I Sat Where They Sat

Rev. Donald L. Perryman, D.Min.

By Rev. Donald L. Perryman, Ph.D.
The Truth Contributor

  Unless you sit where others sit, you cannot really know them or understand them.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.                                                                                     

Tina Butts has been able to accomplish what few others can. The Toledo native and graduate of the “University of Hard Knocks” has brought a burgeoning transformation to the Greenbelt Place Apartments.

In this tough, crime-ridden neighborhood, which even police try to avoid, people are just trying to survive rather than climb some idealistic ladder of success.

Meanwhile, most other local attempts to deal with social and economic problems prevalent in under-resourced neighborhoods have failed.

Is our failure to address massive problems in neighborhoods like the Greenbelts that the previously commissioned “saviors” arrived clothed in privilege and lived experience not present in the Black underclass?

The truth is that answers to social issues lie with those who have lived “in proximity to the problems.” Having “sat where the people sat,” Tina Butts’ lived experience has empowered her to uniquely speak to the day-to-day realities within the Greenbelt Place experience.

I caught up and spoke with Butts about her life’s journey, community work, and connections.

Perryman: You and your organization, The Movement, have done extraordinary work as the collective voice of the residents in the Greenbelt Parkway. Please tell our readers a bit about your personal history.

Butts: I grew up in the Bancroft-Upton area, on Joffre. I also lived on Mackow and then the Weiler area. I went to Rogers, DeVilbiss and Scott. I spent time in foster homes, went to Detroit, Michigan, with my uncle, and stayed there briefly. I graduated from Job Corps there and then returned to Toledo.

Perryman: Do you mind talking about your experience in the foster system?

Butts: My dad died, and my mom was in the streets and ended up going to prison. So, it was a rocky road for a minute.

Perryman: Can you elaborate?

Butts: Thank God I decided that the roads I took in life were the roads that kept me focused. At a tender age, I had seen some things that I was like, ‘I ain’t gone never have any man beat on me and take my money.’ Life itself taught me a lot, and I was very observant. My dad was blind but would tell me this is stuff you don’t want to be involved with. His word was golden, so I stuck to it whatever he did or said. Later he died, and at that point, we were living in the Moody Manor. I became a mother raising my siblings at a young age. But my dad was my best friend and mentor, who taught me how the streets were.

Perryman: How did you survive?

Butts: I worked for a law firm at age 16 while going through school in Detroit. I was intrigued by the people that worked there and how sharp they dressed. I was like, “Wow, I wish I could get out of a limo with a suit on. This is the life I want.” So, then I ended up coming back home, working at Northwest Ohio Developmental Center for a while, and being very close with some of the clients. It was kind of old school. We changed their clothes. We would take them to the stores and buy them designer clothing. We would put them in the van, take them bowling, to church, and start making them look different, take them to the beauty shop.

Then I went to beauty school. At that time, I had my son, so I would catch the bus, drop him off at Toledo Day Nursery and walk to cosmetology school on St. Clair. I went on to work at Mixed Company with Ms. Jean Cason, and then I opened up my own beauty salon, Hair It Is.

Perryman: Did you do anything else?

Butts: I worked at Chrysler for three years but was determined to get my real estate license. The factory was like a prison – no grass, no windows, nothing. So, the day I passed the real estate test, I returned to the plant, got all my stuff, and resigned. Then I worked for Danberry Real Estate for 16 years and did housing development for Friendship Church.

Perryman: How did you get connected to your bail bond company?

Butts: Friendship had an Intensive Outpatient Program. Several people going through the substance abuse program would end up back in trouble, then jail. I was like, ‘We can help a lot of people that get caught up in the system with drugs by becoming a bail bond. So, that’s how I started. I continued to go on to school and took the bail bond class. I’ve been a bail bondsman for 10 years, helping people.

Perryman: How did The Movement start?

Butts:  The Movement began in the bail bond office after watching how people were treated in the system. I sought to rally the people who come here and get them engaged and registered to vote. So, we started going into the neighborhoods, getting food trucks, beauty shops and churches to get voters to the polls at election time.

We continued to advocate for the judges we felt were fair and then branched out to support other elected officials. Finally, we began to share information and resources in different areas like healthcare, mental health, seniors, and other areas to support those who are supporting our community.

Perryman: Let’s talk about your unparalleled work at the Greenbelts.

Butts:  We started out doing vaccinations there, and that’s another story. We saw some of the most horrible living conditions, and I said, ‘I don’t understand how people can pass by here every day. These are our people. This is our community, and we just turn a blind eye.

Then the City jumped in, talking about ‘We’re gonna shut it down.’ So, I said, “Wait, hold up! Where are these people gonna live? Y’all dump some money over here. We gotta help these people.”

So, I met with Rene Campos, the owner, and Commissioner Pete Gerken. The Movement is now there Monday through Friday on site.

Perryman: What specific ways do you help the residents?

Butts: People have to clean their apartments. We have to develop a system and make sure that we teach people how to take care of their homes. We started working with the mothers to teach them how, if they get ‘x’ amount of food stamps, then how to go to the grocery store. We have to teach them how to care,” and it just snowballed.

The Lucas County Children Service board comes out every Monday. They are developing friendship relationships and connecting with kids. We just had a job fair I set up over there today, and seven people start jobs next week that signed up. So, it’s a long process and has a ways to go. Everybody’s getting their lights fixed and refrigerators put in. Some people were without heat for two years, but they didn’t know any better. So, they’d just go buy a heater.

Perryman: They couldn’t advocate for themselves.

Butts: But now, they’re becoming engaged. We have a couple of people that live over there. Every morning we are there from 9-12, cleaning up the parking lots. It’s just so overwhelming. They see the change. They’ve got a new parking lot now. We just had that paved. They’re getting new screen doors, getting windows put in. So now that they’re seeing things changing, people take pride in what they got. Of course, everything is not picture-perfect, and I will be the first to say it. But they’re getting new blinds and air conditioners and weeding out some bad people who just don’t care and are helping those who want help.

Residents are getting GEDs. We’re connecting people with mental issues and getting them services. So now that they know that there are resources available, we can connect the people or just bring the resources to them.

Perryman: Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty.  When even the police or others shy away from going into the Greenbelts, how can you get results that nobody else can?

Butts: I think the bottom line is we’re them. We’re one of them. The residents know us. We’re grassroots. We don’t have titles, so they open the door because there’s no hidden agenda. It’s like, ‘Okay, they’re not trying to get our kids taken.’

Perryman: Let’s expand on that. You said, ‘We’re one of them.” But, there is a broad cultural difference even within the African American experience. So, there are a whole lot of Black folks that can’t come over to Greenbelt and be effective.

Butts: No, there are all colors in there. I’m saying we’re one of them as to what they see us as. When you’re sitting there saying to them, ‘You need your kids back, let us help you. Let’s go and get in these programs, take these classes, get your home together, and do the right things if you really want your babies back.’  Or, ‘Well, Tina, they’re giving me a hard time.’ ‘Okay, let us sit down with you. Let’s talk to them together.’

That’s the connection we have in helping families, making sure that they’ve got tidiness in their kitchen, making sure they have electricity and heat.

So, several of the residents now even want to join The Movement, and quite a few of them are engaged, arriving before we get here. They are like, ‘Tina, it’s 8:30. I’m here.’ Then we have others that say, ‘Can I get a Movement shirt? Can I get some Movement gloves?’

Perryman: So, what’s next?

Butts: We’ll stay until the work is done or at least till their lives and housing are better. My goal is to get computers in the community room and set up times for people to come in, get online, and learn some things. The owner’s willing to pay whatever he has to. He wants to get a playground over there. He’s going to fence it in for security.

In the meantime, we’re still knocking on doors, getting vaccinations, and just doing whatever we are called on to do. I’m going to follow whatever falls in front of me. If we can help, we will; if we can’t, we’ll just send it to those who can.

Perryman: Finally, where do you find gratitude? What makes you happy in this work?

Butts: To see somebody cry with happiness. When somebody laughs or smiles is the best thing; just knowing that we made a difference in their lives is what gives me gratitude. Because, like I tell people, that was us, that could’ve been me.

When I look into their eyes, I see me. I see my brother. I see my cousins. We lived in the projects too. Not in Greenbelt Place, but in reality, they’re all the same.

Contact Rev. Donald Perryman, PhD, at drdlperryman@enterofhopebaptist.org