On Thursday, March 5, over 450 Montgomery County residents streamed into the sanctuary of The People’s Community Baptist Church for AIM’s Accountability Action.
The Burnt Mills Elementary School chorus kicked off the evening’s activities with upbeat musical selections that highlighted the school’s commitment to diversity and community. Many of the chorus members—along with their families, teachers, and administration—fought for two years alongside South Lake Elementary to win $72 Million for new school construction last fall for themselves.
AIM leaders Diana Wilson of The People’s Community Baptist Church and Adileh Sharieff of Islamic Center of Maryland explained the work of AIM in general and for the evening: “We build power by building relationships…. We find solutions to problems facing the people in our communities. We then use our power to hold elected officials and community leaders accountable to our agenda.”
Cider Mill Apartments
Ms. Sonia de Leon—a parent leader of Linkages to Learning at South Lake ES, resident leader with Safe Places tenants’ association at Cider Mill Apartments, and a parishioner at St. Rose of Lima Catholic Parish—shared about her experiences living at Cider Mill Apartments for 12 years.
In 2018, when the Housing Opportunities Commission (HOC) of Montgomery County proposed to purchase the apartments, “we were relieved,” said Ms. de Leon. “But quickly we became disappointed.”
Ms. de Leon spoke about security fears due to lack of proper lighting on the property, non-functioning washing machines to the point that 72% of her neighbors stopped attempting to use on-site laundry rooms, and general chaos surrounding maintenance requests.
Listening to Ms. de Leon voice her concerns was Stacy Spann, Director of the HOC, who is ultimately Ms. de Leon’s landlord. However, Ms. de Leon was not alone: dozens of her neighbors, along with the staff and administration of South Lake Elementary School, located next door to Cider Mill Apartments, and all of AIM stood with Ms. de Leon to express their grievance with HOC management and treatment of Cider Mill residents.
When confronted by Ms. de Leon, Ms. Carmen Vasquez, third-grade teacher at South Lake and former Cider Mill resident, and Ms. Celeste King, principal of South Lake, Stacy Spann promised residents of Cider Mill Apartments that he will:
- Finish installing the lighting plan had previously committed by June 30, 2020
- Replace all non-functioning laundry machines by July 30, 2020
- Implement a transparent process—in both English and Spanish—for handling and addressing maintenance requests in reasonable time frames by May 31, 2020
- Lead the staff of South Lake Elementary School on a tour of these improvements on July 30, 2020
Ms. Vasquez reminded the elected officials sitting on the platform (County Executive Elrich along with five County Councilmembers) that Montgomery County allocated $15 Million from the Housing Initiative Fund to HOC for the 2018 purchase of the property.
“Our elected officials are responsible for ensuring that taxpayer dollars are used responsibly,” Ms Vasquez admonished them. All elected officials present committed to help ensure follow-through on the promises Stacy Spann made.
Accountability & AIM’s Issue Agenda
Pastor Charles Tapp of Sligo Seventh-Day Adventist Church shifted the focus of the evening’s action toward AIM’s Issue Agenda, developed after listening to 3,000 MoCo residents in 2017. Last year, AIM won specific commitments from elected officials on key issue areas. But just getting those commitments is not enough: “We are here tonight,” explained Pastor Tapp, “because although promises have been made by some in power, that changes would be made, it appears that instead of solutions, we’ve received excuses.”
AIM leaders then spoke about the ways local decisions on equity in education, immigration, and affordable housing have impacted their personal lives.
Ms. Iris Antezana, mother of four children including one at Wheaton Woods Elementary School, emphasized that Excel Beyond the Bell is the only after-school program in the county that is focused on both curricular and extracurricular support for low-income students. “Will you commit to bring Excel Beyond the Bell to Wheaton Woods Elementary School and Cresthaven Elementary School?” asked Ms. Antezana.
Pastor Zangai Peabody of Bethel World Outreach Church argued that “local support is the best way we can fight back against this [immigration] injustice.”
He also delivered a memorable metaphor, comparing a promise to a crying baby in a theater. “You carry it out right away. You carry the whole baby out. You don’t carry it out in pieces. You don’t stop along the way,” admonished Pastor Peabody, speaking to county Executive Marc Elrich about the $170,000 yet to be spent of the $540,000 promised last year to fund legal support for immigrants facing deportation in Montgomery County.
Ms. Marion Forcha, member of St. Camillus Catholic Church and a sophomore studying Computer Science at the University of Maryland, spoke of the importance of affordable housing with access to public transportation. Her family is number 1,000+ on the Moderately Priced Dwelling Unit waitlist, and her family members need access to public transit to go to school and work. Ms. Forcha called attention to two broken promises by County Executive Elrich: 1) a letter to WMATA that was to have been sent last year, inviting WMATA meet with AIM to discuss building affordable housing on WMATA-owned land and 2) a yet-to-be-produced list of 3 county properties where affordable housing could be built.
Following these powerful testimonies, AIM leaders Diana Bird of The People’s Community Baptist Church and Steve Yank from St. Camillus Catholic Church asked three specific questions of the five County Councilmembers present.
- Will you expand Excel Beyond the Bell Elementary to two more schools in Montgomery County, specifically Cresthaven and Wheaton Woods Elementary?
- Will you increase funding for legal support for immigrants at risk of deportation from $540,000 to $750,000?
- Will you increase funding for the Housing Initiative Fund from $68 Million to $75 Million?
The Councilmembers were asked in random order to respond yes/no to each question. Their responses were as follows:
|1. EBBE expansion||2. Immigration funding increase||3. HIF funding increase|
|Evan Glass||Yes||“Will do my best”||Yes|
|Sidney Katz||“Will do my best”||“Will do my best”||“Will do my best”|
While we are grateful and thrilled by the willingness of our elected officials to publicly affirm these commitments, we know that it’s easy enough to answer “yes” to a question. It’s more difficult to follow through. In the coming weeks, AIM leaders will be working to hold Councilmembers Albornoz, Glass, Jawando, Katz, and Riemer accountable to what they said they would do. AIM leaders will be speaking up in budget hearings and listening carefully in committee meetings to ensure that these elected officials keep their promises.
After listening to over 3,000 Montgomery County residents in 2017, AIM leaders worked together to identify the issues that comprise the current AIM agenda. A lot has changed since 2017 in Montgomery County, but one thing has remained constant: the rapid increase in the county’s wealth gap.
At the action, Rev. Nancy McDonald Ladd of River Road Unitarian Universalist Church exhorted the 450+ AIM leaders in the room to make a commitment of their own: to listen to each other and members of their communities in organized listening sessions, so that AIM can identify the issues most pressing to Montgomery County families today.
After Rev. Ladd’s stirring call to action, AIM leaders caucused by institution. In their groups, they set target goals of numbers of people to listen and began brainstorming listening sessions within their institutions. Representatives from each member institution announced their target goals before the entire assembly—together, AIM has committed to listening to at least 1,825 residents of Montgomery County in order to craft a new agenda to ensure equity for ALL of Montgomery County.
See you there!