ACTS: A Grassroots Organization
Mia Phifer, Part-time Intern from the Department of History, UWM
What is it about ACTS that makes unique? The answer lies in ACTS' foundation – more specifically, in the motivations and philosophies established by the organization’s founders which compelled them to actively form relationships with members of the communities they served.
Father Dennis Lewis, a diocesan priest of Milwaukee since the 1970s had an idea that led to the founding of Allied Churches Teaching Self-Empowerment, or ACTS as it was formerly known. His idea was inspired by the growing number of Hmong and Laotians seeking refuge in the American Midwest from the Vietnam War. Many were struggling to find permanent homes and build successful communities in the United States. In 1988, Father Dennis, reassigned to St. Michael's Church in the Washington Park neighborhood, was "confronted with a growing population of post-Vietnam... Hmong and Lao, who were in rental situations, and were unfamiliar with banks and loans, and needed to move from rental situations to ownership." At the same time when many of these refugees were arriving in the Midwest, the neighborhood was experiencing intense de-industrialization. Manufacturing jobs that many of the residents traditionally had access to were hard to come by and even harder to keep.
What started out as a couple of unique cases where the church was able to find homes for some of these displaced people eventually turned into a full-blown operation after Father Dennis made contact with John Worm of Milwaukee's Department of City Development. In 1990, Father Dennis "personally went down to the bowels of the Department of City Development" only to discover that Worm was working out in the field. This solidified Father Dennis's confidence in making Worm a partner. ACTS became officially incorporated in 1992, and its official goal was "to get people into homeownership, build equity, and start their lives."
In 1993, Cha, now unemployed, was introduced to John Worm via a church friend who had purchased a home through ACTS for a dollar. Cha immediately realized, like Father Dennis had, Worm's commitment to empowering the people of the Washington Park neighborhood to become homeowners. She recalls, "John was paid by the city, but moved in to work here in the location in St. Mike's; that's why he was able to find some of the local renters and say 'Do you want to own your home? If you want to own your home, we can help.'" Cha contacted Worm when she wanted to buy a foreclosed house across the street from the one she and her husband already owned. Cha and Worm then collaborated on a lottery event for the house where Cha's family and friends were able to bid on it. After this event, Worm realized the benefits of having a community insider like Cha around, particularly when it came to finding and placing residents. He asked her to volunteer her time to contact potential homeowners and coach them through the process of homeownership. In return, he would mentor her in all facets of his job as director of ACTS and promised to hire her when the funding became available.
From there, Worm encouraged Cha to pursue her real estate license. "I said 'I don't think I can get that! That is something, like, difficult, you know?" Cha recalls, "And he said... 'You can do this,' and I said, 'Okay, I believe you. I'll do it.' So, that's when I start with ACTS." The computerized test for the license was administered only in English, which made it difficult for Cha to pass on her first try. However, due to the price of the test, Cha resolved to pass it the second time, becoming the first Hmong real estate agent in the state of Wisconsin. She would eventually go on to earn her broker's license to further assist ACTS. This test she passed on the first try.
John Worm's decision to invest in a community member who spoke the same language and shared the same experiences with ACTS' prospective clients allowed the organization to more readily communicate the benefits and process of homeownership and stewardship to these clients. Furthermore, as a community-insider-turned-real-estate-agent, Cha not only helped individuals find homes within their means, but also ensured ACTS was building viable communities of family and friends who would understand and look out for each other in their new homes.
As ACTS expanded its operation into areas of Milwaukee with other minority populations who were struggling to find adequate and affordable housing, its leaders decided to recreate Cha's position for other community members. For example, when ACTS' founders discovered that people living in Milwaukee's South side needed their assistance, they connected with Hilaria Rios who could do for the Latino community what Cha had been doing for the Hmong in Washington Park.
Today, Cha and Rios have placed Milwaukee's lower-income residents in over 1,000 homes. Mary Leach-Sumlin, the Housing Specialist for Milwaukee's predominately African-American Harambee neighborhood, has helped over 200 families achieve their homeownership dreams.
"What makes ACTS unique, I think, is that we try to listen to the aspirations of families with whom we work. We manipulate the existing systems to demonstrate how they might achieve their aspirations. We hope that their efforts actually achieve their goals."
Westside resident and community scholar Mike Howden adds to this account,
"I believe that Fr. John Baumgartner, the pastor at St. Michael’s at the time, was another one of the initial developers of ACTS. I believe this was in about 1970. I remember going to lunch several times with them as they discussed how to get it started. I also believe that there was a third person, the woman who staffed the Interfaith Program for the Elderly who had an office at St. Michael’s. Sorry I can’t remember her name. (She died at an early age many years ago.) My understanding is that she may have even initiated the idea because she became acquainted with many of the elderly German American widows who belonged to the parish, were unable to keep up or remain in their homes, and were being scammed by the slumlords into selling their homes for nothing."
Photo Credits: ACTS Housing