Despite the negative characterization that the term has received lately, Dorothy Coleman is proud to be a community organizer.
Coleman is the neighborhood liaison for the Newtown Pike Extension project, a job that keeps her walking a tightrope among the interests of three levels of government and the residents of one of the most economically depressed areas in Fayette County.
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"I am always amazed at the amount of grief she puts up with, from us and from the neighborhood," said Andrew Grunwald, project manager for the city of Lexington. "It is just amazing. I'm sure she gets frustrated, but she gets up every day and goes back and does it again."
I'm going to write a few columns about this project, but for now I want to focus on Coleman.
Her job since 2002 has been to educate Davis Bottom residents about community land trusts and shared ownership of land, about a road plan that will require the demolition of and the rebuilding of their homes and neighborhood, and about opportunities to end generational poverty.
"This is the biggest job that I have ever done," Coleman said. "It is lasting the longest, with the most impact and the most changes."
She has worked with projects in Georgetown that involved moving people from welfare to homeownership, and she has worked in Danville with a program that focused on revitalizing a neighborhood.
"When I do this type of work, what I have found is that it is much more community development than homeownership," said Coleman, 53. "It's about developing communities and getting people ready to make changes in their lives. It is a real task to do that."
The Newtown Pike extension, which will improve access to South Broadway and later to South Limestone at the entrance to the University of Kentucky, has been talked about for years. The talk, however, was mainly among engineers, planners and government officials and was focused on a road.
In 2002, representatives of Davis Bottom, where the road's impact would be overwhelming, insisted that the project needed someone who would be paid by the government but who was not working for the government, Grunwald said. The residents would be able to go to the person for answers and trust that their interests would be heard.
Most road projects don't require an independent liaison, he said, but this one does, with its complex social and economic issues, the land buyouts and the disruption of lives.
The committee selected Coleman from 20 applicants.
"We set it up as 40 hours a week, but it has never been that," Grunwald said. "It's 24 hours a day, on call. She molds her schedule around the residents down there."
Brian Cash, the former consulting project manager, said that before Coleman took the job, meetings with residents would draw about 10 people. Since then, the numbers have tripled.
"We had a tough time getting in with the neighborhood," he said, and the tendency for the government officials was to think that if "nobody showed up, everybody loves us."
The engineers and bureaucrats weren't as deft at working with people as they were with numbers and plans, Cash said.
"Dorothy just brought a whole different perspective," he said. "She took it personally when we made a decision that didn't consider the residents."
Because of Coleman, Cash said, he had a chance to see the true essence of Davis Bottom.
"We wouldn't have gotten to know the neighbors," he said. "They are a special group. It has been an eye-opening experience for me, and I'll never forget it."
A lifelong resident of Lexington, Coleman could have accepted her place on a list of statistics that predicted that she would not succeed.
A single mother at 17, living in a one-bedroom apartment in the Bluegrass Aspendale housing authority, she went to work at the Hunter Foundation for Health Care, Lexington's first HMO. There, she was encouraged to attend a vocational school to learn to be an office manager.
She tried medical transcription at two local hospitals, but neither worked out.
One day, a cousin brought her a box of papers that included applications to the University of Kentucky, the ACT test, and financial aid.
"I think you need to go to UK," Coleman recalled the cousin saying. "I said, 'Girl, they don't let single mothers go to UK.'"
Her cousin assured her that they did, and within a day and a half, all the forms had been filled out and she had visited the campus. "I thought it was a foreign land," she said.
At first, she majored in pharmacy, still clinging to her medical background. But chemistry and physics did her in. An adviser suggested she change her major to child development and family studies.
"When I did that, I was so humiliated, because I thought I was a failure," Coleman said. "I had let my family and friends down."
But her adviser told her, "God has his eye on you," Coleman said, tears welling in her eyes. "I'm going to cry. After 30 years, I still cry about this. She said, 'I can see you are going to do great things.'"
With degree in hand, Coleman has worked in domestic violence, has trained child-care workers, has worked in drug and alcohol prevention and as a family therapist. She has helped start programs that are still in place.
Coleman, who now has two daughters and a son she adopted, said when her older daughter was headed for college, she started a consulting business, Diversified Solutions.
"I started it because I kept losing jobs," she said, laughing, "because the grant money would run out."
At first, the part-time business involved giving drug-free workshops for the housing authority, and seminars. Then it grew into community development, sending her to Georgetown and Danville.
That experience set her above the other applicants for neighborhood liaison.
"I've never before worked for a project that had this much federal, state and local involvement simultaneously," she said.
Maranna Perkins, who lives in Davis Bottom, said Coleman has kept residents in the know.
"If she knows about it, she'll let you know about it," Perkins said. "They could have moved us out and not gave a hoot."
Coleman "goes beyond her duties," Perkins said. "If we need a ride, she'll come and get us and doesn't worry about the gas. Or if we just need to talk, I can call her any time."
Coleman wouldn't have it any other way.
"This is my golden opportunity to — not with my own money, but someone else's — to see people's lives change for the better," she said.