Annetta Wells: Born Activist | KCET
Annetta Wells: Born Activist
Annetta Wells: My name is Annetta Wells. I am the Deputy Political Director for the largest Labor Local in California, which is SEIU 2015. We represent over 400,000 long-term care workers up and down the state of California. During the early '90s, I was a teenager, an angry, a little teenager at life, sort of the hand that I was dealt with. While most kids in their teens are probably hanging out at the mall with their friends, trying to sneak into the latest movie or so, I was developing my chops as an activist.
I wanted to fight for those who are underserved. I wanted to fight for the folks that lived in my community that looked like me and just were at the hammer at the mercy of those who were in power. When I was born, I had trouble breathing. I had some complications that is supposed to be resolved by being placed in an incubator. To my understanding, the incubator is a warm place and it helps to regulate issues or complications with babies when they're born.
I ended up being burned in the incubator so much so that my mom told me for the first two years of my life, I had to go to the doctors to get skin treatments. My hair follicles were burned, my skin, I couldn't be exposed to the sun. My dad, it really took a toll on him because I was his first girl. I have two older brothers and I was the first girl and he was just so excited as most daddy's when they have a little girl, they're the apple of their eye, their most beautiful thing, and my father's thought I was the ugliest thing you'd ever seen because his prize baby girl looked like a burnt chocolate chip.
My parents didn't really fight or challenge the hospital because my mom was concerned about her status as an immigrant. She was not aware that she had rights, that she could even challenge the hospital. I'd probably be sitting on a pretty penny right now had someone told them or showed them, "Hey, these are your rights. That happened to you and you have a right to sue the hospital." But she just didn't know and like most immigrants, you don't want to create waves. You don't want to cause problems. You figure out how to survive. You're always in a mode of survival. My mom has the saying in Jamaican it goes, "easy squeeze make no riot."
It just means look, you deal with the hand that you are dealt with. That's what she did. When I heard the story as I became older, it frustrates and to this day still frustrates me. Again, how many people experience similar traumas, similar issues that they do their best to stay under the radar, don't create any waves because your status in this country isn't what everyone else is? That's what makes me so angry about 187 and the target of it really focusing on Latinos.
There are tons of immigrants, Canadians, Swedish, Asians, West Indies, The Caribbean, yet when the attack came, it was really narrowly focused on one. It almost seems like the rest of the immigrant population remained quiet. You know that it's something racialized because when I walked down the street to somebody, look at me and say, "Oh, I might be the product of an immigrant woman." No, but if your eyes are slanted, if your last name has an R that you have to roll, immediately you get placed into a bucket.
What if things didn't pan out well? What if I didn't survive that? Would she fight? Would she know if she could? It just makes me think and wonder and understand, again, the mantle placed on me to be able to be that voice, my citizenship wasn't in question and if I can challenge the status quo, if I can make waves for her, then that's what I was prepared to do.
I have an immigrant mom. She's a naturalized citizen today, of course, but growing up, I was raised like a little Jamaican in America. We lived in South Central Los Angeles and to me it was an amazing place to be until I learned that I was poor, until I learned that my community was under-resourced and I only discovered this because I was a product of the busing system of the '90s, well actually late '80s.
I was attending Manchester Elementary School and my mom received the notice that the school was overcrowded and that we would have to get on a bus to go to school on the West side of Los Angeles, no big deal, right? It was about a 12-mile drive every day and as you're sitting on that bus, I began to take in the different pictures through my eye gate.
There was a huge difference between where I went to school and where I lived and what was offered in those neighborhoods versus what was offered in my neighborhood. It was during that time that I had begun to develop a lot of questions about my community versus the community that I went to school in. I needed some answers about urban planning, like who was at the helm of who decided what supermarkets, what resources were available to various communities. The reason why I asked that question was because there was just about a liquor store on every single corner in my neighborhood and it becomes natural to you.
When I went to school, I didn't see any liquor stores in their neighborhoods. I saw a bookstore, I saw your fancy pants restaurant. They had dry cleaners. They had things that obviously the people in the community use and light and regarded and in my neighborhood, there was a coin-up laundry and a liquor store, a nail shop, and probably a next checks cashing. I began to question why those things were in place and that was a part of a much larger answer that many people weren't willing to share with me at the time because I shouldn't be troubled with that.
I should be concerned with just being a kid in school and enjoying being a kid but I just couldn't because there was a glaring problem that people were trying to sweep under the rug or weren't willing to talk about. I was willing to make as much noise as I could about it, to get some answers and understanding because I needed understanding. What we did see was a huge influx of drugs.
Crack cocaine epidemic and what you saw really and truly was white flight. There's the Vermont corridor where Pepperdine University used to sit, which is now the Crenshaw Christian Center. It's a church, but Pepperdine University used to be in South-Central Los Angeles, very little known fact to many, but it's true. That quarter used to have a trolley and there used to be an outdoor mall, very similar to Santa Monica but when drugs was pumped into that neighborhood, there was what we call white flight. The white families that lived in South Los Angeles ran for the hills and literally ran for the hills and they moved to Malibu and they moved to Calabasas and they moved to those are the areas. The working-class, folks of color, Black folks and Latinos, and Asians we're moving into South Los Angeles because it was a land of opportunity for us. The factory jobs were there, there were jobs that would allow for you to work and be able to acquire the American dream, buy a home, and all of that.
When white folks left, there was a huge disinvestment in the city, the trolley left, Pepperdine left, the factory jobs closed up. I think the only thing that still remains in South-Central Los Angeles now is the big post office off Florence, but these were middle-class jobs that allowed people to earn a decent wage. It was the time where the family unit was broken it down to bare bones. When drugs entered in our community, it's children who were being born predisposed to crack and they were going into the foster care system. There's a huge boom in the foster care system.
Men were going to jail for selling drugs. Women were going to jail for prostituting for it. That's how that was in part a contribution to the shifting demographics because a lot more people were going to jail, crack cocaine, it's a felony, it's a felony charge. You got locked under three strikes with that. That's in part contribution to the shifting demographics.
It wasn't just, there was just this big influx of Latinos, but the family unit was being broken down and folks were being locked up and put away. That contributed to seeing more Latino families there in South Los Angeles, less of African American folks, and even less of white folks who had completely abandoned the community altogether. With the government's disinvestment then people began to self-medicate and so liquor stores became the hub.
People drank, they drank Colt 45 and they drank whatever and liquor stores were popping up everywhere and there was no need to really build in South LA anymore. It slowly began to have that negative connotation that I don't know how much of it still stands today. They call it South LA now versus South Central. South Central had a rougher a connotation to it, rougher twain to it. The battering rams for their heavy policing, right?
You've got like three different police precincts within a short amount of distance of each other. There was the 77th Precinct that was this little rinky-dink police station that got completely expanded. They pushed out the sidewalk they have if I'm not mistaken, a prison there now, a holding cell. It was one of the things that you saw them investment in. There was an investment in the criminalization of folks, but certainly not the quality of life of folks.
It wasn't just about urban planning now. It was just a direct attack on people and poor people and I felt like I needed to fight. I had to be an advocate for folks. That advocacy started, yes with my neighborhood, but it started with my mom. It started with my mom who at the time I was afraid to actually talk about my mom's employment or talk about where I come from. Today you can own that kind of truth unapologetically, but then when kids at school asked you, "What does your mom do?" You don't take joy and pleasure in saying, "She cleans houses, she probably works for your family." Or, "Where did your mom go to school?" Well, she didn't.
I had a parent who was not formally educated, who came to the States because of my dad because he fell in love with her and wanted to have a tribe of children. She came to this country because of love and didn't know that shortly after being here, he would die and she would have to navigate a country she didn't know.
I became my mom's right hand. I read through documents for her and I found a way to break down the meat and potatoes of that document to her. I remember when she became a naturalized citizen, I read her the ballot and I explained to her what she was voting for, voting on because she knew that it was her civic duty now that she was a citizen to vote. If my mom existed, how many other families were like mine, that understood that there was a responsibility to make sure that we protect our parents?
That in part plus being burst, plus growing up in a single-parent home in South-Central Los Angeles, fueled my desire to want to fight for my family and the people in my community. I wish I could remember the exact year, I don't, but I do remember this because every time I get in the fast track lane, I remember this was the initiative that she was stuck on. I was explaining to her that the ballot initiative was calling for a little device that would charge to have a carpooling that whether you had someone in the car with you or not, if you had this device, if you paid a little bit of money, you got to help with the traffic on the 110 freeway.
I encouraged her to vote in support of the fast track not really understanding that there might be some implications to that for people who already can't afford the quality of life, I'm now saying, "Yes, it's okay to charge a fee to drive on the freeway for the sake of hopefully eliminating traffic." We call it like a regressive tax or we're already taxing poor people additional funds for something that they need to do anyway.
I will never forget that. I do remember having to explain that year, so whatever year that was, if we can go back to when that was, that was the first time that my mom voted and I was there to help break down the wonky wording of the ballot to her. I'm in elementary school at that time and so it's not like my understanding is all that much more better, but certainly I had a better understanding than my mom did to be able to break down what the ballot was actually saying.
After connecting with now Congresswoman Karen Bass she, when I sat down with her to complain about South Los Angeles or South-Central Los Angeles and what I was discovering, I thought I was like, not truly a researcher but I felt like I was in the field investigating. I would share with people what I saw, what were the differences, and what the climate was like at these schools versus schools that I went to in my neighborhood.
I sat down with her to say, "I need you to figure this all out, and I need you to leverage the power you have and connect with some folks in power to get this stuff changed." She was like, "That's not how that works. I really believe that I need to invest in young people because you all will be the caveat for change. We have to raise up the next generation of leaders and so the answer lies in you."
After being knocked off my pedestal of having someone else to do the work, I rolled up my sleeves and I was like, "All right, so what do I do? How do I change it because I want to change the conditions?" That's when I got introduced to policy and got introduced to the ballot and voting and understanding that things don't just happen but there is something that we can do about it.
At the time there were three initiatives that rolled out Proposition 184, which is affectionately known as three strikes. 187 which if you come out of my community, that's code for killer, by the way, which was called save our state like glee and then Proposition 209, Affirmative Action.
Karen brought these to the young folks of this group that I had joined called South Central Youth Empowered Through Action. We were the first iteration of change makers of young folks who had decided we are going to reboot what they did in the '60s, with SNCC and some of those other groups with young folks that fought to bring us civil rights, we were going to be that new generation of freedom fighters, of change-makers, of social justice advocates.
First on the docket was three strikes. When I was first talked to about it, I was like, "Why do we have to wait for somebody to commit three crimes? Shouldn't they go to jail after the first one?" When I understood the context, when I understood what was constituted as a felony, when I understood who were getting the strikes, then I understood that this was not just really about locking up criminals, but it was criminalization of poor folks and people of color and it was a direct attack on folks that lifted my community and so I had to speak out about this.
If they couldn't get you under three strikes, then they were going to get you under 187. That one just really took me for a loop because with three strikes, they made it about committing a crime but for 187, the crime was your ethnicity. The crime was the color of your skin and that for me was a huge problem. The fact that they were coloring 187 to one specific demographic.
When Pete Wilson unleashed his commercial about the dangers at the southernmost border, I was like, "There's immigrants all over this state. What are you talking about? Why are we only looking at the Mexican border?" It pissed me off and I started looking into what our rights were constitutionally, how could someone come up with something like this? And furthermore, how could it get traction? Why were people buying into this? This is crazy but of course, it did. It was being funded by the rich and fear was being pumped into our neighborhoods across the television screen.
Sadly enough, people were buying into what the legislature was dishing out, three strikes, 187, affirmative action. All for what? I just didn't understand it. I remember a day that we were going to go up to Sacramento to talk about the work that we were doing and say, yes. I was picked to speak at the state's Capitol on 187.
As I stood out and looked at the crowd of folks, of course, there's things that you might jot down that you want to say and things you think you're going to say and then you get out there and you feel the energy of the folks and you're just like, "All right, I am just going to say what is on my mind and what's on my heart." I think in that speech, which is documented on YouTube, I referenced my disdain with the proposition because it offered no solutions, but that it was requiring schools and hospitals to be reporters and say when folks were seeking service that they would have to show their papers. To be enrolled in school, you would have to show your papers.
I think I referenced that by saying before they can even give you an education before you can go to school and do what it is that you want to do with just get an education or if you're sick and you don't feel well, you go get service, the first question they're going to ask you is for your papers. I started looking up any evidence that would be contrary to that in the constitution said, no matter what your status is, you shouldn't be denied a public education. With 187, which offered no real resolve other than we're just not going to offer you education, we're not going to offer you healthcare, we're not going to offer you all these things. We're just going to have folks running around sick, uneducated, just what to then cause or create chaos and then they get booked under three strikes because was that the plan?
I highlighted that and I began to try to bridge gaps as I spoke to folks even how our folks came here to this country because as much as maybe African Americans will say, "I was born here and my people are from the South and blah, blah, blah," this country was built on slavery and it was built on immigration. That fits the both of us. I remember a story of the Aztecs. He would say, "When we offered our grains, in one hand we offered our grains and the fruit and the seeds of the land and the other hand we offered the riches. When we did that to the Caucasians, they took the riches. When we offered the grains and the seeds of the land and our goal of riches and jewelry to the African Americans, they took the grains and that's how we knew we were more connected than we were different."
Our histories connect more than they are different. One of the reasons why I didn't mind and will continue to also distort or discolor the face of immigration is to show this is your fight too. A threat to justice anywhere I believe, I think that's how it goes, is a threat to justice everywhere. I'm so totally butchering that quote by Martin Luther King. Please don't be mad at me Dr. King, but it goes something like that. You can't sit back on the sidelines and be like, "Well, they're not talking about me," because yes, they are.
I saw the rollout of each of those propositions be connected in such a way like if we didn't get you one way, we're going to get you another way. It just for me, as much as I can bridge the gap and show our similarities and our differences, then that's obviously what I wanted to do. There was much more activity in my neighborhood than there was in the neighborhoods that I went to school in. We were already colored a particular way, no pun, intended going to schools on the West side. We showed up in a big, shiny yellow bus.
The kids at the schools that I went to on the West side, didn't care anything about walking out, they weren't involved.
Their quality of life was cemented, it was great. What do they need to be in the streets about? Their parents were dropping them off in their BMWs and Mercedes Benz and their lives were good, at least from the outside looking in so there was no need for those kids to get involved. But at home, my homeschools, yes, there absolutely was a walkout because we were fighting for our lives.
We were fighting for our rights. It's what folks did that proceeded us. That brought attention to the issue in the manner. It's not that we devalued education in any way, but how do you fight against a system? How do you raise up and how do you declare? How do you go up against the status quo? You walk out and you make noise and you go against the grain and that's what we had in our tube. That's what folks in the community had in our tool belt was to walk out, to bring recognition to the issue to say, we're not just going to take this laying down. It was the beginning of what would then become the chart that I have in life.
I didn't imagine or dream that talking to people of how their rights, thinking that I can go up against the rich and the powerful. [chuckles] I didn't even think that that was something that was possible much less something that you can consider to do as a career in life.
As a kid you're told-- I think when I was in elementary school, I said I wanted to be a teacher when I grow up. Then by the time I got to junior high, I said I wanted to be a doctor. Then when I got to high school, I was like, "I want to be the first female Black president of the United States and I don't want to go to college because I don't think college is the way to go. I think I fight now because I have that drive in me. I just need people that can get behind me that are willing to get in the streets and talk with folks and galvanize folks and we could change the world and I don't need to go to anybody's school to figure that out."
Then that's not what I did. I didn't do any of those things. Well, the presidency is still out there but Trump has made that very unattractive by the way. I decided that what I really wanted to do above everything else was help the people. My life started out that way. When my father passed away, I had to help my mom figure out how to navigate a country she doesn't know.
I had to make sure that my siblings were all taken care of. Paperwork was filled out, registered for school. I was helping people without even realizing how much I was helping, and my helping started with my family. I do remember a story that I think is a good story to share, about three doors down from me on 87th place where I really ballooned in my activism. There was a family, a Latino family who the dad worked for a company and the mom cleaned houses just like my mom, but her English was very limited.
I remember going over to their house to eat because their food was just really different from mine and I love carne asada in Christmas. I made tamales with them, ponche, chilaquiles I was like, "Oh my God, this food is amazing." Clearly, I'm a foodie of sorts. I got to know their family really well and I thought I had started to learn Spanish actually because we were taught you're always supposed to have manners and respect. I'd walk in their home and I didn't want to just be like, "Hi." Because that's how I know how to greet.
I'd be like "Ola" and I would try to learn Spanish.
It got to a place where my Spanish was good enough that I would go to clean houses with their mom and help her to make sure that she wasn't getting railroaded by the families that she was working for. The dad got injured at work, not only did he get injured at work but on top of that, he got diabetes. He had worked for the company for like 25 years and they fired him when he got injured.
I was like, "They cannot do that." Now. I am not a lawyer by any stretch. I just have crazy passion and I believe that the right is the right thing and the wrong is the wrong thing. You can't fire somebody because they got injured on the job. There's laws that protects against that. We went down to an abogado. I'm sitting in front of the abogado and I'm piecemealing my Spanish and I'm like, "Look, he got fired because he got injured and he's scared because he doesn't want to create any ruckus because he just became a naturalized citizen and he's got rights and we have got to help him."
He would tell me, they called me Annetta Luca, all right and they'd be like, "Annetta Luca, no, no, no we don't want any trouble. I have been able to buy a home and my kids are in school and I don't want any trouble." But he was secretly worrying because now he doesn't have a paycheck. How is he going to pay the mortgage? How's he going to make sure his daughter is able to go to college? How is he going to get by in life? Because now he doesn't have a job and he got injured. Then who wants to pick up somebody that has an injury? Because what is that? That is a pre-existing condition.
That automatically, while they're not going to disqualify you from work, they're certainly going to let you know, "We don't need your services here." In a nice and polite way that doesn't seem like it's discriminatory. Anyway, we fought like bloody hell. Then we won and he was able to sue the pants off that company and he didn't have to worry about working anymore because they did not have the right to fire him for getting injured on the job.
It was that chutzpah that I just felt like, [sighs] we have just got to protect one another. I tried doing different stuff. I tried to be normal, I tried to work behind a desk with a computer and punch numbers from 9:00-5:00. I tried to be regular, as much as I try to be regular, that draw, that fire in me kept pulling me right back to social justice. There was one time I just tried to bury my head under the sand and just be like, "What's the use? We've been fighting for so long. Our gains have been minimal, we have gains, but what is the point? Because the harder we fight, it's the heart of the attack."
Then one day I remember standing in my kitchen and I just looked up to God and I was like, "Why did you give me this charge? Why am I even Black? Our struggles are stupid. Every corner you turn, you can't wear a hoodie. You're being followed in the store. There's legislation that comes out to discourage you from going to college and the fights are so immense. Why God, why?" Almost instantly I got the answer, and the answer came, "Because you are resilient. As much as Black folks have been attacked and the desire to wipe you out have come, you yet overcome every single time." I was like, "Well, all right then so the fight continues."
That's it for all folks of color. The attacks will come and how do we respond? Do we take it laying down? No, my ancestors didn't take it laying down, there was a fight to end slavery. There was a fight for freedom, there was a fight for the right to vote. There was a fight to go to school with other ethnicities. There was a fight and along the way, there's been a fight and you know what? We won every single time, so why give up now?
Just because the fight might be different, it might be shaped in a different way. Now it's the school to prison pipeline. The new Jim Crow, the fight yet continues. What am I teaching my child? Am I going to teach her, "Well, we've come this far, we should be happy with what we have." Hell no, we got to keep fighting with what we got in our tool belt now. What did we learn from the previous fight? Walkouts work, galvanizing folks work. I'm showing our similarities rather than our distance work, organizing folks' work.
When we stand together, we are stronger together. That works, so keep fighting. You keep fighting, you don't stop fighting because every fight wage creates a better tomorrow. My kid got to grow up and see the first African American president of the United States. Somebody fought, I'm going to keep fighting.
- Written by: Pilar Marrero, Portrait by: Ricardo Palavecino.
Find more firsthand accounts of the Prop 187 campaign here.
Growing up in what was then called South Central L.A. in a single-parent home fueled Annetta Wells' desire to fight for her family and the people in her community.
Her fighting spirit started early on and continues to this day, now that she's the deputy political director for the largest labor local in California, SEIU 2015, representing over 400,000 long-term care workers up and down the state of California.
She talks about how she had trouble breathing when she was born and had to spend some time in an incubator. But she ended up burned, and for two years, she had to get skin treatments.
"My parents really didn't fight or challenge the hospital because my mom was concerned about her status as an immigrant, and she was not aware she had any rights that she could even challenge the hospital,” she recalls. "Had someone told them or showed them they had these rights…but like most immigrants, you don't want to create waves. You just figure out how to survive.”
Wells heard this story growing up, and it frustrated her. It does to this day. "How many families? How many people experience similar traumas? That's what made me so angry about Proposition 187, and the target was really focusing on Latinos.”
Her mom is a Jamaican immigrant, and her dad died early on, leaving the immigrant mom to fend for herself and her kids. And Wells remembers when her mom became a citizen explaining the ballot to her so that she could vote.
But her political conscience was awakened during her school years when for the lack of capacity in her local schools, she was bused from South Central to the Westside of Los Angeles every day.
“As I sit on that bus, 23 miles drive every day, I begin to take in the different pictures, and there was a huge difference between where I went to school and where I lived,” she remembers. “I began to have a lot of questions about that, who decided where the resources go, because in my community there was a liquor store in every corner, and that wasn't the case near my school.”
Early on, Wells developed a need to do something about the injustices in her community. She also saw the huge influx of drugs, the crack cocaine epidemic, the white flight and the decline of the area, the loss of jobs, the criminalization and heavy policing of her neighbors.
“It was a direct attack on people of color and poor people, and I felt like I needed to fight, to advocate for folks."
Early on, she joined Community Coalition, a South Central organization founded by now-congresswoman Karen Bass. But when she originally went to Bass, she wanted answers about getting politicians to change her community's condition.
“She was like, ‘No, that's now how that works. I believe in investing in young people, but we have to raise the next generation of leaders, so the answer lies in you,’” Wells says. “So after being knocked off my pedestal of having someone else do the work, I rolled up my sleeves and said, ‘So, what do I do? How do I change it.’”
At that time, the policy changes happening in California, mostly voter initiatives, woke the young activist up. There were three of them: Proposition 184 (Three Strikes), Proposition 187 (which targeted undocumented immigrants and others) and Proposition 209, to eliminate affirmative action programs.
“When 209 came about (in 1996), Karen brought these to the young folks who had decided we were going to reboot what they did in the ‘60s. We were going to be that new generation of freedom fighters of changemakers.”
As a young activist, she was picked to speak on 187 at a protest at the state's capitol. "I referenced my disdain with the proposition because it offered no solutions, but it was requiring schools and hospitals to report immigrants when they sought services? We were just going to have folks running around sick and uneducated to…just create chaos?"
But Wells' "chart in life,” as she calls it, was set after this. “I decided that what I really wanted to do above everything else was help people. My life started that way.”
At some point, she felt like “being normal, behind a desk and a computer and punch numbers from 9 to 5 but one day I kind of just look up to God and asked, ‘Why? Why am I even Black?’ Our struggles are stupid. You can't wear a hoodie. You are followed in the store. There's legislation that comes out to discourage you from going to college….why?"
But she did get her answer. "We keep fighting, and we overcome. My ancestors didn't take it lying down. Why give up now?”
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Proposition 187 was a California ballot measure passed in 1994 that sought to deny public services to undocumented immigrants. While the initiative was meant to keep the “immigrant threat” at bay, it mobilized non-immigrants and immigrants in Latino communities as well as their allies across the state.
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