THE Q&A: Community Coalition’s Retana wants to move the needle

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By Darlene Donloe

Contributing Writer

Alberto Retana is all in.

As the president and CEO of Community Coalition, a nonprofit organization based in South Los Angeles that empowers residents to transform their communities, improve education and reimagine public safety, he takes his role seriously.

Retana is unapologetically committed to his community. He is also dedicated to doing whatever it takes to get the job done. You hear it in his voice, and based on the work he’s accomplished, you can see it throughout the community.

With tons of community organizing experience under his belt, Retana’s career journey has been strategic and award winning. He recently received the 2022 UCLA Award for Community Service. The award recognizes his commitment to bringing about social, economic and racial justice through community organizing, movement building and policy change.

Born and raised in La Habra, Retana, 46, studied political science at UCLA. Initially, he wanted to be a civil rights attorney. That soon changed.

In 1998, he joined Community Coalition as a youth organizer. His accomplishments include winning key public policy victories, developing a mass civic engagement strategy organizing over 190,000 African-American and Latino voters in various state and local elections, and leading an initiative to enroll 6,000 South Los Angeles families into Obamacare.

From 2009 to 2011, Retana worked for the Obama administration in the U.S. Department of Education as director of community outreach. He organized the department’s first National Youth Summit, and worked with thousands of community leaders across the country on turning around the nation’s “push-out” crisis, a practice that disproportionately affects students of color, students with disabilities, and LGBT students.

During his tenure as Community Coalition’s president and CEO, Retana has developed initiatives to build the organization into a community organization that involves thousands of South Los Angeles residents in the practice of creating change.

Retana, a married father of two, has been praised for building the organization’s cultural arm, including PowerFest — South L.A.’s political concert; People Power Convention — an annual convening that engages residents through plenary sessions and workshops; and Re-Imagine Justice — a living art and people’s exhibit marking the 25th anniversary of the 1992 riots.

I recently caught up with Retana to discuss his role as president and CEO of the Community Coalition, find out what’s next for the organization and where he got his activism.

DD: You majored in political science at UCLA.What did you want to do with political science?

AR: I wanted to be more involved in the community as an organizer. I fell in love with people advocating for themselves. I was at UCLA in the 90s. California was moving toward being a red state. I wanted to fight against that. It was more exciting than being a lawyer.

DD: How do you describe Community Coalition?

AR: It’s a sanctuary for our people to have power and voice and bring change in their community.

DD: Talk about your stint at Community Coalition.

AR: Started in 1998 as a youth organizer working with high school students. I’m the learner, not the teacher. I’m the facilitator, not the director. The community knows so much more. The strength in being an organizer is to ask questions, not to answer them. Young people have the energy and the optimism. Youth and the elderly are the anchors of our community. Working with youth was one of the greatest gifts given.

DD: When you became president/CEO, what did you want to accomplish?

AR: I took on the role because the organization was going through a period of growth. This country was moving to an unprecedented era of progress.  [President] Obama was ending and we thought Clinton was going to take over. I was excited to step into a new era of progress. I thought we could move the needle significantly. Trump took over and inequality took over.  Everything was flipped over and I had to find a new purpose. Our purpose is everyday people who are usually left out to be at the center of decisions. That’s important to me.

DD: What was your goal for the organization when you took the position?

AR: One of the things is we purchased a second building on 76th and Vermont, 21,000 square feet, and turned it into a Center for Community Organizing. We will train community members in the art and science of community organizing where you can learn how to bring about change. It has an art gallery and an auditorium for 500. It becomes another place where hope can be brought to life and change can be manifested. We completed five organizing fellowships. We trained community residents and formerly incarcerated folks. Now we’ll have a building to house this work in. Then we will raise the money to renovate and do the construction.

DD: How do you empower residents to transform their communities, improve education and reimagine public safety?

AR: The most powerful weapon of the oppressor is to control the mind of the oppressed. Our first step is to have people believe in themselves and that their voice actually matters. They can make a difference. That takes work and takes conversation. Our goal is to keep families together. People have to believe change is possible. It starts with your own voice.

DD: Tell me how the initiatives you developed helped build Community Coalition into a mass-based community organization that involves thousands of South Los Angeles residents in the practice of creating change. How do you get tens of thousands of people involved?

AR: We got involved in voter education, engagement and turnout. We got people to go out and talk to the community and do civic engagement work. We were concerned about talking to people who rarely vote. When they show up, it can change the outcome of an election. It’s the poorest who stay home. We also educate the community about what’s on the ballot. We can’t just wait for election day. Activism has to be 365.

DD: Why do you care about the community so much?

AR: My family. My parents struggled to make it and provide an opportunity for me. I grew up in a racist environment with people who called my dad a “wetback” and a “beaner.” Because my folks and my brother who looked after me told me to fight for my community. They instilled values of unity and justice. My experience with racism gave me fuel to fight the conditions. It’s a privilege that I get to come to work and fight for justice.

Some do it after their day job. I get to do it all the time. I’m grateful my family instilled these values.

DD: What are the organization’s plans for the future?

AR: We have a vision to have the city build up an infrastructure of care. When the organization opened in 1990, L.A. was doing far more when it came to services and care. A lot of those programs were gutted after the 2008 recession and weren’t built back.  Some programs have been cut again. We want the city to invest in those programs like senior services and child care and build investments that support our community.

We need to address families so that they don’t fall into homelessness.

DD: What are you most proud of regarding Community Coalition?

AR: Developing leaders in the community. Whether it’s youth or adults who didn’t think they could make a difference, they now know a difference is possible. That’s more important than any dollar. That level of optimism. You get that pep in your step because you can create something beautiful for our people.

Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at ddonloe@gmail.com.

“The Q&A” is a feature of Wave Newspapers asking provocative or engaging questions of some of L.A.’s most popular newsmakers or celebrities.

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