Dawn Fisher likes things tidy. You’ll find her in the early morning, a sprightly figure in her neon-yellow safety vest, plucking litter from the side of the street with the help of a long plastic claw.
“That’s a pick stick,” she says, clacking the gripper open and shut. She always carries one, just in case. She’ll give you one, too, if you promise to help pick up trash. And – because she likes things organized – she’ll add your name to the list of pick-stick-patrolling neighbors she keeps tucked between various newspaper clippings, photos, and certificates in her sizable scrapbook.
Fisher started picking litter while on Gulfport’s City Council (2001-2005) as a way to care for the community she’d come to love, years after her first visit to Gulfport in 1986. Serving on council provided many others.
Every Friday, she recalls, “You would pick up a thick notebook of city business to review. It was like being back in college! And you could always tell, at meetings, who had worked on their books.” During her tenure, city council brought forward many significant projects, each carefully documented in the album: The refurbishment of Fire Station 17, a $1 million renovation of the Casino, and the opening of the 49th Street Neighborhood Center.
Then came the Human Rights Ordinance.
The 2005 ordinance protected residents, visitors, and employees from discrimination based on gender, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, and appearance. And while today’s city proudly embraces its distinction as an LGBTQ-friendly community, the HRO stirred controversy when Ward III councilmember Harry Brodhead, spurred by residents who experienced discrimination, introduced the idea in 2004.
Though the HRO passed after her tenure, Fisher’s voice joined those urging Gulfport forward. As Gulfport’s first openly gay city council member, she was part of the historic transformation taking place.
“Gulfport was getting more diverse,” she recalls. “There was a new openness.”
The city started changing in other ways, too. With the area’s first Art Walk in 1993, Gulfport started to cultivate an “artistic aura” that drew visitors. For Fisher, a poet for more than 50 years, this was another reason to love Gulfport. The emerging arts community reminded her of childhood trips to Chicago, where her mother – who once wanted act – would introduce her children to museums, theater, and an artistic circle that included painter Doris Lee and musician Hoagie Carmichael.
So when Eileen Navarro of the Gulfport Community Players asked for help funding a permanent space in 2007, she gifted GCP the $250,000 needed to buy the Back Door Theater – in honor of her mom.
“It takes people doing their job to make a community prosper,” she remarks. “Not going for money or for putting their names on things.” It all boils down to a simple personal philosophy: “I get involved!”
And with that, she pulls a rubber glove on one hand and takes up her pick-stick in the other. There’s still a little more to do today.
Meet Dawn Fisher at Gulfport Stories Jan. 28 at 7 p.m. at the Gulfport History Museum.