LOW PROFILE An Active Voice

For a shy man, John Fullinwider manages to make himself heard.

MISTING RAIN PUTS SEQUINS ON John Fullinwider’s full beard, wets his rimless glasses, and dampens the dark ponytail falling down the back of a Jeans jacket that once, long ago, was white. The November weather also holds down the crowd at today’s rally and march through the Wiest Dallas Housing Project.

Fullinwider has been working all morning setting up the PA system he carried over in his battered VW bus. As usual, he looks like someone who took a Rip Van Winkle nap after Woodstock. As usual, he is one of the few whites involved in organizing a rally aimed at helping underprivileged minorities.

When his turn comes at the speaker’s platform, Fullinwider work the mostly black and Hispanic crowd with a spiel that sounds practiced yet somehow unnatural.

“Who’s the biggest thief in West Dallas?” he shouts. Response is muted. Like the former schoolteacher he is, he explains that it’s a rhetorical question. His answer-“the Dallas Housing Authority!**-if raw s a few automatic amens.

’The thief with the fountain pen is worse than the thief with a knife” draws more claps, but “there’s a bigger turf war going here than the guys in the street with guns” produces mostly puzzled looks.

Fullinwider perseveres and eventually gets the crowd half worked-up. He’s stiff, though, compared to the preachers, gospel singers,

and other polished speakers who take their turns. He finishes and steps down looking relieved.

“For a shy person to become an activist feels odd,” Fullinw]ider says. And despite ten years of working in various Dallas causes, always in the name of the poor and disenfranchised, he remains an odd rabble-rouser.

If you’ve followed issues like housing, neighborhood preservation, or industrial pollution in Dallas with even half an ear, you know who John Fullinwider is. He’s the one, looking like a ghost from the Sixties, who has something to say to the city administration and the press on anything from El Salvador to 10-4-1.

Talking to him, the overriding impression is not of the issues, or even his well-reasoned, data-stuffed opinions. What you notice is the lack of any hint of a hidden agenda. Try as you might to be cynical, what you wind up with is a man who could have done just about anything, but decided to spend his life doing what he thinks is right. There is more to John Fullinwider than an aginner, or an opportunist seizing on a social issue as a chance for self-promotion. To the folks who ask him when he’s going to make a run at an elected position, his standard answer is, “I’m going to run for cover before I run for office.”

Fullinwider is Fullinwider’s least favorite subject. But the mildmannered thirty-sev-en-year-old is a worthwhile rarity, a man respected for his intelligence, ability, and integrity by friend and foe alike.

Fullinwider and councilwoman Diane Ragsdale co-founded Common Ground Community Economic Development Corporation. Today Fullinwider directs the organization, which concentrates on renovating substandard homes in Dallas’s depressed areas. The two have worked together on numerous issues.

“John’s contribution is his intelligence, research, and analysis,” says Ragsdale. “He’s a very good man.”

West Dallas state legislator Fred Blair agrees: “John moves comfortably in black and brown circles without being a suspect.”

Even Fullinwider’s nemesis goes along. Since Alphonso Jackson came from Washington, D.C., to head the Dallas Housing Authority a year ago, he’s been Fullinwider’s most frequent target.

“I don’t think we’ve agreed on one issue,” says Jackson. “But I think he’s a very intelligent man, and he’s sincere in his belief to do what’s right for lower- and moderate-income people.”

Attorney Joe Crews, who last summer won the landmark lawsuit aimed at forcing local governments nationwide to accept responsibility for housing their citizens, credits Fullinwider’s testimony in large part for the win. “Everybody familiar with the case advised me against putting John on the stand because of his appearance,” says Crews. “I put him on anyway and he was absolutely scintillating.”

Ah, the appearance. Fullinwider verges on annoyance when asked why he looks the way he does. “Why can’t you just look like you want?” he wants to know. That’s about as close as you can get to knowing why he looks the way he does.

Why he does what he does is less mysterious. Fullinwider was born and raised in Dallas and went to Thomas Jefferson High School. A high draft lottery number kept him out of the military in 1971 and he went to Austin to go to college.

After graduation he planned on keeping himself, his English degree, and his Phi Beta Kappa key in Austin. Instead, he got an of- fer to teach high school English in Dallas and wound up at Sarah Zumwald in South Oak Cliff in 1977. It was an eye-opener.

“The books were hand-me-downs from my high school in 1970,” Fullinwider says. Even more than the cast-off textbooks, the impoverished, drug- and crime-ridden living conditions of his students impressed the young teacher. “You could see how it affected the children,” he says. Trying to do something about it, he drifted into the Bois D’Arc Patriots. While writing leaflets and doing research, he learned how to organize communities from old-time activists like Charlie Young and Elsie Faye Heggins.

He helped found the East Dallas Community School, still going after twelve years. Before long, though, he began to see housing as more basic than education; it became John Fullinwider’s issue, his passion, and his life. Running Common Ground is also Fullinwider’s full-time job. It’s how he helps support his family-wife Sandy Rollins, director of the Dallas office of the Texas Tenants Union, and, since September, infant son Isaac.

Common Ground, since its founding in 1982, has refurbished almost sixty single-family homes that it rents and, in some cases, sells to inner-city residents. With donated funds, the organization bought, restored, and operates a one-time flophouse near Baylor University Medical Center as a low-income housing alternative.

Under Fullinwider’s direction, Common Ground set up its own federal credit union, loaning money for homes, cars, and businesses in West Dallas. This strategy points up Fullinwider’s paradoxical plan: work within the system to right wrongs created by that system.

The closing of the West Dallas lead smelter, he says, was activism’s high point in Dallas. He doesn’t tell you it was he, poring over the zoning code, who discovered the violation that plugged the smokestack. Instead, he recalls the way the neighborhood’s citizens rose up to protest the poisoning.

On this rainy day, as he walks through the projects, Fullinwider points out the boarded-up units, nearly two-thirds of the total of 3,500 apartments. They represent his movement’s most telling failure to stop the destruction of West Dallas housing.

But he speaks without rancor. Even while decrying the development forces that he says covet the housing project’s acreage for industry, he declines to impute crimes and malice to his opponents. After a decade of arraying himself against the engines that turn Dallas’s gears, John Fullinwider understands what makes his hometown tick. “It doesn’t have to be a conspiracy,” he says. “It’s just the market.”

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