Long before opponents of the country’s most prominent “community organizer” made that description sound like a dirty word, former Miami-Dade County Commissioner Betty Ferguson was organizing the North Dade community – now known as the city of Miami Gardens – into action.
Following her unsuccessful 1986 effort to become a county commissioner, several community members sought an opportunity to continue discussing some of the issues that Ferguson raised during her campaign.
UP-PAC – Unrepresented People’s Positive Action Council – was born from that desire and, with the exception of holidays, has met every Saturday morning at Greater New Bethel Baptist Church in Miami Gardens to “call some attention to what was happening to our community,” Ferguson explained in a telephone interview with the South Florida Times.
For her role in UP-PAC’s creation, her stellar representation as a commissioner and a life dedicated to improving the lot of the black community, Ferguson, 64, will be honored on Friday, Feb. 27 at delancyhill, P.A.’s 5th Annual Black History Month Celebration.
The invitation-only event is a collaborative effort between the law firm, the Historical Museum of South Florida, the Miami-Dade Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau.
At the museum on Friday, Ferguson’s honor will precede an official preview of the Black Crossroads exhibit that chronicles milestones of importance in Miami’s black community.
Although UP-PAC was granted non-profit status, the organization does not apply for grants or other public funding, Ferguson said, to guarantee its ability to speak freely and “to name names.”
The roughly 60 core members pay $15 in annual dues. Senior citizens are assessed a $5 fee that UP-PAC members pay for them.
“We didn’t ever want money to be an issue,” Ferguson said.
Ferguson began her public life in the 1980s as a neighborhood activist opposed to Joe Robbie Stadium. She ran unsuccessfully for the county commission in 1986 and 1990. Later, she was a plaintiff in the lawsuit that forced the county to create single-member districts in 1993.
That year, Ferguson defeated five opponents for the District One seat. She was reelected without opposition until her retirement in 2004. At that time, she threw her support behind current District One Miami-Dade County Commissioner Barbara Jordan.
Ferguson, a native Miamian who was born at home in the city’s Brownsville neighborhood, said her experience as a commissioner showed her firsthand the importance of the community “having a seat at the table.”
One of her biggest disappointments as a commissioner, she said, was the inability to mobilize concerned citizens at a moment’s notice.
“I wanted very much to see some kind of mobilization mechanism put in place to be able to mobilize the community on very short notice to appear at the various meetings,” said Ferguson, widow of the late U.S. District Judge Wilkie D. Ferguson Jr., to whom she was married for 35 years before his death in 2003.
Ferguson said she grew tired of hearing politicians say “they must not be concerned because nobody’s here,” and even more exasperated at the ease with which her colleagues cast votes that could adversely affect the black community because, “they were not able to look out at a room full of black people.”
When asked to recount her most significant accomplishment as a commissioner, Ferguson said proudly that she helped to pave the way for the creation of the city of Miami Gardens.
Marlon Hill of delancyhill, P.A. said the group chose to honor Ferguson because “she sparked the regular man and regular woman” to become involved in the political process.
Mindful of the positive impact that the election of President Barack Obama is having on communities of color across the nation, Hill said, “UP-PAC was doing all the things that [Obama] suggested, talking about issues at a grassroots level for over 20 years.”
Ferguson is a former college professor who received her undergraduate degree in speech pathology from Florida A & M University in 1966; and a graduate degree from Ohio State University in speech pathology and audiology in 1967.
She taught public speaking at Howard University while her husband attended law school there. She returned to Miami in 1969, where she joined the faculty of what was then Florida Memorial College (now Florida Memorial University) and later Miami Dade College, where she taught public speaking, voice and diction for 30 years.
Ferguson’s legacy is evident throughout South Florida – from her creation of her sorority’s (Delta Sigma Theta) Zeta Tau chapter at Florida Memorial in 1970, to her grassroots community work, to the walking trail where she treks three miles daily.
“I use the walking trail that was created as a result of the homeowner’s lawsuit that was filed [against then] Robbie Stadium (now Dolphin Stadium). As a result of the lawsuit, the stadium was required to make concessions to the homeowner’s association that had fought against its construction near residential communities.
Ferguson said the stadium “had to create a buffer zone and include a walking trail. I walk that every day. I see so many people from the community out there on the walking trail and that’s a good feeling because I know it’s being used,” the mother of two adult children mused.
“The issues are never ending,” she said.
Because the issues never end, Ferguson said, it’s important for the community to choose its battles wisely.
“You have to know which buttons to push,” she said.