In the mythology of Los Angeles neighborhoods, there is perhaps no area where its reputation precedes itself like South Central Los Angeles. Unfortunately most of this perception is based on worn out tropes and outdated factors that no longer apply. This week L.A. Letters highlights a few groups and individuals that are doing phenomenal work to make South L.A. rise.
Over the last decade I have had many conversations with local residents, educators, and activists around South Los Angeles. This first began when I got involved in the poetry community in Leimert Park in the early 2000s, and then accelerated when I taught high school in the area from January 2008 until June 2010. Most recently I have been working as an adjunct professor at Southwest College and have witnessed even more community efforts to reimagine South Los Angeles. I have seen firsthand how the area has been misrepresented in the media.
As many know, this year is the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Watts Rebellion. What many forget though is that the Watts Rebellion led to the Watts Renaissance and the several coalitions of artists, authors, and musicians that emerged following the uprising. As the summer begins I will be writing more essays on the current efforts of reimagining Watts and South Los Angeles, but today's article will focus more on the landscape south of Leimert Park and in between Inglewood and Watts, specifically three very important sites and organizations involved in the revitalization of greater South Los Angeles: the Southern California Library for Social Studies and Social Research, the Community Coalition and Los Angeles Southwest College. Future articles will cover other invaluable organizations involved in this effort as well.
The Southern California Library for Social Studies and Social Research
The Southern California Library for Social Studies and Social Research is an archive and library located on the eastside of Vermont just south of Slauson. This valuable library and archive has been on Vermont for almost five decades and it is a treasure trove of rare books, maps, and documents about the social and political history of not just South Los Angeles but the entire Southern California region. Their collection of materials on the 1965 Watts Rebellion is one of the most extensive archives on the subject. Their mission statement reveals more: "The Southern California Library documents and makes accessible histories of struggles that challenge racism and other systems of oppression so we can all imagine and sustain possibilities for freedom."
The collection of out of print books and rare materials at the library make it a site that many scholars and historians visit when they are researching South Los Angeles. In the popular documentary "Bastards of the Party," Mike Davis can be seen being interviewed there. The history of the library itself is a great story. The library was founded by Emil Freed, the son of anarchists and a man committed to social justice. Freed attended Manual Arts High School and then graduated from USC during the 1920s. As the years went on, Freed collected pamphlets, books, and other materials related to leftist politics. According to their website, the genesis of the library can be attributed to the McCarthy era. Many of Freed's friends began to burn or bury their leftist materials because of their fear of McCarthy. Freed took it upon himself to keep their literature, and he eventually "filled his own garage and at least four others to save what he understood as important history." He originally housed the library at La Brea and 9th Avenue before he eventually moved it to the current location on Vermont in 1970.
Community Coalition is an organization in South Los Angeles dedicated to changing the lives of local students. They were founded in 1990 by U.S. Congresswoman Karen Bass to respond to the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s that ravaged South Los Angeles and the ghettos of America. Involved in a variety of programs throughout the area, their mission is: "To help transform the social and economic conditions in South L.A. that foster addiction, crime, violence, and poverty by building a community institution that involves thousands in creating, influencing and changing public policy."
They believe people are the engines of social change, and the group has been a major force in creating interethnic unity between African-American and Latino residents of South Los Angeles. Their resources include a community bulletin board and an extensive database of local social services.
On Saturday, May 30, the Community Coalition is organizing a Peace March in South Los Angeles that will begin at 10 a.m. at 108th and Denker, next to Washington Prep High School. The march will be traveling down 108th East to Normandie, south on Normandie to Imperial, west on Imperial past Southwest College and then north on to Western, to get back to 108th. Following the walk, they will be having a Resource Fair at Washington at 12:30 p.m. The Fair will include workshops and other segments about employment and local political issues.
In addition to educating locals about political initiatives, the Community Coalition believes that the arts are a necessary tool to help strengthen families, transform schools, create safe neighborhoods, and end the school-to-prison pipeline. For this reason, earlier in May they organized a very successful arts fair with music, poetry, dance, and the visual arts. Organizers like Gilbert Johnson from the Community Coalition have also worked closely with educators at Los Angeles Southwest College.
Los Angeles Southwest College
Los Angeles Southwest College, opened in 1967, is located on Imperial Highway and Western. Many of the professors and staff at the school are from the local area and are very invested in helping the community. Dr. Kristine Wright is a Sociology Professor that has been in education for over 20 years. She's lived much of her life in the general South Los Angeles area, and she originally started her career at Compton Unified School District. After going to graduate school at UC Irvine and teaching there, she taught for a few years at Cal State Long Beach and at Orange Coast College.
When she was hired at Southwest College for a full time position in 2008, she knew she was coming home. She came to Southwest to empower students through education but along the way, she tells me, "the knowledge I've gained from our students empowered me as well." She has organized countless events and community forums to discuss local neighborhood and political issues over the last seven years. She is the current advisor of Southwest College's Hip Hop Congress (HHC). "HHC represents the merger of artists and students, music and community. Its mission is to use hip hop culture to inspire young people to get involved in social action, civic service, and cultural creativity," she says. "I grew up hip hop, and the LASC community epitomizes hip hop to me. In a community defined by struggle, we create, hustle, innovate, survive, strive, and stay alive by any means necessary."
The open mics and community forums hosted by the HHC have been very successful and have helped further galvanize support across the community. I have attended a number of them over the last year, and there's a palpable excitement and enthusiasm in the participants present every time.
Darren Cifarelli is an English Professor at Southwest, and the Department Chair. For over the last decade he has been working closely in the community in a number of ways. He often takes his classes to the Southern California Library for Social Research and hosts a number of literary events to encourage student participation after class is no longer in session. "I'm encouraged by our new and old relationships with the community," he tells me. "All education, and especially community college, should really ideally be a collaboration between the campus and the community."
Over the years, the English Department has invited a number of local poets like the late great Wanda Coleman, Kamau Daaood, Teka-Lark Fleming, and most recently Ojenke, to come speak and read their work to the students. Ojenke, one of the founding members of the Watts Writers Workshop, was on campus May 20 to read his work and talk with students about the legacy of the Watts Writers Workshop. He was very gracious with everyone. He told me about attending Gompers Junior High School and Fremont High School with Wanda Coleman. Ojenke also talked with me about an event he read at in the late 1960s with Horace Tapscott's Pan-Afrikan Peoples Arkestra that celebrated John Coltrane. Kamau Daaood was in the audience and after seeing Ojenke read his work, Daaood was forever changed and decided to pursue his own poetic craft. Ojenke's stories inspired the students and staff alike.
"It has been inspiring to see writers, journalists, poets and activists come to the campus and speak with students, raise social consciousness, engage them in dialogues about social issues, and show them how much they matter," says Darren Cifarelli. "In the English Department, we call it our Literacy Movement, but I would truly love to see the boundary between the college and the community dissolve entirely."
This spirit is also corroborated by the Southwest College student president W.M. Stanford. Stanford graduated from nearby Locke High and grew up in the Los Angeles Hip Hop Scene during the late 1980s and 1990s. Stanford has worked hard for many years mentoring youth and is now getting ready to transfer to a four year school. He traces his own inspiration and consciousness to the Hip Hop era he came up in with groups like Public Enemy, De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest. "My goal is to wake up our youth to the knowledge that they need to take lead of their own life," he says. "Power is in knowledge and in numbers."
One more story from Southwest College is about Eddie Powell. Powell is now a tutor in the English Department but he has come a long way in the last two decades. His own life experiences have given him unique insight into how to help young people find their direction. "It is here at L.A. Southwest College that you can find the American dream with all its pure intentions and heart shaped ideas and materialize the craziest aspiration ever, the dream of being somebody that never was," he says.
"It was and is here that I witness cocoons and butterflies interact and manifest. It is here on this campus that I experience life changing decisions, groundbreaking choices, and spellbinding heartbeats pound to their own beat," Powell says. "If it wasn't for this community that humbly taught me the definition of love and respect, I would be as dead as Julius Cesar. In essence, it would be quite difficult to fathom another alternative other than drugs, gangs, self-destructive behavior, and living just to be living with no true and ideal purpose. This is what Southwest College and the faculty has done for people like me ..." Powell will be attending USC next fall and has found his calling as an educator. He credits Southwest College as the place where he found his inspiration.
The Future of South Los Angeles
Just north of Southwest College is the unincorporated Los Angeles County neighborhood, West Athens-Westmont. Jonathan Pacheco Bell, a Los Angeles County Planner, tells me, "Like many communities in South Central Los Angeles, unincorporated West Athens-Westmont has not gotten its share of fair media coverage. What you never hear is that West Athens is a community comprised of longtime homeowners and families with deeply planted roots. Residents care about West Athens. Community members partner with the County to identify and eliminate problems, such as blight. Community improvement is a shared priority."
Bell grew up in Montebello on the Eastside and has been working as an urban planner in South Los Angeles for over a decade. He takes pride in being "a boots on the ground planner," that knows both the streets and local residents well. Over the years he has not only become well acquainted with many locals, he has worked with groups like Community Coalition and the Southern California Library of Social Studies. He knows the neighborhoods of South Los Angeles inside and out.
It is these individuals with deeply planted roots and the longtime homeowners Bell speaks about that are fiercely committed to reinvigorating the neighborhood. Men like Dawood Mustafa Ali. Dawood was born in Watts, raised in Compton, and has lived in South Los Angeles for over 50 years. Ali tells me, "I don't know how to say no when it comes to helping people. I may not be able to help the masses, but I can always help one person." Dawood has also worked with Community Coalition, Southwest College, and on his own to help youth get jobs, recover from substance abuse and to help rehabilitate incarcerated men when they get out of jail.
One of his latest projects is organizing workshops on Proposition 47, which passed in November 2014 and it "reduces the classification of most 'non-serious and nonviolent property and drug crimes' from a felony to a misdemeanor." This initiative means that many previous offenders that were unable to get jobs or be rehabilitated into society previously, can now reenter the workforce because those former crimes are now reclassified as misdemeanors rather than felonies. Dawood likes to help people get back on their feet and he takes his role as a community advocate very seriously. His workshops help people understand the law and also teaches them how they can use the knowledge to become employed.
For men like Dawood and Eddie Powell, there is great gratification in helping people reach beyond their own perceived limitations. "The reward is not in payment but rather seeing somebody you care about reach outside of their false sense of self and attain the clarity and self-awareness needed to let the world know they have a unique and valuable presence to contribute to the world," Powell says.
There are countless other educators and activists across the area engaging in this invaluable work to make South L.A. rise. As the summer goes on, I will be highlighting other efforts in the area to revitalize the community. Salute to the Southern California Library of Social Research, Community Coalition and Southwest College for their powerful work transforming South Los Angeles. These groups and the many individuals that work with them are truly change-makers in the topography of L.A. Letters.