Diane Ragsdale: A lifetime of community organizing in South Dallas

By Keri Mitchell - March 31, 2022

South Dallas

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Diane Ragsdale in the Innercity Community Development Corporation conference room.

She grew up in Wheatley Place, where she still resides in her family’s home, and attended the Phyllis Wheatley School down the street before moving to the “Great” James Madison for junior high and high school. She graduated in 1970, a year before the federal courts ordered Dallas ISD to desegregate, which scattered many of her younger friends to schools across the city. 

The Hon. Diane Ragsdale, who will turn 70 this year, has spent her entire life in South Dallas. Her story has been shaped by the neighborhood and, likewise, she has shaped her neighborhood in significant ways. She credits her successes to women in her life — her mother, who ensured her two daughters were steeped in political education and community organizing; Mrs. Juanita Craft, whose NAACP Youth Council was Ragsdale’s initial foray into activism; and the Hon. Elsie Faye Heggins, who appointed Ragsdale to the City Plan Commission before she ran for City Council.

She spent hours volunteering at the South Dallas Information Center in the home of another mentor, the Hon. Al Lipscomb, with whom she served on Council during her 1984-91 tenure. The founding of Innercity Community Development Corporation (ICDC) in 2004 was the culmination of these experiences.

Ragsdale’s work is far from finished. She’s still fighting some of the same issues that led her to run for Council, and as a registered nurse, she approaches the systems as she would her patients — a belief in preventative medicine that will treat the underlying causes, not just the symptoms.

What led you to run for Dallas City Council?

I believe, primarily, because of my mother, who was an activist herself. It was a belief in our household that we all should enjoy a decent standard of living — not just the Ragsdale household, but the neighborhood, everybody, should enjoy a decent standard of living. So to that end, she put my sister and I into different organizations, one of which, early on, was the NAACP Youth Council led by Mrs. [Juanita] Craft. I was 11; my sister was 13. It was a training ground, really, for activism. You know, oftentimes, you don’t give your parents enough credit, but she was the one who drove us there — meaning not just literally she would drive us there, but she was the motivating factor. So we would travel throughout the country to the NAACP conventions, we would register people to vote, we would sell memberships. And that’s the way we were both exposed to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the SCLC, the organization in which [the Rev. Martin Luther] King [Jr.] was involved. And of course, our god brother was across the street, James “Skip” Shockley, who was a member of the [Black] Panther Party. We didn’t necessarily become members but we worked with the free breakfast program and we participated in PE class, meaning political education, not physical education. And then we were part of the Black Women’s United Front. 

So all of this was political development before running for council — community organizing and activism. And that’s important, because when we say, you know, how do we ensure that we all enjoy a decent standard of living? That’s a serious mission or vision. 

Where did that come from for your mother?

I think for the most part, it came from her own experiences as a direct result of racism. She just was not going to be the one to sit down. Good God almighty, she wanted us involved.  

So you understood at a very young age how important it was, if things were going to change, for you to be involved in the systems that were making those changes? 

That is correct. And really, to be quite frank with you …

Please be frank with me, always.

The question is, how do we ensure? And really, I’ve got to be completely honest on this— 

Please.

—I’ve been consistently trying to find the answer. 

You’re still working on it, aren’t you?

That’s right. How do you — how do we — ensure that we all enjoy a decent standard of living? One thing that’s clear is that the systems that we have now have not provided all of us a decent standard of living. That means that this ain’t working. And that means that we need to— I’m going back to something that I’ve said on a regular basis, and I’ve got a girlfriend of mine that says, “Girl, you need to say something else!” And that is that we need to dismantle these existing systems. We can’t reform them. That’s been the problem, Keri, that we’ve attempted to reform these existing systems. I always say, you can’t reform or repair a foundation that’s rotten. You got to eliminate it and create a new one. 

I’m not saying that the Dianes of the world and my ancestors haven’t done good work, but we continue to see the same issues over and over again. We continue to see homelessness. We continue to see people living in substandard housing. We continue to see— no disrespect, but you need a spreadsheet to keep up with the number of Black people who’ve been killed by officers. You just can’t keep up with it. And so in my opinion, you can’t reform this. You can’t repair this. You’ve got to deal with foundational change. 

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Part of it is being a part of the electoral process. So you ask, why did you get involved in it? I believe that the electoral process is not the solution, but it is, indeed, one of the answers. It is a critical answer. 

I want to ask you about dismantling systems because when you were elected to City Council, one of your concerns at the time was police abuse. Is that right? 

Yes, ma’am. 

And you did a lot of work, if I’m not mistaken.

With others. We had a unified coalition for police reforms, and I worked with groups that confronted police abuse.

Did you feel, at the time, that you were making progress?

Well, you always want to feel— I mean, come on now. You up here struggling and fighting, and you always want to feel like you’re making progress. And so you hope that you’re making progress. And yes, I believe progress has been made, but you’ve got to be honest with yourself.

Part of the reason that we continue to repeat these things over and over again, including voter suppression, is we continue to try to reform the system. We’re not removing the cancer, you know. We’re not dealing with the foundation of change that’s needed. We just want to reform. We just want to treat the symptoms; we don’t want to treat the underlying causes. 

And the reason this is important is that many of our young people continue to think that if we just change this portion or this portion— No. You need to dismantle that system, create new policies, create new systems. 

What does that look like? I think there are a lot of people that agree with that concept, but I think that people struggle to wrap their minds around what that would look like. For example, with policing? What would it look like to dismantle the system?

One of the things that young people have begun to do today — and in part, what we did — we would address the underlying causes. Why do you need police? There’s a Dr. Goff, I think out of Yale, who has concluded and documented time and time again that most police calls are socially related. There’s somebody who’s mentally ill or having a mental health crisis. Or someone who finds himself homeless or unemployed or underemployed. So we need to confront the underlying causes with structural change. At the same time, during the interim, we need to put measures in place to stop the abuse, because we can’t tolerate the abuse. Our young people have begun to say, “Reimagine.” We can reimagine everything, they say. We can reimagine policing. And so really, they refer to it as “public safety” versus “policing.” And if you want to really improve the safety of the public, you need to provide for and meet the needs of the public, see.

When we attend community gatherings and neighborhood meetings, we hear both sides of this at the same time. There’s a lot of “defund the police” conversation, but also we hear, “We need more patrol.” What’s your take on that?

You’re correct. There’s still this ongoing movement, which there should be, to address the underlying causes, to use this police budget to confront the causes behind community violence. And then if you go to a neighborhood meeting, they will say, “Well, wait a minute, we need more police. We need more patrol.” Oftentimes you have that conflict because we haven’t had the opportunity to prove up that, if you address the underlying causes, you would minimize the need for police. That’s the bottom line. It doesn’t take a genius to recognize that. And so many neighborhood leaders, that’s where their focus has been. And the system has pushed that focus upon them. 

So it will take political will?

Yes. I believe in the power of God. I believe in the power of community organizing. I believe in the power of family beyond the immediate family. One of the reasons why Black people in particular are still surviving today is because we looked upon family beyond our genetic family. So it’s going to take all of that. We’ve got to realize that community organizing, political education, changing the world, making it a better place, is not a hobby. It has to be funded. The resistance movement has to be funded. You’ve got to have money to run a movement to confront these different issues. And to confront the oppressor because they don’t come without money.

There is constant conversation about why more registered voters don’t vote. That’s especially true when we have City Council and Dallas ISD school board elections. What is your take on that?

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First and foremost, the movement to change things has to be funded. I don’t care what it is. If I’m going to church, my pastor reminds me on a regular basis that, I know we’re in a pandemic, but we still got to pay our mortgage, still got to pay our utility bills. The point I’m making here is the movement has to be funded. The movement to change people’s lives. Year-round, we got to have a movement that’s funded so we can do ongoing education. We’ve got to have staff members year-round knocking on doors, not just during election time, who are organizing and educating about the importance of electoral politics, and connecting electoral politics to one’s day-to-day lives. If you want a better police department, if you want public safety, that’s an electoral issue. That’s an issue that requires you to vote. You’ve gotta connect it. If you want a good park, want to get rid of illegal dumping, that’s a decision made by elected officials. Most of our kids are still educated within Dallas ISD, within the public school system. That’s a system that involves elected officials. You’ve got to make that connection between voting and people’s day-to-day lives. So once you make that connection on a regular, consistent basis with trained organizers in the field, it can make a difference when it comes to a voting turnout. You can’t just wait until three or four months before an election.

You were on council when there were 11 seats — eight representing specific geographic areas and three at-large, including the mayor. How did that work compared to the 14 geographic seats and at-large mayor system we have now?

One of the reasons why we struggled so hard for 14-1 was because we recognized that as members of an 8-3 system, it simply did not serve the southern sector in particular. Because you had three at-large and most of those came from north Dallas. And then of the eight, you had two or three coming from north Dallas. So the 8-3 system allowed north Dallas to have the advantage in a major way. There was no such thing as equitable delivery of services. Don’t get me wrong — they threw a few dimes and nickels our way. We were able to get a few things through. However, it was very difficult. The opportunity was not there under 8-3. But the opportunity is there to get more and more and more out of 14-1. And so that’s the key difference.

You had mentors on City Council who preceded you. Can you tell me about that?

I served with one, and that was the Hon. Albert Louis Lipscomb. We were both native Dallasites. One of the institutions that was also part of my political development was the South Dallas Information Center. The Hon. Al Lipscomb operated an information center out of his home, and the purpose was to help people with services they might need as well as help people with some kind of political advocacy that they might need. There were times when he could pick up the phone and help out. Sometimes I would volunteer time there working with Councilmember Lipscomb. The issue could have been affordable housing, police abuse, and I remember dealing with an issue related to domestic violence. It was, “Come on in here, if you got a problem, let me see what we can do.” The other mentor was indeed the Hon. Elsie Faye Heggins. And I’m glad to say I contributed to the renaming of Hatcher Street to Elsie Faye Heggins and Grand to Al Lipscomb Way.

What did you learn from them?

Several things, one of which was activism and organizing. But the other thing that is often forgotten, which is so required — and you can’t necessarily teach somebody this, but you can show, to some extent — and that’s courage. And both of them had it. And that’s important because confronting the oppressor can be very difficult because he’s going to do what he can do to protect his interest. 

“I’m greedy, and I could care less about it. I’m selfish, and I could care less about it. Y’all just going to have to be the victims of my greed and the victims of my selfishness. I’m powerful, and it’s necessary for you to accept that. What you guys are trying to do is to force me to share my power and to take some of my power away, and I’m going to fight you.” 

That requires not just good strategy and intellect — all that’s important — but none of that’s going nowhere if you don’t have no courage! ’Cause he gon‘ shut you down in a minute! I’m not lyin‘ — he gon‘ shut you down ’til you would run home.

This issue focuses, in part, on legacy. What is important for you to honor about Mrs. Juanita Craft’s legacy?

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Well, first of all, it is very important that we recognize that organizations are more important than the individual. And no disrespect meant. Mrs. Craft was a wonderful woman, an exceptional woman. But the key here is she came from the NAACP. It was the NAACP that provided for her and strengthened her. She did a wonderful job, and I don’t want to take anything away from her. But what happens, if we’re not careful, the oppressor will rob us of the understanding of the importance of the organization. Just as today, if you would mention Dr. King, people would never know that, hey, he was SCLC. There was an organization of which he was a member that contributed to his survival. He was part of a movement. These individuals were part of a movement, and the movement was powered by organizations. This is what’s being forgotten. So I cannot ignore the organizations that have developed us. The other thing, as we look at the Juanita Craft House, the youth not only need to be exposed to Mrs. Craft but also to the NAACP, exposed to Dr. King but also to SCLC, exposed to Dr. Huey P. Newton but also the Black Panther Party. Mrs. Craft has a wonderful legacy of service, but I think her greatest legacy is the creation and development of the NAACP Youth Council.

I was going to ask, who do you feel like in the community today is carrying on that legacy, but maybe you would say it’s not people — it’s organizations?

It’s individuals who are part of organizations. But once again, the individuals are powered by the organizations. Because too often, Keri, what has happened in our movement, you know, we’ve lost a lot of leaders. The oppressor felt that it was OK to isolate the leadership — and to kill them, if need be — because the organization was weak. It wasn’t by accident that they would create conflict within the movement — within the Panther Party, within SCLC. Because he understood the importance of disrupting the organization.

So what organizations today are carrying on that legacy?

I do believe that the greatest one is Black Lives Matter. It’s a movement under which many organizations fall, which I think is most appropriate. 

Why do you think that’s a good model?

Because, once again, it focuses on the organizations. To be quite frank with you, I can’t even share with you right now — someone who’s as active as I am — the co-founders of Black Lives Matter because they have pushed the movement so much greater than themselves. I can’t tell you who they are. 

Talk to me about ICDC. What did you set out to accomplish?

I believe in institution building, and we’ve got to create institutions to address the issues that we face, to the extent that we can. Don’t get me wrong, what we do here at ICDC — hey, I’m gon’ say it myself — it’s good. We provide home ownership opportunities for low-income people, we provide workforce training, we provide business development training, and we are involved in policy. Institution building is important as an interim measure. Dr. Newton and the Black Panther Party, they had these different programs they called “survival programs.” They were interim measures until the foundational change has come forward, until the structure changes. And some of what we do here, people will become self-reliant, which is good. However, it is policy that scales. There are many people who are hurting and need to become self-reliant, but you don’t have the massive number of institutions to do such. So that’s what we have to look at — what is a policy that can help masses of people? We’re going back to the systemic change, the foundational change, which requires the necessary policies from bottom up to do it. 

Is there an example of a survival program we don’t need anymore because we’ve made a system change?

Part of that is the free breakfast program in schools. Oftentimes people forget, or they just don’t know, that much of what is taking place today with respect to the free breakfast programs, the free lunch programs in schools came from and was motivated by the Black Panther Party. Remember, we’re talking about the ’60s. Early on, they had a breakfast program, and it inspired what we experience now where, in many schools throughout the country, and in Dallas ISD, kids don’t have to worry about breakfast. You go in and get what you need. 

I’m not saying there’s a lot of examples. That’s what young people are trying to get us to do with respect to policing — trying to get us to reimagine that. And that’s another way, in my opinion, of saying we need structural change. We need to reimagine how we confront these issues.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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