In winter, the commander-in-chief of Camp Pemberton is likely to be wearing a Columbo-esque trenchcoat, and rubber-soled shoes. Of late, she might be sporting sunglasses or a pair of those temporary shades the optometrist dispenses after an exam, because her eyesight is troubled.
Edna Pemberton’s voice though is firm, and her battle cry is always the same. “Not on my watch!” she’ll tell you. Sitting behind a wooden desk in a dimly-lit empty room in the sleepy but gradually awakening Southwest Center Mall, “Mrs. P” as she’s known, is always on duty. Her duty, as she sees it, is doing all she can - from organizing food drives to rescuing folks caught in daily disasters, to improving relations between residents and police. She does all of this in an effort to make Oak Cliff a better place to live.
At least four days a week she’s behind her wooden table, in the room donated to her by the Southwest Center Mall. The table is the first destination for anyone walking into the room, that’s where they’ll get their hug. “We never know what exactly the day will bring,” says her friend Curtis Corbins, who’s known her for more than thirty years, and runs his own transportation service when he’s not assisting Mrs. P. “We (Jeanette Berry and Corbins) just come in and she tells us what to do.”
Once a week she meets with landlords from apartments around South Center Mall. Once a month she meets with police.
On Wednesdays, she stays home to listen to Dallas city council meetings, during which she makes notes and takes names. Mayor Mike Rawlings guesses she calls him four times a year with input on what’s going on in the city. But, he says, “She’s not a whiner, she’s a doer. She just wants to do what’s right...I probably see her more than I hear from her,” Rawlings says. “She’s always out doing things in the community.”
On this day, she’s calling on Magnolia Creek apartments, population 600. Partnering with Dallas Police, Mrs. P. helped initiate daily foot patrols of this and other complexes. “It’s changed everything,” says manager Renee Sanders. “Residents no longer fear police. They know their faces,” she says. “I also know that if I need help with any law enforcement issue, I can call them and they know me by name.”
At Cielo Ranch, a half mile away, manager Mark Burgess has gone beyond police patrols. This apartment house has not always been well reviewed by tenants, but Burgess has dedicated three suites in the complex to education. The first, a learning center for kids, gives children a chance for more classroom experience after the school day is done. They get a hot meal after school, and then a lucky fifteen of them get to spend time in the learning center with two passionate moms, interested in science, technology, engineering and math. At this point, there is a waiting list to get in.
Coming are an adult learning center and a library, all of which are funded by local residents.
“Mrs. P is one of the team,” Bryan Carter of Concord Church told me. “She’s the heart and soul of Oak Cliff.” Teamwork came together on December 6th when more than a thousand kids and their parents came to Southwest Center for “Christmasgiving.” Ms. P wasn’t the wheel in the venture, she was a cog, which included Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship, Concord, and many others. Children got toys, Atmos Energy forgave gas bills.
In this atmosphere, the meaning of “Not on my watch,” was altered. In the ethos of Ms. P, it meant not simply what won’t be allowed to happen, it meant what can happen.