Melissa Garcia never felt safe in the Westmoreland Park neighborhood of West Dallas where she had lived with her parents and brother for years.
“I remember one time when I got out of band camp, I walked home because my mom was working. Cars would stop and honk because they thought I was a prostitute—and I was just a student,” says Garcia (not her real name). “My parents didn’t sleep well because you’d just never know when someone was going to try to break into the house.” A drug dealer operated out of the house next door.
Eventually, the Garcia family decided to contact a nonprofit organization that had moved into West Dallas. The group’s name reflected its ambition: Advocates for Community Transformation. With ACT’s help, the Westmoreland Park drug house was shut down and crime began to dissipate.
Founded in 2009 by local lawyer Reid Porter, ACT empowers inner-city residents to fight crime on their streets. The ministry aims to reduce the number of crime-ridden properties, prevent criminal networks from expanding, and restore dignity and hope to the communities it serves. It’s a lofty goal that takes street-level action.
“What that looks like is going house by house, street by street,” says Porter, one of this year’s winners of the Richard Cornuelle Award for Social Entrepreneurship, which was presented by the Manhattan Institute in October. “It means empowering neighborhood leaders to sustain this work over time. It’s an opportunity to pray with neighbors, incorporate local churches.”
ACT began its work in the Westmoreland Park and Ledbetter Gardens neighborhoods in West Dallas, and then moved into Westmoreland Heights in 2012 and later to Cross Hampton and Victory Gardens. Its goal in each neighborhood has been a 50 percent reduction in crime over a five-year period, achieved by identifying and finding a resolution for 75 percent of the drug properties in each community. ACT has accomplished that in its original neighborhoods. In fact, seven years after the organization’s inception, crime has gone down in its first two target neighborhoods by 70 percent.
ACT’s main function is as a middleman. When a drug or prostitution house is identified, the organization will join families in the community and refer them to a volunteer lawyer who will take on their case. Sometimes the house will be torn down. Other times the landlord will kick out the bad-acting tenants. So far, ACT has resolved 80 cases in West Dallas alone. Three of those have gone to court, and all were decided in ACT’s favor. This is the result of partnerships with the City Attorney’s Office, major law firms, churches, SMU’s Center on Research and Evaluation, and, not least important, the Dallas Police Department.
“Chief [David] Brown was really supportive in helping a lot of the other police officers understand our work,” Porter says. “Our hope is that, through our work, we can bring about a stronger community-police department cohesion.”
This year, ACT began expanding its vision to South Dallas, in the Frazier and Mill City neighborhoods just southeast of Fair Park, where Porter has the same five-year, 50 percent crime reduction goal, but with new challenges.
“What we’re really hoping to do is figure out a way that we can begin placing more field teams all over the city,” Porter says. “Thinking through next steps would be how and when this model goes into local markets and cities across the country.”