Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Building an African American-Latino Coalition in Atkinson County, Georgia

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Our first case study looks at the efforts of two ministers, Rev. Atanacio (Tony) Gaona and Rev. Harvey Williams, to encourage mutual understanding, communication, trust, and assistance between Latinos and African Americans in their community. The community in question is Atkinson County, a small county (containing less than 9,000 people) in south Georgia, and more specifically, the town of Willacoochee. In some respects it is more “old South” than “new South,” as its economy remains heavily agricultural, with some light manufacturing, and it lacks the large malls, sprawling subdivisions, convention centers, hotels, and post-modern office towers containing business, financial, and professional services typical of many rapidly growing Sunbelt metropolitan areas.

Most Latinos in Atkinson County are Mexicans. The Latino population has resided here, and in several nearby counties, since the early 1980s, drawn mainly by the available jobs on farms – planting, tending, and harvesting crops. In 2007, Latinos comprised 22.9% of the county population and African Americans 18.5% (58.3% are non-Hispanic Whites). Although some Latinos work in factories and a few have opened stores, many still hold agricultural jobs and live on or near the farms (often in dilapidated shacks or trailers provided by their employers). This means that competition between Latinos and Blacks for jobs and housing is not as severe as in some other places, but also there is a wide cultural and social gulch between Blacks and Latinos. Where they meet, perhaps more than any other place, is in the public schools.

The work that Rev. Williams and Rev. Gaona have done in alleviating tensions and bringing “Blacks and Browns” together is impressive, and has been featured in a New York Times article and a report on Latino-Black coalition building in the South (Swarns 2006; Wooten 2008). Below we summarize what we learned about their activities based on a three-hour focus group discussion (held in February 2009 in Willacoochee) with Revs. Williams, Gaona, and six other people involved in this effort.


Unlike many coalitions that begin with the rise of a pressing problem or a recognition of commonality, the relationship formed by Rev. Atanacio Gaona and Rev. Harvey Williams started in the early 1990s with a simple request for a ride home from work. This one mundane occurrence led to nights of dialogue, mutual understanding, and identification of common challenges within Atkinson County. Both Pastors were beginning their ministry and believed it important to incorporate the notion of improving African American/Latino relations as a testament to their faith. Their work and friendship resonated not only with congregants, but also with other faith leaders and residents. Based on our discussion, many view Rev. Gaona and Rev. Williams as role models and leaders whose actions – such as celebrating church service together every fifth Sunday – compel individuals to reassess how they relate to others.

This coalition is unique because it mainly revolves around the two ministers. There is no formal organization or ad-hoc structure, but rather an expanding circle of congregants and friends who have been inspired by these two men. Ministers Williams and Gaona have developed a commitment to help one another, and work within their respective communities towards becoming more accepting and cultivating the idea of brotherhood.

Basis of Coalition

Trust, acknowledging the humanity in others, and the desire to build a more tolerant community were all common themes articulated by focus group participants as to why Atkinson County residents sought to improve Black/Brown relationships. Each principle derived from their faith and a basic concern for the wellbeing of others. On multiple occasions, trust was considered paramount for coalition formation and sustainability. People in both communities (African American and Latino) expressed a concern for engaging other people whose language, culture, history and societal norms are dissimilar. Many noted that language was a barrier to building a relationship. As a result, Rev. Williams opined that “I have a right to learn Spanish,” as opposed to Latinos solely learning English.

Rev. Gaona indicated that trust can emerge when “people keep their word.” Others stated that consistently showing good intentions would lead to the development of trust. Rev. Williams added, “I see (Rev. Gaona) as a human being, as a man.” Another participant offered that “we must accept our differences” and that “inside we are the same.”

Acknowledging the humanity in others was another key factor leading focus group members towards coalition building. This was particularly important because the group included a law enforcement official, a school board member, and a retired teacher (all three were African American). Each purposely strove to establish trust and acknowledge the humanity in others within his or her profession. The law enforcement official, who serves in a leadership capacity, echoed this point by recounting an experience in which he admonished subordinates who targeted Latino drivers.

African Americans and Latinos desire to build a better community for themselves and their families. All participants viewed the existence of Latinos in Atkinson County as permanent, thus increasing the need to identify common ground and support one another.


The first major issue identified in the discussion was racial profiling and the overall treatment of Latinos by Atkinson County and Willacoochee law enforcement officials. Focus group participants thought that the police and sheriff departments were purposely constructing roadblocks to target Latino drivers in the belief that they would be driving without valid drivers’ licenses. Fines for these infractions were as high as $1300, a month’s salary for the average Latino worker. Some within the focus group went so far as to surmise that Latino drivers were targeted for the purpose of providing an enhanced revenue stream for local government.

Another issue identified in the discussion was the treatment Latinos received from landowners who hired them to plant and harvest crops. African American participants observed that Latinos lived in “slum areas” with homes and trailers in dilapidated condition. The law enforcement official thought farmers “only cared about crops” and not about the laborers. The African American participants also noted similarities between the current treatment of Latinos and the historic treatment of African Americans. This conscious recognition of similar struggles serves as a strong motivator for African Americans to support Latino interests.


The focus group discussion revealed several areas in which the group is succeeding. The first was that they sensed an improvement in the degree of mutual respect that the Latinos and African Americans were showing towards each other. For example, the high school students said that Latino students are being treated all right and noted that last year the valedictorian was Latino. Adults also indicate that mutual respect is increasing as groups grow in their mutual understanding. Certainly the best example of this was the better understanding Rev. Williams gained about Mexicans when he accompanied Rev. Gaona on a trip to his home town in Mexico. He said that he never really understood the Mexicans in Willacoochee until he saw Pastor Tony’s village and what it was like to be “in their shoes.” Others in the focus group (a teacher, police officer, social service agency director, farm worker) mentioned that after getting to know the Latinos or Blacks better they had greater respect for them. Some progress is also being made in group members’ ability to communicate and engage in dialog with each other. Rev. Williams is learning Spanish, and Rev. Gaona has recently started an English class in his church. Several people in the focus group recommended that Spanish be taught to English-speakers starting as early as kindergarten. Although the school system has not implemented this recommendation, it nevertheless indicates a desire on the part of local residents for better communication among the respective communities.

The circle which has formed around these two ministers has also succeeded in gradually garnering support and cooperation from other individuals or groups in the community. Revs. Williams and Gaona have broadened the dialog and now meet every week with several White pastors to talk about issues of concern, and they mentioned that Rev. Morrison (a White minister) has “become a strong supporter of Hispanic rights . . . legal or illegal.” In addition, their “5th Sunday” program brings their respective congregations together for worship, discussion, and socializing. Beyond that, the efforts of the two ministers have also received cooperation and support from a county social service agency, a local food bank, a local business (Harvey’s), and from at least one member of the county sheriff’s office.

As for progress on some of the key issues, there has been very little on the problem of inadequate housing for the Latino farm workers. A focus group member said that the farm owners only care about getting their crops planted and harvested and try to house the workers as cheaply as possible. The focus group did indicate that some steps have been taken on the matter of police arrests or fines for unlicensed Latinos driving to work or driving children to school. Specifically, they mentioned Rev. Gaona’s efforts to inform Mexicans about the need to get drivers’ licenses and how to do it, efforts by both Reverends to use vans driven by licensed drivers to pick up and transport Mexicans to and from work, the sheriff’s desire to hire a Latino officer, and the deputy sheriff’s efforts to discourage officers from exploiting the unlicensed Latino drivers they stop.

Challenges and Limitations

The most serious challenge or limitation mentioned in the Atkinson County focus group is a lack of resources. What they need the most, they emphasize, is more time and more volunteers. Both Rev. Williams and Rev. Gaona are responsible for meeting their congregations’ needs and they have little staff and no pastoral assistant, so they often feel overwhelmed by the demands placed on their time and energy. Rev. Williams indicated that “Pastor Tony and I have to work closer” and that even though Pastor Tony is very busy, “there are a lot of things he needs to get involved in because he represents his people – he’s the spokesman for Hispanics in this area.” They feel that the community is ready for improved relations among Latinos, Blacks, and Whites, but they face a shortage of hours in the day to attend to it, a lack of funds to do things that are needed, and a scarcity of people able to effectively communicate in Spanish and English to engage and bring the groups together.

Both leaders said that they had not faced much opposition to their efforts at Black-Brown cooperation. However, they indicated that this county is run by a relatively small set of families that own large amounts of land, and that creating change without their support is very hard. Rev. Williams also indicated that he sometimes hears negative comments by Blacks about Mexicans and acknowledged that after he and Rev. Gaona were featured in a New York Times article, someone circulated an email about Latino gangs in California using violence against Blacks – and he viewed this as an attempt to divide the Mexicans and Blacks in Atkinson County.


Several points noted in our research about conditions conducive to developing inter-group cooperation and coalition-building pertain to Atkinson County’s situation. One, which enhances prospects for Black-Latino cooperation and fellowship here is that, according to those in the focus group, in this community the Mexicans and African Americans are not in severe competition over jobs or battling for political control, thus they do not see their situation as a zero-sum game (i.e., they don’t view gains for the other group as coming at the expense of their own group).

Second, the emerging positive relations and cooperation among African Americans and Latinos in Atkinson County that this group is building are not based on a factor that stimulates coalition-building in many other situations: recognition that they face the same problems and can not overcome them by themselves. Although both groups in this county face several similar problems (e.g., high drop out rates from high school, limited access to health care, economic insecurity), focus group members did not cite these as the fundamental reasons why they have come together to promote and improve Black-Brown relations. Instead, several of the points made by Kaufmann (2003) about coalition-building seem applicable and true here. Kaufmann noted that even if people differ in economic status, language, age, or cultural background, they can form a coalition if they perceive that they share some other fundamental commonality, such as sharing a historical experience or being part of the same moral community, which allows them to empathize and identify with each other, and also to respect and trust each other. For example, an African American focus group member feels compelled to stand up for the Mexicans and try to bring Blacks and Latinos together because “they are getting treated like Black people used to get treated.” Rev. Williams adds that he “sees Pastor Tony not as a Mexican but as a man,” and that a central tenet of his faith is the equality of all people, despite their differences, and the need for acceptance and assistance for all. Further, Rev. Williams said that the boundaries that humans draw between countries are not boundaries that God recognizes, and that he feels a sympathy and responsibility for helping neighbors regardless of their race, nationality, or legal status. Several other focus group participants agreed, leading us to conclude that the underlying basis of this coalition springs more from religious and faith-based sentiments than economic, social, or political roots and motives.

In terms of the “collaborative capacity” issues identified in our research, this group has remained rather small and is limited by a scarcity of resources and external support in their effort to promote change. Both Revs. Williams and Gaona have inspired a small circle of associates, who are well-informed about the issues and are committed to this cause, they recognize the need for more people to get involved and take on leadership roles. But where the resources needed for this will come from and what the most useful activities or programs for encouraging wider participation and social change should be are questions that hover over this group, waiting for good answers.

Click here to view the full report.

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