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Unlikely Leader Spearheads Efforts to Rebuild Her Community

A small African-American coastal community in the Eastern U.S. state of Virginia is being revitalized after a century of poverty and neglect. Much of the change in this community can be credited to the work of one extraordinary African-American woman. VOA's Chris Simkins has the story of Alice Coles and her determination to give the residents of Bayview, Virginia, a better life.

Alice Coles, community activist, overlooks the gravesite of City Saunders and remarks, "I could see very well what City was trying to tell me from his grave. ‘Alice go back and you will understand why we struggled, you will understand why we were separated and you will understand for where you have come.’ "

Alice Coles visits the grave of City Saunders. He was one of hundreds of freed African-American slaves who settled in Bayview, Virginia after the Civil War more than 140 years ago.

Since that time Bayview has remained a forgotten community tucked away among farmlands and isolated by the waters of the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean. For decades people here lived as they did back in the 1860s, in dilapidated wooden shacks with no running water, central heating or even a toilet.

Alice Coles says it was little different from the time of slavery. "In many places it is the slave mentality. And many times I believe we are still fighting the Civil War over and over again because someone has not the realization of modern America."

Ten years ago things began to change in Bayview and this community's isolation was broken. Alice Coles, a single mother of two with only a high school education, emerged as a community leader. She and other residents successfully defeated a plan by the State of Virginia to build a maximum-security prison on land right in the middle of Bayview.

"We were aware that we could defeat a maximum security prison against the Department of Corrections, well, if we could do that why are we living wretched like this? Let’s go home and carry this energy home, pool it together and lets help ourselves," said Alice.

Alice Coles and others formed a grassroots community organization called Bayview Citizens for Social Change. The publicity from the prison controversy cast a spotlight on the community. Beginning in 1998, state, federal and private donations began flowing into Bayview.

Since then more than $10-million has been raised to purchase land, build dozens of new homes and rent subsidized apartments. The community also built a water treatment plant to provide clean drinking water and a new laundry facility where residents can wash their clothes.

Ms. Coles says Bayview residents are dreaming about an even brighter future. "They are dreaming of a community center, daycare.... They say, ‘One day we will have our own country store over there and we will watch our children run and play up and down the sidewalk.’ They want to prove they are law-abiding citizens able to live like anybody else, which was just a shadow of a dream just 10 years ago. And now people believe in their mind and soul that they are just as equal as they think they are."

One of those people is Cynthia Young. For years she accepted this way of life because she knew no other way to live. Now she is about to move out of her shack into a new home across the street. "All of us have been right here together about 20 or 30 years. I could not see myself wanting to live anywhere else except for around here. Not in this house here but around in this area."

Now Alice Coles is looking to use the success of the Bayview revitalization project to uplift the lives of people in other regions of the world such as remote villages in Africa. She says, "There is a Bayview all around the globe where there are bodies of water, strict isolation, poverty and despair. And I am hoping that where ever I can find it I can inspire, uplift, direct and lead the way for positive change."

Alice Coles says people in Bayview are learning how to take care of their new community and deal with the financial responsibilities of owning land and their new homes. She says that although pulling Bayview out of poverty has been a struggle, she and others are satisfied knowing future generations will have a better life than their ancestors did.