Teaching to avoid riots

This article was produced for Watts Revisited, a multimedia project launched by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism that explores challenges facing South L.A. as we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Watts Riots. Learn more at www.wattsrevisited.com.

Jay Davis stands in front of his class at Augustus Hawkins High School. | Photo by Anna-Cat Brigida

Jay Davis stands in front of his class at Augustus Hawkins High School. | Photo by Anna-Cat Brigida

When Jay Davis talks to his students about the 1965 riots, which broke out all around his South L.A. campus, he wants to make sure it is not just a history lesson. Instead, he pushes his students to use the images to talk about the history, understand the factors that provoked rioting and decide what role they would play in history. [Read more…]

South LA stunt pro sparks opportunity for protégés

La Faye Baker practices a car stunt. | Photo by Anna-Cat Brigida

La Faye Baker practices a car stunt. | Anna-Cat Brigida

La Faye Baker rolls up her cargo pants and slides on her kneepads. She pulls back the sleeves of her hoodie to secure her protective gloves. Without hesitation, she jumps on the hood of a silver SUV. She grabs the bar stretching across the roof and dangles her torso over the windshield. Her combat boots rest on the hood of the car as it kicks into gear. The car swerves, gently at first but revving up to 15 mph, as Baker thrashes around on the hood for about three minutes in a parking lot, practicing a stunt. When the car finally comes to a stop, she hops down, unfazed. Her gold eye shadow and shimmery lip-gloss show no signs of wear.

This is a typical day for Baker, one of Hollywood’s only Black stuntwomen for more than 25 years. Before Katniss Everdeen was the girl on fire, Baker was bursting into flames, flawlessly executing car stunts and performing fight scenes for movies such as Clueless and Fat Albert.

La Faye Baker | Photo courtesy of La Faye Baker

La Faye Baker | Photo courtesy of La Faye Baker

Nothing about Baker is timid. Not her job, her path to success, or her sense of style.

Instead of gaining household recognition through acting, her work is part of the Hollywood illusion. While action packed movies are typically associated with masculinity, Baker has filled the arena with girl power. In an industry where the #oscarssowhite, she breaks the mold.

Growing up in South Central, Baker lived on the peripheries of Hollywood’s entertainment business.

Instead of following the aspirational route of television commercials and movie extra roles, Baker performed in her own ways. At Crenshaw High School, she was a competitive gymnast and played basketball and volleyball. At 16, she landed a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records for spinning 58 hula-hoops at one time after watching a group of girls hula-hooping in the park sparked a new hobby.

As she studied recreation administration at California State University, Long Beach, gymnastics became her focus but the cinema was always in the back of her mind. She briefly considered studying film, but instead followed her mother’s advice to pursue what she considered a more practical degree.

Baker took a job as a probation officer after college, even though she hadn’t completely shaken off her dream to work in entertainment.

There, a co-worker who worked part time as a stunt person introduced her to the world of dangling off the top of racing SUVs. Baker began attending training sessions. After working out with the group for a few months, she knew she had the style and ability to excel.

“I got flare,” Baker said. “I know that I can do this stuff.”  Baker became hooked on the excitement of driving fast cars and being lit on fire. With connections from her training group and her natural athletic ability, securing work came easily.

Since Baker’s first gig working in Atlanta for The Heat of the Night in 1988, she has worked as a stuntwoman or stunt coordinator in 47 films listed on IMDB. Baker estimates she has worked on more than 120 films total. Her credits include the Nutty Professor, Inspector Gadget and Baker’s personal favorite, What’s Love Got to Do with It, a 1993 film based on Tina Turner’s life and career. Baker has recently shifted her focus from starring in fight scenes to overseeing the process as a stunt coordinator.

Through all this success, she has still maintained her job working as a probation officer at a camp  in L.A. for young men in the juvenile justice system.

But Baker said she doesn’t let Hollywood get to her head. She rarely even watches the films that list her name in the credits. She still remembers hanging out with friends in the South L.A. neighborhood where she grew up and the scant opportunities for her to learn about the entertainment industry. She often drove across town for ice skating, tap dancing or skateboarding lessons.

“Being a minority and doing something that other people wish they could have done, it motivates me to keep moving,” Baker said. “I believe that if anybody else can do it, I can do it too.”

This philosophy propelled Baker into her career, and motivates her to encourage other young women and minorities. In 2005, she founded the nonprofit Diamond in the Raw to empower young women to pursue careers in the entertainment industry.

Diamond in the Raw participants at the annual Action Icon Awards | Photo courtesy of La Faye Baker

Diamond in the Raw participants at the annual Action Icon Awards | Photo courtesy of La Faye Baker

Among other programs, Diamond in the Raw organizes an 8-week summer “boot camp” to expose high school students to non-traditional entertainment industry career paths such as screenwriting, camera work and costume design.

Shammah Tatum expanded her knowledge of the entertainment industry when she participated last year in the program, which costs $150 per person. Tatum, a 19-year-old Compton resident and aspiring actress, learned the ins-and-outs of the entertainment industry by pitching, writing and producing a short film throughout the summer.

“It’s important that young people know that there is way more behinds the scenes work that you can be involved with,” Tatum said, listing editors, producers or stylists as lesser-known positions. “They may find that they have another talent.”

While acting is Tatum’s goal, her experience with Diamond in the Raw gave her a deeper understanding of myriad efforts that create a film. After the camp, she used her new skills interning as a production assistant and then as a casting assistant. Other participants have gone on to work as broadcast news reporters or camera technicians. Tatum credits the program with connecting her with an industry that rarely reaches into Compton, or her previous neighborhoods in Inglewood and Carson.

By working with women like Tatum, Baker aims to bring Hollywood into diverse pockets of greater Los Angeles, pushing more women and minorities to fuel blockbuster success — even from behind the scenes

“There are so many different people with different stories to tell,” Baker said. “Now is the time to open up and be a little more accepting of different viewpoints.”

Like Intersections on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and sign up for the Newsletter to stay in the loop on news and views from South L.A. Email reporter Anna-Cat Brigida at [email protected] and follow her @AnnaCat_Brigida.

South LA homeless youth need homes, not shelter

Demonque Williams at Sanctuary of Hope. | Photo by Anna-Cat Brigida

Demonque Williams at Sanctuary of Hope. | Photo by Anna-Cat Brigida

Demonque Williams exited the foster care system at age 18 in 2010 with nowhere to go and no one to turn to. Now 22, he still does not have a stable home. On a good day, he sleeps in a shelter or uses a hotel voucher. Most nights he sleeps on the street.

“I need emotional help,” Williams said sitting on the couch at Sanctuary of Hope, a program for homeless youth in South L.A. “I need somebody to talk to. I need to keep mentally strong out there. I need encouragement.”

Williams has found some support through Sanctuary of Hope, a South L.A. organization that provides transitional housing and assistance to homeless youth. As part of the South L.A. Transition Age Youth and Foster Care Collaborative, it aims to serve young adults among South L.A.’s homeless population.

South L.A has the largest homeless population in the city with more than 11,000 recorded according to an estimate by the 2013 L.A. Homeless Count. More than 2,000 of these individuals are under the age of 24.

[Read more…]

Kizomba, a seductive Afro-Caribbean dance, arrives in South LA

Instructor Rome David dances Kizomba with a student during class. | Photo by Anna-Cat Brigida

Instructor Rome David dances Kizomba with a student during class. | Photo by Anna-Cat Brigida

The sound of pulsing music and Portuguese lyrics blares out to the sidewalk outside Vanessa’s Positive Dance Studio on Monday nights in South L.A. Couples press close together, attempting to move as one unit, as they review new steps, with leaders signaling their partners to move forward or backward with just the slightest movement of the chest.

The students are learning Kizomba, a partner dance that originated in Angola, spread to Europe and has now taken hold in Los Angeles. The dance combines African rhythms with the sensual passion of Semba, a dance that originated in Angola and gave birth to Argentine Tango and Brazilian Samba.

“It’s a very sensual dance and really allows you to connect with your partner,” said Felicia Mello, who started learning Kizomba about a year ago. “It has an elegance to it that is different than some of the faster dances. That’s the beauty of it.”

[Read more…]

Volunteers tally South LA’s homeless, counting one by one

homeless count feature image

Homeless Count volunteers show their certificates of completion. | Stephanie Monte

Instead of the usual dinner and birthday cake, Jacquelyn Dupont-Walker spent her birthday in a more altruistic way: She gathered a group of family and friends to volunteer for the biennial Homeless Count on Thursday night. The “Happy Birthday Jackie” group joined nearly 100 volunteers at Holman United Methodist Church, one of South L.A.’s deployment sites for the count. This South L.A. contingent represented a fraction of the 6,000 volunteers who gathered data on the city’s homeless population over three days under the supervision of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.

“We want to be a part of the 2015 revived mission to eliminate homelessness,” Dupont-Walker said. “We think this is a part of it.”

L.A.’s Homeless Count is the nation’s largest program taking a headcount of people living on the streets. L.A.’s homeless population is second in size only to the homeless population of New York City.

Homelessness in South L.A. is more common than any other part of the county. The 2013 Homeless Count tallied more than 11,000 homeless people in South L.A. Six of the seven other districts counted a significantly smaller homeless population, with estimates ranging from 2,500 homeless to 8,000. Service Planning Area 4, Metro Los Angeles including Skid Row, with about 10,500 homeless individuals was the only area with an estimate similar to South L.A.’s Area 6. [Read more…]

Top Intersections stories of 2014

It’s just a few days before we welcome a new year — but before leaping forward, let’s take a look back. In 2014, Intersections covered community development, visual and performing arts, health, education, poverty, politics, crime, history and more…  What were the highlights? Here are one editor’s top 10 picks.  

Zumba boom in South L.A. 

Students get some air time while jumping in a Zumba class. | Daina Beth Solomon

October 20, 2014 By Daina Beth Solomon | Editor-in-Chief

“Nearly 40 Zumba studios have cropped up in the 50-square-mile region of South L.A. over the past few years, offering homegrown exercise facilities in an area that had long lacked affordable options. In an area of Los Angeles where the population faces a surfeit of obesity, the classes may be one way Angelenos in South L.A. can work toward shrinking their waistlines.” [Read more…]

Magnificent Dunbar Hotel extends performance run to Dec. 28

Dunbar Hotel in 1928 | DWP

Dunbar Hotel in 1928 | DWP

The Dunbar Hotel was not just any hotel, as suggested by the title of the Robey Theatre Company’s extended production “The Magnificent Dunbar Hotel” — it was a cultural hub where Black writers, singers and actors gathered in Los Angeles during the 1930s and 1940s.

The play written by Levy Lee Simon and directed by Ben Guillory introduces the audience to this world of luxury on Central Avenue that harbored Black leaders and performers from the Jim Crow laws that prohibited them from staying elsewhere.

“Informative and engaging, this underappreciated chapter of our local history is portrayed with panache and grace,” Philip Brandes said in his L.A. Times review. [Read more…]

No longer homeless, chef brings pastries to Skid Row

From left to right: LaToya Alvarez, Latrina Wilcher, and Zachary Greenblott volunteer their fine cooking skills for a unique audience. |Anna-Cat Brigida

From left to right: LaToya Alvarez, Latrina Wilcher, and Zachary Greenblott volunteer their fine cooking skills for a unique audience. | Anna-Cat Brigida

Once a month Latrina Wilcher goes to Skid Row to hand out slices of cake and pie in heart-shaped boxes. Her goal is to help the homeless people in Los Angeles “one pastry at a time.”

“These treats are not the healthiest in the world, but it costs money to get a cupcake or cookie,” said Wilcher, a South L.A. native. “So I thought, ‘OK, I’m going to give them something that would take them a lot to get somewhere else.” [Read more…]

South LA voices with South LA views, Thursday at USC

visions of south la pic

To some students, the University of Southern California may seem like a world unto itself. Yet the school is also just one piece of the South Los Angeles community, a role worth examining as USC launches development projects like the new University Village.

The panel discussion “Voices of South L.A: Civic Action and Community Voice” happening Thursday Oct. 9 at 6 p.m. in the Annenberg Auditorium (ASC room G26) aims to delve into conversation on various efforts by the university and other groups to address disparities and injustices in South L.A. (Tickets are sold out, but you can get on the waitlist.) The event, hosted by the Visions and Voices program, will bring together community organizers, residents, journalists and scholars to discuss views on South L.A.  Intersections spoke with event organizer Alison Trope, a professor in USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, about what attendees can expect from the event.

[Read more…]

South LA collaborative fights homelessness

Volunteers collect pledge ballots from attendees.

Volunteers collected pledge ballots from attendees. | Anna-Cat Brigida

There are more than 8500 homeless young people in Los Angeles County.  One of the highest concentrations of homeless under the age of 24 is South L.A. The South L.A. Homeless Transition Age Youth plans to take these kids off the streets and improve their lives.

 This story originally aired on Annenberg Radio News.