Photos by Ted Soqui
One of Jan Breidenbach's first moments of social consciousness occurred when she was 18. "It was 1964, and there was a ballot initiative to repeal the fair-housing act," recalls Breidenbach, a fourth-generation Californian. That state law, called the Rumford Act of 1963, barred owners of apartments and public-assisted housing from discriminating on the basis of race. Though Breidenbach didn't grow up in a particularly political household, her mother's fundamental opposition to racism of any kind made a strong impression on her. "It just struck me that fair housing was fair, and they shouldn't repeal it," Breidenbach says. "It was wrong." The repeal, which passed by a more than two-thirds vote, was later overturned by the state Supreme Court. Breidenbach went on to join the anti-war movement, the women's movement and, later, became an organizer for the SEIU. For the past decade, she's been a housing and community-development advocate, serving currently as executive director of the Southern California Association of Non-Profit Housing, which initiated the Housing L.A. campaign to secure $100 million a year in city funds for affordable housing. "L.A. is probably one of the most exciting places to work," she says. "If you can do something here, you can do it anywhere."
Peter Dreier's call to action came, as it did for many other budding '60s radicals, in the form of a speech delivered by Michael Harrington. Dreier, who was in high school at the time, had read Harrington's The Other America and found validation for his own experiences growing up in urban New Jersey. "It wasn't like it surprised me," he says, "because I knew a lot of poor people and was friends with a lot of poor people. But it gave me a context and overview: This is about the system and not just isolated problems." Hearing Harrington speak deepened Dreier's activist resolve. In high school, he picketed slumlords and fought for integrated housing. In college in upstate New York, he immersed himself in community organizing with local tenants' rights groups and worked on the grape boycott. He did a brief turn in the Peace Corps in Guatemala. In the '80s, he served for nine years as housing chief in Boston, helping enact a range of progressive policies despite a nationwide leaning toward Reagan-driven conservatism. Dreier is now director of the Urban Environmental Policy Program at Occidental College, where he and Bob Gottlieb serve as co-chairs of the Progressive Los Angeles Network. "All movements are a combination of organizing people, a vision for where they want to go for the future, and a policy agenda as a road map to help them get there," Dreier says. "PLAN is an attempt to provide a bridge between those three things."
Bob Gottlieb grew up in Brooklyn in the 1940s and '50s in a household steeped in radical politics, so it was no surprise when, as a teenager, he immersed himself in the earliest battles against atomic testing. He then embarked upon an education and protest path that included membership in Students for a Democratic Society, course work at the New School for Social Research in Manhattan, and the creation and leadership of the Movement for a Democratic Society. Perhaps his most radical act, however, was his decision, in the late 1960s, to set up shop in Los Angeles, at that time an unlikely proving ground for Gottlieb's radical environmental agenda. But to Gottlieb, the growing sprawl and an increasingly polyglot population made L.A. the perfect petri dish for new approaches to social change. He co-founded and managed the cooperatively owned bookstore Midnight Special, lectured extensively on politics and social movements, served for seven years as director of the Metropolitan Water District, and wrote nine books, most recently Environmentalism Unbound, which explores environmental justice and community and workplace movements. He is now director of the Urban and Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental College, where he finds inspiration in his students. "You see their sense of possibility and also some of the problems," he says. "It's difficult to engage in activism, yet there's a tremendous desire to do so."
JOHN M. GRANT
When John M. Grant applied for a job as a meat packer in the Farmer John slaughterhouse in East L.A. in 1976, he didn't mention his bachelor's degree in urban planning or his law degree from Loyola. As an attorney for workers' rights, he had felt disconnected from the people he was supposed to represent, and he hoped that going to work in the plant would return him to the kind of activism he had practiced as a teenager in La Habra, where he founded Orange County's only high school chapter of Students for a Democratic Society. "I wanted to be part of the movement, creating solutions to what the problems were," he says. "I didn't want to come at it from the top. I wanted to understand exactly what was at stake." Grant worked at the slaughterhouse for nine years, helping bring about reforms that dramatically increased worker protections and benefits. He is now vice president and in-house counsel for the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770, and he serves on the steering committee of Housing L.A. "Obviously there wouldn't be as great a need for a movement if we were winning all the time," he says. "But out of each struggle you realize how people have been crippled by the system, and how the struggle ennobles people, and how the finest emotions come out of the struggle."
A Mexican farmworker in California has no rights and no voice: That was the conclusion Ana Guerrero reached after watching her parents toil in the fields in Sebastopol when she was a child, and one she vowed to alter. "We experienced a lot of discrimination and prejudice that was difficult to grow up with," she says. "As corny as it sounds, I really wanted to do something to help people." Later, at a community meeting in Huntington Park in the early 1990s, she saw a way to do that. Nearly 1,000 residents had gathered in a church basement to protest the installation of a chemical-processing plant. "Just the experience of seeing all these people gather in this organized way to make demands of a powerful decision-maker was life-changing for me," she says. For nine years Guerrero worked as an organizer with the Industrial Areas Foundation, the oldest and largest community-organizing network in the country, working in East L.A. and in Northern California. She focused on school reform, affordable housing, naturalization campaigns and get-out-the-vote efforts. Guerrero is currently a senior adviser for PLAN and technical assistance provider for the Center for Community Change, a national organization that works with grassroots and community-based organizations. "Community organizing is the most effective approach for social change," she says. "I'm convinced that it's the way to build a better world."
As a child growing up in Granada Hills, Madeline Janis-Aparicio would often accompany her mother, who was an artist, on trips to Mexico. It was during these travels that Janis-Aparicio first became aware of the poverty that defines daily living for much of the world's population. "I was overcome by the tremendous inequalities and injustices," she said, "both here and in Latin America." In college she protested U.S. support of the right-wing governments in Central America, and later she worked on a program to provide sanctuary for Salvadoran political refugees in Los Angeles. She directed the Central American Refugee Center, L.A.'s leading refugee network, where she launched the fight to legalize street vendors. She then became executive director of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, where she was a driving force behind securing passage of the city's living-wage ordinance. Janis-Aparicio continues to push for living wages at corporations and businesses throughout the city. "It's a combination of seeing workers -- low-wage immigrant workers in particular -- who are willing to risk everything to stand up for what's right, not only for themselves, but for all workers," she says. "That's what keeps me motivated, more than anything else."
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JERILYN LÓPEZ MENDOZA
For Jerilyn López Mendoza, there is nothing abstract about environmental justice. Her childhood home, between two freeways in South Montebello, was surrounded by heavy industry and diesel-truck traffic. One Labor Day weekend, her neighborhood was evacuated in the middle of the night because of an ammonia leak at a nearby plant. But it wasn't until many years later, during a teach-in on the Gulf War, that Mendoza recognized her calling. During that gathering, an African-American woman stood up to talk about the effects of environmental inequities on poor people and minorities. "A light was turned on in my head," Mendoza says. "It was the first time I had ever seen a person of color apply environmental principles to low-income populations." After returning to school for a law degree, Mendoza went to work as staff attorney for the Los Angeles Environmental Justice Project Office of Environmental Defense. In that post she's focused on transportation equity, pushing to meet the needs of people who don't have cars and to boost the public's input in decision-making. Hers is also the only environmental group in the Figueroa Corridor Coalition for Economic Justice. "In a place like Los Angeles, it seems like many people have given up on environmental quality," she says. "That makes no sense to me. People, especially children, should not have to be wealthy to have access to clean air, clean water, healthy homes and schools and safe places to play."
REVEREND ALTAGRACIA PÉREZ
Reverend Altagracia Pérez arrived in L.A. in 1995 and immediately shook up the churchgoers at South-Central's St. Philip's Episcopal church. Pérez had made a national reputation for herself in Chicago for her work educating black and Latino youths about AIDS. At first, St. Philip's Episcopalian congregants weren't sure what to make of this half Puerto Rican, half Dominican clergywoman from the South Bronx. It took a while for them to get used to her frank sermons on racism, sexism, masturbation, birth control and homosexuality. Pérez understood their reluctance. She herself had been raised in a strict fundamentalist home, and it wasn't until she took a class from a minister at New York Universtity that she learned that there were alternatives to her own religious experience. "It was shocking," she says. "He was involved in streetwalker ministry and had very progressive ideas about sexuality. I just never knew Christians had anything but a very literal interpretation of scripture." Since coming to St. Philip's, Pérez has protested in support of food and housing workers at USC, getting herself arrested twice. She's a leader of Coalition L.A., and she chairs the hotel-organizing-project committee for the L.A.-based Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice. "The time that I spend with God is incredibly nurturing to me," she says. "When I get frustrated that things aren't happening fast enough, I'm reminded that this is an eternal agenda."