For nearly five decades Southern Mutual Help Association has removed the barriers keeping individuals, families and communities from participating as equal and valued participants in critical policy conversations that impact their lives.
To do this, SMHA transforms existing institutions when they don’t work for families and communities, and creates institutions when needed where none existed before. We work hand-in-hand with the organizations and institutions we create, building capacity, transferring competencies, and creating linkages… and then we step back. This has been our approach for founding seven other organizations and institutions, creating more than $500 million in value.
To learn more about SMHA’s transformational work with institution building, click here.
Historically, this is how Southern Mutual Help Association operates. We create the infrastructure that allows for equitable prosperity for all, now and in the future.
To address inadequate access to credit and financing in the fishing sector along the Gulf Coast – especially following Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Irma, and Harvey as well as the BP spill – SMHA is working together with the private sector, lawmakers and fishing groups to establish the Gulf Coast Fishers Loan Fund. The GCFLT is a $20 million multi-state initiative that puts in place new infrastructure through which banks can lend to previously unreachable fisher businesses while elevating fishers’ stature as expert first-responders and traditional stewards of the coast.
SMHA’s approaches and responses shift and grow over time and context. What remains consistent is that SMHA pioneers new models of ownership, seeks win-win solutions that bring together all sides, and finds new models to fill endemic gaps between what communities have and what they need.
Who is this group that folks say is “the best kept secret?” What’s important about SMHA in the region, the state, in America? What have they done locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally?
Over the last fifty-four years, SMHA has left an indelible mark on South Louisiana – on its families, its communities, its economy, and also on its institutions. HOW SMHA creates change is integral to the change that is created: we looked, we listened, we understood, and we worked together with communities, policy makers, and partners to create the change that needed to happen.
In the late 1960s in rural Louisiana, there were no options for farmworkers for healthcare, beyond what was available through the lingering plantation system. Health outcomes for farmer workers – primarily African-American – were poor, especially when compared to the health outcomes of whites. Although the law of the land mandated access to health facilities, Southern Louisiana was functionally segregated. SMHA saw this disparity and created a farm worker healthcare program in 1971- the only of its kind to provide health care for the most marginalized. At the time, facilitating access to basic services was a means to undermine and begin to undo the entrenched plantation system. SMHA’s program was adapted and expanded into what is now the Teche Action Clinic (TAC). TAC continues to provide affordable, quality health care to working families who often struggle to make ends meet and cover basic health care costs. TAC is now a system of 13 clinics and a mobile unit, working across six parishes of South Louisiana, one of 34 Federally Qualified Health Centers in the state of Louisiana.
During the same period, SMHA observed an equally glaring lack of access to adult education for farm workers and others who had been marginalized from the formal educational system. SMHA’s Plantation Education Program, Inc. sought to dismantle generations of unfair limitations placed on educational opportunities. This program transformed into Progressive Education Program, Inc. (PEPI), providing adult education for Iberia Parish. PEPI focused on providing adult education classes, allowing plantation workers to gain a fundamental skill, that opens so many other doors: the ability to read and write. SMHA provided primarily materials support, working in partnership with the Sisters of St. Joseph who provided pedagogical expertise and instructed students. SMHA eventually transitioned PEPI to the Notre Dame Sisters who helped more than 600 people gain their high school equivalency; today, PEPI is integrated into the Southern Louisiana Community College where it belongs as a part of addressing the adult education needs of Iberia Parish families.
In the late 1980’s, international trade agreements had battered and bruised the agricultural sector across the South. In response, farmers and fishers alike had turned towards more industrial methods, including burning of sugarcane stalk after harvest in Louisiana, to be more competitive. At the same time, rural farming and fishing areas were not being protected as part of a long-term strategy of smart, environmentally sound growth. Out of this turmoil grew Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (Southern SAWG), a 13-state independent network. Southern SAWG celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2017 with a conference of 1,500 attendees from 13 states. SMHA’s Sister Helen Vinton, a long-standing advocate of sustainable agriculture, launched Southern SAWG in 1991 while serving as a board member of Rural Advancement Foundation, Inc. (RAFI). Together with RAFI, SMHA hosted Southern SAWG’s first conference in New Iberia with about 30 participants. More important than the number of people is the change that Southern SAWG has created – bringing together like-minded community members, policy makers and fellow change agents from across the South to push for a more fair, sustainable and community-based approach to agriculture. Southern SAWG and its work reflects the cornerstone of SMHA’s Life Quality work, a focus on stewardship and conservation of Louisiana’s land and waters, critical to the economic future of rural communities.