In Alaska, community organizers have real responsibilities

The volunteer workers have been honored at the highest level of state government for making a difference.

By Steve Lopez

September 24, 2008

ANCHORAGE — There's nothing unusual about the kind of work Bonny Sosa did in Alaska. She, like hundreds of people in Southern California and every region in the country, saw a problem in her community and tried to fix it.

The diabetes rate among children was disturbingly high, said Sosa's husband, Sam Young. So, in 2003, he and Sosa called everyone they knew, met with school administrators and public officials, and formed a grass-roots group called Healthy Futures to teach nutrition and organize outdoor activities for children.

"Bonny changed the way Anchorage thinks and plays in such a positive way," a city official said when Sosa died in August at age 50, just a few days after being diagnosed with a brain tumor.

Only a few weeks after her death, Sarah Palin, the governor of Alaska, ridiculed Sen. Barack Obama for his days as a community organizer. She and other GOP operatives belittled the very idea of such work.

All I could figure was that one of two things was going on here: Either this was another example of the dishonest and sleazy stuff served up in political campaigns by folks on both sides of the aisle. Or Alaska must not have any community organizers.

Judging by what I found in Anchorage, it's the former.

Debbie Hinchey, Sosa's sister, is another longtime do-gooder. When I reached her by phone, she told me she had just come home from refurbishing a city rose garden, as a volunteer, when she heard the cracks about community organizers.

"It was pretty much of a slap in the face," she said.

When I first began asking around town for the names of community organizers, people quickly mentioned Mark Butler. He's the manager of the Anchorage Federation of Community Councils, a nonprofit that is somewhat similar to the neighborhood councils we have in Los Angeles.

Butler assists 38 councils made up of volunteers who work on everything from gang-related crime and housing-related issues to business district improvements and park expansion.

You need speed bumps to slow down traffic?

These are the guys to call.

Young toughs with guns hanging out in the local park?

These folks can get the cops rolling.

Butler's office is in the same building as Big Brothers and Big Sisters, AIDS intervention and senior support agencies. I can't imagine Gov. Palin really meant to disparage all these folks.

Butler, who grew up in Cleveland, said Anchorage is a place where power is dispersed and community involvement is encouraged.

"The bottom line is we like to get involved," said Butler, who took me on a tour with Matt Johnson, chairman of the North Star Community Council.

"You see how that sidewalk slants right there?" asked Butler, pointing to narrow and tilted pavement at the intersection of Fireweed Lane and Spenard Road.

In snow and ice, he said, students from a nearby school slide perilously close to traffic.

He and Johnson are lobbying to eliminate one lane of traffic and widen the sidewalks, but that involves the hard work of winning compromises from merchants who are opposed to such a change.

"We're working with everyone to make it better," Butler said.

One of the headaches they're working on now, Johnson said, is "punks in trucks" who go speed-balling through neighborhoods. Speed bumps will help there.

Oh, and alcohol.

"Public inebriates is one of our biggest problems," Johnson said as we came upon a young couple stumbling down a street, the woman whacking the guy with a rolled-up newspaper.

"Everything OK?" Johnson asked, putting them on notice.

It seemed like they'd survive the night, so Johnson urged them to move along.

If they hadn't, he might have called a volunteer member of the council's Community Patrol to keep an eye on them.

At Spenard and 27th, Butler pointed out a cluster of low-income apartments on a street with no sidewalks at all.

The North Star council successfully lobbied City Hall to buy a rundown business and clear the way for some improvements that are in the works.

"Alaska is a place where, if you're interested, you can really make a difference," Butler said.

Seems to fit perfectly with the GOP mantra of smaller government and more personal responsibility, wouldn't you say?

Butler, by the way, knew Bonny Sosa. She was active in one of the neighborhood councils, he said, and he was the one who put me in touch with her family.

When I called Sam Young, Sosa's husband, he said Healthy Futures has served thousands of children and will go on trying to make a difference.

The organization, sponsored in large part by a grant Sosa negotiated from ConocoPhillips, has received numerous honors and recognition.

One of the bigger ones came late last year, said Sam Young, when November was designated Healthy Futures month in a proclamation by Alaska's highest-ranking state official


Gov. Sarah Palin.




Community Councils Center


Community Patrols


Chugiak Eagle River Advisory Board


Federation of Community Councils