Local Heroes

Eight people who work every day to make Tucson a better place.

One criticism that almost every editor hears constantly is: "Why is so much of your coverage negative?"

While that criticism is arguable on several levels, it's undeniable that many of the people mentioned in the pages of The Weekly and other newspapers get press only because they did something wrong. It's often said in journalism that newspapers cover plane crashes, not happy landings.

In any case, this week, in the spirit of the holidays, we're covering some happy landings.

Last week, we kicked the bad, annoying and inappropriate out of town. This week, we honor Tucson's heroes.

Jennifer Allen

On the morning after the first freeze of the season, Jennifer Allen sat bundled up in the storefront office of the Border Action Network. The heat had gone out; one of the staffers was trying to type in mittens while Allen placed calls to the landlord. She was simultaneously trying to figure out why the computer network had gone down.

Welcome to the world of human-rights activism.

Just a couple of days before, Border Action had launched a high-profile lawsuit against three Cochise County men accused of vigilantism against border crossers. Allen, as Border Action's director, is the public face of the organization, which works to protect human rights, civil rights and the Sonoran Desert along the border. But Allen is quick to point out that lots of other people do the hard work in this grassroots group, with 50 or 60 paying members and, Allen estimates, 150 volunteers who have circulated petitions and participated in Border Action's various campaigns.

"Meanwhile," she says, "I'm here pushing papers around, buying a new hub for this computer network that's been down for two days, paying bills--the glamorous stuff."

Actually, Allen has spent a lot of time in the field. "I love working with organizers in Douglas and Nogales, talking to people in their homes and pushing folks to take a step," she says. "We've got people speaking out there who were afraid to speak out before."

She necessarily maintains a sober demeanor at press conferences, but off duty, she's animated and even playful. She's sincere about her cause, but she isn't sanctimonious--least of all about herself.

"In high school, I was active in debate," she says of her secondary studies in Northern Utah. "Debate was the bastion of the outcasts--the punks, the kids whose parents smoked. I couldn't fit in anyway. I wasn't Mormon, and I didn't have blond hair and blue eyes (her father is Scots-Irish but her mother's side of the family is Mexican), so getting involved in animal-rights and environmental issues and doing geeky things like that in high school didn't take guts; it was just coming to terms with reality."

Allen graduated from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1995 with a degree in anthropology and a certificate degree in social change--the result of a two-year program in which she studied social movements, spent summers working in social programs in South Dakota and El Salvador and engaged in (and studied the effectiveness of) campus issues. She participated in a student movement challenging the university's institutional racism, helped change the core curriculum and worked to get tenure for a professor who'd been denied it on the basis of race.

Allen worked four years for the Western Shoshone Defense Project, a Nevada land-rights group, then joined her family, which had since moved to Tucson. Here, she worked with Pro Neighborhoods, a community-development organization, then in 1999, got involved with the group that would evolve into Border Action. She became its co-director, with Chris Ford, in August 2001, then its sole director when Ford stepped down in February 2003.

Allen acknowledges that her work draws a fair amount of hate mail, but mostly from out of state. "I feel very safe here," she says. She does admit that she sometimes finds it difficult, as a 30-year-old woman, to be taken seriously by adversaries and potential allies, but she says most people eventually "recognize the legitimacy of younger voices."

"Being young and being a woman isn't that much of a setback," she says. "We're here because we care about people's lives, and we want to help them speak up to resist efforts to undermine their rights.

"In the narrow sense, with Border Action's specific projects, I hope I can be out of a job in five years. But in the bigger picture, this work probably won't be finished in my lifetime."

--James Reel

Carolyn Campbell

Carolyn Campbell might not be more powerful than a locomotive. She might not be faster than a speeding bullet. She might not be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.

But she's still something of a local superwoman. In her job, heading up the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection, Campbell has the tricky job of keeping 41 environmental groups--sometimes with conflicting agendas--happy. And she has to do it while navigating the political rapids of Pima County as its planners assemble the most ambitious conservation plan in Arizona history, much to the dismay of many local developers who are accustomed to calling the shots in these parts.

"She's good at what she does," says County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry, who credits Campbell with keeping the conservation plan focused on science, not political pressure. "She's a good advocate who has learned to compromise, which is good in this day and age. She's been able to have what I call a tempering effect on some who might want the plan to be more radical than it is."

A self-described "Navy brat" who grew up at various bases around the country, Campbell, 45, came to Arizona after graduating from high school in the Washington, D.C., area. She ended up at Arizona State University, where she earned a degree in political science in 1982. While doing post-grad work, Campbell landed a job with Mo Udall, the legendary Arizona congressman known for his environmental ethos.

"It was great," she recalls. "He really did inspire me, because he got things done. And, as everybody knows, he was just the funniest guy you'll ever meet. He disarmed people with that."

After six years in Udall's office, Campbell drifted down to Tucson, where she helped start Arizona's Green Party, including the effort to gather 15,000 signatures to get official ballot status with the state. A few years later, she went to work as an aide to Molly McKasson, the former Ward 6 City Councilwoman.

About the same time that McKasson stepped down in 1997, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, under legal pressure from the Center for Biological Diversity, listed the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl as endangered. The Clinton Administration was then pushing the idea of regional habitat conservation plan that would provide a framework for dealing with sticky development problems that arise as a result of endangered species in urban areas.

Campbell was then working with a group of environmental groups that coalesced into the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Conservation; they grabbed the ear of the Pima County Board of Supervisors. It was the first time that environmentalists were at the forefront of a conservation-plan effort.

Campbell counts several big successes so far, including the Board of Supervisors' decision to base an update of the county's comprehensive plan on a map of ecologically sensitive lands created by biologists, rather than simply on the bottom line of landowners and developers. Along with that, county guidelines now require developers to set aside 70 to 80 percent of their property and protect washes when developing in sensitive areas. "That was huge," she says.

There's also the Ironwood Forest National Monument, roughly 129,000 acres of mostly unspoiled Sonoran desert given protection by the Clinton Administration in 2000.

Luther Propst, executive director of the Sonoran Institute, says he and Campbell don't always see eye-to-eye, but she's "a very effective conservation leader."

"Carolyn has a great sense of humor with people," says Propst. "She's persistent without being dogmatic. Carolyn is a very good strategist. She understands that conservation is the art of the possible, and somehow, she manages to keep this coalition together.

"I think her greatest strength is her conviction," he adds. "She should be commended because she doesn't vilify people who disagree with her."

There are still plenty of battles on the horizon, beginning with the push to pass a $180 million open-space bond package next May to provide a funding base for the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan. With the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl's endangered status now uncertain, the plan needs that boost more than ever.

Campbell sees economic benefits resulting from the improved quality of life that comes with protecting natural resources. "People don't move here because of the high wages we have here," she says. "They come here in spite of the low wages we have here, because of the natural beauty and opportunities for natural resource-based recreation."

But beyond any economic benefit, she says, "It's the right thing to do. It's important."

Now that's what we call truth, justice and the American way.

--Jim Nintzel

George Davis

Some heroes are made; some are born; some are appointed. George Davis, provost and executive vice president of the University of Arizona, is one of the last. Returning from a 10-minute lunch at the Student Union, his big break in a packed day, he denies that he's heroic, but concedes that the job he's held since 2000 falls somewhere between there and masochistic.

As provost, Davis oversees academic programs at the university--all those related to teaching and research--and his central responsibility is recruitment and retention of faculty: "That's the part that wakes me up at night," he says.

As executive vice president, he's in charge of everything else. He reports to the president and the regents; all the vice presidents and deans report to him. Word on campus is that the university under President Peter Likins and Davis is better organized and more focused than it has been in many, many years.

So he hasn't had much time lately for doing work in his field, structural geology. He joined the UA's already-famous geosciences department as an assistant professor in 1970 and started working on a puzzle he could see out the window: Why do the Rincons look the way they do, and why do they look so much like other Western ranges? In collaboration with fellow professor Peter Coney and literally dozens of grad students, he worked out a radical new theory of mountain-building that's now geologic doctrine. "That was a great, great ride," he says, "I've had the kind of support that we're trying to give all our faculty."

But back to his status as a local hero. Other than funneling hundreds of millions of dollars into the economy every year and winning basketball games, what does the UA really do for Southern Arizona?

Davis is momentarily stunned by this question, but he gamely takes a swing.

"Well, that's endless. Quality of life? Would you want to live in a town without a college or university? And opportunity--all the possibilities that an institution like this creates. Take the Mars mission. As Pete (Likins) says, we're the only university in the world with its own mission to Mars, and Peter Smith, who's head of it, guess what his highest degree is: a master's in optics. From the UA! You should be talking to him, not me."

Modest, hardworking and distinguished as Davis is, in one respect. he's clearly failing the people of Tucson. His long-planned Backyard Barbecuer's Guide to the Tucson Horizon is still sitting in a drawer. Designed for the outdoor cook who dreams of casually putting names to all the peaks and ridges for his admiring guests, it would obviously come in handy for Tucsonans who never cook out, too: It could have made the Aspen Fire intelligible. Davis, the author of four scholarly books and countless papers, maps and guides, took the 500 mm photos from the top of a downtown building years ago, but he hasn't found time to put it all together.

Maybe he could cut out lunch completely. The city waits.

--Renée Downing

The Rev. John Fife

The Rev. John Fife laughs when he is asked to be in the local heroes issue: "This is a joke, right?" But the longtime pastor of Southside Presbyterian Church, co-founder of the Sanctuary movement, influential voice in the national Presbyterian Church, habitué of shows like 60 Minutes--and, of course, convicted felon--makes time to talk.

"Although you've got to understand," he says, "that I've made a career out of taking credit for what a whole lot of people have accomplished."

Sure. This cheerful, cowboy-booted, fifth-generation Presbyterian minister--"It took a year of therapy before I decided that it was really OK for me to be one, too"--was inspired early on by Martin Luther King Jr., and he never lost that vision of what religious faith can and should do. Three years out of seminary, he was offered a dying church in Tucson and jumped at the chance.

Southside had been founded by Tohono O'odham people who'd moved to work in town in the early 1900s, but by 1970, it was down to 25 members. "And we couldn't find all 25," Fife recalls.

"It was perfect. Marianne and I both loved the Southwest, and here was this Native American congregation, in a poor neighborhood, near the border--Southside was everything I wanted." Today, the church has 250 members, about a quarter of whom are Native Americans, and a splendid central building--one of the most beautiful and significant structures in Tucson. The church's name is internationally synonymous with faith-based activism.

Fife's fame outside the Southwest stems from his 1986 conviction for setting up and running a 17-state underground railroad for Central American refugees.

"In the early '80s, we realized there were more and more Salvadorans and Guatemalans showing up here, looking for help. These were people with terrible stories--many still had marks of torture on their bodies. But the INS was picking them up and automatically sending them back to their countries, usually within 24 hours. Pretty soon, we were scrambling, bringing in lawyers and Amnesty International doctors to testify that they'd been tortured, but all requests for political asylum were being denied. None of us had any illusions about the possible consequences of bringing these folks across and hiding them, but what could we do? When I put it to the congregation, only five members voted against going on."

The FBI eventually infiltrated the movement, and Fife, along with seven colleagues, was tried on federal smuggling charges. Predictably, the seven-month trial turned the small organization into a national movement.

Southside continues to be a hotbed of good works ranging from a shower program and labor exchange for the homeless to protests against the death penalty. Even after he retires in 2005, Fife plans to keep working on humanitarian aid for border crossers and immigration reform.

He'll also be spending more time on the O'odham reservation, a place he loves--and lest he become bored, he's taking up falconry as soon as he steps down. "I'll be out there with a hawk on my arm, having a ball."

Actually, he seems to have a great time no matter what he's doing--and that may be his single greatest gift to those around him. John Fife makes goodness look like fun.

--Renée Downing

Brian Flagg

Brian Flagg's goals are simple: Get up and survive; live to fight another day.

Flagg is in a fight for social justice and human rights, in a fight for life--all for the hungry and homeless. As coordinator of South Tucson's Casa Maria Soup Kitchen for the last 20 years, Flagg sees the situation clearly.

"Social justice won't come without struggle and sacrifice. Ain't no way. É There ain't no such thing as neutrality. You are either part of the solution or part of the problem."

Flagg's frank words and bold actions have earned him press in Tucson. Peruse old newspaper clippings, and headlines of Flagg at demonstrations jump across the pages. On one occasion, Flagg and homeless demonstrators camped out in front of City Hall for days. Old photos of him picture a determined defender of the downtrodden.

But Flagg isn't particularly interested in how the community views him. He answers that question with a blunt candidness.

"I don't really care, to be honest, because I need to be faithful to my calling," he says.

Flagg's calling came at the age of 22, when he had a religious experience. Before that, he recalls, his primary interests were the same as other misdirected Southern California youth: surfing, getting high and playing ball. His life changed in a matter of months when he discovered his life purpose.

"People I worked with told me about Jesus and the Bible, and said, 'Why don't you check this out?' And I did. I figured ultimately, this was the truth I need to follow. É I felt the Holy Spirit come into me and empowered me to do the work I do," he says.

Flagg started as part of the Catholic Worker Movement at a soup kitchen in Sacramento. Wanting to continue this tradition, he set out for Tucson in 1983--unaware that he would find a new home.

"I was passing through. I was going to hitchhike to Catholic Worker houses throughout the country and do this work at those places, but I never got past Tucson. I feel blessed I came here and never left," he says.

Flagg's work involves "half a day of straight-up service and half a day organizing for social justice."

His service work entails serving coffee, soup and sack lunches to the homeless and families in need seven days a week. Casa Maria serves 600 single bag lunches and 250 family bags a day. Hot showers, clothes, medical aid and legal services are also offered. The kitchen operates from private donations only.

Flagg's social justice work involves organizing and planning to bring about change. He makes phone calls, attends meetings and lectures and is a co-chair of the Pima County Interfaith Council.

He does all of this for $10 a week and a place to live. As Flagg puts it, he took a vow to practice the works of mercy and the works of justice. This involves living a very modest life.

But you won't hear Flagg complaining.

"I'm full-speed ahead. I enjoy what I do. You have to understand that good will one day win out over evil. You have to infuse everything with optimism. Things really can change," he says.

Flagg has no plans to stop doing his work and says he is "a lifer." He enjoys "comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable" and calls upon everyone to take action.

"This is the wealthiest nation in the history of human kind, and we can do incredible technological things, but we have millions of homeless, including lots of families. É It doesn't have to be that way. É If you are conscious and capable, everyone can do something. You can write a check, bring food, clothes É

"Everyone has to search their soul and ask the higher power for guidance in alleviating people's suffering. That's what life is all about, really."

--Irene Messina

Raquel Rubio Goldsmith

Raquel Rubio Goldsmith has dedicated herself, as activist and academic, to working for peace and social justice, especially in the areas of immigration and women's rights. Her journey began at 16 when she won a full scholarship to the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico in 1952. The scholarship was "the most magnificent thing that could have happened to me," she says.

Her intellectual stimulation went beyond the university. Living with her great aunt, a concert pianist, Goldsmith was surrounded by members of the Mexico City artist community, including Frida Kahlo.

Goldsmith became involved in university politics and protests, despite facing added risks as a United States citizen. After completing her graduate program in law and philosophy, she returned home to Douglas, where she met and married Barclay Goldsmith.

After several years in Mexico and Buenos Aires, the couple moved to Pittsburgh. While Goldsmith worked for a poverty program, her husband studied theater arts in a graduate program at the Carnegie Mellon Institute. But the Chicano movement beckoned, and in 1969, the couple moved to Tucson.

Soon after, she became involved in the planning stages of Pima Community College and was among the initial group of 30 faculty members charged with developing a curriculum.

Goldsmith created an inclusive history curriculum that reflected the entire community, with credit transferable to the University of Arizona. She succeeded in establishing courses in Chicano, Yaqui, Tohono O'odham and African-American histories, overcoming objections from some university faculty.

There was a great sense of possibilities for change in those days. The college employed a participatory democracy management model, and everyone from the president to the janitors had a vote. Over time, as administrations became more conservative, Goldsmith realized, "I found out real soon if I wanted to stay at that school, I should just be a teacher."

In the mid-'90s, a bilingual program Goldsmith helped initiate was eliminated at PCC. "I was discouraged to see it end, because I knew what good it did," she says, noting students from the program went on to become professionals in the community.

Goldsmith retired from PCC in 1999, but continues to teach a class at the UA on the history of Chicanas and Mexican women. She is a member of the faculty of the Mexican-American Studies and Research Center there, and was recently awarded a grant to study the mistreatment of migrants.

In the 1970s, Goldsmith was active with the Manzo Area Council. Although the Council ceased to exist in the 1980s, Guadalupe Castillo, a friend and fellow activist, started a program that provided legal support for refugees. "Lupe's been the steel rod in immigrant rights from the beginning," Goldsmith says. The two have worked together for years.

As a member of the National Commission for Democracy in Mexico, Goldsmith visited Chiapas several times in the 1990s, working with the Zapatista Women's Committee.

She's served on community boards, has been a public speaker and has been a presenter at national and international conferences on the rights of women, immigrants and minorities. She's also received several awards recognizing her teaching excellence.

A dedicated and compassionate voice for human rights, Goldsmith's heroism extends far beyond Tucson's borders.

--Connie Tuttle

Betty Liggins

Betty Liggins was in her 60s, nearing her second and third retirements, when she faced a new task: to embolden her neighbors to sweep Sunland Gardens of drug dealers, prostitutes and addicts squatting in crack houses.

She rode point for the squad that established the first drug-free zone on a neighborhood street. And then Liggins, who moved to Tucson from her native Chicago in 1979, got mad.

The gang bangers and the profiteers didn't enjoy getting pushed out.

"They started threatening me. That got me mad. I was not scared, being raised on the south side of Chicago," Liggins says. "I wasn't trying to do anything more than living and letting people live."

Liggins finessed, finagled and hammered space for parks and playgrounds from developers and government programs. She is not one to sit back. When ramadas at one of those miniature parks needed attention, Liggins was there, without crowd or fanfare, with paint and brush.

She has been, for most of her life, getting the job done by herself.

Liggins was a young child when her show-business parents died. She, her brother and their younger sister were lucky, as she tells it, to stay together as they grew up with foster parents.

In high school, she learned shorthand and other skills that helped her assist a blind lawyer for whom a friend clerked. She would takes notes during his meetings with clients in the Cook County Jail, where she saw more than enough to compel her to avoid messing up.

Liggins was a civil-service employee in the Chicago post office when she would march with activist and comedian Dick Gregory. She met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the civil-rights leader encouraged her to return to school to become a nurse.

Liggins studied and earned a nursing degree and then added several associates degrees. She was on her own after her husband was killed--but she was the type who could do things for herself.

"I changed an engine in a 1966 Chevy. Borrowed the lift from a shop in the neighborhood and did it myself," she says.

Liggins was heading to California to put those degrees to work when she stopped to visit her brother in Tucson. She stayed, taking a job at Kino Community Hospital, Pima County's then-shining and busy showcase.

"I knew it wasn't meant to be a county hospital, the way it was built," she says. "Mayor Daley taught me that much back in Chicago."

Liggins and colleagues chafed under disparate treatment and "atrocious" pay, including a miserly 10-cent-an-hour night shift differential. She and the others created the Pima County Nurses Association and won bipartisan support on the Board of Supervisors from the late Sam Lena, a Democrat, and Katie Dusenberry, a Republican.

She specialized in geriatric care as a nurse practitioner and transferred to the county nursing home, Posada del Sol. But when a promotion she had earned instead went to a nurse whose training was in pediatrics, Liggins took off for the University of Arizona and University Medical Center.

"They asked, 'Do you think they will listen to you and trust you?' And I told them, 'Give me a white coat.' That shows authority. And I never had a problem with any of my patients."

Recognition started to come for Liggins, including a prestigious Jefferson Award in 1993.

She is proud and gracious about that and other awards, but has only once invoked the Jefferson Award--with Sen. John McCain, when the Republican needed a little guidance on a judicial nominee.

Liggins was ready to settle back 10 years ago.

"I had a nice retirement party in the dean's office and never took a day off. I signed a one-year contract and another through 1995," Liggins says.

She ran and lost several races for the Legislature and overcame a mother's worst nightmare--the death of her 45-year-old son in California, when he unwittingly drank an ecstasy-spiked cocktail.

Liggins moves on. She is in a two-year volunteer appointment on an AARP board and is a regional official for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Does Betty Liggins get weary, discouraged or depressed at the tasks that lay ahead?

"No," she says. "Because I am one to move on. Get upset? No. By the time you fix a sandwich, the feeling is gone. And it's probably because you were just hungry."

--Chris Limberis

D. Grady Scott

D. Grady Scott was deep into a lucrative career with Raytheon when his true calling took hold: to minister to and lead a congregation in Tucson.

He is pastor of the Grace Temple Missionary Baptist Church in the South Park Neighborhood at Campbell Avenue and 31st Street. And though he leads the faithful on a full schedule, don't be surprised when you see Grady Scott at City Hall, ward offices, schools, hospitals, social service organizations and even behind the podium at key political debates.

Indeed, it is in the latter role that Scott can be downright frustrating. He is so smooth, so polished, so quick and so down-to-earth that it is hard to resist the temptation to abandon the so-called political leaders in favor of the gentleman moderating the forum. His deft moves to defuse tension and near-gang-like behavior among partisans during the crowded congressional race in the new District 7 last year was stunning.

Away from those showcase events, Scott pushes for gains in education, equity in the workforce and marketplace, and hope for not only those who are building lives, but also those who are rebuilding.

"All that he does comes from the heart," says parishioner Maiola Coleman.

Scott grew up in Port Deposit, Md., population 600. He was particularly inspired by his maternal grandmother and father to help others and to guard against disenfranchisement.

With zero bombast, zero chest thumping and zero use of the word "I," Scott tops the must-call for local politicians, including Dan Eckstrom, the recently retired Democratic Pima County supervisor, and Steve Leal, a Democrat who at 14 years is the longest-serving member of the City Council.

Scott has served on Leal's committee on predatory lending, providing essential examples of unscrupulous practices--including a woman losing her home after a shady financing deal on a storage shed--that are among the foundations in the local push for reform.

"When he sits at the table, he commits and follows through," Leal says. "He is a very easy-going and congenial persona, but a very thoughtful and decisive person. Sometimes, thoughtful people stay out of this kind of public business, but he has worked very hard to develop partnerships. And he is not parochial or narrow-minded."

Scott enters peoples' lives effortlessly; Leal says, "It feels like I've known him all my life."

Leal typically calls on Scott for advice or just to "bounce" ideas off him.

In one recent session, Scott expressed concern over the restoration of voting rights for ex-prisoners. Leal was surprised to learn that it was a state-by-state matter and not a federal issue. The two men wondered if it could be a vestige of Jim Crow, and while Leal's staff began preliminary research, Scott suggested the topic as a research project for African-American Studies students at the UA. Leal, contemplating the number of Hispanics similarly situated, said it also was ripe for study and action by MEChA, the Moviemento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan, at the UA.

"And as we're talking, Grady says we'll make it an MLK (Martin Luther King Jr.) project," Leal says. "That's the way he is. That's why I love the man and why we are fortunate he is in our community."

Scott says: "Times have changed, but some of the attitudes haven't."

--Chris Limberis

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