William, families fight two battles

Shortly after stepping off the airplane at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, I was eating my first ever Chick-Fil-A sandwich with William and his parents. We drove overnight to Murfreesboro and stayed at William’s grandparents’ house along with a dozen other family and friends.

We played lots of backyard football and visited Vanderbilt Stadium in Nashville to witness Northwestern’s football team open its season with a victory.

After a weekend of fun, we drove four hours from Murfreesboro to William’s home in Carrollton, Ga. The long trip combined with the weekend’s exciting activities wearied the travelers. William’s young cousin Luke was particularly responsible for the fatigue, insisting on the non-stop pickup football games.

Shortly after returning home from the Labor Day weekend of merriment, however, William was focused on his training. The Chicago Marathon was a month away and William was determined to run the race.

William plans to raise $1,000 for his run to benefit Inheritance of Hope, an organization that serves children and families caring for a parent with a terminal illness. The organization was founded in 2003 by William’s aunt and uncle, the parents of Lucas, after William’s aunt, Kristen, was diagnosed with liver cancer.

Kristen continues to fight the disease. Meanwhile, William set off to attempt the longest run of his life – 12 miles in 90 degree weather – to stay on course for his incremental marathon training. Two hours later, he walked through his front door drenched with sweat and out of breath. He promptly poured himself a glass of water and collapsed into a chair at the dinner table. He had never run such a distance at once in his life, but even longer distances awaited him in the coming weeks.

The next day, William sent this message to his facebook followers comparing his difficult training to the trials faced by those with terminal illnesses:

I ran 12 miles yesterday. I am sore, and when I finished I was really tired. So what. There are families out there facing the terminal illness of a parent. What is running without pause for about 2 hours compared to that? Nothing.

I am running to raise awareness for families who find themselves in this situation. Furthermore, I am running to support Inheritance of Hope, who helps these families out during their time of struggle with the illness.

I hope that you can help me reach my fund-raising goal of $1000 before I race next month in Chicago. It would only take a little bit from each of you. $5. $10. That’s it. That’s a combo meal at your favorite fast food joint or 3 gallons of gas. You wouldn’t miss it. But the families who go on Legacy Retreats will be so grateful.

French toast on skid row

Countless communities struggle with homelessness, but the problem is larger than life in Los Angeles. Skid row, a 50-block area downtown, is center stage. For more than 100 years, skid row, or Central City East, has been home to transient workers, war veterans and those on the bottom of the socioeconomic scale. Today, homeless shelters and missions provide services for the thousands of men, women and children living in the neighborhood.

People look to skid row as a symbol of America’s treatment of the poor. Books, movies and reports provide commentary on the conditions people on skid row endure. Invisiblepeople.tv, which was recently featured on YouTube, introduces viewers to homeless individuals and families. The Soloist, based on the articles of Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez, tells the remarkable story of one man living and playing music on skid row. I recommend the book. While we were volunteering this summer, the Times published a four-part series on a county program designed to save 50 people from death on the streets. You can search for all kinds of articles about the many programs and people helping on skid row and find some amazing stories.

The youth rode a bus every Wednesday from MacArthur Park to the corner of 7th and San Pedro, where Hilary and I would be waiting with a cargo van full of water bottles. Each youth handed out five water bottles with personal notes attached. I estimate we distributed more than 1,000 water bottles this summer.

Of course, water bottles only provide temporary fulfillment and do little to address the chronic problem of homelessness. Several people took issue with our program – when privileged high schoolers walk around skid row for a few hours, it can start to feel like a field trip to the zoo instead of a service project. Yet, for a short period of time, we built meaningful relationships. Youth need to experience skid row or at least understand that extreme poverty exists in this country, and the short conversations they had with the homeless were powerful learning tools. We often said that the homeless helped us much more than we were able to help them.

After two months of regular visits to skid row, I feel like I have gained a better understanding of homelessness. I have seen some of the city’s efforts to maintain the area. A construction project at 7th and San Pedro covered up graffiti and spruced up the Green Apple Market. Members of the “LA Fashion District Clean Team” patrolled the streets with brooms and garbage bags sweeping up litter – the homeless refer to them as “yellow shirts,” known for taking suitcases and prized belongings of the homeless as garbage. I watched numerous social programs address the many needs of the skid row population. I conversed with people waiting in front of missions and attended homeless karaoke, where talented people get the chance to let out their feelings before an understanding audience.

I could offer some of my own social commentary and weigh in on the politics behind skid row, but the most important lessons I learned came from a batch of homemade french toast:

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On A Roof(!) at Compton Jr. Posse

This American Life made a video about kids riding horses in Philadelphia. I love it, especially the scene where they gallop in the park.

That’s why I was so excited about our work project at Compton Jr. Posse, an equestrian center in the middle of Compton that provides “inner-city youth with year round after school alternatives to the lure of gang and drug lifestyles.” CJP and its mission have been featured by several mainstream media organizations.

We repaired a trailer and roofed a garage, but more importantly, the volunteers worked alongside and learned from the people improving their own community. Service work can be troubling if there is a lack of balance, if it seems more like helping than serving. In Los Angeles, however, we worked with community members and organizations toward a common goal, empowering those already making a difference.

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It was also really exciting to be on a roof just like D-Pain.

Remembering Watts

Before the first high school youth arrived at Vermont Square United Methodist Church in June to begin their service projects, counselors sent us anxious phone calls. They wanted to know if we had a contingency plan. What would we do in the event of a riot?

They were reacting to the trial of Johannes Mehserle, a white BART officer who killed Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old black man, on New Year’s Day 2009. The racially charged trial had been moved to Los Angeles and featured similarities to the Rodney King trials, leading some counselors to fear violence.

Although rioting did occur in the Bay Area in response to Mehserle’s involuntary manslaughter verdict, the case went relatively unnoticed in South L.A. Columnists for the local L.A. Watts Times asked for justice and flyers on skid row asked locals to “stand beside Oakland,” but the trial ended and life went on as usual in our neighborhood.

Almost two decades after Rodney King and 45 years since the Watts uprising that introduced the term “race riot,” ethnic conflict still haunts South L.A. We struggled to find youth groups wiling to participate in our service project at Vermont Square. Among a litany of reasons, safety was always a top concern among adult counselors throughout the summer.

However, I noticed that many of the high school youth attending the service project were unfamiliar with the L.A. riots. I had never heard of Rodney King or Watts before serving as a high school youth four years ago and most of the youth were born after the fires were extinguished and the National Guardsmen removed in 1992.

For these reasons, our weekly visits to the Watts Towers were important educational opportunities. The towers represent the resiliency and beauty of Watts while offering a setting to discuss the challenges residents face. I researched the 1965 and ’92 riots before this summer and was asked to give a 15-minute presentation on the riots during our visit to the towers. By no means am I an expert, but I took the opportunity seriously and attempted to help the youth understand what South L.A., the community they were serving, has endured.

I have served in Vermont Square on four different summers and I am always shocked to think about the riots. L.A. Times articles from the Rodney King era describe fires and looting, video footage from era shows National Guard soldier holding an assault rifle across from the pawn shop at Vermont and Vernon, where the Numero Uno supermarket now stands. We drive through the intersection everyday as people pick up their groceries and wait at the bus stop to go to work.

During each presentation, I made sure to read Martin Luther King Jr.’s words, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” Each time I revisit the riots, I gain an understanding of the importance of listening, learning and serving. I believe that learning about history, culture and diversity is crucial to helping people feel like they are being heard. As we learn more about people, we have a better understanding of how to serve and love them. That was one of my big revelations from this summer, take it for what it’s worth.

I also read a passage from the introduction of the 1993 book Why L.A. Happened during my presentations at Watts. The collection of essays focuses on the racial issues in play during the Rodney King riots. Although many years have passed since the L.A. riots and we like to believe that America has advanced in its understanding of race, I still look for lessons in the aftermath.

“The fires in Los Angeles are still burning. These fires are in the hearts and minds of the people who believed, really believed, that American would be different, would be fire, just and good – yes, believed that America would return their love… Anger – raw and unhollywoodish – is what we are talking about. Anger for unfulfilled promises, anger toward legislators who backstepped on policies decided, passed and not implemented, anger pouring undiluted toward a rulership that feeds on greed and exploitation and views Black people as enemies or as necessary burdens to be thrown crumbs like animals in their latest theme park. All over the United States, there are people who live in obscene riches and obscene poverty within blocks of each other. The question is not always Who is right? But Who will be heard?”

The people of Bell want their money back

Bell residents were so angry during a special City Council meeting Thursday that deliberations were postponed until officials could conduct their business without interruption.

The gallery rose to its feet when Mayor Oscar Hernandez took his seat and remained standing until the city attorney called upon the commanding officer to clear the council chamber. Some residents shouted at their mayor and made rude hand gestures, while others frowned and shook their heads.

More than 100 people came to the Bell City Council, 6330 Pine Ave., and filled the small room to capacity as council members met to discuss the fate of the city manager, police chief and assistant city manager. These people of Bell are angry that so much of their money – hundreds of thousands of tax dollars – funds the salaries of their officials. A Los Angeles Times investigation published last week found that City Manager Robert Rizzo makes $787,637 each year, “making him probably the highest paid city manager in the country.”

The media leapt on the news and stories about Bell have been a constant presence on the Times front page for a few weeks. My curiosity drove me to check out the special council meeting. There are numerous aspects of the Bell controversy that make it a juicy story: manipulation, greed, poverty and immigration. However, the news in Bell is more than interesting.

“It’s beyond interesting,” said a Bell resident who has inspired me to never use the ambiguous word again. “It’s horrible.”

Bell residents, many belonging to working class families, were stunned by the news. One man attending the special council meeting had never attended a city hall event even though he lives directly across the street from the building. In a city populated largely by immigrants, officials managed to benefit from, among many factors, lacking civic participation.

“We should be embarrassed as a Latino community,” said one resident at the special council meeting. “We like our community and want to keep it that way.”

Don’t worry about apathetic Bell residents now. They’ve come out in force to respond to the crisis, leading to the resignations of officials and changes to salaries. They chant and yell in both english and spanish, fighting with every tool for change. To call this scandal a wake-up call would be a vast understatement.

The most shocking aspect of the special council meeting was not the rage of the citizens, but the helplessness of council members. Mayor Hernandez appeared stressed and confused, council members responded to citizens’ questions sheepishly. Hernandez did not know what to do in the context of the special council meeting and relied heavily on city attorney Ed Lee to conduct the meeting. Lee was recently fired by the neighboring city of Downey in the wake of the scandal.

The citizens are stepping up for their negligent and corrupt officials. At the special council meeting, a Bell resident named Nestor Valencia commanded his neighbors in both languages, captivating his audience with his energy and confidence. When asked by a resident for his legal experience, Valencia replied that he is not a lawyer, just a concerned citizen.