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  • Writer's picturePortia Shepherd

Community women’s non-profit consolidates resources for citizens in the Black Belt

Madison Duboise, Contributing Writer August 21, 2022

The Black Belt is a region in Alabama with a deeply rooted history. While it does contain nine out of the ten poorest counties in Alabama, there is one thing you will find in abundance within the area: community. 

BlackBelt Women Rising is a nonprofit organization located in Uniontown, Alabama, south of Tuscaloosa, that is serving surrounding communities that make up the Black Belt. The Black Belt spans several Southern states, and includes Greene, Hale, Marengo, Perry, Sumter and Wilcox counties in Alabama. 

The study, Poverty, Housing, & GDP in Alabama’s Black Belt, found that the most recent census data showed that six out of the 25 counties located in the Black Belt had at least 25% of their population living under the poverty line. The average for the region was 23.8%.

According to the Black Farmers Network, the Black Belt is named for its thick, rich soil that made it popular with plantations and white slave owners in the 1700s and 1800s. While it originally referred to the color of the soil, the Black Belt came to designate counties that were majority Black in population, which meant the area has also been historically underfunded and has faced economic and environmental discrimination.

The Black Belt faces poverty, educational system challenges, healthcare access inequities and infrastructure challenges. Changing these deep-rooted issues requires a very particular approach.

“This community has changed over the years, not for the greater but for the worse because of lack of leadership,” said Portia Shepherd, the executive director of BlackBelt Women Rising. “They have taken advantage of the people not understanding how things really go.”

The nonprofit is dedicated to serving the Black community and those facing crisis through their use of culturally-specific sensitive resources. They focus on domestic violence, sexual assault, HIV awareness, poverty and environmental injustice.

Since BlackBelt Women Rising was established in 2019, Shepherd has been working towards one large mission: “bringing resources home.” They connect members in the community battling these social issues with resources that other non-profits offer that often go unused. 

Shepherd is from the Black Belt, so the community is home to her. She started this organization when she moved back home during the pandemic and saw that the area needed someone to help be a voice. 

“This area is full of great people that are full of love and have been taken advantage of,” Shepherd said. “What is happening is they don’t have the connections or the resources to voice their concerns in a way to say that we are in need of help.”

Through prevention education, court advocacy and training workshops, the nonprofit aims to highlight three main topics; gender justice, environmental justice, and domestic violence and sexual assault victim advocacy. 

Shepherd shared a story about four million cubic yards of coal ash being moved to a landfill in Uniontown, one of the numerous cases of environmental injustice in the area. On top of this, an antiquated sewage system has been in state courts for years after violating the Clean Water Act, and this isn’t helped by Harvest Select, a catfish processing company, sending large volumes of waste into the sewage system.

In the past decade, several Uniontown residents have filed complaints through the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Civil Rights, claiming that the landfill has had several negative health impacts, such as throat and eye irritation, dizziness, nausea and more.

“It is heartbreaking. That is what keeps me motivated to keep going, knowing that these services are important so that people can get the help they need,” Shepherd said. 

Marcia Briggins, the environmental coordinator for the nonprofit, started working with BlackBelt Women Rising through her own organization Re-Right The Culture in 2021. Within the Black Belt, limited access to healthy food, unsafe housing, inadequate transportation and pollution have had deep effects on the people of the area on top of the environmental concerns.

“The voices for low poverty black communities are silenced and never given equal or fair opportunities,” Briggins said. 

In a city of around 2000 people, Uniontown’s population is more than 97% Black, and the poverty rate is higher than 64%.

“It has been a great asset being a direct contact with citizens informing them about their water usage, meeting councilman and hosting community meeting,” Briggins said. “I have and am building a link to the citizens with the information they have missed.”

Madelyn Mehrer, the LGBTQ coordinator, has hosted monthly Zoom calls with LGBTQ members of the Black Belt community to have themed discussions geared towards having open conversations about LGBTQ related topics.

These Zoom calls create engaging dialogue that supports LGBTQ members in the region. Community members of all ages can engage in meaningful conversation about issues that are affecting them.

“People need to feel understood in order to trust you and for you to be able to help them,” Mehrer said. 

BlackBelt Women Rising hosts training and education programs for all community members to attend. They plan to host more in-person events as they continue to serve the community.

Justice for members of the Black Belt has been lacking, and BlackBelt Women Rising hopes to connect the community with the resources they need.

“I think that since these people have been pretty consistently forgotten, it is really important that BlackBelt Women Rising and other organizations like us try to uplift their voices and make their rights known to them,” Mehrer said. 

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