In August 1965, Watts became known world-wide for being the site of the largest riots known to that date. Today, Watts is home to one of the largest and most successful community based organizations in the world, the WLCAC–Watts Labor Community Action Committee.
And it all began with labor.
In 1964, Ted Watkins was an employee of the Ford Motor Company, and a member of the United Auto Workers union. After successfully influencing Ford’s employment policy, his advocay efforts earned the attention of then-UAW President Walter Reuther.
“Reuther joined with Ted and other union officials to devise a scheme that would do something to alleviate Watts’ mounting social pressures,” current WLCAC President/CEO and son of the founder, Timothy Watkins said.
The younger Watkins explained that the idea was this strategy would be deployed throughout the country and that WLCAC and the East Los Angeles Community Action Committee (which has since evolved into TELACU) would be the models for organizations nation-wide.
“Reuther met an untimely death in an airplane accident,” Watkins explained. “And then the union walked away from their social services commitment. WLCAC has supported itself since.”
In the aftermath of Watts uprising in 1965, tons of financial aid was poured into the nation’s urban centers from across the county, in order to alleviate the people’s reactions to social pressures.
“Unfortunately, there was very little management guidance for those receiving the federal funds,” Watkins said. “Most of those organizations cease to exist today. “WLCAC is one that was very, very clear about its accounting policies from day one and we have been able to keep a status in good standing for 45 years.
“We learned a lesson (from) Ted Watkins: Humility and work are the mixture (of) attributes that an organization of our kind needs to operate, to be true to our mission (and) to improve the quality of life to our communities.”
Part of WLCAC’s survival has been rooted in the fact that the organization was wrapped around an economic base.
“Property management,” Watkins said. “Renting to low and moderate income residents, executing projects that turn hundreds of new people – former welfare recipients – into new home owners.”
There are a number of devoted staff members who have been with the organization for years and take the WLCAC mission–to improve the quality of life for the residents of Watts and neighboring communities –to heart.
“I’ve seen the ups and downs of this community, from the riots to now,” WLCAC Human Resource Director Paulette Hunter said. “Our focus is to provide services in the community at large. Its changing demographics don’t change that. The same social deficiencies remain,” she said.
“Our motivation has been positive, our thrust is in a positive area, and I hope we will be around for another 45 years.”
Hunter has been working at the WLCAC since 1974, and once served as the administrative assistant to WLCAC founder Ted Watkins. Before coming to WLCAC, she worked for a land developer.
“It was all about increasing their wealth there,” she said. So, she left to find something more in line with her passions. “When I joined (WLCAC), I saw the organization had a real passion for improving our community. Everyone was a worker, from the top down. We all considered ourselves as hardworking community of people. I felt that whatever I was able to give, I was touching the lives of many.”
Hunter explained that Watkins had the vision for the organization several months before the Watts Riots.
“He knew what the ills were and saw it coming to a head. We needed to get the kids off of the streets and arm them with shovels and picks,” she said, explaining the philosophy behind the WLCAC logo. Labor is the thrust and is symbolized by the shovel, while action is symbolized by the lighting bolts.
WLCAC has several components which generate and recycle income within the community it serves.
The organization has built, owns and managers more than 500 houses and apartments for low- and moderate-income families and senior citizens in South Central Los Angeles. Proceeds from these operations are invested in creating additional housing and commercial development projects, which in turn provide new jobs for local residents.
Funding for the many social service programs has come from federal, state and local governments, private donations and foundation grants.
Community services provided by the WLCAC include senior citizens’ nutrition and daycare programs, a child care center, community transit and dial-a-ride services, handyworker programs and employment training.
“The WLCAC is a social institution primarily, helping people with bills, housing, and etcetera,” Willie Middlebrook, director of the WLCAC’s Cecil Fergerson Gallery said.
“But there is also a need to uplift the spirit–another aspect of the community need is cultural,” he added. “We’ve done festivals, there’s a Civil Rights Museum, the Cecil Fergerson Gallery, a 90-seat theater and on every last Friday of the month we host Bones & Blues. Some major jazz folks have played here in our Phoenix Hall.”
The WLCAC complex also hosts children’s classes; there was a professional glass blowing class there recently, and the center is developing film and print shop programs.
A variety of artists have been and will be exhibiting in the gallery, including Carlos Spivey and Elliot Pickney. Middlebrook has been involved with the organization for nearly 12 years, developing the cultural programming and coordinating the gallery and Civil Rights Museum.
“Culturally, we display the past and the present,” Milldebrook said. “And hopefully we can motivate people to a better future.”
Rosa Lee Hooks, director of the Watts Towers Arts Center has also had a long relationship with the WLAC. She is in charge of the tour program and the Charles Mingus Arts Center at the nearby historical landmark.
“I’ve been working with them for a number of years,” Hooks said. “The Watkins family has been kind of the backbone of Watts for many, many years.
“The WLCAC has proven to be invaluable in support of the Watts Towers Arts Center as contributor of funds for special events, but mostly politically,” Hooks said.
“They stand up for us, with us, supporting us and our programs,” she added.
The future of the WLAC includes new urban farms, along with residential and commercial projects, some with major private developers as joint venture partners.
WLCAC continues to seek financial support for expanded economic development and social service programs from government and private sources. And of course, they welcome the support of all who would help the South Central Los Angeles area become an economically vital, self-sustaining community.
“We’re just finishing a 65-unit complex for the homeless and formerly incarcerated.” Watkins said. “It was a $45 million project, a tax credit project finished on time and within budget. It’s one of the few projects funded in 2008, at the height of recession and we’re proud. At a time that the world was falling apart, a little light shines in Watts. It’s a good thing.”
“People living in poor places are declared poor and as such are relegated to the outskirts in the decision making and policy making process,” Watkins said.
“It’s presumed that due to their poverty, they have nothing to offer–no input on local housing, developments, food, schools, transportation, municipal services and polices associated with those resources.
“The people in greatest need of those services don’t get input on how those service should be delivered, how they should be supported by good public policy.”
In the future, the WLCAC will engage the community in the vetting process: Outreach, development and discussion; providing needed education on the varied possibilities for their future.
“For example, they could have had a water park in the development, but they’ll ask for a coffee store,” Watkins said. “They could have had all of the power lines approaching their new complex underground, but they were not aware, so now complex sits in middle of cable jungle.”
“Under my leadership, WLCAC is moving in the direction of social enterprise as a means and solution to poverty, bridging the gap between social service needs and self sufficiency,” Watkins said.
“Housing, services and activities treat the symptoms of poverty. We want to solve the core problem, which in large part stems from poor public policy.”
“It’s not easy for people living in poor places to take time off and sit for hours for the opportunity to speak two minutes to the Board of Supervisors or City Council while elected officials chat and move in and out of chambers.
“The tail is the elected office, and the dog is the voting population. The tail has been wagging the dog for a number of years,” Watkins said. “We must hold them accountable. We have to bring power of policy influence back into the community.”
Over the last year, Watkins and his staff have been planning the Watts Public Policy Institute. It will be a research institute and think tank that promotes community participation in researching issues and drafting recommendations for legislative change. Look for a spring 2011 launch.
“UCLA, USC, CSUN, RAND and others come and study the hell out of Watts, and they get paid to study,” Watkins said. “But then, the results of the study become the intellectual property of the university or agency contracted to perform the study.
“The community gets consulted, but they don’t get anything out of it. Not even the benefit of recommendations made by the study,” Watkins added.
“I refuse, as a man of Watts, to be categorized as poor, as though I don’t possess the intellectual capacity to participate in the decision-making process that affects the quality of life in my community.”
Watkins also believes that the South Los Angeles community deserves some mitigation for the struggles of the last 45 years.
“Look at how a community such as Watts has struggled, mightily struggled, through neighborhood councils, gang task forces and non-profit organizations to bring about peace and opportunities for people to live in relative comfort.
“According to (former LAPD) Chief Bratton, it cost the public $1 million to investigate a single homicide,” Watkins explains.
“Homicide rates in Watts went down dramatically, but then what? Did they get a better transit system, a better park? Where is the dividend for the peace that these groups have parceled together? There is no peace dividend in the budget.
“I don’t care who likes it or doesn’t like it, or who takes responsibility for providing that mitigation, but it deserves to happen.”