FRIDAY | JULY 25, 2014

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Our Strength is In Our Numbers, Says Sheila Tyson in Birmingham

Filed under: Families,South
 

For Sheila Tyson of Birmingham, Ala., community activism and speaking up for what’s right runs in the family.

“When I was growing up, my mother was a community activist; she stood up for people who couldn’t stand up for themselves. I do it, too. It feels funny if I don’t,” she said.

“If there is a need in your community, you should be willing to step in and fulfill it,” said Tyson. “That’s how I grew up.”

As a child, Tyson started mowing lawns for senior citizens. At 13, she was registering voters.

Today, as an active member of Greater Birmingham Ministries and president of the West End neighborhood group and of the Birmingham Citizens Advisory Board, Tyson speaks up for those whose voices otherwise would not be heard.

“We think that we don’t have a voice, but we don’t realize how much strength we have in numbers. Our strength is our numbers,” she said.

Tyson can often be found taking food or medicine to families in some of Birmingham’s poorest neighborhoods. She uses her voice to challenge the city council, take on the Jefferson County commissioners, encourage African-American families to get flu vaccinations,  fight to save a hospital for low income families, and testify about sewer fees.

Especially the sewer fees.

A $4 billion sewer refinance project by the Jefferson County Commission and some investors went sour. Nearly two dozen people, including several county commissioners, ended up in jail for fraud. The county is in bankruptcy. And the county’s poorest residents are left paying the bills, Tyson said.

“They are trying to pay for the sewer system on the backs of poor people,” said Tyson. “It’s a shame and a disgrace.”

“A lot of people actually went to jail over this, but they still want people in Districts 1 and 2 to pay the bill – the poorest and most underserved districts in the whole state.”

Tyson said sewer charges increased 394 percent, with some people facing sewer bills of $300 or $400 a month. Because the county bills sewer and water service together, the more than 1,500 people unable to pay the increased sewer charges had their water turned off.

Some began renting portable toilets for their backyards.

City officials, embarrassed by the growing rows of “porta-potties,” told residents they were required to have running water in their homes – or move out.

Churches and agencies collected donations to help some families have their water service restored, but many are still collecting rainwater or using bathwater to flush the toilet, afraid to risk getting high bills again.

Tyson refuses to give up and shares the story of Birmingham’s sewers far and wide – the sewer story has been covered by national news and even the BBC in England.

“It is a quality of life issue. You have a 40-year mortgage on your house; now, you are supposed to have a 40-year mortgage on your toilet, too?” asked Tyson.

Note: Other stories in the Family Voices series include an overview piece and interviews with Norman Fong, Romanetha Looper and Sarah Rios.

2013 © Equal Voice for America’s Families Newspaper

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