Black church studies a changed South LA

Second Baptist in South Los Angeles, one of the oldest black churches in Southern California, commissioned a neighborhood report to figure out how it can expand its mission of social justice to a community that looks very different than its congregation.

“This church [has] become a transitional Hispanic community,” said Pastor William Epps.

In the last few decades, South Los Angeles has shifted from a predominately black community to a majority Latino community. Latinos make up 88 percent of a community where streets are named after civil rights icons like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Most people in the area are immigrant Latino, with African-Americans making up only 11 percent of the neighborhood.


The stories of black and brown conflict, surfacing over cultural differences or perceived job competition, have often defined what this community has become.

Even the church has felt the challenges. It was once home to the civil rights movement on the West Coast. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke from the pulpit and the church helped fund legal briefs for the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of education, which paved the way for desegregation in schools.

“People used to walk to church,” said Epps. Now, most congregants commute to the church, often keeping it out-of-touch with the needs of the neighborhood.

Pastor Epps realized the difficulty continuing a social justice mission in a changed community when he took his job in 1987.

“I dubbed my years the ‘challenging years’ because it would be hard to maintain a viable congregation in a changing neighborhood,” said Epps, “and at the same time keep congregants excited about doing ministry that may not always benefit them personally.”

But as Second Baptist marks its 125th year in the community, the church is wondering how a congregation of commuters can spread its social justice ministry to a transformed neighborhood.

The church received a grant and commissioned USC’s Center for Immigrant Integration and Esperanza Community Housing to study the neighborhood, its needs and figure out ways the church might help.

“This is one of those neighborhoods where immigration is an issue, the environment is an issue and it all comes together, and it’s right there,” said Vanessa Carter, a researcher on the project.

The researchers looked at census data, environmental data, and surveyed more than 500 residents about living conditions in the area. The report, which was published earlier this fall, shows grim conditions in South Los Angeles.

The community is very poor, with families often living in overcrowded homes. The median household income in the Second Baptist neighborhood is $29,164, compared to the LA Metro figure at $54,993.

Heavy traffic from nearby freeways makes the area environmentally toxic. Residents are also mostly newcomers, often isolated from the rest of Los Angeles.

On average, residents are younger in this community compared to the rest of LA. They are also more mobile, only 7 percent of the people surveyed had lived in the community for more than 20 years. Most lived there ten years or less.

There are challenges to creating relationships with this community. Many don’t speak English and families often leave before reaching five years in the neighborhood. But the researchers on the project note similar experiences between the Black and Latino communities, where the church could build common ground.

“The way that incarceration affects the Black community and makes it hard to have a good paying job and pulls apart families, is the same way that deportation can affect a Latino family,” sais Carter. “They are different issues, but they have similar effects.”

While Pastor Epps finds the detailed statistics about the community revealing, the battles the neighborhood faces now, with poverty, poor housing and education, are not new to the church.

“The plight of Hispanics seeking full citizenship is similar to the plight of African Americans in the 60s. You can see a lot of the parallels,” said Epps.


The report recommended ways the church could serve the community. The church owns property in the area and the report suggested the church could work with other community groups and find ways to utilize the property for childcare or affordable housing.

“Anybody who cares about making the society right, making the society a place where everyone can progress, regardless of their ethnicity or immigration status, has to worry about the unity of Blacks and Latinos as we move forward,” said Manuel Pastor, director of Center for Immigrant Integration.

Second Baptist hasn’t made any concrete plans on how they will use the data to expand their mission of social justice. But, those on the project say, understanding the new neighborhood is good place to start.

“I think that the church has the political will and the moral will to work with other groups of like mind and like mission so that we can we advance the cause and make this community better than what it is,” said Pastor Epps.

Timeline of the Second Baptist Church:

Graphs courtesy of University of Southern California’s Center for Immigrant Integration

Research: Latino children lose social skills in middle school

The American Psychological Association found that Latino children, even those who grew up in poverty, started kindergarten with strong social and classroom skills.

“The vast majority of Latino homes, especially immigrant households, is headed by two parents, and there are often grandparents around who help raise young children,” Bruce Fuller, professor of Education and Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, said. “Kids are taught to respect other family members, [which] gives young kids strong cooperative skills in terms of how they play with siblings and how they contribute to housework.”

Students who have these skills generally become better learners. But the association also found that those good qualities eventually wore off during the children’s middle school years, said Fuller, who co-edited the section highlighting this research in Developmental Psychology, an American Psychological Association journal.

However, Fuller believes steps can be taken to prevent this loss of social skills. Culturally sensitive teachers and strong parental advocacy can help these children, LA Beez reported.

“Enthusiasm helps children learn at a rapid rate,” Fuller said.

Fuller noted this loss of social skills can come from negative peer pressure and teachers who have low expectations for kids of color.

“For those Latino families who cannot afford to leave poor neighborhoods, there are negative peer influences as soon as middle school, such as young gangs emerging and friends whose parents do not value education,” Fuller said. “Secondly, in some poor [neighborhoods], we often have a concentration of uninspiring teachers or teachers who think brown kids are not going to college [anyway].”

It is unclear whether income level makes a difference in children’s classroom skills, but Fuller said it may be a factor.

“Overall, Latino children start school with social skills comparable to white middle-class kids, but we also find Latino kids coming from very poor households,” Fuller said. “Those [living] below the poverty line show weaker social skills and language development.”

Research from the American Psychological Association showed that children of color often looked around the American society and noticed that white children got ahead more than they did.

“[Kids of color] start to make judgments about whether the society is being fair to kids [who] look like them,” Fuller said. “I think we have to provide middle school youth with positive role models to make them feel that they can get ahead.”

The Entryway Project: old prejudices, new media

imageA strange project is underway and I’m still not sure how I feel about it.

The Entryway is the online journal of two white young women who have moved in with an immigrant family in MacArthur Park. The first eight entries posted on the website seem to be the journal of Devin Browne, a reporter who has produced stories about the MacArthur Park area for local outlets like the LA Weekly. Little is learned about the Mexican family the two girls are living with, other than in the form of short, somewhat poetic outbursts that seem sporadic and disconnected from a bigger picture.

Browne, the diarist, and Kara Mears, who acts as the photographer for the project, are voyeurs. On the front page of the website, although they clearly describe themselves as “reporters,” they also point out that the project itself is “not journalism.” It’s a “personal narrative.”

A couple of weeks ago, former LA Weekly reporter Daniel Hernandez wrote a scathing review of the project’s concept, titling his post “Safari in Los Angeles, in a home in MacArthur Park.” Hernandez claimed that “the authors are wasting an incredible journalistic opportunity, in the service of their own vanity.”

The project is, at best, self-indulgent and full of “self-satisfied gloating”, according to Hernandez and some of his colleagues. Riled up commenters likened the project to a reality TV show, and even called it “straight up racist.”

I consumed the entire Entryway Project site twice before I could come to my own conclusion. The first time, I was immediately struck by the beauty and flow of the layout. The pictures are crisp and the structure changes frequently enough to evoke an urge to see more. I was dazzled, in all honesty, just as I had been the first time I visited Media Storm. I immediately posted it on my Facebook page and noted that it was “pretty amazing” and “an interesting concept.” I was referring, however, to the style — not the content. It seemed closer to creative non-fiction, which is something I have always been fascinated with, especially when it comes to translating that feeling online.

But teacher and South LA Report contributor Jose Lara inspired me to take a second look, this time screening for substance. “Actually, many folks take issue with these reporters and what they are promoting,” wrote Lara. I felt foolish. I had been blinded by the lights and had forgotten to ask the most important questions of all: What is the point of this experiment? And is the fact that it is an “experiment” at all a huge slap in the face of the immigrant community in Los Angeles? Treated like aliens from outer space, or like animals in a zoo, while two prissy white girls get paid to watch them and write about their experiences living out of their own comfort zone?

The Entryway authors say they want to a) learn Spanish (which makes me wonder… are their host families being paid to teach them?) so that they can “better report” on the city and b) find out how the immigrant families view them. “We are more interested in what they think of our country than what we might think of theirs,” writes Browne in Entry 1.

What are they promoting? It definitely warrants a second look. But the answer, it seems, is complicated. On the one hand, this kind of “us versus them” attitude is appalling and a big step backwards for a multicultural city like Los Angeles. On the other hand, I very much doubt that this project is aimed at anyone other than those with faces and backgrounds similar to the reporters themselves. And the unfortunate truth is that for a portion of the white, middle-to-affluent population, this is exactly the kind of project that provokes thought about a race and culture that is otherwise tuned out. No, it may not be perfect. Far from it. But perhaps a white audience would empathize with these two young women in the sense that they are out of their usual sphere of being and facing some very real social situations that force them to contemplate their own race. Perhaps this project is not about providing “insight” into the immigrant community, but providing insight into the awkwardness of race relations, from a white perspective.

Yes, it’s an important point that too much of history has already been composed “from a white perspective.” Long-silenced communities should be encouraged to speak up. But this project obviously is not aiming toward such a goal. This project, I concluded, is about what it means to be a white reporter in a city of color. Unfortunately, Browne and Mears either failed to recognize this, or failed to make it clear from the start, resulting in accusations of racism because the subject of the project was incorrectly labeled as the Mexican immigrant family. The subject is, and has always been, the women themselves. As famed psychologist Beverly Tatum explains in her classic book on racial identity, “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?,” white people rarely think about being white, and what it means in terms of privileges and social engagement. Thinking about race and talking about race is the only way to initiate change. “Passive racism,” explains Tatum, can mean “avoiding difficult race-related issues.” And from childhood, white children are taught to avoid, avoid, avoid.

What’s really telling is that following Hernandez’s response, Browne felt it necessary to re-write her introduction to the project. If she had been clear with herself and her audience from the beginning, she wouldn’t have had to do so.

The fact that Browne went back and revised her statement of purpose clearly shows that she was uncomfortable with the accusations of racism, and for good reason. But the fact that she could simply erase her errors brings up another worrying point. The ease of modern technology and the intangibility of the Internet seems to be promoting a kind of “after-thought” journalism. In fact, one of my professors at journalism school responsible for our single class in “online journalism” summed up the attitude neatly when he expressly told us to “post first and fix it later.” There is no time to mull over the full impact of a project, or even a sentence. The world demands NOW.

Consequently, it’s almost as if Browne’s first attempt to explain the project has been erased from history in a manner that recalls George Orwell’s 1984. The pages and their thoughts simply disappear. Browne can cover her tracks and start afresh.

But where I disagree with Hernandez is that this project somehow represents a lapse in journalistic values due to “new media” reporters. Hernandez calls this new breed “new-school-trained” journalists who are “first and foremost “a voice” before a fact-gatherer.” They are lacking in all the skills, from ethics to grammar, forced upon the pre-Internet “legacy” journalists.

I think it’s clear, at least it’s clearer now, that the Entryway project is not a journalistic project. The confusion is that has the story included in their story pitches and is seeking funding for it, which, personally, I think was a big mistake. Even if these “reporters” are intending to produce more journalistic pieces, their position as independent fact-gatherers is extremely compromised.

“Our project is long-term and posting helps the young journalists record an emotional experience while the main reporting continues and as they work to produce detailed stories about the people and the community they are living in,” commented Anh Do, the Los Angeles editor, on Hernandez’s piece.

Perhaps a reporter’s “beat notes” should remain offline. While transparency is good, pre-emptive emotional blogging (or tweeting, or posting updates on Facebook for that matter) is just plain unprofessional.

I agree that projects like this one, and to some extent Media Storm, have a tendency to attract more attention than the “day-to-day reporters who live off nothing but their bylines,” as Hernandez says. But it is wrong to assume that modern reporters are somehow less hard working than “legacy” journalists. New media definitely does include experimenting with new mediums, but it is not a mindset. These so-called “reporters” who create art rather than journalism by dazzling audiences with online gadgetry are simply lazy. And in every era of journalism throughout history there have always been lazy journalists. The problem is that it is an affront to the hard workers when these Internet artists, diarists and photographers label themselves “reporters.”

If the Entryway is to be considered “journalism,” it is bad journalism. It has an agenda, an interest, and blatantly lacks journalistic ethics. Most reporters, new and old, would agree. But it’s unfair to lay the blame on “new media.” Pitting traditional reporters against reporters today who are dealing with new mediums is unfair and inaccurate. There are plenty of projects which could be included under the new media umbrella that do exactly what Hernandez is claiming should be the purpose of journalism. For example, encouraging people to tell their own stories rather than relying on reporters to act as a middleman. Need an example? Well, I’d like to think that you’re looking at one right now. The South Los Angeles Report publishes stories produced by the community, as well as running journalism workshops to aid citizen journalists in their own storytelling. To see these pieces, which include a variety of mediums, look for pages labeled with “community contributor.”

To find out more about Browne’s perspective on the Entryway project, take a look at Entry 9. This “FAQ” post was no doubt composed following the article by Hernandez and the ensuing reactions.

Photo courtesy of Kara Mears for the Entryway Project.

Latino HIV/AIDS awareness


There are more than 200,000 HIV-positive Latinos in the United States; that is twenty-percent of the HIV-positive population. Thursday was National Latino AIDS Awareness Day. A coalition of healthcare providers and Latino community groups gathered in Los Angeles to promote HIV-AIDS awareness. Alaena Hostetter of Annenberg Radio News has the story.

National Latino AIDS Awareness Day (NLAAD)

El Movimiento captures Chicano history and foreshadows its future

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: Oscar Castillo, Past and PresentA man in a cowboy hat sits alone on a bench beside Echo Park lake. The foreground is dark, and the man is shrouded in the shadow of a tree. He seems isolated, lonely. His face is lowered just slightly enough to suggest despair. His jacket and upturned collar are a strange juxtaposition against the sunshine of Los Angeles. Beyond the grassy verge lies infinite light – a world of burdening heat, to seek refuge from in the shade. Or perhaps a bright city, with new opportunities floating on the crest of every sparkling ripple and into the busy streets above.

Oscar Castillo’s photograph, aptly named "Solitude at Echo Park," is a familiar image. The inner-city parks of Los Angeles are still places of refuge and withdrawal for the heavy-hearted, even 30 years after Castillo captured the subtle dynamic through his lens. The man in the cowboy hat still sits by the lake, though his clothes and his name have changed.

Castillo has been documenting Chicano society since he moved to Los Angeles with his family from El Paso, Texas when he was 16 years old. It was tumultuous time. The city’s demographics were shifting rapidly, and the Chicano Civil Rights Movement was erupting in an energetic rush. Castillo witnessed the "High School Blowouts" in 1968, snapping the pictures "Down with Brutality" and "A Free School Not-A-Jail" during a student protest at Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights.

A few years later, while studying at California State University, Northridge, Castillo was inspired by the struggle of farm workers in California’s Central Valley and began following the fledgling Farm Workers Union as it started to organize. His photographs of Cesar Chavez reveal personal admiration for the Chicano Civil Rights leader. The shots are reverent; Chavez is surrounded by inspired workers and awed children, or silhouetted against the darkness as he addresses a crowd.

The collection is now being exhibited at the Latino Museum of History, Art and Culture, housed downtown on Gallery Row at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. At an opening reception, Castillo said that he hoped his work would inspire people to "look at their own community and family, and the beauty around you." Castillo added that strong, positive images of the Chicano Civil Rights Movement are necessary to help purge negative stereotypes persistent in the city, from the past to the present day.

The images are naturally iconic, evocative of the sepia-toned sentiment that accompanies historical art work. But clustered together in the basement room of the Theatre Center building, Castillo’s work risks becoming reminiscent, rather than present. The exhibit is composed of faces and scenery now long familiar, and rests heavily on the symbolism of a revolutionary era, rather than seeking to break new ground. Among the powerful depictions, the simpler images stood out. The subtlely of a mother walking with a young child beside a graffited brick wall, or two young women, one holding a baby, waiting for a bus beside an extravagant mural, seemed more resonant than the rallies, speeches and politics.

And yet, the youthful crowd at the reception proved that these iconic photographs hadn’t lost their poignancy. A group of Latino teenagers mingled around the images of the 1968 Roosevelt High School protest, perhaps recalling some recent experience fighting the LAUSD’s budget cuts. A young woman stood beside Cesar Chavez, reading the history of the United Farm Workers Union on an accompanying placard. Later, an African-American man, dressed in multi-colored, tie-dye pants and a customized leather jacket, leaned in and adjusted his glasses to get a closer look at four similarly-clad Latino men inside one of the frames. "Los Four," taken in 1974, shows artist-friends of Castillo’s smiling happily beside their bright, spray-painted mural, designed to promote graffiti as art, not vandalism.

Castillo himself manned the sidelines with a camera around his neck, the shy and natural observer he claims to have always been. Meanwhile, his shared perspective took on new resonance for the viewers wandering the room. It may have been a different year and a different fight, said Castillo, but the social atmosphere remains the same. "From Vietnam to Iraq," he said, "history repeats itself."


Celebrating Cinco de Mayo and harmony between Latinos and African Americans