In his opening remarks, former Los Angeles City Councilmember Mark Ridley-Thomas reminded hundreds of attendees of the purpose of the 31st Annual Empowerment Congress (EC) held on Jan.7 at the Charles Drew University of Medicine and Science.

“Repeat after me: Educate. Engage. Empower. That’s what we do,” said Ridley-Thomas.

In a sermon-style iteration of the Empowerment Congress’ guiding principles, Ridley-Thomas continued with a not-so-subtle reference to the racist remarks made public by a leaked recording of former City Council President Nury Martinez, Councilmembers Kevin de León, Gil Cedillo and L.A. Labor Federation President Ron Herrera.

“We do participatory democracy. We do reciprocal accountability. We do intentional civility. And we do it in the full light of day,” he said. “We don’t do racist rants.  We don’t do vulgar power grabs behind closed doors. What we don’t do is violate the voting rights act… We are of the business of celebrating empowerment.”

The EC’s opening plenary session featured a cohort of newly elected and re-elected public officials at the state and local levels:  LA County Sheriff Robert Luna; City Attorney Hydee Feldstein Soto; Supervisor, Second District Holly Mitchell; Supervisor, Third District Lindsey Horvath; California Attorney General Rob Bonta; City Council President Pro-Tempore Curren Price; County District Attorney George Gascón and Mayor Karen Bass.

Speakers credit MLK

Many speakers, including event emcee talk show host Tavis Smiley, acknowledged the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend and King’s significance to EC’s leadership role in the Black community. 

“For me, Dr. King is the greatest American this country has ever produced,” said Smiley whose reflections on the civil rights leader were featured in the 2018 documentary, “I am King.”

Rob Bonta said he often reflected on a line King wrote in “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”  

“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny,” Bonta quoted. “It’s a constant reminder [to me] that we have a shared society and a common future. We are all in this together and we need each other.” 

During his comments, George Gascón acknowledged the King Holiday and embraced the scornful accusation by former City Council President Nury Martinez that he was “with the Blacks.”  

“This weekend, we’re celebrating the life of a great man and, yes, I am with the Blacks,” Gascón said as the crowd burst into applause.  “I am also with the Jews and the Latinos because the only way that we can succeed as a community is if we are with each other.”

King was 39 years old when he was assassinated. Supervisor Holly Mitchell said the legacy of leadership doesn’t have to exclusively come with age.

“I’m very proud, quite frankly, contrary to the gray hair that is showing on my hairline, to be a part of the next generation of young progressive leaders.”  She counted Sydney Kamlager-Dove, Isaac Bryant, and Lola Smallwood Cuevas among her fellow young progressives.

Sheriff Robert Luna acknowledged that his department has a long road ahead to earn the community’s trust.  

“One thing that King said that stuck with me is that he asked God to use him.   To take who he was and who he wanted to be and use him for a purpose greater than himself.  I think that’s why I was elected sheriff.” 

Luna said after only 30 days on the job, he has reinstated the inspector general and met with each member of the Civilian Oversight Commission.   

“At the end of the day, we cannot provide public safety to our county if we don’t have public trust,” Luna said.

Mayor keeps her promise

There are an estimated 69,144 people experiencing homelessness on any given night in Los Angeles County (some 40,000 in the city of Los Angeles). In her keynote address, Mayor Karen Bass talked about unhoused individuals, her plan to get 17,000 people into housing in her first year and receiving support from the Biden Administration. 

To move towards her goal, Bass said the city and individuals will need to purchase and convert motels, hotels, and commercial buildings into temporary housing. After a short period of time in these motels, formerly unhoused people will be transitioned into permanent housing with wrap-around services that will assist individuals to eventually transition into good paying jobs and workforce housing.  

Bass discovered that the city has thousands of vacant union positions in the budget. There were over 900 unfilled sanitation positions. She urged attendees to spread the word about employment opportunities with the City of Los Angeles.

“When people ask ‘What can I do to help?’” she said.

Bass said she also found hundreds of vacant units of permanent supportive housing. 

“I can’t understand it. Contrary to popular belief, the first thing that folks want to ask me is ‘What about those people that say no to housing?’  Well, what about those people that say yes?  Ask me about them because they are the overwhelming majority of people,” Bass said.

Biden announced that his administration aims to reduce homelessness by 25% in the next two years. Bass contacted him and told him that focusing exclusively on Los Angeles would allow his administration to meet their objective. He responded by sending Ambassador Susan Rice, director of the Domestic Policy Council to Los Angeles.

Bass said Rice is known for her dogged determination.  

“When she goes after something, it gets done,” she said. Bass took the ambassador to Venice, then to Skid Row. 

“We wanted her to understand the magnitude of the problem,” Bass said.  “After spending the day with us, she said that L.A. will now be considered one of the cities that the administration will focus its efforts on.”

Workshops: Empowerment 

through education

Through EC’s workshops, attendees heard from subject matter experts on pressing issues of the day, what’s being done and how to actively participate.  It’s also where the public asked questions and expressed their views.

“We have underfunded homeless engagement.  This is not the work of cop cars and sanitation trucks. This is the work of outreach teams, social workers, public health workers and a range of workers who can lift these people up,” said Ridley-Thomas.

 “Homelessness and Intersectionality:  New Approaches to Understanding the Issue and Addressing the Humanitarian Crisis of Our Generation” examined the issue of homelessness throughout Los Angeles, highlighting recent findings and the intersection between requirements of leadership in addressing housing affordability and the unhoused.  

The session also presented a new homelessness outreach strategy.  

Dr. Va Lecia Admas Kellum, president and CEO, St. Joseph Center started the session by reviewing local, state and federal policy decisions in the 1930s that denied Black families home loans and the generational wealth that comes with home ownership.  Los Angeles went from a city that was zoned for ten million people in the 1960s to one that presently can only accommodate 4 million.

In the 1970s, L.A. residents voted to restrict the number of parcels available to build housing, also called exclusionary zoning. This constrained the number of apartments that could be built in affluent communities. Cuts in social services and rental assistance in the 70s and 80s further strained the welfare of underserved Black and Brown communities.  

“We didn’t get to this point on accident. We got here on purpose,” Adams Keller said.

“The Crisis of Governance in the City of Los Angeles: Could Charter Reform Improve Representation, Accountability and Transparency?” examined the failure of local government in addressing quality of life issues – from housing affordability to public safety. Rev. Eddie Anderson, pastor, McCarty Memorial Christian Church and other panelists discussed what should and could be reformed.

Anderson served as redistricting commissioner for Council District 10. His responsibility was to listen to the issues and needs of the community, look at the Census data and draw a map based on the numbers. It was a very carefully thought-out participatory public process that Anderson said quickly became political once Ridley-Thomas was no longer representing CD10. The commission would spend an entire night drawing a map, only to have it replaced the next day by City Councilmembers who had no input from residents.

“The question we on the redistricting commission had was, ‘What power do we actually have?’ said Anderson. “We spent a year and a half of our lives drawing these maps that they don’t have to accept and they didn’t.  They just threw the map out.”

In the “Financial Empowerment in Post-pandemic Los Angeles,” workshop Subject matter experts discussed the need to adjust finances in a post pandemic environment and ways to recession-proof finances.

“Inclusive Leadership:  Empowerment and Respect for Diversity and the Dignity of All People” focused on the need for diversity in leadership including race, ethnicity, gender, faith, and education.  Panelists shared their experiences as leaders in their organization and in the community.  When asked about  services and programs implemented to improve the quality of life in South Los Angeles, panelist and Community Build President Robert Sausedo talked about the organization’s mobile medical service, CURE LA.  

“We wanted to offer an ‘evolutionary-revolutionary healthcare without walls model that provides 360 degree health services. Mobile dentistry, vaccinations, screenings and testing for COVID-19, high blood pressure, diabetes, certain types of cancer, etc., as well as, healthy cooking demonstrations, CPR training, all in one location in the neighborhood.”  CURE LA launches on Jan. 28 at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza.

For more information on the Empowerment Congress and to see videos of the plenary session and workshops, visit empowermentcongress.org.

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