By Shirley Hawkins
SOUTH LOS ANGELES — The Community Coalition, a social justice nonprofit advocacy group, held a ceremony Aug. 7 marking the acquisition of a building at 7518 S. Vermont Ave. that will serve as the new home of the Center for Community Organizing where community residents, grassroots organizers and activists will receive leadership training on how to educate, mobilize, influence and change public policy.
Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the Budget Act of 2023, approving $2 million to be allocated to the Community Coalition to build the center. Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer, D-South Los Angeles, was on hand for the ceremonial check presentation issued by the state.
Established in 1990 by Karen Bass, the Community Coalition has worked to transform the social and economic conditions that foster inequity and to enact policies that affect underserved Black and brown communities in an effort to help alleviate such pressing problems as educational inequality, poverty and systemic racism.
“We have trained over 100 organizers and we’re super proud of the work we are doing,” said Aurea Montes-Rodriguez, executive vice president of the Community Coalition. “We have deep roots in this community and our expertise in authentic high touch community organizing has helped us to build one of the most advanced organizations in South Los Angeles.”
Montes-Rodriguez added that the Center for Community Organizing will become a space that will serve as a civic leadership training center as well as include a learning lab, an inside/outside strategy think tank, and an arts and cultural activism hub. In addition, the center will harness the power of community and support activists across the nation through multi-racial organizing.
Alberto Retana, Community Coalition president and CEO, said that “organizers and power-building organizations were severely hampered during the pandemic. The Community Coalition is making a deep commitment to training our next generation of leaders and organizers because we find ourselves at a critical moment in our city, state,and country.
“The ultimate goal is to foster relationships, solidarity and interconnection among activists, organizers and movement leaders through dialogue and community problem-solving in order to build a deep bench of leaders locally and nationally. Because when we fight, we win,” Retana added.
Eleanor Collins, a graduate of the First People’s School, a training course offered at the Community Coalition, said, her experience at the school was “phenomenal.”
“I learned I had a voice at the People’s School that I did not know I had,” Collins said. “I learned how to become a civic leader. I applied what I learned by going into my community and sharing with my neighbors and family, inviting people to come and let them know that we can sit here and complain to one another, but nothing will ever get done that way.
“We have to join forces and go out. It strengthened me and gave me a deeper understanding of the issues that were going on in my community. We must continue our journey to build a national center for organizing. The more people that are trained the more people that can go out into the communities and draw people in and give them hope and let them know that we don’t have to settle for what is given to us.”
Guilermo Alvarez, one of the 2021 Youth Organizing Fellowship alumnus and a member of the Community Coalition, said, “A couple of weeks ago I was participating in a 5K run against racism with the South Central Run Club and it reminded me of what it takes to build community. I wanted to feel connected to people.
“I even got assigned a life coach who made sure I was reaching my professional and personal goals. I learned so much through the fellowship. Everywhere I go, I’m taking all the energy and all the experience I gained through the fellowship,” Alvarez added. “I became more confident, more assured with myself and that all the work that I’m doing aligns with my values.”
The coalition thankled Jones-Sawyer for his efforts in securing the state funding.
“We want to celebrate and recognize the person who stepped up to work with his colleagues and Gov. Newsom to ensure a $2 million allocation in the state budget,” Montes-Rodriguez said. “From the bottom of our hearts, thank you for prioritizing this community, thank you for understanding that by centering local power building and community organizing, we really are asserting that our communities matter and that black and brown solidarity and people power is really the way forward.”
“I got an opportunity to see what the Community Coalition could do,” Jones-Sawyer said. “Marqueece Harris-Dawson and Karen Bass told me what they wanted to do with the (original) building at 8101 S. Vermont. If you looked at the building back then, you may have been a little skeptical about whether you wanted to raise the funds or find the contractors to get your vision done and to put the people in to fulfill your dreams.
“So when I asked for this money (for the new building) people would say, ‘Are you sure they can do it?’ I said, ‘Darn right I’m absolutely sure that we can make this happen.”
Jones-Sawyer added that he had a life-changing experience that made him realize that continuing to help the Community Coalition would become one of his top priorities.
“On December 22, 2022, I experienced a cardiac arrest and passed away and died,” he said. “My heart had stopped and I was gone for three minutes. I’m not going to tell you everything I saw, but I’ll tell you two things. One was that I was able to see my 5-year-old grandson graduate from college which meant that I was going to be around for a little bit longer.
“Two, I saw a vision of having some type of empowerment entity within South Los Angeles as one of my legacy pieces so that Black and brown folks could come together and advocate for what they want, push for what they need, but most importantly, service the community. I had a vision that the Community Coalition could be a national model for the rest of the country.
“When they brought me back my family was sitting around me and I asked them what the heck was going on. They told me I had died and come back.
“Right then, I realized that I was here for a reason. One of the reasons was to help the Community Coalition construct this (new) building. I’m going to do everything in my power, especially since I have one more year in the Assembly, to ensure that the construction of this building gets done. When we get back to the Assembly again, I’ll work real hard to get you closer to your financial goals and what you need to do to make this happen.”
Shirley Hawkins is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.