If you believe the conventional wisdom, this is neither the time nor the place for troublemakers. L.A., goes the mantra, is not a very political town, and, besides, progressive activism has been in decline since the '60s. Dick Riordan is mayor, and the dull gray center is getting its dull gray way. The best that can be said for L.A. liberals is that they've not yet awakened from their long winter's nap.
So why is it so damn noisy out there? Who are all these labor and community organizers, these immigrant-rights advocates and community-development leaders, these bus-fare strikers and eco-agitproppers? In fact, as the accompanying articles demonstrate, Los Angeles has long been home to an extraordinarily diverse assortment of progressive activists – and the range of causes and organizations they champion has never been broader than it is today. In 1998, activist L.A. is a teeming city-within-a-city – as booming, and at times bewildering, as the metropolis it seeks to change. Nor does the activist index we've compiled in this issue even begin to scratch the surface of local progressive endeavors. In the interest of space, we've had to exclude progressive academics, writers and think-tank mavens. There are scores of worthy groups we've also had to omit, and we've restricted ourselves to identifying just one person per organization, though in most cases the success of these groups depends on dozens of activists. With apologies to the many dedicated groups and people we've left off, and thanks to all the activists who make this a more humane city, herewith our guide to Progressive L.A.
Glenna Avila: Community Arts Partnership
Started in 1990 as a partnership between the California Institute of the Arts and three community arts centers, CAP is now the driving force in bringing cutting-edge technology to kids. Leading those efforts is Glenna Avila, an artist with a long history in education. Avila has parlayed her years working around L.A.'s cultural centers – including a stint at the city's Cultural Affairs Department, where she organized concerts – into creating one of the most successful programs around. She's been credited with finding funds during some of the leanest years. Today, CAP operates 21 programs, ranging from animation workshops at the Watts Towers Art Center to music-training classes at Plaza de la Raza.
Tomas Benitez: Self Help Graphics
Started in 1970 by Sister Karen Boccalero, Self Help Graphics has grown from a small community arts center to one of the most important venues for local Chicano artists. Since Boccalero's death, Tomas Benitez has become the driving force behind this Eastside landmark, helping to launch a youth arts program while maintaining the place as a real home for Latino arts. Gronk, Patssi Valdez and Frank Romero are just a few of the artists who have passed through Self Help Graphics. And it isn't just the big names it produces that have placed this center on the map: It has also helped create a lexicon used for describing Latino artists and their traditions.
Rose Marie Cano: Plaza de la Raza
Plaza de la Raza is one of the leading educational art centers in the city, and a large part of the reason is Rose Marie Cano. Since taking over as executive director in 1995, Cano has pushed to expand the School of Performing and Visual Arts, an after-school program that works with some 2,500 kids a year. The center aims to provide the arts programs schools no longer offer, and is working to bridge the cultural and geographic boundaries that divide Los Angeles.
Since 1986, when he moved to Los Angeles, self-described guerrilla artist Robbie Conal has been a thorn in the side of the people we love to hate. In his posters depicting public figures from George Bush to Pete Wilson to Kenneth Starr, Conal has taken aim at pomposity, mean-spiritedness and greed. Aided by a group of supporters who help him carry out midnight postings of his art throughout the city, Conal has become the city's conscience as well as its favorite wag.
ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT & POVERTY
Karen Bass: Community Coalition for Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment
Back in 1990, when Karen Bass started Community Coalition for Substance Abuse Prevention & Treatment, she had a simple idea: South Los Angeles residents should organize to combat the effects that drugs and alcohol were having in their neighborhoods. Eight years later, Bass and the coalition have built on the success of their initial campaign, which reduced the number of liquor stores that rebuilt following the 1992 riots. Today, with a new cadre of leaders such as Solomon Rivera, the coalition is still on the frontlines, fighting for equity in the distribution of school-bond funding, organizing welfare recipients and planning a campaign to attract businesses to the area.
Nancy Berlin: Alexandria House
Founded in 1996, Alexandria House is relatively new on the homeless-service scene, but its program coordinator, Nancy Berlin, is a longtime activist with roots in the United Farm Workers and Vista. Berlin has managed to apply her experience to running a successful center that not only offers homeless women and children a respite, but also provides help for those who are barely earning a living. In the past two years, Berlin has steered the center toward providing educational and social services, including an after-school program, and a day-care facility scheduled to open later this year.
Doris Bloch: Los Angeles Regional Foodbank
Founded in 1973 to feed the city's hungry, the food bank today provides food for nearly 200,000 hungry folks a week. Heading up the efforts is Doris Bloch, who for more than 15 years has kept the good will and donations flowing. Bloch is credited with building up the bank to its current network of more than 750 groups, and making it into a center that distributes goods to the hundreds of shelters, day-care establishments and senior centers where the city's poor turn for help.
John Bryant: Operation Hope
Operation Hope has managed to outlive many of the organizations born out of the 1992 civil unrest and actually reach its goal. Founded by John Bryant in the wake of the riots, O.H. has brokered more than $15 million in loans to inner-city residents and entrepreneurs. Bryant, who received media attention for shepherding busloads of businessmen around South Los Angeles, is fulfilling his promise of creating the nation's first nonprofit investment-banking organization, and getting dollars and help to areas typically written off.
Deborah Ching: Chinatown Service Center
The Chinatown Service Center has been helping working-class Asians for 27 years. Started in a small room of the Chinese United Methodist Church, the organization has expanded to include offices in Chinatown and Monterey Park. The centers focus on providing basic health care and social services to thousands of low-income Chinese, Cambodian and Vietnamese families. Heading these efforts for the a last decade has been Deborah Ching, who has helped the center expand to meet the needs of the more than 12,000 people who turn to it for help each year.
Bob Erlenbusch: Los Angeles Coalition To End Hunger & Homelessness
Bob Erlenbusch has spent the last 14 years advocating on behalf of the homeless. But it's the last two years, with their sweeping changes to the welfare system, that have been the toughest. Erlenbusch and the Los Angeles Coalition To End Hunger & Homelessness have refused to let public officials ignore a population many would as soon forget. They have helped create networks for homeless-led organizations as well as provided a guide for low-income families that leads them toward health and other services.
Denise Fairchild: Community Development Technologies Center
Started in 1995 by Denise Fairchild, C.D. Tech has quickly established itself as a successful vehicle for creating a new breed of community leaders. A former director of LISC, a program that helped link private and public groups, Fairchild is now focused on getting educational and economic resources to urban communities. Last year alone, C.D. Tech worked with more than 500 individuals and community groups providing internships, college-credit courses and community-planning training. The center's success is based on a simple idea: You work with what you have, and that translates into projects such as helping inner-city manufacturers develop new markets.
Larry Fondation: Industrial Areas Foundation
Founded by Chicago activist Saul Alinsky, the Industrial Areas Foundation is known in Los Angeles through its four affiliated groups, SCOC, VOICE, EVO and UNO. The groups have taken on issues from raising the minimum wage to improving supermarkets in South Los Angeles. These days, led by senior organizer Larry Fondation, the IAF is focused on building affordable housing, providing leadership training and increasing political participation in ethnic neighborhoods.
Gilda Haas: Strategic Actions for a Just Economy
Founded in 1995, SAJE has been one of the most successful advocates on behalf of the city's poor. Last year it challenged the county's policy requiring welfare recipients to pick up checks at designated check-cashing businesses. And much of the credit belongs to Gilda Haas, who forced the county into agreeing to deposit money directly into an individual's bank account, avoiding delays and costs. Haas didn't stop at that. Understanding that half the battle is in getting the banks to help out, she and SAJE formed a partnership with a bank to help many welfare recipients establish accounts.
Eric Mann: Bus Riders Union
Eric Mann has a 17-year history as an organizer in Los Angeles, but it's his latest effort that has captured the most headlines. As the head of the Bus Riders Union, Mann has managed to do what few thought possible: organize some of the poorest and most disenfranchised residents in the city into a formidable force. Not content to stop with a victory in a wide-ranging lawsuit, Mann and his group have continued to push MTA officials on bus overcrowding with actions like their recent “no seat, no fare” campaign.
Sam Mistrano: Human Services Network
When all the mainstream media were crowing about a county report that pronounced the county's welfare-to-work program a success, Sam Mistrano was that annoying little voice reminding us that there was something wrong with the rosy picture. Formerly legislative director of Southern California's ACLU, Mistrano and the network are on the attack, making sure someone is fighting on behalf of poor families that are falling through the cracks.
Alexander Pratt: Drew Economic Development Corp.
Founded in 1982 to help the neighborhood around Charles Drew University, the Drew Economic Development Corp. remains an effective advocate for the area. Headed by Alexander Pratt, the group has spent the last few years working to bring medical services to chronically underserved areas. Pratt has also made housing a priority during his three-year tenure, this year overseeing the renovation or construction of more than a dozen houses as well as establishing a child-care center to help South Los Angeles families.
Amy Schur: ACORN
ACORN, which came to L.A. in 1995, has tried to make sure that changes in welfare don't create a new class of exploited workers. Led locally by Amy Schur, the group has been fighting to get Workfare participants basic benefits, winning concessions from the Department of Public Social Services to create an employee-grievance program for welfare-to-work participants. Schur has also led the drive to organize public-aid recipients.
Anthony Thigpenn: AGENDA (Action for Grassroots Empowerment and Neighborhood Development Alternatives)
Established in 1993, AGENDA is a driving force in South Los Angeles, organizing residents around issues such as community policing, and pushing for a more humane welfare system. Leading the charge has been Anthony Thigpenn, a lifelong activist and former Black Panther. AGENDA recently raised serious questions over economic concessions the city granted to DreamWorks Studios. AGENDA always asks a simple question: Will this improve life for working folk?
EDUCATION & YOUTH
The Rev. Gregory J. Boyle: Dolores Mission and Jobs For a Future
Father Greg, as the neighborhood guys call him, is a legend on the Eastside, where he works with the kids everybody else has written off. A Jesuit priest who spent two years as a prison chaplain, Boyle helped found Jobs For a Future in 1988. The program is an offshoot of Dolores Mission, a unique community center that provides classes and job training to at-risk youth. Boyle doesn't simply advocate a saner approach to dealing with gangs and violence; he has proved there is an alternative.
Sarah Cooper: Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research
Founded in 1963 by labor organizer Emil Freed, the Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research is the keeper of L.A.'s social history. The library houses a vast collection of photographs, books, pamphlets, films and audiotapes documenting the civil rights era, McCarthyism, labor struggles and a host of progressive movements. Key to these preservation efforts is the library's director, Sarah Cooper, who took over after Freed's death in 1983 and has continued his efforts to remind the city of its progressive roots.
Howard Lappin: Foshay Learning Center
Howard Lappin has turned one of the worst-performing schools in the city into a national model for reform. In 1997, he was named California Principal of the Year; today, he and Foshay are demonstrating that kids in poor urban neighborhoods can overcome the odds. Through a mixture of reform efforts – including more-stringent classes, the creation of a kindergarten-through-12th-grade learning center where kids can be monitored by the same teacher their entire academic career, and increased parental involvement – the school has changed the lives of many of the families in the South-Central community around it.
Lois Lee: Children of the Night
For 20 years now, Children of the Night – led by its founder, Lois Lee – has been offering help to a kids who are homeless and working the streets to survive. Since it began, the agency has helped more than 10,000 children, offering shelter, school and counseling. Lee and Children of the Night are doing the nitty-gritty work of getting kids off the streets.
Brother Modesto Leon: Soledad Enrichment Action (SEA)
Started in 1972 by Brother Modesto Leon, SEA has been widely praised for helping gang members find ways to put violence behind them. Modesto began the program after attending a teenager's funeral. Today this Eastside center offers educational assistance to gang members and their families, in the form of parenting workshops and a network of 12 schools that work with dropouts and kids on criminal probation across the county.
Gilbert Sanchez: Gang Violence Bridging Project
Housed at the Edmund G. Brown Institute at Cal State University Los Angeles, this program has drawn many articulate voices into the discussion of gang violence. Leading the effort has been Gilbert Sanchez, the project's director, who has developed programs to pull gang members into community colleges, and this year launched a community-based gang workers association to lobby on behalf of programs for at-risk youth.
Robin Cannon: Concerned Citizens of South Central
Started in 1985 in response to a plan to construct a massive waste incinerator, Concerned Citizens ultimately helped to defeat the $535 million project. Co-founded by Cannon, the group was one of the first to take on issues of environmental justice for poor neighborhoods. Today, Concerned Citizens remains one of the leading voices raising environmental issues in the area.
Tim Carmichael: Coalition for Clean Air
Over the past two years, the Coalition for Clean Air has stepped up efforts to improve the city's air quality by taking aim at the MTA and the state. Tim Carmichael, the group's policy director, has been key to both campaigns. Along with other environmental groups, he's helped put pressure on the MTA to get rid of diesel buses, and has involved the coalition in a lawsuit against the AQMD, accusing that agency of backing away from its obligation to reduce unhealthful levels of smog by the year 2010.
Gail Ruderman Feuer: Natural Resources Defense Council
Since leaving the state Attorney General's Office, Gail Ruderman Feuer has been among the most successful advocates for environmental justice. She led the NRDC's efforts to reduce pollution and truck emissions in poor neighborhoods and has pushed the MTA to stop using diesel buses. In 1997, the NRDC successfully sued Caltrans, forcing it to comply with federal laws.
Mark Gold: Heal the Bay
Founded in 1985 to clean up local beaches, Heal the Bay remains one of the most effective environmental advocates around. This watchdog group, in addition to leading coastal cleanup efforts, spent last year monitoring the implementation of federally mandated improvements to county and city sanitation plants. Executive director Mark Gold deserves much of the credit for the group's work. Since taking over four years ago, he has lobbied for legislation and prodded local governments to clean up their acts.
Juana Gutierrez: Mothers of East Los Angeles
Founded in 1986 by Juana Gutierrez and a small group of Eastside women who opposed construction of a prison in their neighborhood, Mothers of East Los Angeles is a potent political force. Since its first skirmish, the group has fought against construction of a hazardous-waste incinerator, expansion of a freeway and, more recently, has focused on helping area kids get through college.
Lewis MacAdams: Friends of the Los Angeles River
For the last 12 years, Lewis MacAdams and FoLAR have been battling to restore the river that runs through this city. From opposing vegetation removal to organizing against a plan by the Army Corps of Engineers to raise the river's walls, FoLAR has fought further concretization of this most urban of rivers. In addition to an annual cleanup effort, this year the group put together a broad coalition to study a plan to turn the Taylor Yard, on the east side of the river, into the city's largest riverfront park. MacAdams, a writer and longtime environmentalist, has been an articulate voice documenting the forgotten history of one of this city's natural resources.
Carlos Porras: Communities for a Better Environment
Carlos Porras and Communities for a Better Environment have been organizing residents in city neighborhoods for more than five years, fighting to ensure that poor neighborhoods get environmental justice, leading campaigns to increase awareness of lead poisoning in urban areas, challenging oil refineries to track and reduce toxic emissions and, more recently, organizing residents in Southeast Los Angeles to monitor waste-disposal companies. Last year, the group filed a federal civil rights complaint against the AQMD, accusing it of environmental racism after it allowed oil refineries to take part in a pollution-trading program. The program let the companies avoid reducing fumes in their San Pedro and Wilmington plants.
Jerry Rubin: Alliance for Survival
Since 1979, when he attended his first no-nuke rally, Jerry Rubin has been pushing government officials to stop arms proliferation. As head of the Los Angeles Chapter for the Alliance for Survival, Rubin has protested the proposed construction of the Ward Valley Nuclear Waste Dump and sued Mayor Riordan and the city for its ban on aggressive panhandling. Rubin is an activist for all seasons and causes.
Wendy Wendlandt: California Public Interest Research Group (CALPIRG)
Since it was founded in 1972, CALPIRG has organized students and others around environmental and consumer issues. The group has spent much of the past two years advocating for a crackdown on companies whose wastewater treatment systems are polluting local waters. Last year, the group, led by associate director Wendy Wendlandt, launched another campaign to improve air quality.
Susan Dempsay: Step Up on Second
In 1984, seeking a way to handle the pain of watching her son battle schizophrenia, Susan Dempsay founded Step Up on Second, a mental-health center providing services and a meeting place for adults with mental illness. The Santa Monica- based center now offers counseling, housing and education to help clients and their families. While Dempsay is no longer the director, she remains a guiding force at Step Up and throughout Southern California, where she works tirelessly on behalf of those with mental illness.
Tony Espinosa: The Clean Needles Now Harm Reduction Program (CNN)
The group's name says it all. Operated out of a Hollywood storefront, this organization provides addicts with free syringes in an effort to stem the tide of HIV and other diseases. Tony Espinosa has been working with the group since 1995, distributing needles as well as developing programs and training.
Marjorie Martinez: Clinica Msgr. Oscar Romero
Located in the impoverished Westlake neighborhood near downtown, Clinica Msgr. Oscar Romero provides free and low-cost medical assistance to hundreds of poor residents. Leading those efforts is Marjorie Martinez, who has helped steer the clinic toward a broad range of services, including providing a place where residents can organize against the tobacco and alcohol sales that plague the area.
Michael Weinstein: AIDS Healthcare Foundation
Michael Weinstein is the force behind the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, the largest provider of HIV/AIDS medical care in the country. The group not only provides care, but also has fought to ensure that federal funds get to those who need help. A vocal critic of the county for putting resources into staff rather than services, Weinstein has also been a strong public-policy advocate, speaking out when he feels it is important to do so.
Jan Breidenbach: Southern California Association of Non-Profit Housing (SCANPH)
For the last decade, SCANPH has built a reputation as a leading advocate for affordable housing. The group's director, Jan Breidenbach, has pushed to get media coverage of the city's housing crisis, as well as campaigned to get the L.A. City Council to preserve funding for low-cost housing. Two years ago, she successfully lobbied to keep $14 million earmarked for housing in the city budget despite the mayor's opposition. This year, she helped preserve $13 million in the city budget that will go toward creating more affordable housing.
Alice Callaghan: Las Familias del Pueblo
In recent months, Alice Callaghan has taken heat for her position against bilingual education. But whether you like or hate that stance, one thing shouldn't be forgotten: Callaghan, the Episcopal priest who founded Las Familias del Pueblo, is one of the most successful Skid Row activists in Los Angeles. Her children's center in the heart of the garment district has provided hope to numerous families, and she has lobbied to make Skid Row a more habitable place for those forced to live in one of the roughest neighborhoods in the city.
Sister Diane Donoghue: Esperanza Community Housing Corp.
For close to a decade, Esperanza Community Housing Corp. has been helping bring affordable housing to Los Angeles, and leading these efforts has been Sister Diane Donoghue. In 1989, Donoghue successfully organized residents in the Maple-Adams area against a garment factory's attempt to move into the neighborhood. And she didn't stop there, but continued to work with the residents, who today have rehabilitated five apartment buildings and built others. While Esperanza remains a leading advocate for housing in South Los Angeles, the group has broadened its scope to include constructing child-care centers, providing English-proficiency classes and creating community centers.
Anthony Scott: Dunbar Economic Development Corp.
For nearly a decade, the Dunbar Economic Development Corp. has led the fight to revitalize Central Avenue in South Los Angeles – and, under the leadership of Anthony Scott, the group has made steady progress toward that goal. Not only did it restore the historic Dunbar hotel where jazz legends once stayed; since 1997, Dunbar has worked hard to bring affordable housing to the neighborhood, this year renovating two apartment buildings.
Susan Alva: Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA)
Since 1986, CHIRLA has been swimming against the tide, organizing campaigns for day laborers and domestic workers and battling on behalf of immigrants affected by the 1996 immigration-reform law. And key to the coalition's work has been Susan Alva, who has spent the last five years working to see that immigrants aren't forgotten.
Angela Sanbrano: Central American Resource Center
Angela Sanbrano has been advocating on behalf of Central Americans since 1985, when she joined the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador. Today, as director of CARECEN, she is helping immigrants gain a fighting chance despite a wave of recent legislation that has made these days among the grimmest times for immigrants. Through its legal services, workshops and education program, CARECEN is ensuring that those Salvadorans, Guatemalans and Nicaraguans who fled their war-torn countries and arrived in Los Angeles in the 1980s can finally say they belong here.
Peter Schey: Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law
Peter Schey is a nationally recognized figure in immigration law, but it's his work at the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law that is followed by many in our city. For the past 18 years he has fought on behalf of immigrants living on the margins. He joined in the legal battle against Proposition 187 and has sued the Immigration and Naturalization Service over the agency's release and detention policies for minors. At a time when many immigrants feel under siege, Schey has provided a legal respite.
The Rev. William Campbell: Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE)
Started in 1996 to help ensure passage of the living-wage ordinance, CLUE has grown from a small cadre of clergy into a powerful coalition of laity and labor activists advocating on behalf of low-income workers. Among the most vocal in this faith-based group is the Reverend William Campbell, associate pastor at Second Baptist Church. Campbell has been with CLUE since the early days, and worked with them to win better wages for Westside hotel workers. Now CLUE is helping workers at USC organize against efforts to contract jobs out.
Miguel Contreras: Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO
Since Contreras took the helm in the summer of 1996, the 738,000-member County Fed has become the 800-pound gorilla of local progressive politics. In a series of campaigns that have mobilized thousands of union volunteers, the Fed has become the main player in town for turning out the new immigrant vote, as well as the vote of its own members. The 1996 Democratic recapture of the state Assembly, the enactment of local school-bond measures, the defeat of the mayor's handpicked charter-reform slate, and the passage of the living-wage ordinance are all due in good measure to Contreras' success in building a first-rate political operation. A veteran of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees (where he met and married Local 11 leader Maria Elena Durazo), Contreras is now turning the Fed's attention to organizing new workers, with ambitious plans to train organizers and provide support to the organizing campaigns of its member locals.
Maria Elena Durazo: Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 11
Since 1989, when she took over running Local 11, Maria Elena Durazo has transformed this union into one of the most high-profile shops around. Durazo understands the union's predominantly immigrant membership – meetings are now multilingual events. Since last year, Local 11 has secured groundbreaking agreements with major hotels, winning contracts that not only guarantee higher wages but also secure the rights of immigrant workers discharged because of immigration status. Under the new agreement, these workers now have a year to fix the problem and can then return to their jobs with the same level of seniority. Durazo and Local 11 have also lent the power of their numbers to secure passage of the city's living-wage ordinance.