Appreciating Michelle Cook

By Nancy Gillette, Social Justice Committee

I met Michelle Cook in the last part of 2009 at a meeting of the City of Norfolk’s St. Paul’s Area Advisory Committee, which had been created recently by the City.  She had been asked by the City to represent the residents of Tidewater Gardens on this Committee. Three of the five representative residents\ of Tidewater Gardens were not present. So Michelle was one of two residents in attendance.  Michelle presented her point of view to the Committee.

I was one of several members of Empower Hampton Roads present at that meeting who wanted to know what the City was planning to do for the residents of the public housing community called Tidewater Gardens, through fashioning a “vision statement” for the “St Paul’s Quadrant.”  Empower Hampton Roads, in which I was representing the UCN’s Social Justice Committee, was an interfaith coalition of congregations in the Hampton Roads Area to work on social justice issues.  (The Unitarian Church of Norfolk was one of the founding members of this organization, which was organized in 2002 or 2003. Empower Hampton Roads no longer exists.)

After the meeting I explained to Ms. Cook our interest in Tidewater Gardens and asked if she could meet with us. She accepted and we worked together from then on. Soon thereafter, when the president of the Tidewater Gardens Tenant Management Council retired, Michelle ran for and was elected to this position. Among the things Michelle worked on with us was increasing Tidewater Gardens’ voice in the City. She got to know her City Council representative, and through this connection was able to get the lighting in Tidewater Gardens upgraded. She worked on arranging a candidates’ forum for a City Council election.  She also facilitated many Empower Hampton Roads voter registration drives in Tidewater Gardens — which increased the turnout of residents in several local and national elections  Michelle attended crucial City Council meetings, and was instrumental in preventing the City’s adopting a proposed move of the Tidewater Garden’s voting precinct  across the busy Tidewater Drive. Together with Ms. Cook Empower Hampton Roads put on a children’s coloring activity at annual outdoor festivals for residents of Tidewater Gardens.

Two things about Michelle stand out for me. One was her wish to receive a high school diploma by passing the GED program. She attended classes for this purpose, but somehow it didn’t happen. The other is the wish she had for the community, which was that Tidewater Gardens could have a washing machine or laundromat for communal use. This didn’t happen.  As far as I can tell, the City continues to say that there is no money to provide better solutions for Tidewater Gardens. One of the City’s consultants told me that a project of this sort would ordinarily require a major local philanthropic player.

Michelle, if she were here, would have used her voice to keep on striving for improvements at Tidewater Gardens.

Barbara Hamm Lee on public radio station WHRV reported Michelle’s passing after her obituary had come out. Hamm Lee mentioned that Michelle loved her work with Empower Hampton Roads.

image credit/Inside Climate News