Downwinders at Risk held a ceremony last week for the first graduates of its community organizing school. Above, The College of Constructive Hell Raising's Spring Class of 2017. Front row with sign: Kristian Steffany, Amanda Polland, Frances Mayo, Michelle McAdam, Anita Mills, Brandon Pollard, kneeling. Back row: Rick Baraff, Janelle Kinney, Kyle Amato, Clarice Criss, Brent Cease, Anthony Gonzales, Rebecca Bateman, Corey Troiani, Jim Schermbeck. Photos courtesy of Jim Schermbeck.

May 29, 2017

Twelve people ready to work for urban agriculture, immigrant rights, a sustainable water supply and more civic good graduated May 23 from the Southwest’s first school for community organizers. It’s the College of Constructive Hell Raising, launched last fall by Jim Schermbeck of Downwinders at Risk, North Texas’ 23-year-old clean air action group.

Hell Raising School graduates with Downwinders director Jim Schermbeck predict their future accomplishments.

Downwinders College of Constructive Hell-Raising GradsCommunity organizers work to coordinate cooperative efforts by local residents to promote the interests of their community. Until now, organizer training had been found at only a few distant, long-established schools around the United States, noted Schermbeck. The historic Highlander Research and Education Center near Knoxville, Tennessee, and Chicago’s Midwest Academy equipped students who went on to lead the labor movement of the 1930s, the American civil rights movement and efforts now encompassing environmental justice, democratic participation, homelessness and LGBT rights. Those students included Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr. and now-U. S. Congressman John Lewis.

Clarise CrissThe first graduates of “Hell Raising College” who noisily crowded with family and friends into a room at the Meadows Conference Center in Dallas last week were also clearly passionate for their causes. All but one already had organizing experience. They brought the experience of their ages, from 21 to 69, and communities - Mexican-American, African-American and Anglo - into a lively mix of viewpoints and causes. 

Clarice Criss shares her plans as a community organizer in south Dallas.

Corey Troiani is program director for Texas Campaign for the Environment, the door-to-door canvassing organization for many issues including zero waste. Ebullient Clarice Criss is a community citizen-organizer in South Dallas. Brandon Pollard, cofounder of the Texas Honeybee Guild, champions all pollinators and nature, organizing the Urban Ag movement for urban food-growing and a healthy, fresh local food supply. Anita Mills, the dean of the group at 69, is a community garden mentor and garden coach with GROW North Texas, a nonprofit that works for sustainable urban agriculture and equitable access to healthy food. Anthony Gonzales, 21 years old, organized for the Libertarian Party in a Fort Worth housing project, oddly enough, using a corner convenience-liquor store as his hub.  

“He actually got a few candidates,” said Schermbeck. “He’s fearless.”  

Gonzales now works as Downwinders’ assistant program director. 

Jim Schermbeck with honorary pitchforkClass meetings featured guest lectures from veteran North Texas social justice campaigners, “including veteran civil rights organizers Peter Johnson and Robert Medrano, original Bois D’arc patriot John Fullinwider, former State Representative Lon Burnam, West Dallas environmental leader Luis Sepulveda, longtime AIDS Services of Dallas director Don Maison, Police brutality organizer Changa Masomakali, anti-nuclear organizer Mavis Belisle, and Zac Trahan, former Dallas program director of the Texas Campaign for the Environment,” the course announcement noted.

Downwinders director Jim Schermbeck accepts an honorary pitchfork from his students.

Kristian Steffany, vice president of North Texas Dream Team, says she learned skills at the school that will help her efforts for immigrant rights. 

“I learned self-awareness… I have to be aware of how I come across and adjust to the group I’m engaging.  I learned about ‘framing,’ how to address issues that are outside my experience, like the environment, which hasn’t been my focus.”

The grads bypassed the usual commencement address by speaking as their 20-years-older selves, looking back on their accomplishments and their classmates’ in the year 2037.  Brett Cease, currently regional coordinator for Citizens Climate Lobby, took on a 2037 persona and retold the victory of passing a climate-fee-and-dividend bill. All the profits from pricing petroleum at its actual, unsubsidized cost with environmental costs included, were returned to consumers. (This is a current option gaining traction around the U. S. that some major oil companies including Exxon support.) 

Governor of Texas Steffany cited accomplishments “unwhitewashing history, busting the school-to-prison pipeline, the Dallas surge of black and brown political leadership.” Mills announced, “at 89 I’m still going strong! We formed a cooperative South Dallas farm to end the food desert, and churches with acreage grow food for other communities in food deserts. There’s a land bank of city-owned properties… where nonprofits have access to the land to help underserved people, including released prisoners unable to get work, produce food and learn skills.”

Hell Raising Honorary pitchforkPollard praised peers who “stopped the Trinity Toll Road in 2030. Now it’s the largest swath of milkweed in the world, and the annual Pollinator Festival draws thousands! ‘Give Bees a Chance!’”  

Trioani was lauded for leading Dallas to be the nation’s first Zero Waste economy. He congratulated Pollard for his “successful divestment campaign against DowPonSanto,” bankrupting the multinational chemical super-corporation. 

Janelle Kinney choked up at the podium. As regional Charitable Giving Ambassador for LUSH, the U. K.-based natural skin care company, Kinney helps support responsibly-grown plant ingredients for LUSH products. Her family roots go deep in the worker rights struggle of Texas farmworkers who labor over just such plants and food crops.  

“In 2017, I sold soap by day and gave money to groups like Downwinders at Risk,” she spoke as her 2037 self, stifling tears. “When I came to this school, the change I needed to make began with me. I found all kinds of people here. I learned that the one thing we had in common was our love for Dallas and wanting it to be the best Dallas it can be.” 

The "Hell-Raisers'" bountiful humor, heart, invention and energy at their graduation promised that they are very likely to campaign enthusiastically onward with their new skills and the community they forged in the class.  

“Sixty days before the start of the College of Constructive Hell Raising in January, I saw an effective Clean Air Plan for North Texas evaporate in the 2016 election, after 15 years of hard work,” Schermbeck said. “This group made me want to get up in the morning…We’ve been working on this organizing school a long time. You always hope your next effort will be a success. With this class, I don’t think I can ask for anything more.”

The school’s Latin motto is “Parva Cumulaverunt.” It means "Small Stuff Adds Up." 


Local watchdog group recruiting students for community organizing school

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