Slowly the East Side Community Union grew a large, dynamic welfare rights project; a housing and rent strike committee, organizing building by building demanding fair rents and reasonable upkeep and repairs; a community health project led by two young doctors; a storefront office where people could drop in for coffee and conversation; a preschool operating out of a church basement; and a community newsletter. Each activity was an attempt to open a space for participation, the daily enactment once again of democracy, everything built intentionally with the energy and intelligence of the people of Lakeview—energy and intelligence largely invisible and ignored from afar, but, we thought, robust and fierce up close. Dorothea Hill never missed an opportunity to underline the point: I'm poor because I haven't got any money. I'm not mentally ill! I'm not lazy! I'm not stupid!
The immense panorama of waste and cruelty was overwhelming. Mom sent me a package of chocolate chip cookies and fruit, and it felt like an anachronistic gift sailing in from another world, a different time. Wanting simply to help, the job would be unending. But I did want to help. And I thought the Community Union was on to help of a different type, help that would enable people to help themselves, help that was strengthening and enlarging, help that would give people the courage to forever resist the casual disregard of their humanity.
Lofty, true, but down to earth as well. For example, after school every day for weeks I worked with half a dozen neighbors on a research project. We bought five pounds of hamburger from the supermarket on our street, and then traveled all over the area on different days buying five pounds of hamburger from every branch store we could find—in other Black communities, the hillbilly neighborhood, working class and wealthy suburbs. We cooked the meat under controlled scientific conditions—in Dorothea's kitchen in her big black cast-iron frying pan over medium heat while we all watched. When we poured off the grease, bingo. The hamburger sold in the Black neighborhoods was twice as fatty as that sold in Shaker Heights; the white burger always leaner than the Black burger. After carefully charting our findings, Dorothea added tomato paste and beans and we all joined in to eat the research results—fat or lean—over fluffy white rice.
When we presented our findings to the city council they didn't believe it, but everyone on the block knew we were right—hamburger tactics ruled.
Mrs. Hill was growing, too, as a leader in the city and then in the state. She led a march of "poverty warriors" from Cleveland to Columbus and spoke at church rallies every night. She was tireless, drawing energy, she said, from God and my children. Here come the poverty pimps, Alex said, shaking his head in disgust as agents of the government-sponsored poverty programs began to appear. This was the competition, hard to acknowledge as genuine, although several social workers became friends of ours over time.