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Lessons on Community Organizing in Chicana/o-Latina/o Communities: Educate, Agitate and Organize

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As a former resident of Boyle Heights, I first started organizing on behalf of Chicanas/os-Latinas/os in 1985 as a student activist at UCLA. By attending an elite university, I quickly realized that not everyone grew up in a working-class barrio or public housing projects like Ramona Gardens or Big Hazard, where my neighborhood was plagued by abject poverty, police abuse, unacceptable unemployment rates, high incarceration rates, drug addiction and violence. Once on the Westwood campus, I didn’t notice the many freeways that divided my community, including railroad tracks and shuttered factories. These objective conditions and historical lessons on Chicana/o history that I learned in the classroom compelled me to dedicate my life to make a positive and transformative difference in marginalized communities like the one where I grew up.

It is in this context, after graduating from UCLA, that I became a community organizer and got actively involved in mobilizing grassroots campaigns against inhumane immigration policies such as the draconian law towards Latino gardeners (the City of Los Angeles’ leaf blower ban) and polluting facilities/proposals for a power plant proposal in South Gate — a predominately Latina/o area. Currently, as an academic with advanced degrees from UCLA and UC Berkeley, I’m in a more privileged position to reflect and provide my insight on key lessons on community organizing in Latina/o communities.

While electoral changes are necessary to ensure basic human rights, such as the right to affordable housing, grassroots organizing in working class-communities is foundational to creating transformative social change, as these constituencies have solutions for these issues based on real-life experiences. Originally categorized by the late Indian jurist and politician, B.R. Ambedkar, of the early to mid-1900s, movement building can manifest in the following typologies: (1) Educate; (2) Agitate; and (3) Organize.

Rajagriha, Bombay, February 1934. From left to right: Yashwant, B.R. Ambedkar, Ramabai, Laxmibai, Mukundrao and Tobby. | Wikimedia Commons
Rajagriha, Bombay, February 1934. From left to right: Yashwant, B.R. Ambedkar, Ramabai, Laxmibai, Mukundrao and Tobby. | Wikimedia Commons

Educate 

Before we — those of us interested in justice and equality for all — engage in community organizing or want to launch a grassroots campaign against any form of injustice by powerful interests or leaders, we must first educate ourselves about the particular problem(s) and its history. This is an ongoing process, however, where we must continually educate ourselves on the particular issues that we’re dealing with. For example, if we’re concerned with gentrification and displacement of working class communities of color in Los Angeles, particularly in districts like Highland Park, Echo Park and Boyle Heights, we must first educate ourselves about the history of demographic and economic changes in Los Angeles, especially pertaining to the plight of Chicanas/os, African Americans, Asian Americans and other racialized groups.

By studying U.S. history in general and Los Angeles in particular during the 20th Century, for instance, we learn that the U.S. government and private interests (e.g., developers, bankers, real estate agents) worked together to create ghettos and barrios by the racist practice of redlining, where blighted, undesirable and/or so-called high-risk neighborhoods were designated for non-whites. More specifically, by studying history during this period, we learn that during the post World War II era, government-sponsored urban renewal programs in conjunction with private interest resulted in the concentration of racialized communities in inner-cities and whites in the suburbs.

White fight was facilitated by the construction of federally-funded freeways (connecting the middle class from the cities to the suburbs), low-interest loans for white-Americans to move into suburban housing developments, and racist attitudes against the racialized groups left behind in blighted barrios and ghettos. During the past couple of decades, however, we’re witnessing a form of reverse white flight, where middle-to-upper class whites are returning to the cities, including the inner-cities, where they’re displacing the same communities of color that previous generations of whites left behind.

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Agitate

As we can clearly see from the African American civil rights movement, transformative social change occurs when the afflicted and allies rise up to agitate those in power. From Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat in Montgomery, Alabama, to the Greensboro Four who endured verbal and physical abuse to desegregate lunch counters in Greensboro, North Carolina, and other countless sacrifices by liberation groups like the Black Panther Party, we see that transformative change only occurs when the victimized march, boycott, write, sue and organize to demand their human and civil rights in this country.

While not as well documented as the aforementioned historic actions by African Americans, Chicanas/os — led primarily by the youth, such as the Brown Berets — in East Los Angeles and beyond also agitated the system with non-violent acts or actions to demand transformative social change. For instance, during the late 1960s, Chicana/o students from several high schools walked out of classes to protest the Los Angeles Unified School District’s (LAUSD’s) anti-Mexican American policies in schools: the lack of bilingual education and Mexican Americans studies, punishment for speaking Spanish, lack of college-bound classes, hostile campus conditions and many more educational-related issues. While walking out of schools clearly represented non-violent acts, the police forces and legal system used excessive force and imprisonment against the student leaders, including the late teacher and Chicano leader Sal Castro.

But, we don’t have to go back to the 1960s to learn and be inspired by the activism taking place in brown and black communities. Today, activists continue to fight for immigration rights, affordable housing, responsible development, higher paying jobs, and an end to police abuse along with other key issues impacting racialized and working-class communities in Los Angeles and beyond.

Brown Beret protesters in 1994. | David Prasad/Flickr/Creative Commons
Brown Beret protesters in 1994. | David Prasad/Flickr/Creative Commons

Organize

When powerful interests or leaders impose harsh laws against racialized groups or working-class communities, these communities have no choice but to organize for self-determination. Importantly, this organizing must be led by the same members of the impacted communities, as did the Black Panthers and Brown Berets in their respective neighborhoods. During the summer of 1996, for example, I was part of a successful campaign against the City of Los Angeles’ leaf blower ban, where the leadership of our newly founded association, the Association of Latin American Gardeners of Los Angeles (ALAGLA) included the impacted gardeners themselves, such as Jaime Aleman. (This is not to imply that non-Latinas/os didn’t provide support, like the legal scholar and UCLA Law Professor Scott Cummings.) This 1996 leaf blower ban included a $1,000 fine, misdemeanor charge and up to six months in jail.  

As a result of this draconian ban, several Chicana/o activists — university educated and either children of immigrants or immigrants themselves — embarked on a grassroots campaign to organize an informal workforce of independent contractors: Latino immigrant gardeners. Unlike farmworkers, janitors or kitchen workers, Latino gardeners operate in small crews scattered throughout the city and beyond, where they’re not found in one particular place (e.g., field, building and restaurant). This reality made it especially difficult or almost impossible to organize this informal labor force. Thus, we relied on the existing social networks or migrant networks — interpersonal connections among members, such as family (nuclear and extended), friends, neighbors, paisanos, compadres, etc. — of the Latino gardeners. These key migrant networks connected us with other Latino gardeners, similar to a snowball sampling approach found in qualitative research.

To make a long story short, by successfully organizing this informal labor niche, educating themselves on the law (and city politics), and agitating the city leaders in the forms of non-violent marches, rallies, protests, op-eds and a week-long hunger strike, the Latino gardeners, or ALAGLA, eventually prevailed in overturning the draconian aspects of the leaf blower ban against the leaders of the second largest city in the country.

This particular case of the Latino gardeners serves as a fine example of what a true grassroots organizing campaign looks like, where similar social movements currently taking place in Boyle Heights and elsewhere (around issues of affordable housing and equitable development) can learn from a simple, yet powerful principle: When working-class people successfully organize themselves, they can change the world.

In the case of renters’ rights and housing for all, those most impacted by gentrification and displacement need to be at the center of this organizing. City officials and individuals committed to equitable housing ought to listen to the voices of these community members mobilizing from the ground up.

The Assn. of Latin American Gardeners of Los Angeles march along Beverly Blvd. Tuesday on their way to Los Angeles City Hall to protest the city ordinance prohibiting the use of gas–powered leaf blowers. | 	Ken Lubas/Getty Images
The Assn. of Latin American Gardeners of Los Angeles march along Beverly Blvd. Tuesday on their way to Los Angeles City Hall to protest the city ordinance prohibiting the use of gas-powered leaf blowers. | Ken Lubas/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

Top Image: National Chicano Moratorium Committee march protesters demonstrating against the Vietnam War. Los Angeles, CA, 1970. | David Fenton/Getty Images​

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