorks’ Community Leadership Institute, he responded vigorously, “Oh no, I can’t speak. I’m shy. I’m not a speaker. You got me sweating already!”