Fighting homophobia has been central to National Coalition Building Institute Missoula (NCBI Missoula)’s work since it was founded in 1998 in response to incidents of racist and homophobic violence in the region. One of the tragic catalysts for the organization’s mission was a near-fatal arson attack on the home of a lesbian couple and their infant son.
A $100,000 multi-year grant from Liberty Hill’s Queer Youth Fund, awarded to NCBI Missoula during the fund’s 2009-2010 cycle has helped this vital anti-hate organization respond to the needs of a new generation of queer youth by creating a safe, structured space for young LGBTQ people to gather with peers and plan the next stages in the struggle for equality.
Youth Forward members and NCBI Trainers Stacia and Michelle at the 2013 High School Train-The-Trainers summer camp.
“It was our high school young people who came and said that we have Gay-Straight Alliancegroups in our schools and they’re great but we need a citywide safe space for queer youth,” says NCBI Missoula’s Melissa Fisher. “They said we need some place for folks from all over town to find each other and support each other.”
NCBI Missoula coordinates the Montana Safe Schools Coalition, providing districts with training and resources “to fulfill their duty of providing safe educational experiences for all students.” It trains businesses and organizations in overcoming prejudice in the workplace, leads community initiatives and workshops such as “Eliminating White Racism,” and “Diversity Day,” and works to build an inclusive community in many other ways. When young people who had participated in their programs spoke, NCBI Missoula listened.
“We truly value the leadership role that our young people can play and realize our young people can lead adults. We said this is something we need to do. We knew we needed to keep preventing and reducing violence and stopping homophobia in all of our programs, but we also needed to make a safe space for queer youth. We couldn’t have done it without the Queer Youth Fund and Liberty Hill.”
What was the urgency? The school programs were solid; diversity trainings for all ages incorporated anti-homophobia education.
“Montana is different from big cities,” says Melissa. “I grew up here and I left for Seattle because I didn’t feel safe. I identify as a lesbian and I felt I needed to be in a city with a bigger queer community. Montana is not as accepting, not as open. It’s scary to walk down the street with your partner. Our young people need a space where they can be together and know they’re loved. Being able to launch Youth Forward was huge!”
After planning and development, Youth Forward was launched in the fall of 2010. Participants meet 50 weeks out of the year, including during the summer. Four times a year, youth leaders map out discussion topics for the next several weeks. Though the group is led by trained social workers, there’s a focus on political education, community organizing and leadership development. Topics have included healthy bodies, healthy relationships, dealing with faith-based stigma, mental health issues, adultism, ageism—all from the perspective of how these issues relate to queer youth.
Youth Forward members at NCBI’s High School Train the Trainers summer camp.
“Youth Forward has grown and developed into a social justice advocacy group,” says Melissa. “The young leaders go back to their high schools and to the state legislature and push for anti-bullying policy. It’s launching them into a visible role in national legislation advocacy.”
At the heart of NCBI Missoula’s work is leadership development, and the Queer Youth Fund grant has made it possible for Youth Forward to grow “mindfully and in the direction the young people want it to.”
The multi-year support gives NCBI Missoula “the stability to take on these bigger bites, next steps,” says Melissa. For example, NCBI Missoula has recently taken on the role of being the GSA Network coordinator for the state of Montana, and is helping to support queer youth in rural and reservation communities. “We couldn’t take that on without knowing we can be here next year to do the work we’ve committed to do.”
As Zahirah Mann tells it, the concept for Angelenos for Los Angeles, a giving circle housed at Liberty Hill, came together over several months.
She and co-chair Anne-Marie Jones and several of their friends formed the giving circle in fall of 2011, and made their first grant at the end of 2012. But some of the first ingredients—the information that sparked a decision to make more impact with their philanthropy—came in February 2011 at Uplifting Change,Liberty Hill’s initiative to bring together local donor-activists to leverage community assets to strengthen Black Los Angeles.
“Professor Ange-Marie Hancock gave a presentation at the conference discussing her own philanthropy and the findings of her survey of African American philanthropy in Los Angeles. She described philanthropic giving in the Black community, which primarily consists of individuals donating to their churches and schools, assisting their families and so on. This type of giving is thoughtful and in many cases substantial, but not necessarily strategic.”
Zahirah remembers that Ange-Marie, now a member of Liberty Hill’s Board, used her own history as an example, explaining how she began to direct her philanthropy in a more targeted way.
The presentation resonated with Zahirah, who thought about how she and her husband were giving as a couple. “We are ardent environmentalists. He, especially, was making donations to anyone and everyone who called or sent a letter requesting a donation. Our giving was spread among a number of groups. While all the organizations were concerned with an issue we cared about, our giving was not at all targeted.”
At that same 2011 Uplifting Change, Zahirah and Anne-Marie were intrigued by a panel on giving circles. “The panelists spoke about how they were able to make high impact gifts each year by pooling their resources with friends and colleagues,” says Zahirah. “We were impressed with how much some groups were able to give in grants, amounts that for us would be really aspirational!”
From those first sparks of an idea, Zahirah and Anne-Marie, along with some dedicated friends, ”decided to form an organization where we could come together and do some high impact giving. Since so much of the idea started at Uplifting Change, we were very focused on giving back to L.A. and to the Black community. After a few discussions, we decided that our mission would be to create and support positive social change in the greater Los Angeles Black community.”
There are now 15 active participants, and several additional contributors. Angelenos for Los Angeles encourages participation at a number of different levels delineated in the membership agreement, which asks participants how involved they would like to be in the circle, regardless of their investment level. The bylaws outline the governance structure based on investment, including rules related to voting and other decision-making. Members of the circle give at least $900 annually, which membership can be shared between up to three individuals; supporters of the circle give at least $100 annually. All participants are encouraged to gather at different times throughout the year in a “casual social setting where everyone can come as they are” to discuss potential grantees, community involvement, and a host of other issues that relate back to the mission and advancement of the work.
For the grantmaking, “we do not have an application process,” says Zahirah, “Circle participants come to the group and describe organizations whose work is consistent with the circle’s mission. Each person brings their own experience to the discussion and it really helps us understand the best way to move forward.”
Of the circle’s very first grant in 2012, she says, “It was so exciting. We had an end of the year party; as we were counting up the votes there was so much energy in the room! The first year we raised enough funds to make a grant of $10,000 plus a contribution to Liberty Hill. The main grant went to Peace4Kids.We were so excited to have learned about the organization, a group working with foster youth— if we can improve their outcomes, we get that much closer to resolving so many other societal concerns related to homelessness, criminal justice, etc.”
Now moving into a third year, Angelenos for Los Angeles made their 2013 grants to the Los Angeles Black Worker Center and Peace4Kids and also a contribution to Uplifting Change, honoring Kafi D. Blumenfield.
The giving circle has evolved. They’ve done away with having subcommittees and doing site visits, instead availing themselves of Liberty Hill’s due diligence process. And they’ve learned what works for them.
“It helps to have everything happen in the context of the broader group, where everyone is given the opportunity to participate,” says Zahirah. “It’s been a great exercise in trust. What we have found is that everyone who actively participates in the circle is not only invested financially, they are invested in the process and invested in the outcome. What’s great about our giving circle is that once people feel committed to the group, they do everything they can to ensure the continuation of the group and its mission. I think that has actually been the biggest accomplishment of the circle and what I am most proud of: helping to develop a group of active philanthropists. They are simply amazing.”
And with that kind of sustainability, Angelenos for Los Angeles will be giving with impact, to be pooling resources and awarding meaningful amounts in grants, and to be creating lasting change for the better in L.A. for years to come.
Twenty years have passed since President Clinton signed an executive order meant to address environmental injustice in communities of color…yet our communities continue to struggle. I say this with respect and gratitude for people like Rita Harris, Vernice Miller-Travis, Richard Moore, Charles Lee and many others who have paved the way for environmental justice (EJ) work and helped get Executive Order 12898 signed. Today, I had the honor of participating on the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC) panel, which included a group of strong EJ leaders discussing the Executive Order and the past and future of EJ work. I heard many of my colleagues express similar thoughts. Inspiring words were spoken during the panel discussion, such as, “remember where we come from,” “keep up the struggle,” and “together we can create the visions we need”. In short the message was: we have come a long way but we have an even longer way to go.
Most people in our communities do not know about the Executive Order, and don’t depend on it for environmental protection. Our communities depend on each other, on community organizing, to build power and fend off the continuous toxic assaults on our communities. Nonetheless, the Executive Order and the creation of NEJAC have helped foster a movement for environmental health and justice. The value of the Executive Order and NEJAC, in my opinion, is the convergence of EJ allies from North to South and East to West. There is great value in the discussions and partnerships that arise among EJ advocates in the hallways of meetings, summits, and panels such as this one. The sense that “together we can create the vision we need”, that we are not alone in this struggle, and that our allies can act as mentors, helps reenergize us to continue the fight for environmental justice. Today, I celebrate the EJ movement and hope the Order can continue to help foster this collaboration.
Although the future of EJ work will continue to be a struggle, I look forward to many more years, fighting for Environmental Justice with our brothers and sisters.
Last night, as President Obama delivered his State of the Union Address, members of the Brothers Sons Selves Coalition watched together along with friends and family at a viewing party at Community Coalition, co-hosted by Liberty Hill. Viewers listened intently as President Obama mentioned a range issues from high unemployment to education reform.
A highlight for the young activists in the room came early on in the speech, when President Obama shared the story of Estiven Rodriguez, a young New Yorker who was able to learn English and excel in a supportive school system. Then, the Chief Executive announced that among the actions he’s taking to move America forward this year is how he’s “reaching out to some of America’s leading foundations and corporations on a new initiative to help more young men of color facing tough odds stay on tract and reach their full potential.”
This statement shows that the President has made a new White House initiative to reform school discipline announced earlier in January a priority of the coming year. As described in our blog post Race and Reality, President Obama’s remarks pay homage to the work of the Brothers Sons Selves successful “School Climate Bill of Rights” campaign that have made Los Angeles and Long Beach national models for ways to improve school climate for boys and young men of color.
At the viewing party, Timothy Walker, an 11th grade Crenshaw High School student and member of the Brothers Sons Selves Coalition, said that he was surprised and excited by the President’s mention of the issues that affect him.
“If Obama mentions it, then everyone will see it as an issue,” Timothy said.
When you think of all the problems facing the country, it’s so great to win a shout-out in the State of the Union Address. This comes after several years of work by the community organizers and youth organizers of Brothers Sons Selves, and will undoubtedly help propel our efforts forward so that every young man of color will be seen as an integral asset to this nation’s success. RETURN TO LIBERTY HILL’S HOME PAGE
The January 8 announcement from the White Housethat it would require schools to “meet their obligations under federal law to administer student discipline without discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin” opens a new chapter of the Civil Rights Movement and—like some of the preceding chapters—its pages are written by teenagers.
Some of those teenage authors of change—Damien, Carlos, Lester, Josh—are already known to Liberty Hill supporters. These African American, Latino and Asian-Pacific Islander boys and young men and their allies of our Brothers, Sons, Selves campaign won the nation’s first ban on suspensions for “willful defiance” (often simply behavior problems) in May of last year. The ban is part of a “School Climate Bill of Rights” resolution passed by L.A. Unified School District in response to the Brothers Sons Selves campaign and is a reason why L.A. is one of just a few states and cities that have taken concrete action to reform school discipline.
L.A. was the first school district in the nation to take this important step to end the school to prison pipeline, and as the second-largest school district in the country, L.A.’s discipline policies set the pace for school districts all across America. The White House gets that.
Q: How did Liberty Hill become a national leader in the movement to end the school to prison pipeline and improve outcomes for low income and young men of color?
A: In partnership with The California Endowment, Liberty Hill is managing a campaign here in Los Angeles to end what Harvard called “the school to prison pipeline.”
California’s future prosperity depends on all Californians having a fair chance to thrive and succeed. Right now in Los Angeles, low income and young men of color have the lowest life expectancy rates, highest unemployment rates, most murder victims and fewest high school and college graduates of any demographic group. That’s what we discovered when we issued a report two years ago.
Los Angeles and California need its young men. These are our brothers. Our sons. That’s why we called this campaign Brothers Sons Selves.
We published a report and then we held a hearing of the Assembly Select Committee on the Status of Boys and Men of Color, and our coalition’s student activists briefed Assembly members in Sacramento.
Our first campaign, Every Student Matters, resulted in L.A. becoming the first school district in the country to ban “willful defiance” as a cause for suspension. (See a video about that campaign here.) Then a similar campaign was won in Long Beach. (See the Long Beach video.) In education, we need a return to common-sense discipline that works. We know that less punitive approaches dramatically improve school learning.
2014 is the year in which we make it real. LAUSD is beginning to implement these new policies this month as students go back to school after winter break. That’s why the validation coming from the White House and the national expansion of these efforts is so important.
Had enough of celebrity diets for 2014? Here are some tips from our experts for getting your giving in shape for the coming year.
It’s January—makeover time. To get the inside skinny on putting a philanthropic plan into shape for the new year, we put aside our calorie counters and spoke to five Liberty Hill donor-activists who are known by peers as particularly thoughtful, strategic givers.
Bill Resnick, Anne-Marie Jones, Jed Dannenbaum, Doe Mayer, and Pilar Diaz all have deep ties to Liberty Hill and support us through financial contributions, Board service, volunteering and as advisers and ambassadors. Bill and Pilar have been Liberty Hill honorees (Bill received the 2005 Founders Award; Pilar received the 2011 NextGen Leadership Award). Anne-Marie has been an Uplifting Change participant, and Doe who has been a valued coach and mentor to our grantees through the Wally Marks Leadership Institute and has recently joined Liberty Hill’s Board.
We asked what the year ahead looks like from their personal philanthropic perspectives as they support their causes, contribute to our communities, and build power positive change in L.A. and the world.
Do you have a plan for the coming year? “I don’t have a formal plan for my individual giving but I do have areas of interest and also I have relationships with organizations. In recent years I’ve had somewhat of a focus on creative arts and art therapy, for helping people make changes and build community. One thing that’s important to me is that I’ve been giving with my siblings in addition to individually. We’ve been getting some money from our parents’ foundation. Last year we expanded our formal grant giving. We’ve been working with a consultant and have been going through a whole learning process, looking at things critically. It’s been a kind of training. One thing we have focused on is community building and looking at how organizations can foster building social ties among the people they serve.”
Ways of giving: Bill volunteers as a psychiatrist with Venice Family Clinic and serves on its board. He chairs the board at Beit T’Shuvah, a spiritual community and residential treatment center for addiction, where he also volunteers and is a Friday night attendee at services with his fiancée Michael. He teaches first year medical students and supervises psychiatry residents at UCLA and chairs the board of The Relational Center. He also serves on the boards of American Jewish World Service and Center Theatre Group.
Why Liberty Hill is part of his plan: “I appreciate the vision Liberty Hill has of a more just and equitable Los Angeles and its theory of change resonates with me—that deep wisdom resides in the communities and that the people affected by injustice often have—with proper support—the keys to change. There is a community built at Liberty Hill and these ties built between donor-supporters and grantees are important. It feels in a certain way like a home base for me.”
Heart of the plan: “Part of a giving plan is you have to bring yourself to it. There are many ways to be leaderful in areas you care about.”
Do you have a plan for the coming year? “In 2014 I want to ramp it up. I need to free up funds for contributions which could happen by cutting back on my restaurant bills a bit. It would be better for my waistline as well as for organizations I support! To come up with a plan, I forecast. I know there are two or three times a year when I come into a little cash. In March or April when my tax refund comes, I’ll figure I have this much to contribute from that check. And then because of how pay periods work, I’ll know there are a couple months each year when I get three paychecks instead of two and I designate some of that “extra” paycheck for contributions. Then with our Angelenos for L.A. giving circle, I make a monthly contribution. Also, whenever a donation I make qualifies, my company will match it, and I do that.”
Ways of giving: Anne-Marie is a member of the Angelenos for L.A. giving circle, which is housed at Liberty Hill and primarily focuses on the African American community in L.A. She is also a part of Liberty Hill’s Uplifting Change initiative to connect local donor-activists and help them leverage community assets to strengthen Black Los Angeles through philanthropic investment in grassroots community organizing. She is a proud Trojan and has volunteered through USC’s Joint Educational Project and participates in group volunteer activities through the giving circle and at her workplace.
Why Liberty Hill is part of her plan: “Liberty Hill’s good work crosses all sectors and all boundaries. And the groups it supports fit in the center of issues that concern me such as equity and social justice, in particular for low income communities of color and LGBT youth, groups that are doing such really good work on advocacy. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done in terms of bringing equity to Los Angeles.”
Heart of the plan: “The giving circle is great because like-minded folks can come together and give a bigger gift and amplify their impact. If you have ten people giving even $600 a year, that’s already six grand. It’s doable and feasible and some organization is going to appreciate that.”
DOE MAYER AND JED DANNENBAUM
Do you have a plan for the coming year?Doe: “For contributions, we sit down in December and go through everything to decide which groups to give what to. We make contributions to a variety of organizations around the world.” Jed: “When we first got married, there were several years when it was more haphazard. But rather than giving small amounts to a whole lot of organizations, we wanted to figure out which ones were the most effective and reflective of our values and increase our contributions to those organizations.”
Ways of Giving: When Doe and Jed sent out their wedding invitations in 1993, they sent along a request that friends and family honor them with donations instead of gifts, and suggested Liberty Hill. Both teach at the University of Southern California, where Jed is active in efforts to improve working conditions for part-time and non-tenure-track faculty. Doe volunteers and consults for Liberty Hill as a communications and media coach through our Wally Marks Leadership Institute, a role she also fulfills with other nonprofits internationally, largely in developing countries. Doe has recently joined Liberty Hill’s Board, and both are members of Liberty Hill’s Advisory Council. They have made provisions in their will for a number of nonprofits organizations that are important to them.
Why Liberty Hill is part of their plan: Doe: “I’ve been with Liberty Hill from the very beginning. Sarah Pillsbury [a founder] and I have been part of a women’s group for almost 40 years. When she and her family first had the idea, it was meaningful to me and has become even more so as the organization has grown. I love the idea that it’s such an L.A.- based organization. And I’ve always gravitated toward its “change, not charity” philosophy, which is part of my own work: giving people tools to use for themselves.” Jed: I hadn’t been living in L.A. long when I met Doe 22 years ago, but the civil unrest that followed the Rodney King verdict made me realize that I thought of this as my city and I really cared about it. When I learned about Liberty Hill through Doe and then went on some of the bus trips to meet and learn about community organizing groups they were supporting, I was completely won over. As someone who had been a historian of social reform, I was a big believer in the idea that real change starts at the community level.”
Heart of the plan: Doe: “I feel like I’m much more in control of my giving than when I’m giving five dollars here and twenty dollars there. The result is I’m much more strategic about what I’m doing and why I’m doing it.”
Do you have a plan for the coming year? “As I was gathering my tax deductions together and was looking at the contributions I’ve made in the past year, I noticed that my contributions were all over the place. I wanted to help everyone. Moving forward, I want to focus my giving and make a bigger impact. I’m concentrating on a very few personal causes: breast cancer, veterans (especially organizations like Team Rubicon, a disaster-response veterans service organization), and Liberty Hill.”
Ways of Giving: Pilar is a core member of Liberty Hill’s Change L.A. supporters group. She is on the leadership board of “The Fringe,” Center Theater Group’s young professional supporters. She is an active member of Asian American/ Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy and volunteers with Southern California Golf Association Foundation’s Girls Committee. She also helps organize fundraisers for various groups. She tells the world about causes she supports on her blog.
Why Liberty Hill is part of her plan: “For the last 13 years, I have worked with community organizations that represent some of the most underserved communities in L.A. Liberty Hill supports the work of most of these organizations. Liberty Hill’s staff and leadership have also guided my growth in the field, especially as I transitioned from community organizing to grantmaking. In addition to their guidance, the passion of their staff, board members, and donor-activists to create change inspires me. I can’t just sit on the sidelines. Last summer, I spent a gorgeous sunny Saturday at the Commissions Training Program, aka, the best workshop ever. I am super-involved in L.A. partly because of Liberty Hill. Liberty Hill is part of my plan because it is an important institution in this city.”
Heart of the plan: “I want to give in a more meaningful way. Beyond the dollars, I want to learn more about the issues and then get more involved, with the hope of making an impact.”
On a cool winter evening, young adults and senior citizens alike are lining up in West Hollywood’s Plummer Park Community Center. They’ve come from nearby neighborhoods and the far reaches of Los Angeles County looking for a lifeline to preserve the basic necessity of shelter. At the Tenants’ Rights Legal Clinic, run by Coalition for Economic Survival (CES)a Liberty Hill grantee partner, they’re met by volunteer community activists and lawyers who educate and empower participants on their rights as tenants in their interactions with landlords who often seem to have all the power in the relationship.
“I’m here because I feel I’m making a difference,” says Betty McGuire, a volunteer and a renter who first came to the clinic some years ago when she herself needed help. “My rent went up $500, and I didn’t know what to do,” says Betty. “I heard about CES and came for assistance.”
Betty, a senior who now lives at Park La Brea and is a member of the tenant group Renters United at Park La Brea, says CES provided the education she needed to negotiate a lower rent before eventually moving to her present apartment.
“When landlords use tactics to pressure tenants to move, or even evict them, it is much harder on senior citizens who are often on fixed incomes,” says Wendell Jones, a long-time volunteer who has legal training. “Tenants often are unaware of a City of L.A. law that stipulates a relocation fee of $9,000 to $19,000 in the case of a no-fault eviction, which CES helped pass,” Jones added. He explains that in addition to him, CES often has one to two lawyers and a paralegal volunteering at the clinic. The goal is to educate tenants of all ages and backgrounds to evaluate their situation from a position of power and knowledge rather than fear and anxiety.
Some of the problems tenants encounter include their rentals being converted to condominiums, illegal evictions, unmade repairs, rent increases, harassment and noise complaints. Also many tenants are victims of The Ellis Act, a 1985 law that allows landlords to evict even longtime residents if the landlord takes the building off of the rental market. If tenants have to move due to no fault of their own, the relocation fee might not cover the cost of a move and the likely higher rent in another location.
In addition to these hardships, tenants who are undocumented residents have the added stigma of fear that compounds the financial implications of sudden relocation. CES educates immigrants on their rights to prevent them from being taken advantage of due to language barriers or other difficulties.
In the cities of Los Angeles and West Hollywood, rent-controlled units are a necessary component of affordable housing. They include units built before 1979 that are not single-family dwellings, although there are other categories. Landlords often seek to evict current tenants of such units and raise the rents to market values. At the same time, tenants in units that are not in rent-controlled experience problems when the rent skyrockets or there are conflicts with landlords over issues such as repairs. Rents on units that are not rent-controlled can be raised once each year to whatever the market will bear. These rate hikes create a shortage of housing for low to moderate-income renters.
“We don’t give legal advice but rather educate tenants on their rights so they can become their own advocates,” says staff member and CES Director of Organizing Carlos Aguilar. Carlos says the clinic is one of various programs CES undertakes to strengthen housing access, including slum prevention that includes an inspection program. “A effort is made to recruit tenants to volunteer with CES and give them the tools they need to form tenant advocacy groups in their buildings,” he adds.
Founded in the early 1970s, CES was instrumental in the incorporation of West Hollywood as city and for securing rent control laws in West Hollywood and Los Angeles. CES participation in local elections since the city’s incorporation has resulted in victories for 20 out of 24 CES endorsed City Council candidates. Currently, a majority of members of the West Hollywood city council are CES members and supporters.
“I speak at schools and PTAs so that the community knows about our services,” says Aguilar. Many of the attendees at the clinic first heard about CES through word of mouth, because unfortunately there aren’t many organizations that provide the services tenants need. That fact is why organizing is so important, and why CES alum such as Betty join and attend tenants’ rights groups in their own buildings.
CES has a paid staff of less than 10 organizers, but more than 5,000 members. With California recovering from the recession, more tenants are finding themselves is danger of losing housing as landlords raise rents. CES’ largest campaign in its 40-year history to ensure tenants’ rights to affordable, habitable, safe housing, free of landlord/management harassment began last summer and has already spread to neighborhoods in East Adams, West Adams, Pico Union, University Park, Koreatown and Studio City.
At the clinic there are no income restrictions or other requirements to receive assistance, and translators are often available for non-English speakers. While donations are requested, no one is turned away for lack of funds. The clinics run Wednesdays at 7 p.m. and Saturdays at 10.m. Visit http://www.cesinaction.org for more details.
Hector Flores, former organizer with InnerCity Struggle recently left the organization to pursue music with his band, Las Cafeteras, but community organizing is still at the heart of what he does. Hector’s time at ICS helped shape his politics and his ideas about social change. “Before we were a band, many of us were already organizers and activists in many different movements,” says Hector, who met percussionist Jose Cano during a protest against budget cuts at Cal State L.A., and jarana player, Daniel French, at the South Central Farm. However the band really took shape at a Zapatista-inspired community space in El Sereno called Eastside Café. That’s where the band got its original name, Los Cafeteros, which the members later opted to shift to its feminine form.
“When we formed as a collective we wanted to challenge patriarchy,” Hector says. “Language can be a way to challenge oppression.” In addition to giving the band its name, the Eastside Café helped Las Cafeteras develop their sound. The band members began playing together during Son Jarocho class, where they learned about the music and culture of Veracruz, Mexico. Son Jarocho is the backbone of Las Cafeteras’s style, and the band features a range of traditional instruments, including the jarana (a small guitar-like instrument), the quijada (a mule’s jawbone that the player strikes), and the tarina (a wooden box that the player stomps on; the “heartbeat” of the music). According to Hector, Son Jarocho is “storytelling music,” and Las Cafeteras tell their story by mixing in hip-hop, rock and other influences they gathered growing up in L.A.
Although their sound could not be further from traditional rhythms of Las Cafeteras, the group of musicians and artists known as Ultra-red shares a similar outlook on the relationship between social movements and music. Founded in Los Angeles in 1992 with a focus on AIDS activism, Ultra-red is a multimedia art collective that has grown to include members in Canada, South Africa, Germany, and the UK. Elizabeth Blaney and Leonardo Vilchis of Union de Vecinos joined Ultra-red in 1997, and according to Leonardo, all of Ultra-red’s members are “connected to some struggle or movement.”
Although Elizabeth and Leonard also work with video, audio is an integral part of Ultra-red’s work, and the group has released over fifteen records since 1998. Ultra-red’s music is usually composed by making field recordings of marches, demonstrations, and community meetings, then chopping up, editing, and reorganizing the sounds into a type of collage. Often these recordings are punctuated by synthesizers and electronic beats. In 2000, they released a record called Structural Adjustments, made up of field recordings from Union de Vecinos-led actions against the privatization of the Pico Aliso housing complex in East L.A. The collective continues to involve Union de Vecinos in its work.
For both Ultra-red and Las Cafeteras, music is a powerful tool for organizing. Hector Flores’s work with InnerCity Struggle shaped his knowledge of public policy and the challenges facing L.A.’s communities. “Really understanding policy helped show the need for creative outlets and different forms of organizing,” he says. Ultra-red also sees music as a way to develop new methods of organizing. “The politics of change is very regimented,” says Leonardo. He hopes that involving the arts in community organizing will allow the process of social change to be examined, experimented with, and improved.
Operation Skid Row
Not all of the community organizing groups who use music as a tool for social justice are performers themselves. L.A. Community Action Network brought music and activism together by organizing an outdoor concert with acclaimed rapper Chuck D. and his popular group, Public Enemy. The concert, called Operation Skid Row, was conceived after Chuck D. toured the underserved downtown neighborhood of Skid Row and concluded that the music community had not done enough to give back.
The free concert, which featured local artists who are engaged in the Skid Row community—such as Crushow, Unkal Bean, and the Skid Row Playaz—alongside Public Enemy and other hip-hop luminaries, took place on Gladys Street in the heart of the neighborhood. According to LA CAN’s communications coordinator, Eric Ares, the goals were to “mobilize impacted residents” and bring media attention to the issues facing Skid Row. As for the use of music as a tool for activism Eric says, “Social movements have only existed alongside cultural movements. You can’t have popular base-building movements without tying in arts and culture. It’s the entry point.”
Bringing music out of the traditional concert venue and into the streets, like Operation Skid Row, is something Las Cafeteras and Ultra-red do in their live performances as well. Las Cafeteras has toured the country playing everywhere from community centers and churches to bars and backyards. They’ve also done gigs with artists as diverse as Juanez, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, and the L.A. Philharmonic. In 2014 the band hopes to bring their music to a different kind of place: somewhere like the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in Los Angeles. “We’re bringing music to places where folks don’t have access,” says Hector, “Music is medicine; it needs to be for the sick.”
Ultra-red’s performances are often multimedia experiences rather than typical concerts. They’ve exhibiting their work by playing recordings and projecting video onto the side of a public housing complex, setting up a pirate radio station, and even bringing public housing residents in Los Angeles and Dublin, Ireland together for an open discussion about the challenges facing their communities.
Culture, education and impact
As these groups operate outside the world of the music industry and connect with communities, they are also adding an educational component to their work. In conjunction with InnerCity Struggle, Las Cafeteras began developing a curriculum for poetry, storytelling and anti-oppression workshops. For Hector, it’s all about getting people to tell their stories. L.A. Community Action Network also made education an important part of Operation Skid Row by including speakers addressing community issues in between musical acts. One of Ultra-red’s most recent projects, School of Echoes, takes an educational approach by facilitating conversations between artists, organizers, and activists about themes like gentrification and solidarity. Leonardo, who cites the radical Brazilian educator, Paolo Fiere, as an influence says much of the band’s work is about bringing together different communities and “creating exchanges.” “In that exchange both sides learn a lot.”
When it comes to recording and distributing their music, Las Cafeteras and Ultra-red both eschew corporate record labels, choosing instead to self-publish their material. Ultra-red created their own label called Public Record, hosting free downloads of their music on the label’s website. According to Leonardo, the band wanted to resist having their music become a commodity, and instead to make their work about “an exchange of ideas rather than an exchange of money.” Las Cafeteras funded their record with a Kickstarter campaign, citing a similar desire not to involve a “corporate entity” in their musical mission. LA CAN’s Eric Ares sums up the D.I.Y. spirit saying, “You don’t have to be a multi-platinum selling artist to have an impact in your community.” For all three community organizing groups, having an impact is the bottom line.
TO HEAR EXAMPLES OF WORK BY CHUCK D, LAS CAFETERAS AND ULTRA-RED, CLICK ON THE LINKS BELOW.
Ultra-red: “Movement for LAX Airport (Ultra-red Remix)” from Movement for Airports Transistors Remixes
Ultra-red: “Untitled” from 15 Sounds of the War on the Poor Vol. 1
This convening also served to build and strengthen the relationships between groups and shed light on goals set by the participating community organizing groups for the next year.
Restaurant Opportunity Center – Los Angeles (ROC-LA) kicked off group reflections for the community organizing track, sharing their success in overcoming internal staff transitions, becoming more goal-oriented, and hiring several staff members, including their new Executive Director Kathy Hoang. Pilipino Worker Center (PWC) described the way they have restructured their membership to create spaces for engagement and to allow more opportunities for members to take on leadership roles within the organization. With a new organizing model learned through the Wally Marks Leadership Institute, PWC has been able to mobilize their members quickly for their work in the current Temporary Protected Status campaign, an initiative to give undocumented Filipinos legal protection to help their families recover from the devastation of Typhoon Haiyan.
Khmer Girls in Action (KGA) and Pomona Economic Opportunity Center (PEOC) talked about the value of the institute’s one-on-one coaching component, that prepared individual KGA organizers for more collaborative and effective team building sessions. KGA highlighted its leadership in the Every Student Matters campaign that won a resolution in Long Beach Unified School District to reform punitive disciplinary policies. POEC emphasized how they were able to gain a deeper understanding of the political landscape and engage in strategic planning for their campaign with the help of their coach.
From the communications track, Housing Long Beach (HLB) talked how access to tools, direction and strategy provided by their coach guided their organization in building their social media presence and developing a communications team. HLB highlighted the success of their storytelling video and photo project in sharing collective stories with the community at large. Korean Resource Center (KRC) developed a formal speakers’ bureau, through which staff and member leaders are trained on proactive storytelling and how to have more focused conversations with media outlets. KRC also shared their success in increasing Korean voter turnout to the Los Angeles City elections through creating a stronger communication culture.
Finally, Gender Justice Los Angeles (GJLA) reviewed how they revamped their communications training and began investing in volunteers and staff to create a strong social media team and increase capacity. Through a spirited and productive response to discriminatory language and coverage of transgender people in the L.A. Times, GJLA won an update of its Style Guide and recommitment from the paper to ensure accurate portrayals of the transgender community. This is a huge success, because additional media organizations, such as the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, have since then decided to follow Times’s style guidelines as well.
Congratulations to WMLI’s 2013 participant groups and their capacity-building successes!
Here’s the latest round-up of media stories about Liberty Hill grantee partners, most recently published appearing first. In spite of holiday distractions (a good thing), community organizers attracted news coverage by a variety of news outlets. The most-covered story is still immigration reform, despite (or because of) inertia In D.C.
Clean Up Green Up coalition member Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) was part of an environmental justice protest reported in Redlands Daily Facts against a power plant said to be the state’s dirtiest.
In an article about the implications of the $13 billion JP Morgan settlement for Southern California, KPCC’s economic blog “The Breakdown” spoke to Peter Kuhns of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), who stressed the severity of the issue of home foreclosures in California.
L.A. Streetsblog and Long Beach Post each ran versions of a story by Brian Addison a shorter version about Communities for a Better Environment’s recent “Toxic Tour” of Long Beach in which participants, travelling with a P-TRAK, an instrument for measuring air pollution, took a bus ride through toxic hot-spot neighborhoods.
KPCC’s “Multi-American” blog featured an article about activists in the city of Brea fasting to persuade their representatives to work on immigration reform. The article quotes Katie Brazer of Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights Los Angeles (CHIRLA) and Dayne Lee of the Korean Resource Center (KRC), and some of the latter organization’s members took part in the fast.
An article in EGP News, a bilingual newspaper chain that includes the East Side Sun, the Commerce Comet and others, covered the City of Commerce’s decision to approve a Green Zones Policy, which, like the Green Zones policy in the works by L.A. City Council, is the result of a multiyear campaign by the Clean Up Green Up coalition of environmental justice organizations supported by Liberty Hill. The article discusses East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice’s role in Commerce and interviews EYCEJ leaders, Toña Luperico and Angelo Logan.
Huffington Post blogger Ben Austin (President of Parent Revolution) credited community groups including Community Coalition and InnerCity Struggle (ICS) as instrumental in the successful effort to retain John Deasy as LAUSD superintendant.
The Coalition of Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA) made big news in Bakersfield by taking part in a sit-in in Congressman Kevin McCarthy’s office. Asking McCarthy to support a vote on comprehensive immigration reform in the House of Representatives, the activists stood their ground until late into the night, when McCarthy finally agreed to a meeting, yet still refused to grant his support. KPCC’s article about the event features a powerful quote from CHIRLA’s Angelica Salas, but the action didn’t draw universally favorable attention. The Bakersfield Californian’scoverage featured McCarthy spokesperson Victor Fong, who deplored the activists’ tactics. Bakersfield Now ran more neutral version of the event, while Salon.comand Townhall.com focused on McCarthy’s statement that immigration reform work in the House will not occur until next year.
USC’s Intersections South L.A. ran an article about a Labor/Community Strategy Center (LCSC)-organized rally that addressed issues of over-policing in LAUSD as part of the organization’s Community Rights Campaign. The rally featured youth describing their experiences.
TRUST South L.A. made the news in an L.A. Times article about a community bike ride co-sponsored by the organization, that took riders from Watts to Little Tokyo along Central Ave., bringing attention to historic sites and areas in need of road repairs.
An L.A. Observedarticle about the past and future of L.A.’s environmental and water issues listed “a successful ‘Clean Up Green Up program’” as one of Mayor Garcetti’s and Chief Sustainability Officer, Matt Petersen’s, environmental priorities for the city.