Stefanie Ritoper: From the UCLA Labor Center & KPFK, you’re listening to Re-Work.
[MUSIC: “This Land is Your Land” by Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings]
SR: I’m Stefanie Ritoper
SW: And i’m Saba Waheed – It’s election time, and we’re on the ground floor of the SCOPE Office in south Los Angeles. The meeting rooms are bustling with staff and volunteers getting ready to hit the streets, and talk to residents about some of the upcoming ballot initiatives.
SR: It’s residents who want to talk about issues with their neighbors and work with them to build solutions. It’s about getting people to engage, to fight that feeling that it doesn’t just matter, that my vote doesn’t count or that nothing will change. Not just during a presidential election year, but everyday, getting involved and coming together to solve problems. In today’s episode of rework we take a deep dive into the human stories behind those that are building community block by block.
[Music Intermission: “This Land is Your Land” by Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings]
SR: Sirenia grew up in Mexico. The eldest of five children, she worked in her parent’s business and did all the housework. She never got the chance to go to school. In 1986, when she was 14, her father brought her to the United States and even though he eventually went back, Sirenia stayed and continued to work here. She worked in various low wage jobs and wasn’t that politically engaged, but then in 1994, she felt the impulse to get into politics.
Sirenia: It was when prop 187 began. From there on I began to get involved. I worked as a janitor back then with the janitors’ labor union, they focus a lot in getting involved politically and it was in that manner that I began to get involved in working and becoming volunteer in the union’s political committee.
SW: Prop 187 was a California ballot initiative to prevent undocumented people from accessing social services, including sending their children to public school. A month before the vote, more than 70,000 people marched in downtown LA against the measure arguing that it discriminated against immigrant communities, particularly Latinos. It passed with a wide margin, 59% yes to 41% no. But, in its aftermath, one million Latinos registered to vote by 2000 in California.
SR: Sirenia was a part of the movement to get more Latinos involved in the electoral process. She worked with various groups and encouraged people to get out and vote. Through that process, she found SCOPE, a South Los Angeles group that builds grassroots power through community organizing and education, and started to volunteer with them.
Sirenia: A lot of people, especially Latinos doesn’t come out to vote, but now, this time it was interesting to me because this organization wants to work with the community. So, their focus is to work with African-Americans as much as with Latinos. One of the things that I liked about them is that they want to bring jobs here in South Central Los Angeles. So it is not only coming to do community service, or only coming to get out the vote, but they are also informing us about the propositions for the upcoming elections, and things that help in the community, here in South Central Los Angeles.
SR: Sirenia has been spending her free time knocking on doors and talking to people about upcoming ballot initiatives. The issues she talks about hit close to home. There’s an upcoming ballot initiative that could stop youth of low level crimes being tried as adults. It’s something that would have helped her own daughter, who as a teenager got caught up in the criminal justice system.
Sirenia: It is very difficult when our children get involved in those types of problems, it is very difficult for them to get out of that, and it’s taken a lot, but right now, because she is a mother now, she has her children, she sees things differently. I think that sometimes her frustration is that she cannot find a job. I, personally, have backed this proposition because in reality in a lot of cases they accuse them like adults, they spend a long time in jail, then they’re released, and if they have it in their records that they have been in jail for a certain reason, it is more difficult for them to get a job. So then, that is why I am promoting this proposition so that these young adults that happen to commit a crime, can be rehabilitated and won’t keep on committing crimes and can have a normal life.
SR: Sirenia learns the ballot initiatives inside and out so that she can talk about them with other residents. How they vote will impact her life, her family and her community. She’s committed to getting people who may not have voted to understand the issues, speak up and take a stand. Because the thing is, Sirenia herself, can’t vote.
Sirenia: Well, since I have a lot of years participating in getting the vote out, I find out about propositions, about everything, and also how certain things can affect us, or how it can benefit us. So then I say if I can’t vote, then I’ll tell people to do it, I talk to them about the propositions and I’ve been a volunteer at my children’s school for many years. Right now since I’ve been coming here, I have a little bit of knowledge about the propositions that are going to be on the ballot in November, and I’ve brought the mothers here as volunteers some that can vote and some who cannot vote. And in that manner I try to get them involved also, in letting them know of what can affect us, in what benefits us and what doesn’t benefit us. Although I cannot vote myself, I do try to get the people who can indeed vote to come and to know, and to inform themselves about what is happening in politics.
SR: What do you say when you meet people who have that right to vote but don’t use it?
Sirenia: Well first of all I tell them that they need to use their right to vote in order for things to change in our community. There are a lot of funding cuts in schools, medical services, so if they don’t vote, that affects us, not only us who do not have proper documentation, but it also affects them, so then it is a manner of telling them to vote, to inform themselves and I invite them to come here to SCOPE and if they have any doubts or any questions well here we can give them more information, here we can inform them more about what’s happening.
SW: What Sirenia is showing us is there’s many ways to be involved. We are all affected by the laws and policies and whether it’s through direct voting power, or through community building, we can all be a part of making change.
Break – [Music Interlude]
SW: After Interviewing with Sirenia, we talked to Patricia, who is a long time resident of south L.A. She’s been living there for three-generations. Her grandmother moved to L.A. in the early 60s when she was a single mom with 5 children.
Patricia: Well, you know every parent or grandparent descended from other states. So, my grandparent and my mom came from Texas.
SW: Do you know a little about the story of why your grandparents came, and what that was like?
P: Um…not really. I don’t I really don’t know why she decided, but I know back then in the 60s in the late 50s everybody descended and headed west for a better way of living and so you know she hit, I guess you could say jackpot because she bought a three unit apartment building complex.
SW: So, 1940s we see a huge shift in demographics. A lot of African-Americans come from the south to LA. And a lot of policies had changed at the time, where there was less discrimination in the defense industry. There was expanded access to manufacturing and government jobs. And what happened is that these jobs, they were good jobs, they were well paying jobs, and they actually helped create a black middle-class in Los Angeles. In fact, the income gap between black and whites from the 1940s to the 1960s actually decreased.
SR: And I think you can hear that in some of what Patricia says about her stories of growing up in south L.A. And she talks a lot about south L.A. with a feeling of nostalgia for a better time.
P: Oh well, l I remember when they used to call it South Central, they turned it to south LA. We had a unit in the community where everybody raised, each other’s’ kids. You know, there was nothing that you could do wrong without Ms. Johnson seeing and a gettin’ on you and I think was carefree, wasn’t a lot of shooting then, drive-bys. There wasn’t a lot of that, it was a close knit family.
SW: Do you have any memories, like when you know kids are having fun, but they’re like the neighbors saw them doing something or anything like that? Do you have a story?
P: LAUGHS – I kind of liked to stay out of the way, because I already knew that if Ms. Johnson saw us doing something, she could chastise us and then your parent got chastised too, so let me see – vague memory – being in somebody’s fruit tree, eating their peaches, we used to have fig fights and got in trouble for that. But that’s basically what we used to do, back in the day. Ring somebody’s door-bell and run. That’s what the kids did. So it wasn’t really … I didn’t get into too much trouble.
SR: Fifty years later, Patricia is still friends with people she used to run around with when she was a kid. But when it comes to role models and people who’ve really influenced her in her life, one of the big people she talked about in her life was her grandmother.
P: Well. My grandmother was a hard working person. You know, like I said, she came out here with her five kids and no husband. So, that was my role model. Seeing how hard working she was and that’s what she installed in her kids and even her grandkids. Nothing is given to you. You have to work for it.
SR: Her grandmother is also one of those people who instilled in her this sense of politics.
Patricia: You know, my mom, grandma kept articles with Martin Luther King, Malcolm X … and John F. Kennedy and uh … John R. Kennedy. And so we always watched the news and was informed with what is going on in the world. And I got involved in 1984 with PUSH Coalition when Jesse Jackson ran for president. He came down, matter of fact, he came to Manchester and Vermont and he was promoting … running for president, and I walked in and listen to what was we being said and I joined into his organization.
SW: So, you were you were starting this process of wanting our first black president eighty four.
Patricia: Yes, maybe that was, you know … black president – I guess we would really we get Obama in two thousand and eight, but maybe that was Black Power, you know. Yeah let’s go for it! But then I also loved what Reverend Jesse Jackson stood for even though he wasn’t here in California. You know Chicago, I believe. You could see his movement on T.V. and see how many were involved, so let’s start getting involved here.
SR: Her grandmother also instilled in her a strong work ethic. She got her first job at the age of 13.
P: My first job was an afterschool program. You know, back in the seventies, we could get jobs through school. It was a summer job, and so what we did was pass out lunches for summer at the park. You come eat and and there were activities that the parents could drop their kids off at, or you could stay at the park. So, that was my first job.
SW: Does it still exists?
P: No, No … we need to bring it back, really, because that installed stuff in us, you know. School back then – and I say back then like I’m very old, but I’m not. Schools taught you … You know they gave us our first job, showed us how to do a bank account and how to save your money. So yeah, they need to bring those kind of programs back to our community.
SW: What what happened where did they go?
P: Maybe cuts, I mean, I haven’t been in a school in a while! So, I guess there’s a lot of stuff getting cut and our communities are the first place stuff gets cut.
SW: Do you see other things or other programs that you had when you were growing up that that doesn’t exist anymore?
P: Yes, they took music, auto mechanic, wood shops, sewing, these academics. Everybody is not, college material. Everybody’s not going to go to college. But, you know, when I was in junior high, high school … you took those kind of classes and you could go into that kind of field. You know, they taught you how to … like I was telling that guy outside – I know how to change a tire, I know how to change my oil and check it. Those kinds of things stuck with me, you know, and people can leave. You could be a seamstress. And that wasn’t a lot of money back then but our economy and the rent control wasn’t as high either.
SW: Remember that story we were talking about, where south L.A. was filled with good jobs, and a middle class community? So then the opposite happens.
SR: So then by the end of the 1980s, unemployment is high, housing conditions are poor. And there’s a lot of social unrest.
SW: Everyone knows what happened in 1991.
[Newscast Reel of L.A. Riots]
SW: In 1991, a witness captured four police officers beating Rodney King. When a year later, a jury acquits the police of any charges, South LA erupted. And Patricia lived a few blocks away from where it all started.
Patricia: If you go back and see some clippings, it was just like what the clipping said, but it was really terrifying that you lived in it. The riots started on Manchester – I mean Florence and Normandy – and it was terrifying to see buildings burning and nobody really doing anything about it. I don’t think … my whole concept was, we’re burning and tearing up our own community. And I felt that they just let that happen. And when I say “they”, you know … Police didn’t really come in our community – to do nothing. But if you went to Torrance or anywhere else they were standing there. Pushing you back this way, so they were protecting their cities and just let ours go in shambles. Businesses from Manchester all the way down, just burnt, never came back.
SW: Patricia watched as her city burned down. She recognized the fires were the symptoms of something much deeper.
Patricia: Even with the Rodney King riot. It wasn’t really about Rodney King. It was about what was going on in our community. You know, the girl that the lady shot in the head at the store for the orange juice, the police thought somebody had a gun that was asleep in a car and shot her about seventeen times. So it was being frustrated with what was going on in our community and wasn’t nothing being done about it so I guess for some folks violence is their only answer, but I don’t think it was. You know we didn’t do ourselves a good service for burning down our community. It wasn’t, but it was terrifying. It was terrifying to see the police. We couldn’t come out at a certain hour our supermarkets was burnt down so we had to go further out to shop. You had to go to the post office and pick up your mail because you know there was nobody coming in to do anything.
SR: After the uprising, south L.A. residents had to start the process of rebuilding.
SW: And for Patricia, getting involved was a total no-brainer.
Patricia: I just do this because … you can’t complain about something if you’re not in it, and I tell everybody all the time you can’t say you’re not voting because your vote does count, but you can complain if you don’t go vote and something got passed. It could have your vote that passed it. So, I like to engage and let folks know what’s going on in the community – what initiative, what candidate is who and what, because some folks don’t know.
SR: Patricia has been involved with SCOPE for more than 10 years. She’s been doorknocking, talking about propositions that affect the community. When it comes to talking to people, Patricia is a natural. And you can hear it in her stories.
P: I have a lot of stories but one in particular. I think it was the finals N.B.A. finals. So I knock on the door and wife comes to the door, but I’m looking for her husband and she goes, “Well you know they in the back yard. We having a barbecue because the finals are on. But you go back and talk to them” … so, I walked around to the backyard. Engaging with him and he was like “oh well, you might have other people”, so I had a look at my list and I start calling out names, addresses, there were like four other different families there. And so I told him all at one time and we engaged in. They all said yes to the issue and that was I like that’s cool I talked to like five different families and they gave me a hamburger and a hot dog and a soda. Even though we were not supposed to do that, but you know it’s five families. So I got like ten contacts!
SR: Of course, not everyone in amenable to her ideas, perhaps the person who challenges her the most is her sister.
Patricia: Well you know, we have a script. So, she’s always my guinea pig. [LAUGHS]. We’re working on this and that, this and that, and she’d be like “well I don’t know” … yeah, but this needs to be. So we debate, and sometimes she’s difficult and I’ll be like, okay, debate over. I can’t pull you, but alright. So i’d practice on my sister. Sometimes I can pull her and she’d see the light, other times, no.
SR: And do you think she does that because she wants to play devil’s advocate, or do you think she does it because she really thinks differently than you?
Patricia: On some she probably thinks differently and there’s nothing wrong with that you know. Some, she just wants to be just devil’s advocate, to make sure I’m on point with what I’m talking about. So you know like I said I research. I look at the pros and cons of it all and then I could be able to persuade a person better because I know more about what is really going on. This is not just the scripts that I come and do. You know, I look at it and I weigh the pros and cons of it and some initiatives be on C.N.N. And you hear everybody else talking about it because they think California is the guinea pig. We pass something first before the other states start doing it, so you have a lot of people and you’ve got flipside – the good and the bad, but I think the good outweighs the bad.
SW: It was Patricia’s grandmother who brought their family to South LA. Now Patricia is raising her own grandkids in the same neighborhoods. Five generations of family have lived here and she wants to see a better South LA.
Patricia: I have grandkids. And I want to see a better future for them, you know. I want to see better schools, better education. I want to see that they could be able to walk around with no problem. Police, you know, I’m with the police and sometimes you know the police brutality. I have two boys and I always taught them that you have two things going against – you’re young and you black. My grandson turns one next week and so I’m going to see… I mean next month, I want to see them with a brighter, better future. I think that our schools can improve. Why do we have to get bussed to Santa Monica or Malibu to get a good education when we can have one right here in our own community?
SR: So what does Patricia look forward to? Why does she invest so much blood, sweat, and tears in having people participate in the political process?
SW: I think she sees the path that’s been paved by the communities that came before her, and she knows that along with her own community she has to continue on it. The road isn’t simple, and it’s going to take a lot of work, but if anyone can do it, it’s her.
Patricia: Keep pushing, keep fighting, and keep talking. It’s not just going to like … that’s what the Martin Luther King said, “I had a dream”, but he didn’t get to the promised land. I know he’s rolling over and jumping up in heaven …. A black president you know I seen this. I saw it, but I didn’t get there. So, even for his movement, it paved the way for us to vote. Rights that we have now people paved the way for us and so that’s why I do this too, to pave the way for the folks that’s coming after me.
[Cont] … You don’t have to be a person they walks and talks on people’s doors, but tell your friends, you know you can engage without engaging, meaning you know you come out and get it, it’s like a sponge. You absorb it and then when you squeeze it – the water falls out. So, go tell your neighbor across the street or at your community center – what you’ve heard or what you’ve learnt, or when you come out to the meetings, you know, walk through you your community is see what needs to be done and see how you can fix it. One block, one street, one community at a time.
SR: Thanks to Patricia Livingston and Sirenia Perez for sharing their stories – Special thanks to SCOPE LA and staff members Erick Huerta, Manisha Vaze and Laura Muraida. You can find out more about their work at SCOPE LA dot ORG.
You’re listening to ReWork, a program of the UCLA Labor Center and KPFK. This show was produced by Citlalli Chavez, Stefanie Ritoper, Saba Waheed, and Elizabeth Machado. Voiceover dubbing by Angela Flores. Music supervision by Francisco Garcia Nava.
SW: Visit our website at reworkradio.org or visit us on Facebook at forward slash rework radio. You can also tweet your reactions to this show to @rework underscore radio or send us an email at rework@IRLE.ucla.edu.
‘Til next time, rethink rework.
Stefanie Ritoper: From the UCLA Labor Center & KPFK, you’re listening to Re-Work.