Community Champion Mary Harris Reveals Secrets to Successful Activism

Mary Harris, third from left, stands with her husband Al Harris and family at the Neighborhood Empowerment Network award show in January. WILL CARRUTHER/INGLESIDE-EXCELSIOR LIGHT

Arguably the most tireless activist in the Ocean View-Merced Heights-Ingleside neighborhood, Mary Harris was drawn to community activism by the leadership of the late Minnie and Lovie Ward.

Harris has plugged away at the issues facing the southern neighborhoods since the 1990s and serves as president of OMI Neighbors In Action and the District 11 Council  and is involved with a dozen more community organizations.

In January, Harris was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Neighborhood Empowerment Network, and the “Keeping the Dream Alive Award” from the Recreation and Parks Department for her “continuous advocacy for [the] Minnie and Lovie Ward Recreation Center and the OMI Community.”

Ask Harris about her career as an activist and you will hear a stream of stories featuring ex-mayors, supervisors and department heads from years of battling to get funding for neighborhood projects. Among the stream of stories, a series of lessons for community activism emerges.

Show appreciation: Although it is now “very common” for Harris to go to a meeting every night of the week, she says that she understands that such a rigorous schedule isn’t possible for everyone.

“When our four children were younger, it was impossible to go to a lot of meetings,” Harris says. “My focus then was on the schools as an officer in the Parent Teacher Association.”

When she became PTA president, Harris organized an annual teacher appreciation luncheon to wine and dine the faculty.

Now, when politicians come to neighborhood meetings, Harris makes sure to make them feel important by thanking them for coming, introducing them to people, and asking how long they are able to stay.

Work with whoever is in power: As a community activist, supervisors, mayors and department heads come and go, while neighborhood problems remain the same. With that in mind, Harris avoids disagreements with politicians whenever possible.

“My philosophy as [District 11 Council President] is, I don’t care who gets elected. I don’t care if Godzilla is elected. We are going to be respectful and work together. If we don’t, we’re not going to get anything,” Harris says. “If you are in power and I need something from you, you’re not going to know that I can’t stand you.”

Numbers matter: “Never, never go to a meeting alone,” Harris said, adamantly.

“You need a witness, and they need to know that you’re not just one person saying, ‘This is my pet little [project],’” Harris says. “None of things I have done in my community has been for me or my family.  It has always been about all the children of the OMI. I think of them as my children and they somewhere to go and something positive to do.”

Organize your requests: At a public safety meeting in October to discuss a string of fatal shootings in Ocean View, Harris tried to wrangle a crowd of angry residents.

The topic of the night brought back memories of a time when Ocean View was a much more violent place and hundreds of frustrated residents showed up to safety meetings with the police and politicians.

“We had that opportunity right there of having our supervisor and the police there and saying, ‘We don’t feel safe in our neighborhood, this is where we’re raising our children. We need another [police] substation like we used to have.’ Whatever it is [that you want], but you never let them leave the room without [promising] improvements,” Harris says.

Instead, the crowd talked about how the neighborhood streets had too much garbage on them and reminisced about the area’s once large black community.

A day-time event organized after the meeting amounted to a photo-op, with no mention of the police substation that residents asked for at the meeting.

“All they did was shake hands with [the owner of Lacy’s Barbershop] and went to Ana’s Market and said, ‘Oh, look. We came out to your neighborhood,’” Harris says.

Make them come to you: Many of the projects Harris advocates for involve aging buildings, parks and roads. In these cases, Harris found it is best to show politicians or city officials the problems in person.

“I usually advocate for politicians to come to us,” Harris says from experience. “You need to see the school, you need to see the field, you need to see the leaky roof on the rec center.”

This article first appeared in the Ingleside-Excelsior Light’s February 2017 print edition.

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