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Living Paycheck To Paycheck While Patrolling Mississippi Schools

Delegates from the Other America

New America Media, Feature, Khalil Abdullah//Photos: Al White Posted: Sep 02, 2008

Editor's Note: On September 6, the Marguerite Casey Foundation's Equal Voice for America's Families Campaign will culminate with as many as 16,000 family delegates attending conventions in three cities to talk about issues they want to put on the national radar as the country prepares for the presidential election. In the first of a five-part series, NAM editor Khalil Abdullah who has reported on the campaign from local town halls across the country -- profiles these delegates, parents-turned-grassroots activists. Their personal stories center mainly on protecting their families from the ravages of recession, mortgage meltdowns, high incarceration rates, anti-immigrant raids. At stake is the survival of Americas safety net, working families. NAM's coverage of this issue is underwritten by the Marguerite Casey Foundation.

GREENVILLE, MS. -- Tinsa Halls heart, vast as the Mississippi Delta, still breaks at memories she wants no school-aged child ever to endure. Its 20 years since Robert Merrill, her favorite uncle, was shot seven times and killed while attending Greenville High School, a school one of her four children now attends. A dispute between Merrills female cousins and rivals had escalated, the circle of actors grown, until he, once protector, became a target.

As a founding member of Parents on Patrol for Success, Hall and a group of volunteer parents walk the hallways of several Greenville schools. Maybe if the kids see us, they wouldnt act as bad, Hall says, explaining the reasoning behind the groups debut in 2006. We designed the tee shirts. We picked orange because its a loud color; we wanted to be visible. They take notes on incidents, file reports with school administrators, and testify before school board meetings. Their presence, Hall feels, helps tamp down illicit behaviors, like underage drinking, and the senseless violence that springs from teenage impulses.

Hall serves on the staff of Citizens for a Better Greenville (CFBG), an organization dedicated to improving the socio-economic conditions in this predominantly African American city. During the summer, CFBG hosted an Equal Voice for Americas Families town hall meeting, drawing 400 people from across the state.

Underwritten by the Marguerite Casey Foundation, Greenvilles event was one of numerous town halls held throughout America to articulate a policy agenda for low-income American families. As a follow-up, three concurrent town halls are scheduled on September 6 in Birmingham, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Im printing tee shirts, handling bus tickets and registrations, Hall said breathlessly of CFBGs whirlwind preparations for the trip to Birmingham.

Six years ago, at her husband Byron Hall, Sr.s encouragement, she left her job as a clothing store manager and volunteered at CFBG. Part of the appeal was attending sessions of the state legislature in Jackson. Following Joyce to the capital, seeing bills being passed; I never had those opportunities, Hall says. She gained an appreciation for knowing my rights and the ways impending legislation would affect her community. I would come back and tell someone else, whether it was relatives or my parents.

Halls parents divorced long ago, in part due to the consequences of her grandmother's lack of health care coverage. Halls grandmother was living alone when she suffered a series of strokes. Halls mother at first traveled back and forth between the two homes, but began staying with her mother for longer periods. The absence strained the marriage. Halls grandmother got worse as the strokes continued.

We ended up moving back [to my grandmothers home], Hall recalls. Her mothers marriage dissolved, but it was Merrills murder that put Halls young life into a tailspin. Not only had he become Halls role model, he was her mothers baby brother; they were close. My mother went downhill, Hall notes. I couldnt hang out with my friends. I had to go home and cook and clean and take care of my mama and grandmama-- and Halls other siblings.

At school during those early teen years, Hall was a self-described gangbanger. She said she hails from a large, well known family. Some of the men on her mothers side were drug dealers, she observes candidly, and their notoriety contributed to the resentment among Halls peers. At school, I had to fight my way out. They didnt know the struggles I was going through at home.

Today, her husbands entrepreneurship has afforded the purchase of a home, fulfilling a promise he had made to her years ago. Theres nothing he cannot do to a computer or with a computer, Hall says. Hes an expert. His certifications enable him to service computers for companies like Dell and HP, especially when repairs are needed for machines still under warranty and in use by businesses in the region. Still, Hall admits, with costs of raising four children, we have no savings and my husband and myself dont have any benefits we live from check to check.

As painful as the memories of her uncle are, Halls eyes brim with tears at the more recent recollection of her sons injuries. Byron Hall, Jr. also was attacked in school. He got hit in the face with a cue ball and every bone in his face was broken, from his skull to the top of his lips, his nose, his eye sockets. Everything was broke; it was just like a cracked eggshell. Without adequate medical coverage, the family is only able to chip away at the outstanding hospital costs.

The impetus of Halls activism grows out of her own experiences. She fears for the safety of Greenvilles children and dreads that her time away from home may test her own marriage. President of two parent teacher associations and the vice president of a third, she logs in long hours, sometimes getting in at seven, eight, nine or ten oclock at night. Over a week that never seems to end, she is at minimum wage, by her estimation. Yet, all in all -- including her marriage -- Hall says, I have been blessed. She is proud of her work at CFBG: Its an underpaid job, but I love what I do.

Related Articles:

Families in Economic Freefall--and Off the Political Radar

A Beacon Shines from Mississippis Delta

Poor Border Town Spells Out Top Priorities

Equal Voice Campaign

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