After 20 years, the Community Coalition reflects on its efforts in South L.A.
Grassroots activists foundation of the success
In commemoration of its 20th anniversary, the Community Coalition (CoCo), which was founded by Karen Bass, recently unveiled a billboard campaign around South Los Angeles celebrating its achievements and highlighting community leaders who have played pivotal roles in affecting change.
The nearly 40 billboards, which vary in size and feature six quotes, are part of an effort by the community organization to increase its visibility in the neighborhoods it serves—and as a lead—in to its 20th anniversary gala dinner scheduled for October.
“Collectively, we have been planning this campaign for months,” said Carla Guerrero, Coalition communications assistant. “We chose the people and the themes within our committee that we thought spoke to what we’re about. Empowering the people to create a better South L.A. was our mission.”
CoCo, as the organization is affectionately called by residents and supporters, is a non-profit funded by grants and generous donors. The organization is comprised of community organizers, residents, youth and professionals who advocate on behalf of a multitude of issues.
Addressing concerns such as inequality in education for minority students, the proliferation of liquor stores in South L.A. and reform within the foster care system are just a few of the problems CoCo members take on.
Jozik Benitez, a sophomore at San Francisco State University and a member of CoCo since he was in middle school, is featured on one of the billboards.
The billboard reads: “We made sure every South L.A. youth had the chance to go to college.”
Through the efforts of CoCo, Benitez is an example of a student who directly benefited from the organization advocating for equitable education opportunities. Prior to the CoCo’s efforts in 1999, many students in South L.A. were not being given college prep courses. However, the group’s six-year fight resulted in the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of education approving a district-wide resolution making the prep curriculum mandatory for all schools in 2005.
“When they (CoCo) approached me with the idea, I immediately said yes,” said Benitez. “If it weren’t for the Coalition, I probably wouldn’t even be in college. They taught me how to be a leader and even what classes to take. What I learned at the organization has helped me in college.”
Since Benitez has been away at school, he has continued to be involved. He said the applicable skills he learned at the Coalition motivated him to speak with students at high schools in the Bay Area from socio-economic backgrounds similar to his about the advantages of going to college. Benitez has also joined several campus organizations.
Guerrero said the Coalition didn’t consider choosing people with name recognition or more notoriety for the campaign. She said it was a conscious decision to choose people directly involved at the grassroots level so that maybe others would be inspired.
“A lot of our work is pushed by residents, and (we) are successful because of their efforts,” said Guerrero. “We want to plant that seed in people so that they will see that you can actually change where you live by organizing and planning.”
Guerrero added that the campaign was planned to span for several weeks.
Throughout its 20 years, the Coalition has amassed numerous achievements it can take credit for in terms of influencing and changing public policy.
For instance in 2008, the Coalition helped persuade the Los Angeles City Council to approve the Nuisance Abatement Ordinance, allowing the city and residents more of a say-so with regards to the placement of businesses such as liquor stores, motels and their proximity to parks and schools.
One of the billboards speaks to this issue by stating: “We closed 150 liquor stores to make South L.A. safer and healthier.”
Marqueece Harris-Dawson, Coalition president, said, “Community Coalition is dedicated to creating real change in our community and for 20 years residents have been a key part of that. The residents featured on our billboards and on our website are real people who live here, who know the facts, the issues and are the most dedicated at improving their neighborhoods and schools.”
He continued: “Our residents have the power to transform South L.A., and that’s the message we want people to take with them. We want to inspire more people to become leaders and help us change South L.A. because contrary to what you see on the 10 o’clock news, South L.A. is more than crime, violence and drugs.”
Twenty-one years ago, I was active in the movement to end apartheid and free Nelson Mandela.
While the apartheid regime was crumbling, the crack epidemic was beginning in South Los Angeles and inner city communities around the nation. I made a conscious decision to turn my activism away from Southern Africa and dedicate my time to addressing the devastation taking place at home. The Community Coalition, which plays such a vital role in our neighborhoods today, was born out of that crisis.
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