Southside Stories: Harnessing diversity for political change in South LA

This story is part of a semester-long project by USC Annenberg students spotlighting South LA. Stories featured on Intersections South LA have been written by students in USC Professor Robert Hernandez’s class. See more Southside Stories here.

The Vermont Square neighborhood has a diverse population of about 60,000 individuals. While the ethnic and social diversity reflects a desirable kaleidoscopic landscape, the community also faces a wide array of issues and concerns with 60,000 individual opinions on how to solve them.

The South LA Power Coalition, which launched earlier this year, is working to harness the diversity in South LA for political change. The coalition hopes to give political power to residents of South LA through common ground and a shared political movement.

One way the coalition tries to preserve unity is by finding common ground between the large Hispanic and African American communities in South LA. image

“I can’t think of any issue that we’re talking about that doesn’t affect all of our community. That’s why we’re here,” said Ron Gochez, a member of the South LA Power Coalition and a candidate for Los Angeles Council District 9.

The coalition, realizing the need for the unity between these two groups began a Black and Latino workshop where they discussed issues affecting both communities and worked to find ways to solve them.

“The objective was not just to talk about the issues, but to try to come up with some ways, some objectives, some concrete ways of things that we can do as a black and brown community to work together,” said Gochez.

The South LA Power Coalition feels that they have an advantage in reaching out to the diverse population of South LA because they are not affiliated with any group or political party. The coalition is an autonomous group of people passionate about seeing South LA empowered for political change.

image“There’s a degree of independence and an ability for us to take stances and take positions that other more prominent organizations can’t do because they’re tied to this or they’re tied to that,” said Njideka Obijiaku, an active member of the South LA Power Coalition and the Ma’at Institute for Community Change.

“It gives us, really, the freedom to be able to do analysis, to pick things apart, and align them with just our values and values that are associated with working families,” said Obijiaku.

None of the group’s active members will call themselves leaders. They are all part of different organizations and groups in their communities and chose to come together to form a collaborative group in South LA.

“We’ve been working in our communities for several years and we understand the importance of not working independently of each other,” said Gochez.

While the members of the coalition are very politically educated and active, they are the exception for South LA—an area that consistently has an extremely low voter turnout rate. During the 2012 presidential election, the coalition stated that there were precincts where less than half of the registered voters came out to vote.

“But the problem is that it’s not that people don’t want to be active. People don’t clearly sometimes know how, and how being active impacts your life and your livelihood,” said Kokayi Kwa Jitahidi, one of the organizers of the South LA Power Coalition and member of MA’AT Institute for Community Change.

The South LA Power Coalition strives to educate residents in South LA on how to vote and how it can impact their daily lives.

Prior to the 2012 election, the coalition held a voter education workshop at the Maya Angelou High School where they released a voter guide and educated the community about different measures on the ballot.

While the voter guide gave specific ways in which to vote for each proposition, the coalition’s main goal is not to advocate a specific group or political position. According to their founding members, their goal is to help the residents of South LA define a vision for themselves and work to see it put into action. The coalition believes that the issues and problems in South LA are a result of residents not being empowered. image

“People who are most impacted are not empowered, and have not been empowered, to participate in a meaningful way in the political process, to make independent decisions for themselves—people are spoken on behalf of, but not worked with,” said Jitahidi.

As the South LA Power Coalition continues their work in South LA and continues to develop as a group, the members hope to not only change policy, but to also gain political representation.

“We have to make this grassroots movement translate to political power. If we’re going to get the changes and if we’re going to effectively fight around the status quo, we’ve got to be able to translate that into political power,” said Jitahidi.

Black community calls for action after controversial death

imageTwenty years ago, one man sparked the uprising of an entire community. The mention of his name held tension, outrage, and passion. That man was Rodney King. Today, the name of another man, ten years younger, is sparking another movement.

That young man’s name is Trayvon Martin. On Saturday morning, in a meeting called, ‘Black Men Stand Their Ground: Justice for Trayvon Martin,’ over 200 Los Angeles community members gathered in an Inglewood church to discuss race relations and the profiling of black men.

The first hour of the meeting hosted by radio station KJLH was spent reviewing details of Martin’s case. The second part of the meeting called for attendees to participate and voice their solutions for race relations relating to the black community.

Minister Tony Muhammad, organizer of the Nation of Islam, Reverend Lewis Logan, co-founder of Ruach Christian Community Fellowship, Cedric Watkins, partner at Watkins Group & Associates and YoYo, a rap artist, led a panel discussion.

Lines of people quickly filled the church’s three aisles, as community members voiced their concerns and offered solutions over a period of two hours. Given the number of people, not everyone got a chance to speak.

The solutions offered were varied – from increased education to matters of dress code. Some argued that attendees should wear hoodies to protest against the profiling of black men in hoodies as a threat. Others suggested the opposite path, saying they should wear suits to guard against wrong perceptions.

The one thing that people agreed on was that there is still a need for a movement creating intentional change in widespread perceptions of the black community.

imageReverend Logan called for action saying, “Not only are we standing our ground, but it’s time for a movement,” making reference to the meeting’s title, “Black Men Stand Your Ground.”’

Organizers of this meeting hope it won’t be an isolated event. The panel has planned more “movement meetings” as an action step to progress in the improvement of race relations and equality in the public perception of the black community.

“We didn’t come just to talk. We came to reflect and then we came to project,” said Logan. “You can only keep what you are organized to take. And if you are not organized, you will not take anything.”

Those in attendance also voiced concern that the black community is not organized, because they have stopped behaving like a community, neglecting to live life with one another and speak with each other.

Though outraged by the shooting of Trayvon Martin, some expressed hope that this event would achieve this goal of bringing together their community.

“It’s unfortunate that this young man has to be the catalyst for this to happen but sometimes God has a reason for things,” said Donna Armbrister, a teacher from Watts who attended the meeting. “His death is not going to be in vain. As long as I have breath in my body, it’s not going to be in vain.”

This “catalyst” has provoked a national uproar at what many feel was the senseless killing of a young black man, not unlike the uprising against what many felt was the senseless beating of Rodney King.

Twenty years after the LA uprising of 1992, community members have mixed feelings on whether or not race relations have changed in the United States.

Armbrister said that race relations have definitely improved, but qualified her statement by saying, “A black man is still perceived as evil and until that changes we need to be vigilant as a race and as people to make sure that our children are not forgotten and are not seen as a threat.”

Robbie Davis, a 20-year resident of Los Angeles, disagreed with Armbrister, but agreed that the perception of the black community is the main contributor to racial inequality.

“Relations have not changed until all communities are seen as equal,” said Davis. “If you perceive a certain community in the manner that you can treat them differently from another community then things have not changed.”

Derik Cross, 48, born and raised in Los Angeles, cited the lack of discussion and movement as a reason for little change in race relations, saying, “The problem is we never talk about race. We talk about race in a vacuum for a moment and then there’s no follow up on this. It’s embarrassing.”

Many community members agreed saying simply showing up and talking about issues is the first step to change.

“Whenever you have an opportunity to hear the community speak, then you show up, said Davis. “In terms of immediacy, that doesn’t happen; but I will show up as long as it takes.”

The first follow-up to Saturday’s meeting will be held on April 11th at 6:30pm at Bethel AME Church.

Relative caregivers fight for their foster youth

By Rebekah Valencia, Staff Reporter

imageWhen Deanne D’Antignac received the call asking if she would care for her niece, she said “yes.” The only other option was to turn her over to strangers. She did not know that the care of one niece would turn into permanent legal guardianship of three nieces and the sacrifice of her career and financial security.

Data from the Community Coalition South Los Angeles shows that D’Antignac is one of 2,500 relatives in South L.A. who take in family members, and one of 2.5 million relative caregivers nationwide. These caregivers say they do not receive the same support as other foster care providers, and have little to no preparation, guidance, or resources.

At a town hall meeting in South L.A. on February 25, relative caregivers shared their concerns with the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth.

The caucus is co-chaired by 33rd Congressional District Representative Karen Bass (D-CA) and Rep. Tom Marino (R-PA), who both participated on the Congressional panel along with Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-CA). South L.A. was the first stop on a national listening tour to hear from youth and families about what is working in the foster care system and what needs to be improved.

On one panel, D’Antignac shared her story and the unique struggles of relative caregivers, saying that the majority of these relatives have no warning that the next day they will become parents.

image“When I received the phone calls, I did not have time to prepare like a foster parent would. This is not a job that I applied for; and early on, I did not receive money or training for them,” said D’Antignac, who had to quit her job as a physician’s assistant to care for her three nieces.

Edgar Campos, organizer for Community Coalition South LA, estimated that about 40% of relative caregivers in South L.A. live under the federal poverty line — $23,050 for a family of four. Multiple caregivers at the meeting testified that they were forced to give up work and use their own savings and retirement funds to provide for their child.

Debra Lee, another South L.A. relative caregiver, raised two of her grandchildren and is now raising her 3-year-old great-granddaughter. She says grandparents in this economy do not have sufficient funds for raising children.

“Long gone are the days where grandma had this big old pension,” said Lee. “We don’t have that pension. I was a working grandma when I got the kids.”

Not only do relative caregivers say they struggle to find funding for their foster children, but they also lack resources and counseling necessary to learn how to obtain essential services.

“The children usually come to relative care without any resources, without any funds and with no clothes. Just the child,” said D’Antignac.

The lack of resources can leave relative caregivers searching all over the city to find the services they need for their children.

image“It took a year to get services for my granddaughter; by then, she was darn near psychotic from not having medicine [for mental illness],” said Lee.

Relative caregivers in South L.A. are advocating for hubs inside the community where formal and informal relative caregivers can go to access mental health services and other resources.

They also continue to push for representation in Congress and in the courts. As the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth continues its tour around the country, Bass says that she wants to create a national movement to help move policy along on a national level.

Relative caregivers, hoping to contribute their voices to these policy changes, ask legislators to take ownership of foster youth. Representative Marino said he hopes that he and the other 41 members of the caucus can do just that.

“We will continue to take your message, our message, to Washington to protect the most valuable resource that we have. And that is our children—all of our children—on that you have our commitment,” said Marino.

South LA protest over early education cuts

A group of over 50 parents, teachers, and young students marched in front of the Roberti Early Education Center on Vernon and Central Avenues on Monday to protest proposed LAUSD budget cuts.

In an effort to balance the district’s budget, the LA Unified School District proposed eliminating the $45 million School Readiness Language Development Program, in which 13,000 four-year-olds are enrolled in half-day sessions aimed at helping them help improve their English skills. It would also cut $18 million from early education programs next school year. This is 93% of the amount they currently receive. A large majority of the 107 early education facilities in Los Angeles will be forced to shut down.

The David Roberti Early Education Center is one of the centers that would have to close down next school year. The Roberti Center, alone, educates about 100 children a year, and still has a waiting list of families trying to get in.

Martha Bayer, a chairperson for United Teachers Los Angeles, estimates that 34,000 children will no longer have a place to attend school.

Early education centers educate children throughout the day, and give them the foundation they need to succeed once they enter elementary school. Advocates say the centers are vital for the children and for their families.

Many of the families at David Roberti Early Education Center are low-income families with two working parents. When these centers close, working parents will no longer have a place for their children to go during the day. image

“I think my wife is going to have to stop working now if they close the center. I don’t know if we could find a babysitter, besides the pay is high,” said Lester Granados, a parent of a child at Roberti.

Granados feels that not only is childcare vital to the community, but also the education the students receive at the centers. Speaking of hiring a babysitter, he said, “ They’re never going to teach them, it’s not the same.”

Preschool education is vital to many of these children’s success. Bayer said that a child entering kindergarten without a preschool education is already 18 months behind students who did receive early education. She said that many students never catch up completely; citing studies that say by the age of 30, those with a preschool education have higher degrees and higher income than those without the same education.

Sarah Knopp, a teacher at Central Region High School in LA, regularly sees the long-term effects of early education on her high school students. She attended the rally on Monday to stand in solidarity with those fighting for early education.

“That [cutting early education] is going to eventually affect me, just like it’s going to eventually affect everyone, because elementary education gives such a good foundation for kids, and by the time, they reach me, 12 years from now, they’re not going to have that education,” said Knopp.

The proposed budget cuts will affect families and whole communities during the 2012- 2013 school year. Supporters and parents of early education students, who are fighting these cuts, recognize that they are not only fighting for a block of education, but for an entire foundation and a future.

“I think it’s something the government, the state is robbing from us,” said Granados. “It’s something that’s really going to kill our community, and the aspirations that kids can have in the future to become and be someone—even one of the members of the board or governors.”

Editor’s note: On Tuesday afternoon, the LAUSD Board of Education voted to delay a decision on these cuts. The Board instructed LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy to negotiate with school labor unions measures that could cut costs with an eye toward reducing the scope of the cuts to early childhood education and adult education programs. The Board also authorized Deasy to prepare a parcel tax to put before voters in an effort to reduce the district’s estimated $557 million deficit in 2012-13.

City Year’s fifth annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service

City Year’s fifth annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service took place this Monday, January 16 from 9am – 2pm in South Los Angeles at Los Angeles Academy Middle School.

The day featured over 1,000 volunteers from community organizations, the local business community, and local schools – including 100 students and teachers from Los Angeles Academy – in service to beautify the campus of Los Angeles Academy.

How young girls are enslaved in the sex trafficking trade

imageWendy Barnes escaped a life of forced prostitution and is now an advocate helping young girls escape sex slavery. (Photo credit: Wendy Barnes)

If she loved her daughter, she would do this for her boyfriend. If she wanted to feed her three-month-old daughter, she would sell her body. “It would just be this one time”, he told her. Seventeen, scared and desperate to feed her baby girl, Wendy Barnes turned her first trick. That night started a life of slavery that would last for 12 years.

Barnes was a normal high school girl living in Seattle, Washington when she met Greg, a seemingly kind boy who became her high school boyfriend. Just a few years later, things changed.

Greg began to verbally and physically abuse her. She wore no physical chains, but nothing she did was by choice. She was the victim of calculated manipulation for years by a man who convinced her he loved her.

Human trafficking and sex trafficking isn’t just happening overseas or in history books. Trafficking happens every day on the streets of Los Angeles and in just about every city in America.

Trafficking is not a new issue. In the documentary film, “Flesh: Bought and Sold in the U.S.,” John R. Miller, former director of the U.S. Department of State’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking In Persons, says trafficking is simply a euphemism for “modern day slavery in a modern day slave trade” – a slave trade larger than any previous time in history.

According to Kevin Bales, author of “Disposable People,” there are currently an estimated 27 million slaves held in captivity worldwide and hundreds of thousands exist here in the United States.

Human trafficking is the fastest growing criminal industry, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, bringing in an estimated $32 billion a year.

The common perception of prostitution is that it is a profession of choice. That may be the case for some. However, the majority of prostitution is by force. It is sex trafficking, a specific form of human trafficking, rampant on the streets of L.A.

“I would say that the majority [of prostitutes] have been coerced, whether it’s at a younger age or by economic means,” said Kristin Lauterbach, director of “Flesh: Bought and Sold in the U.S.”

imageA South L.A. Motel.

The average age of entrance for girls into prostitution is 12 to 14 years, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. This is before the age that a girl can even give meaningful consent. The pimps’ sexual exploitation of these minors automatically qualifies as human trafficking.

“Even if you have a prostitute on the streets that is 21, the odds that she’s been on the streets since she was 14 years old are very high,” says Lauterbach.

While international trafficking is a huge problem in America, the majority of sex trafficking here in L.A. is domestic. The trafficked girls are often from L.A. neighborhoods, a fact that Kristin Humphris, an LAPD officer in the Prostitution and Human Trafficking Division of the Vice Unit, says many citizens find shocking.

“The general public doesn’t even think that pimping is a real thing. When I talk to people about the issue, they always say, ‘What? You’ve got to be kidding me. Our own children from L.A. are literally kidnapped off the street and forced into prostitution?’ And the sad thing is that it’s absolutely true,” says Humphris.

Many vice officers say the pimps that take advantage of these girls don’t tell the girls up front that they are pimps. Many times, like in Barnes’s case, they form a friendship with the girl, telling her she’s beautiful, buying her things, and even meeting her family.

“When he first meets somebody, he’s not going to tell them he’s a pimp. He’s not going to even let them know he’s a pimp.” Barnes says they tell girls they love them and that they’re special. “He gets to know them on a very, very deep level, finds out what their fears are, finds out what their likes are. And he plays on all of that.”

imageA young prostitute walking the street in South L.A.

Barnes says once a girl is completely dependent on her pimp, he takes it all away. She says that once they have a hold on a girl’s mind, they coerce her into prostitution and manipulate her to depend on them for everything.

Barnes says the abuse she experienced was both physical and psychological and that many times, Greg would threaten to kill her or her mother if she ever contradicted his orders. He controlled every aspect of her life.

“Everything that we did, said, breathed was determined by him. If you broke the rule whatsoever, at all – if you did not do or think the way he wanted you to think, you would suffer for it,” remembers Barnes. “He would either do something to your parents, to me, he would do something to the house. He would always find that thing that destroyed you the most.”

Kay Buck, executive director of the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking in L.A., says this type of control is the norm for human trafficking.

“So many people think that victims are handcuffed to a bed or locked somewhere, but the reality is that this modern day slavery is a lot more about threats and coercion. So what happens instead is that traffickers threaten victims with their lives,” says Buck. “They use these threats and tactics to control victims which have proven to be very effective. Victims are afraid for their lives and the lives of their loved ones back home.”

Barnes was not the only girl that Greg held using these kinds of tactics. During her first five years with Greg, Barnes was aware of more than 300 girls that were under his control.

Many pimps control several girls and operate within a trafficking ring. They will rent out houses or hotel rooms and stay there with the group of girls. After a while, they will pick up and move to another city. Greg’s trafficking ring, for example, spanned from Seattle all the way to Southern California.

“These traffickers, or pimps, move these girls around and the whole purpose of that is to isolate them, confuse them, and avoid detection and prosecution,” says Humprhis.

imageFamily pictures adorn Wendy Barnes’ current home, a sign of happier times after a painful past.

California state law dictates that the punishment for the pimping and pandering of minors under the age of 16 is imprisonment for three to eight years. For pandering and pimping minors between the ages of 16 and 18, the imprisonment time is reduced to three to six years.

According to a report released by Shared Hope International, the punishment for pimps and “johns” (the purchasers of sexual services) is not adequate enough. The report, which assigned states grades for their efforts in fighting sex trafficking, gave California an F.

The section of the report that California did the worst in was “criminal provisions addressing demand.” LAPD Officer Humphris says that as a society we need to give a greater punishment to the people seeking the sex act.

“Those are the ones that are shopping around for kids. There’s a 12 year-old on the street. Someone is buying that, and there’s just not much in place, unfortunately, as far as the law goes, to have a big impact in enforcing,” says Humphris.

Humphris also believes that many “johns” do not know how young some of the girls on the streets are or that they’re being forced to do things against their will, under the control of a pimp. “I feel like if that was more widely known, someone with a conscience might try to police themselves a little,” says Humphris.

Advocates against human trafficking say awareness is a large issue with the general public. Lauterbach says that many people don’t stand up against trafficking simply because they are unaware of its existence all around them.

“What we advocate for so much is education, because the next steps are natural. If you see someone who is being victimized, you can do something about it. But if you don’t realize they’re being victimized, you’re not going to do anything about it,” says Lauterbach.

In recent years, the LAPD Vice Unit has become aware many girls in prostitution are sex trafficking victims. Lauterbach says that when she first started her documentary, she couldn’t find police who truly understood the victimization of these girls, but now is encouraged by the vice unit’s awareness and efforts to stop trafficking.

“We rode along with the central vice unit and they get that this is human trafficking, they get that these girls are coerced, and they work so hard to get girls out – they work so hard to be able to prosecute the pimp to get them off the street,” says Lauterbach.

While the LAPD Vice Unit has grown in their efforts to respond to sex trafficking, the issue itself has expanded to affect a growing population of girls in recent years. Buck has seen CAST L.A.’s cases more than double in the past three years, and Humphris has seen the growth on the streets as well.

“I would say it’s probably gotten worse and it seems to me that the kids are even getting younger that are entering into prostitution,” says Humphris.

While the problem seems daunting, Barnes’s life is a testament to the possibility of freedom and a new life. After 12 years of slavery, police raided Greg’s home and sent Barnes to prison where she served two years. Finally on her own, she is experiencing the joy of simply living a normal life.

“People don’t realize how precious life is. Like just going out and laying out in the grass. How amazing is that? I can think back and Greg would not allow us,” said Barnes. “Just freedom to walk from here to there, without getting yelled at, without being asked why.”

If you walked into Barnes’ home today, you would never suspect she had a hard and painful past. Her visitors are greeted by smiles and family pictures decorate the walls of Southern California the home she shares with her daughter Latasha.

Barnes has worked at the same job for the past five years and enjoys every moment of what most call an ordinary life. However, her life is anything but ordinary. Her life is now a picture of hope, showing that it is possible to come out of slavery and enter into freedom.

Contaminating plant permanently closes in South LA

imagePalace Plating, the chrome plating facility responsible for releasing toxic chemicals into the environment surrounding 28th Street Elementary School, will permanently shut down by December 31, putting a six year-old lawsuit against the company to an end.

Under the terms of the settlement approved by a Los Angeles Superior Court judge on November 2, the company must remove all on-site hazardous waste within 90 days and pay the Los Angeles Unified School District $750,000 in restitution for the clean up as a result of contamination at the school.

This is a victory for Martha Sánchez, a community resident and parent of children who were attending 28th street elementary school at the time. The settlement means the end of an exhausting, eight-year battle against a facility she believes was harming her children and her community.

Many community members and even Sánchez’s own family told her that there was no way the lawsuit was going to win. So when she received the news of the settlement she says it felt “like it’s mission accomplished—yes, we did it. That makes me feel proud of the work.”

The fight began in 2003, when city officials held a community meeting informing residents that the plant was responsible for releasing chemicals that had been known to cause cancer.

Because Los Angeles is already polluted, Sánchez recalls residents were told that they were already exposed to these chemicals and that it was safe. But she says her children had been healthy until she moved to the area. That’s when they started experiencing health problems.

imageAt the community meeting where city officials informed Sánchez of the carcinogenic chemicals being released, she voiced her concerns. “When I put my kids in this school, they started complaining about a lot of things that I think are related to these chemicals.”

After this meeting, Sánchez began investigating Palace Plating’s effects on 28th Street Elementary School students. She began collecting evidence of student health problems. She interviewed teachers, who told her they were sending five or six students to the nurse every day with symptoms that could have been caused by the chemicals in the air. She would stand outside the elementary school and interview parents, documenting every symptom and case. She remembers that many of the children had headaches, bloody noses, vomiting, and rashes.

She remembers the awful air quality surrounding the school as she waited outside the building to pick up her children. “When they were operating, all the gasses came to you, as if you were waiting in a car shop. All the mist came to you, and you started feeling itchy and burning and in a few minutes you were only full of rashes… And it was every single day. It was really really terrible.”

imageSánchez says she took the evidence she collected to the health department and other city agencies asking them to start an investigation. She says they told her the evidence she produced was not reliable and she didn’t have the legal authority to make the claims. That’s when Sánchez began to contemplate legal action.

“This is evidence, and if you do not take the responsibility to look at my evidence, you are perpetrating a problem, and I’m going to do something legal to force you to do so,” recalls Sánchez, explaining her run-in with the health department.

In 2006, city inspectors found chromium, one of the chemicals produced by the plant, was being released into the City’s sanitary sewer system. They also discovered that cleaning solvent tetrachloroethylene, originating from underneath the plant, was impacting the air quality in and around the 28th Street Elementary School, and that there were hazardous levels of cadmium and chromic acid on the property.

Chromium can cause a series of health problems including nosebleeds, bronchitis, kidney and liver damage, asthma, dermatitis, and lung cancer.

imageFeeling they had run out of options, Sánchez, about 50 families, and over a dozen teachers eventually filed a lawsuit against the school.

“I could scream as much I can, I could protest as much as I can, I could bring people to community action. I found out there was no other way than facing a lawsuit—civil action,” says Sánchez.

She’s glad the legal action is over. “It made me feel happy. Finally I’m screaming and laughing now. Finally, because I still can’t believe it.”

LAUSD has plans to develop a new playground for the children in the area, and soon, new affordable housing will transform the strip of land. Sánchez hopes the new apartments and renovations already being constructed down the block will help build a better community.

In the meantime, she’s thankful for the lessons and memories her children were able to experience as part of this movement.

“They became part of the lawsuit that changed a poor community… So that’s my inspiration. I have to pass the torch to the next generation.”

Crenshaw Subway Coalition rallies community in the “battle for Crenshaw”

imageOver 100 residents, merchants, property owners and supporters crowded the Crenshaw DWP Auditorium last Monday night to find out about the Crenshaw Subway Coalition’s newest strategy to “Win the Battle for Crenshaw” – that’s what the Coalition calls their fight for the economic survival of a key African-American business corridor during the building of the largest public works project in South LA history.

The crowd listened attentively to Damien Goodmon, chair of the Crenshaw Subway Coalition, as he revealed the third component of the advocate group’s strategy – directly engaging the contractors in the process. Goodmon considers this to be a game-changing step in their fight against the MTA.

The plan is to encourage contractors to find a way to prove the proposed underground subway will cost less than what the MTA claims. Goodmon wants contractors to submit a “responsible” bid for the project that includes both the Park Mesa Heights tunnel and the Leimert Park Village station.

According to Goodmon, this is part of a multi-pronged approach. The first step was to file a lawsuit against the MTA, which they did on October 21st.

The second step is to hold elected officials, like Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, accountable for returning tax dollars to the community. At the meeting Monday, Goodman played a recording of Mayor Villaraigosa stating that the city could have the Crenshaw tunnel built if it could be done within the project’s budget.

The Coalition remains steadfast in its goal to have the portion of the Crenshaw-LAX line from 48th to 59th street to be built underground and to have a station at Leimert Park. Goodmon says that the station at Leimert Park, considered to be the African American cultural center in the region, is something that was in the MTA’s plans from the beginning and something Crenshaw always should have had.

“They take something away that we always should have had. We have got to fight for that. And when we get it back they say, ‘Look what you got,’ but no. We want a tunnel and the station,” said Goodmon.

Without this tunnel, the Crenshaw line will be built at grade, above ground. This would block left hand turns on Crenshaw, and some residents say it will clearly separate the west from the east side, directly affecting businesses that will no longer be easily accessible from the east side of the street.

“You aren’t going to be able to make a left turn. There won’t be any way to get across Crenshaw Blvd. Now I’m on 54th. How are you going to get to me? It would be easier to go downtown. You might as well get on the freeway,” complains Wesley Smith Jr., a business owner on Crenshaw Boulevard.

imageNot only are residents upset about the practical inconveniences that the above-ground Crenshaw line brings, but the Crenshaw Subway Coalition also cited economic racism in their lawsuit, stating that the MTA has violated their state’s civil rights act, giving one region preference over another.

“For [the MTA] to come through and have their way – it’s rape. It’s abusive. It’s discriminatory,” said Julienne Boyd, a retired children’s social worker of LA County, who attended the meeting.

The preservation of African-American culture in the area is a prime-motivating factor for the Crenshaw Subway Coalition. At the meeting, Goodmon mentioned that other cultural centers, such as those in Chinatown, Olvera Street and Little Tokyo, all have stations on the MTA’s railway.

The preservation of Leimert Park is a project that is especially important to Goodmon. He says his great-great-grandfather was L.A.’s first ever African-American millionaire. He was a contractor that helped build an African-American center and now Goodmon is fighting to keep one.

The Crenshaw Line, an 8.5-mile light rail line mass-transit project, is designed to run from the Expo Line at Exposition Boulevard, through South Los Angeles and Inglewood to the Green Line near Los Angeles International Airport.

Jenesse helps domestic violence victims get a fresh start

imageFrom the second you step inside the Fannie Lou Hamer Emergency Shelter, you know it’s so much more than a shelter. Laughter emanates from the kitchen as families eat dinner together. One girl is giggling on the couch, hiding behind her princess backpack. Walls are adorned with pictures and a decoration on the fireplace mantle reads, “home.” In that moment, you realize what this place is. It may be called a shelter, but it really is a home.

The Fannie Lou Hamer Emergency Shelter is named after civil rights activist Fannie Lou, remembered for saying she was “sick and tired of being sick and tired,” referring to the abuses she suffered as a black woman in the 1960’s. The Jenesse Center believes this is where women come when they are sick and tired of being abused. They come for healing, and they come for rest.

The shelter is just one of the ways that the Jenesse, a domestic violence intervention program in South Los Angeles, tries to provide healing and rest for the 2,500 victims of domestic violence that utilize their services each year.

Jenesse helps provide aid for a problem that affects an estimated 1.3 million people nationally, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. In Los Angeles County alone, records show there were over 40,000 domestic violence related calls for assistance in one year.

image“Every time we answer our hotline we want to make sure before we hang up the phone that we did as much as we could to assist the client,” said Alice Brown, case manager at the Fannie Lou Hamer Emergency Shelter.

That means sometimes referring a client to another shelter closer to that person’s area, put them up in a nearby hotel, or take them into their own emergency shelter.

The majority of Jenesse’s clients are African American or Hispanic clients. However, they are a multi-cultural organization that accepts everyone who is willing to get help—even those that other shelters may turn away.

“A lot of the other shelters—they don’t accept what we call ‘the underserved.’ And what I mean by that is they kind of pick and choose whom they allow in the shelter. If the client is involved in a gang, if she’s a prostitute, if she has some kind of history of substance abuse,” says Brown, it’s ground for rejection. Instead, she points out, Jenesse “is an open door where anyone can come here and start over again, if they’re willing.”

Bilingual case managers are available to assist Hispanic clients who make up 25 percent of Jenesse’s clientele. They also have a legal clinic in Inglewood that helps advocate for citizenship cases. Lawyers at The Inglewood Legal Clinic help undocumented clients get U visas, which provide temporary immigrant benefits to victims of violent crimes, such as domestic violence, who help law enforcement investigate the crime. The clinic also handles cases of child custody and divorce.

Jenesse also helps its clients prepare for their life after being in the shelter. Each woman must come up with a plan for self-sufficiency upon her exit. This plan includes finding a place to live and how to make a living. To that end, Jenesse provides transitional housing for up to two years and vocational education programs.

The transitional housing apartments are furnished. They also have a fully stocked boutique with shelves full of clothes, shoes, and jewelry donated for the women in the shelter, so they can appropriately dress for their court appearances, job interviews and work.

“When they come here, they’re amazed. They don’t want to leave. This is like their comfort zone. Our job here is to transition them to self-sufficiency,” said Brown.

imageEducational programs, which are also available to domestic violence victims who have not lived in the shelter, also move the women of Jenesse towards self-sufficiency. Women can use facilities, such as a computer lab with technology donated by Verizon, to learn essential job skills—such as computer skills and résumé writing. The facilities also hold classes on anger management, parenting classes, household establishment classes and counseling.

While they offer all these services for women who have been abused, Jenesse strongly believes in prevention and try to stop domestic violence problems before they start

Angela Parker, director of training and programs, aims for prevention through visits to high schools where she talks about healthy relationships, trying to raise awareness of the problem and remove the stigma surrounding it. She says many women do not come forward with their cases, because they do not realize it is a problem.

“A lot of why people are in domestic violence situations is because they don’t realize it’s unhealthy. Their mom has been in domestic violence situations, their sister, their friends; so to them, that’s just how life is,” says Parker.

In order to change this erroneous perception, she has also turned to social media platforms to start conversation with local youths. She has held live chats on Facebook to raise awareness. The main lesson: Abuse is not love. Love is respect.