In response to the folly of the not guilty verdict of George Zimmerman by a jury of six Florida women, this week L.A. Letters presents Southern California women with vision that have spent their lifetimes working for true social justice and the betterment of their community. As always there is an endless list of women to cite, but due to space and time limits, here are seven influential women making a big difference and working towards social justice in Los Angeles and beyond.
Jasmyne Cannick is one of the most ubiquitous and visible LGBT activists, journalists, and civil rights advocates in not only Los Angeles but across the country. A frequent speaker on National Public Radio, she was named by Essence magazine as one of 25 women shaping the world in 2005. She also co-founded the National Black Justice Coalition, the largest and oldest black LGBT civil rights organization in the nation. Most recently she has been an important part of the peaceful protests to the Zimmerman verdict. Cannick is also a performer and filmmaker with a long history in theatrical productions and documentary film. Following in the footsteps of giants like bell hooks and Susan Sontag, Cannick is a powerful voice exerting her reach as a national opinion columnist and political commentator for print, television, and radio.
Alessandra Moctezuma is an artist and professor that spent time teaching at UCLA, Sci-Arc, and SUNY Stoneybrook before becoming a Professor of Art and Gallery Studies and the Art Gallery Director at Mesa Junior College in San Diego. She also worked for the MTA as the Public Arts Officer, and as the Gallery Curator for the Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC) in Venice. Over the years Moctezuma has given hundreds of young artists their first art shows or public displays of their work in Los Angeles, New York, and San Diego. She also teaches Latin American Literature, Art History, and Critical Theory; her versatility as gallery director and professor has helped Mesa College develop one of the finest Art and Gallery Studies Programs in the nation. I met Moctezuma in 1997 when she spoke to our UCLA class, when she invited the class to come see an art installation in Downtown on Seventh Street with herself and the legendary artist Eva Cockcroft.
Ruth Nolan is an author and professor of creative writing and desert literature at College of the Desert in Palm Desert. A lifelong resident of the California desert and southern California's Inland Empire, she worked as a helicopter hotshot firefighter before becoming a professor. Nolan is known for editing the book, "No Place For a Puritan: The Literature of California's Deserts," published by Heyday, for which she culled 80 writers and poets to pay homage to a landscape not frequently honored. She has also been published in "Inlandia," Heyday Books 2006 anthology on the Inland Empire. Beyond her own accomplishments, Nolan has mentored hundreds of Inland Empire and desert youth in her writing classes and workshops over the years. One important project Nolan has taught is a workshop for (In) Visible Memoirs Project. Geared for those who had attempted suicide or had someone close to them commit suicide in the Inland Empire and desert area, Nolan used writing to empower and uplift members of her workshop. Poets and Writers magazine recently said, "Ruth Nolan is a force."
Joy Yoon is a writer and editor who grew up in Los Angeles. She began as a food researcher, but soon started freelancing for Vogue, Paper, and a whole slew of art and fashion magazines. She recently wrote, edited, and published "The Best Things to Do in Los Angeles: 1001 Ideas." With contributions from expert witnesses like Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers and painter Gary Baseman, the book examines every corner of L.A., from the South Bay to the Valley, Long Beach, and the Inland Empire. It's one of the best I've seen, covering everything from humble eateries to the chic sites to be seen, and every ethnic enclave across the city. Yoon knows the taco trucks and Tiffany's; she loves them both equally. Written in a conversational, concise style, the book is for locals as much or more than it is for tourists. The volume of information in the book makes it a highly useful source of ideas for weekend and leisure trips. Yoon has also been a successful travel journalist. She loves all of Los Angeles and her work reflects this.
Marisela Norte has been one of the most active Angeleno poets, dating back to the days of Ronald Reagan and Punk Rock. Famed for her live readings and recordings of her work, Norte has been a groundbreaking artist in the realm of performance poetry over the last generation. Her 2008 book, "Peeping Tom Tom Girl," published by City Works Press, collects several of her most well-known poems, like "Angel." Author and UCSB Professor George Lipsitz writes, "Norte works with the words of everyday life, building her art out of the screaming headlines of tabloid newspapers, the blandishments and appeals emanating from billboards and signs in store windows, and the unpredictable creativity of overhead conversations conducted in dozens of different languages."
Norte has been deeply embedded in the whole spectrum of L.A. letters. Josh Kun, the author of "Songs in the Key of Los Angeles," calls her, "the greatest unsung treasure of L.A. literature." She has been featured on Harvey Kubernik's legendary spoken word recordings on the early 1990s. In her book's introduction she gives shout outs to Sesshu Foster, Ruben Martinez, Gloria Alvarez, Wanda Coleman, Exene Cervenka, Juan Felipe Herrera, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Michael Datcher, Eloise Klein Healy, Amy Uyematsu, Steve Abee, Michael C. Ford, Lewis MacAdams, and a whole litany of other writers and artists. Her piece "East L.A. Days/Fellini Nights" is an epic work connecting jazz, generations and neighborhoods; she sings the secret universe of Los Angeles.
April Economides is a Long Beach native and urban visionary responsible for turning Long Beach's East Village into a bike-friendly business district. After leaving Long Beach in the 1990s for college in Santa Cruz, Economides lived in Berkeley, Portland, and other bike-friendly cities. When she moved back home to Long Beach a few years ago, she saw the possibilities of the city's built environment in relation to biking. She was hired by the City of Long Beach to create the nation's first bike-friendly business district program with four of Long Beach business districts (the others are Retro Row, Cambodia Town, and Bixby Knolls). She recently told me about a part of the plan: "We bought bikes and a cargo bike for each district (you might see an East Village one in front of Wa Wa Restaurant), installed more bike racks, started the Bike Saturday discount program and offered free bike repairs." She knew what ideas to implement because she is also a board member of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition.
I was recently in Long Beach and saw the new bike lanes in the East Village. I also saw a few new parklets on both Broadway and Fourth Street that work in tandem with the bike lanes. It adds great warmth to the streetscape. Economides and her company Green Octopus Consulting have played an important role in reshaping the landscape of her hometown in Long Beach.
A final note is in tribute to Mimi Clar Melnick. Melnick, a noted author and urban archaeologist, passed earlier this summer. Among a long list of accomplishments, Melnick was a music critic for the Los Angeles Times in the 1960s and authored a few famous books on Manhole Covers in Southern California and North America, including one on MIT Press. She also organized jazz salons in her Encino Hills home for close to two decades. I first heard of her celebrated salons from stories told by "Central Avenue Sounds" and "The Dark Tree" author Steve Isoardi. Her events, known as "the Double M Jazz Salon," have featured the Pan African Peoples Arkestra and Bobby Bradford, along with dozens of other jazz giants. Musicians love her because she believed in paying them well, but still loved the intimacy of a home salon. Her events were a Los Angeles equivalent to the mythical jazz parties of Mid-century Manhattan. Isoardi told Los Angeles Magazine scribe Matthew Duersten a few years ago that, "some of the best live music I have ever heard in L.A. has been in Mimi's family room ... I can't go to a big venue like Disney Hall now." A special event in Melnick's memorial is being scheduled at the Mayme A. Clayton Library and Museum in Culver City.
The same day the lame Zimmerman verdict was announced, several hundred gallons of oil leaked from a large truck that caught on fire on the 5 Freeway, adjacent to the Los Angeles River below Dodger Stadium. Fortunately no one died, and initial reports say the damage to the river is minimal, but nonetheless this messy and unnecessary event and the Zimmerman verdict remind us that we live in fragile and unpredictable times, and are desperately in need of more people serving justice with long ranging vision, like these women presented above.
Here's to improving local communities through writing and the arts, serving social justice, and making a difference on the local level. Jasmyne Cannick, Alessandra Moctezuma, Ruth Nolan, Joy Yoon, Marisela Norte, April Economides, and Mimi Clar Melnick each have done infinite work to improve conditions rather than perpetuating old paradigms. Millions of other similar women are in their communities creating the same level of change. Salute to each and every one of them and these seven women of vision, we need them now more than ever. They are illustrious titans of California arts and letters.
Top: Ruth Nolan at Beyond Baroque.