Dianne Hanley holds a Master of Pastoral Studies from Loyola University New Orleans. She was trained by the Sisters of the Cenacle to facilitate groups in Ignatian Spirituality. Dianne has served as a leader of Together Baton Rouge and Together Louisiana since 2010. She is an Associate of the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph. She has served on the Congregation of St. Joseph Anti-Racism Committee and worked with the Diocesan Racial Harmony Committee. She is the former Executive Director of the St. Joseph Spirituality Center, which provided spiritual development opportunities for adults in the Baton Rouge area.
I surprised myself, because I wasn't encouraged in my family to go to college. I was kind of scared. But my older sister had worked her way through college. So it was like, “Ok I can do this. I guess I can do this.” It was an eye-opening, blossoming experience. And I ended up graduating Magna Cum Laude from LSU.
My name is Dianne Hanley and I am with an organization called Spirit and Justice that I helped found about two years ago. I have also been with St. George Catholic Church, a former member institution, and St. Paul Catholic Church, a current member institution of Together Baton Rouge.
I was born in Donaldsonville. My dad’s uncle was the family doctor who delivered me. But I grew up in New Roads until 5th grade where I went to a Catholic school run by the Sisters of St. Joseph. That had a huge impact on my life. My father came from generations of Cajun Catholics and my mother was a convert to Catholicism. When I was in 4th grade, my parents actually signed up to do missionary work in Guatemala and moved our family with 7 kids there. My dad’s missionary work was to do dentistry for the poor. We didn’t proselytize; we evangelized more with our actions than with words. This was a powerful experience for a 4th grader. I was put in a classroom where no one else spoke English. This really affected my view on things.
When we returned to Louisiana for my 5th grade year, the nuns decided to integrate the Catholic school. So, I saw the impact of integration on a lot of my friends. My closest friend's parents pulled out all 6 of their kids from the school. The parents started a new private school that was not integrated. And that made me wonder about why this Catholic family would leave a Catholic school and form another private school rather than be in a Catholic school. And of course, I learned that it was because black students were being brought in through integration and these families didn't want their kids in school with them. My parents believed that integration was the right thing and so we stayed.
Eventually, we moved to be closer to my dad’s work. We moved to Central. Then in 1977, when I was in 11th grade, we moved to the area near Plank Road and Hollywood, near St. Gerard Catholic Church which was right across the street from my dad’s office. I went to Redemptorist High School at that time. My grandmother lived on the corner of St. Catherine and Plank Road, just one block off of Hollywood. I grew up going to her house, so we were, like, closer to family. My parents were actually the first couple to get married at St. Gerard Church. My dad grew up there, so it really was going back to his old neighborhood. It felt like a community of people that I knew. It was not a wealthy part of town. It was becoming a poorer part of town.
There was a public school right down the street from our house, and the students were changing there, going from white students to black students. And so, the neighborhood was in a transition when we moved in there.
I have very fond memories of Redemptorist High School. I was taught by nuns again, but this was a different group of nuns. But, I liked being with nuns. They were very educated and forward thinking kind of nuns, not, you know, the old school nuns that some experienced. There's different kinds of nuns in the world. And I remember one nun in particular: Sister Christine. She was so well read. She gave us this long long list of books to read, and she had read every one of them. She said we could choose a book from the list, and it was just so cool to ask her about every book and know she had read every one of them.
I grew up in a family of four daughters and then three sons, and I was the third in line. The middle of the middle. And my dad's philosophy was 'girls don't need to go to college.' So I was never encouraged to go. I was expected to graduate from high school and get married. And then you're taken care of. I met my husband, John, at Christ the King Catholic Church at LSU, but neither of us was going to LSU at the time. We got married and he just so encouraged my learning and my desire to learn.
He said, "Yeah, I see your potential." He knew I was smart even though I didn't have a college education. So I got my “Mrs.” degree first *laughs* and then went to college.
And, um, I surprised myself, because I wasn't encouraged in my family to go to college. I was kind of scared. But my older sister had worked her way through college. So it was like, “Ok I can do this. I guess I can do this.” It was an eye-opening, blossoming experience. And I ended up graduating Magna Cum Laude from LSU. I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in English with a focus on linguistics. And people would say, "So, what are you going to do with an undergraduate degree in Linguistics?" *laughs* I said, “I'm going to study the practical application of language acquisition!” And after I graduated, I had my first baby *laughs*
Years later, when my children were older, I got my master's degree in Pastoral Studies from Loyola New Orleans with an emphasis on Spirituality.
My pastor was impressed with the knowledge that I brought to the table, that I was impassioned but I used my emotions wisely. I had learned about using cool anger instead of hot anger. I said, "That's what Together Baton Rouge has been teaching me to do." So, the pastor backed the idea for joining TBR and we joined!
I first connected with Together Baton Rouge when I was working for Catholic Charities. My job was to be the liaison between the BR Catholic diocese and the 72 church parishes and their social justice, social responsibility coordinators. Part of that job was to watch local organizations that wanted funding from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD). When Together Baton Rouge was forming, and when it was at the sponsorship phase, they were looking at getting CCHD funding. Brod came to my office to talk to me about what they were forming. And I mean, a lightbulb went off! A lightbulb! It was instant because I had been working very, very hard on public transportation. Personally, it was an important issue to me. And I just kept knocking my head against the wall trying to figure out how to get it funded. And then Brod walked in and he asked, "What issue is important to you and why?" So I talked about public transportation, and then he told me, "Well, let me just tell you about this organization" *laughs* And it was like, This is going to get me the funding. I just know it. The scaffolding. This is the organization that I need. I saw it right away.
So at the end of our meeting, Brod asked me, "Who else do I need to talk to?" Because of my position, I knew which of the Catholic pastors were social justice minded. So I gave him the name of those pastors. Fortunately, one of them was the pastor of my church, St. George. Father Mike Shatzle had done years of community organizing work in San Antonio and in Louisiana. *laughs* It was kind of funny, we teased each other about how Fr. Mike followed me because I was in New Roads and then when I left, he was placed in New Roads. And then after I was at St. Gerard, he was put at St. Gerard. Then, as an adult, I moved to St. George, and we finally ended up there at the same time. I didn't even know him until he got to St. George, but he had followed my same path. And he had done community organizing work in all of those places, so he was a great pastor to have at St. George.
Still, it wasn't easy to get our church in Together Baton Rouge. There was a lot of work to do because it's a huge, very wealthy, predominantly white parish. There are people all across the political spectrum in that parish. Some were not so much against Together Baton Rouge, but they were certainly against a public transportation tax—the Capital Area Transit System (CATS) tax. And so we were trying to get St. George Church into TBR at the same time that we at TBR were beginning to work on the CATS tax.
One day in the midst of trying to bring St. George in, my pastor called me into his office and said, "I want you to talk to this parishioner about the CATS tax. He is against it and he's coming to me, and I don't know what to tell him." Well because of what Together Baton Rouge does, I was armed with all kinds of information. I was scared to death. This was a very wealthy parishioner, and if he wasn't convinced, we could be lost. And so the pastor brought me into the office— it was me and the pastor and this parishioner—and I just gave him all the information I had. I did not convince that parishioner. I didn't. He was going to vote against it. But my pastor told me after the meeting that he was very impressed. He was impressed with the knowledge that I brought to the table, that I was impassioned but I used my emotions wisely. I had learned about using cool anger instead of hot anger. I said, "That's what Together Baton Rouge has been teaching me to do." So, the pastor backed the idea for joining TBR and we joined!
I was so on fire about the possibilities that TBR presented that I quit my job at Catholic Charities. My husband and I discussed it, and it was a difficult decision because my salary was a third of our family's income. But he knew how passionate I was about justice work. And if I could see that this was going to accomplish what I was trying to accomplish, then we decided that I would quit my job and devote my time volunteering with Together Baton Rouge.
And it was so powerfully impactful! It did what I asked it to do. It trained me up. It helped me to learn about organizing.
I went from hitting my head against the wall, to actually doing things that made a difference. That created change.
One of the first things I did with TBR was become co-chair with Edgar Cage on the public transportation committee. We got something like $23 million of dedicated funding for public transportation by the work that was done by Together Baton Rouge. So, I'm on fire and still on fire *laughs*
I remember Brod and I had been talking about the CATS tax strategy for awhile. Committees had formed and we were doing research and we decided that we were going to try and do a tax election to set up dedicated funding. And I'll never forget, I remember sitting outside of a coffee shop and asking, "How can we possibly get this passed?" It was an anti-tax environment and I didn’t know how we could encourage people. So Brod walked me through a possible strategy. That's another great thing about Together Baton Rouge-- it's a place where you can strategize, where you can think about the long road. You're not just hitting battle after battle, crisis after crisis. It's like, "No, let's take the long road. How can we make this happen?" And it became a great strategy. It had to do with getting people to understand what a dedicated tax would do and setting up a civic academy to educate people. And talking with people in house meetings, finding out who uses the public transportation system and what they need. Learning what difference it would make to their lives. And finding people that were so on fire about it that they would work with us. It was a way of organizing people that I'd never known before. It gave me the means of organizing people.
It was just amazing and I was so surprised when we had three hundred people show up at a church to go walk the streets to tell people about this election. It was amazing and surprising, too, because I came from the south end of town where the majority of people are white, middle-class or upper-middle class and we met at a church that was - kinda to me - an interesting border. We met at Star Hill Baptist Church. That was where people from my end of town and African Americans from all over came together, and we did this walk to knock on doors. And we learned so much by doing this action. This was the first opportunity for many of us to go into neighborhoods that we had never ventured into before. There were people who had never been north of Florida Boulevard ever. It gave us a reason for it, and a meaning, and it was important to us.
We knocked on doors, two-by-two, but the whites stayed with their white friends and the blacks stayed with their black friends. And it didn't work so well.
Then we came back the next weekend—we did this three or four weekends in a row—and we said, "Ok, guys, we're matching up blacks with whites to go knock on these doors." And another transformation occurred. Many more doors opened up when these diverse groups knocked on the neighborhood doors. Canvassers were invited inside the homes. We learned so much about the neighborhoods and the people than any other experience had ever provided. And relationships were formed that might not have been formed otherwise and many have lasted through the years.
So there was growth that happened all along the way. We did win the vote, but we also learned so much in the process. One was that for years only about 10% of the voting population showed up in tax elections and they controlled the fact that the public transportation measure failed every time. But when we did the work that we did, something like 26% of the voting population showed up, and it completely switched the game and there was a dedicated tax. So it was such a lesson in 'if you show up you can make change happen. If you vote, your vote counts!' Even if it's just 26% of you, that can make a difference.
Watching the results on election night *laughs* Oh gosh, that was so hard. It looked like we were losing bad, that people were voting against the tax. So much so that the 10 o'clock news reported that the tax had failed. But Brod was watching the numbers, and he said, "Wait, they don't have all of the districts in. They're calling it without all of the districts." The districts that the news station had not considered were the ones that were most in need of public transportation. Those that were underserved. Those that were in impoverished areas, African-American areas. They counted them last. So if you counted all of the white, middle-class districts, guess what? It failed. But not by 100%. There were people in those districts, like me, that voted for that tax, and so there was enough of us that when you started bringing in the later numbers from the other districts then there was a win. And it was such a turn around. I mean it was like you were devastated at first, and then there was just a complete turn around. You feel that kind of victory so strongly because you thought you didn't have it *laughs* then you did! It was a powerful night.
I mean we had fought the CATS tax to get $23 M for public transportation, and that was a tax on all of us in order to have public transportation. And then I was hearing that there were millions of dollars that million dollar companies were not paying while I was working to raise taxes for the things that were important to me. So, I realized that I was paying more than I needed to pay if these companies weren't paying their fair share.
The Industrial Tax Exemption Program (ITEP) was created about 80 years ago, and it allows for—supposedly, manufacturers, although that is a very loose term—manufacturers to get a property tax exemption. It's set up for 5 years with a renewal for 5 more years at 100% property tax abatement for any kind of investment in manufacturing. The law states that the governor has to approve and sign each of the applications that come through. The tax exemption process is that an application goes to the Louisiana Economic Development office; and they vet and approve it. Then it goes before the Commerce and Industry Board, which is a state-level board which must approve the applications as well. The property taxes being exempted are for local taxes which means that a state board exempts businesses from local property taxes. So, the people on this board don't necessarily feel the impact of negating these property taxes, the local governments feel it.
So, for almost 80 years, they simply said "yes" to any application that came through. 100%. If it came to their desk, if it came to the Commerce and Industry Board then they would say “yes”. And it amounted to hundreds of millions of dollars that locals had no idea were being taken off of their rolls.
So, TBR brought this to the attention of the new governor at the time. This made me feel like, "Ok, this could make a powerful change”. In June 2016, Governor Edwards made an Executive Order that said he wanted to know from locals where they stood on the exemptions. He made some other significant changes like tax breaks were no longer allowed on regular, routine maintenance and there would be no more 100% tax break; it was now capped at 80%. These changes brought money into the local coffers right away because 20% of the industry taxes now were coming into communities where there were ITEP facilities.
Two things resonated with me when I started working on ITEP. One is that the Governor was on board with tax reform. That's powerful. If he's going to help with this, then we had a really powerful ally to join with our grassroots folks. And it was millions of dollars, and there was so much that I wanted to do in our community. I mean we had fought the CATS tax to get $23 M for public transportation, and that was a tax on all of us in order to have public transportation. And then I was hearing that there were millions of dollars that these million dollar companies were not paying while I was working to raise taxes for the things that were important to me. And so, I realized that I was paying more than I needed to pay if these companies weren't paying their fair share. So, I thought about all of the ways that that money could be spent and how it would take the pressure off of other businesses and individuals and their property taxes if companies would just pay their fair share. So reforming the ITEP program sounded like such an important way to address the needs of funding for our community.
Actually, what really got a lot of folks on fire was when we heard that these ITEP industries were even exempt from paying their taxes for schools. It's like "wait a minute." My kids were in public schools. I knew that for years schools have had layoffs and too many children in a classroom. As parents, we had to pay for all kinds of supplies that should have been supplied by the school. Even the teacher paid for supplies. I mean, the money that was needed in the schools was incredible, and these companies were getting out of paying millions of dollars towards the schools. That one really got me going too, and I saw teachers not getting raises, and you know, just all kinds of stuff in the school. We all know the problems with the schools. And people cannot say money is not the issue. My children were in those schools, and it is about money.
ITEP is a very hard, long haul. And it's so important to have a good strategy because you’ve got to be ready to do a lot of long, hard work. And you're working with some very powerful entities. So it's been very meaningful and encouraging working with Together Baton Rouge and Together Louisiana on this kind of issue because I see the power that we can bring to the table to make change on something that is so huge. And the results that we're getting are huge. Making a big impact on the community. So, it's really shown me what we are capable of.
Sadly, Ms. Thelma died in a terrible auto accident. She was a member of Elm Grove Baptist Church. And *tearing up* when it was time for her funeral, the church actually called me to speak. I didn't know her at all before we went through this action together. That's the kind of relationships that are formed in Together Baton Rouge.
When I think of the distinction Together Baton Rouge makes between “hot” versus “cold” anger, *laughs* the first thing that comes to mind is going before public entities, like the Commerce and Industry Board, the Metro Council, Legislators, you know; you're full of this anger. I'll give you an example. There was a woman named Thelma Fleming-Moore who was working with us on the payday loan issue; she had gotten so wrapped up in 'em. She was in a terrible, terrible state, but she was also very angry and wanted to make change happen. And so with TBR, she went before a committee of legislators and she was scared to death, but she had been trained through TBR on - you know - how to speak her mind. She stuck to a script that she had written. But then it had to go before another committee and she surprised us and broke from her script. She said, "I am really angry at the people who have taken advantage of me and put me in the situation that I am in; but I am more angry, furious, at the legislators who make the laws possible for them to take advantage of me." Now that was such an example to me of taking your anger and focusing it. Not letting it overwhelm you, just using it in the right place at the right time. And she went at these powerful legislators, and let them know that they were the ones that made the decision around laws, and she was stuck in the position that she was because of laws that were made. She was a powerful example to me of hot versus cold anger.
Another thing that moved me so much about working with Ms. Thelma was her reaction when we lost that action. Yes, after all she did in committee, in the end, on the floor of the Senate, we lost by 3 votes - I mean we worked so hard. And I thought, "She's going to be devastated," because she put her whole life out there publicly to fight this. She had been very private before, but she was publicly going out. And so I thought, "Oh gosh, she's going to be so devastated. I don't know what to say to her." But I went to her, and asked her how she was doing as soon as we heard the vote that we had lost, and her reaction, I will never forget. She looked me straight in the eye and said, "When you come back next year, you call me." She was not giving it up. She was not devastated in the least. She was ready to keep going no matter what it took. And, so she made a very powerful impression on me. And somehow I must have made an impression, too, because they called and asked me to speak at her funeral.
Sadly, Ms. Thelma died in a terrible auto accident. She was a member of Elm Grove Baptist Church. And *tearing up* when it was time for her funeral, the church actually called me to speak at her funeral. I didn't know her at all before we went through this action together. That's the kind of relationships that are formed in Together Baton Rouge.
Going to that funeral was a very powerful experience for me. I hadn't been to many Baptist funerals. And boy, I could go on and on about that experience. It changed me. Just seeing what that kind of funeral was like. It was just a wonderful experience. I walked in, and the church was completely full, to the rafters and all the way around the back. It was standing room only. But they had like 5 or 6 pews at the front completely empty, and I was thinking, with all these people crammed in here, why are they leaving those seats empty. Let people sit! I didn't know how it worked. Well, after everyone was seated, then the whole family walked in, and sat in those pews. And the whole service was focused on the family’s needs. It's like, We are here for you. Let us tell you about your loved one and the impact that loved one made on us. And I mean, person after person would do these testimonies. Seeing the family treated that way really, really moved me. And another thing that moved me was a point in the service when people who graduated from high school with Ms. Thelma all stood up. And they said, "We're here, we remember her." I mean she was an elderly woman, and her high school class was still there for her and her family. And that's what they said, "We are here for you. We loved her. And you are an extension of her, and so we are here for you." I just had never experienced that kind of communal care. It was just incredible.
The relationships in Together Baton Rouge-- it's just so many people who have made an impact on my life because of this work. The first would be Brod because he brought me in and he also mentored me. He taught me everything about the practices and the disciplines and the power cycle—the cycle of change. He made sure that I learned what I needed to learn in order to be effective in this organization. I was sad when he left because there was sort of this synergy where I would blossom more by working with him. Like I had all this energy and I had this knowledge, and I had this intuition, but it would come together with his strategizing - and it was just such a great synergy and it's like *sigh* I'm going to miss that so bad.
But now, I'm finding that I'm having that same synergy with Khalid, even though Khalid is very different. And I'm now coming from a different place. Brod had somebody who didn't know anything; Khalid has someone who has a lot of historical knowledge now, and knowledge about community organizing and its practices and principles that I've learned over the years. And Khalid brings wonderful skills as well. For example, I can be leading a meeting now, because I've learned how to lead a meeting, and Khalid will give little suggestions or ask the right question or give a critique and my mind just opens up. It's like, Yes! He gives me a new perspective. So that must be some of the IAF training because it's like - I know that he brings his own gifts and talents and intuitions and they're fantastic, but he also comes with the knowledge of his IAF training. And the IAF support he gets, he brings to the table. So, it's good with Khalid, too. So that's how the organizers make a difference.
But really - I'll tell you the most powerful experiences came from the African Americans that I met. Because I don't think that would have happened in any other environment the way it has happened through TBR. And I have grown as a person because of those relationships. I've seen a deep spirituality that I had never experienced in that way before. I have been shown great patience while I discovered the implicit bias that I didn't know I had. I've been doing a lot of anti-racism work and I realize how much I have learned from the African American friends that I have now and those that I've worked with. They have shown a great deal of patience with things that I probably did that were off the mark. But they've remained there with me and worked with me and it's just so opened my mind. Made me so much more inclusive. Made me - it has made me a better person. It really has.
One thing I learned from Reverend Wesley that was so important and powerful to me is that he taught me about being a public person as well as being a private citizen, and the line that you can draw. Because I always thought that, you know, that I had to be non-partisan all the time. That I couldn't tell you who I was voting for. I couldn't walk the streets for anybody to get 'em elected. And he started to train me and teach me about it. "You can be a private citizen and be in a nonprofit. You have one part that's the nonprofit, and you know where the lines are drawn. And then you're a private citizen so you should be able to support candidates who are important to you.” So, he really trained me up on that.
Bishop Knighton, Reverend Rushing, and Ronald Sutton, they taught me. As a Catholic woman, I've been trained up to stay in my place, taught that there are places on the altar that are not for me, and you don't become a priest. And I had these African American pastors— not just the African American, but all the ministers in Together Baton Rouge—who have treated me like, you know, with the dignity that I have as an individual and as a person, not treating me like I'm different or less because I am a woman. That's been a powerful experience. Learning that from them, yeah.
I am changed by the interactions. But I'm not diminished. My capacity grows through the experience. And so, to me, a leader is somebody who is courageous because you don't mind going into an environment that will change you. You are open to the change. And being affected by the relationship. That's kind of a vulnerable space, but it's also a very powerful space.
I worked with lots of organizations before I met Together Baton Rouge. Justice was important to me and trying to create change was very important to me, and like I said, I would bang my head against the wall. But Together Baton Rouge brought together so many practices and disciplines that work. And I don’t even know where to begin.
Let me start here: organized people and organized money. The way that this organization teaches people to organize and does organize people and institutions and money so that we have our own money. So that we do not have some grantor telling us what we can and can't do. We do use grant money, but we try to make sure that we have enough of our own that we do what we need to do without anybody attaching strings. So, that has made us very powerful. And you need the power to make the change. You need lots of people working together—that was a struggle for me before, too. I mean I could only bring together so many people. Together Baton Rouge has taught me how to bring together so many more people in order to have the kind of power and capacity that can change things.
It's about training leaders. I have had my capacity built so much. That makes all the difference. You don't want to have one organizer that's doing everything. Or a few leaders that do everything. It takes us all to have our capacity built to the degree that it needs to be built to make a difference. And it helps me to realize personally that I bring a lot to the table. I know I've got lots of talents and skills and lots of curiosity and just a motivation about me. But there are people who bring other talents and skills that I don’t have *laughs* And so, it brings together people with all of these different talents and skills. That completes the picture of what you need to get the things done.
I could just go on and on. With everything in TBR, there’s a discipline and a practice. Relational meetings. And House meetings. The research actions. Then actions. Then reflection on that action. That's so powerful, too. All of it. And I have not had any organization that does all that. I just have never seen anything like it. I could go on and on. I could write a book *laughs*
I looked up the definition for "catalyst", and I feel like a leader is a kind of catalyst, a person that enters into interactions, creates reactions, creates actions. But unlike some definitions of catalyst that say that the catalyst is not changed, I am changed by the interactions. But I'm not diminished. My capacity grows through the experience. And so, to me, a leader is somebody who is courageous because you don't mind going into an environment that will change you. You are open to the change. And being affected by relationships. That's kind of a vulnerable space, but it's also a very powerful space. You take the risks that you have to take. That’s leadership.
Together Baton Rouge is all about developing and deepening relationships with people. It's not just about working on issues with one another. It's about long term relationships. How do you have followers if you don't know how to do relationships? A leader is someone who is open to those relationships. Open to being changed by those relationships. Open to welcoming—being inclusive—always letting people know that they matter to you. They're important to your life. And people feel that, and they know that, and so they respond. And so a leader is a person that knows how to be involved in relationships and be present to people. There's more I could say about that, too, *laughs* another book.
Together Baton Rouge has added an understanding about myself. Weaknesses and strengths. It's shown me the potential and possibility of me. And a community. Of change. It's given me a community that I could not have had any other way.