Leadership, Vision, Inspiration at the 22nd Annual Empowerment Congress

Community engagement was the theme of the day at the 22nd annual Empowerment Congress Summit in January, where more than 1,000 people turned out to learn more about civic participation and becoming a leader in their community.

During the plenary session in the morning, healthcare, poverty, environmental issues and pay equity were addressed by several leaders in Los Angeles. This year’s summit, hosted by Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and sponsored by the Empowerment Congress, also focused on the legacies of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the South African President Nelson Mandela, who died in December. Held every year on the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend, the Empowerment Congress, is widely regarded as the forerunner to the Los Angeles neighborhood council movement.

At the opening session, held at the University of Southern California’s Bovard Hall, Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, the medical researcher and philanthropist, enthralled the audience with his experiences in apartheid era South Africa where he grew up as a child of Chinese immigrants. But when he moved to the United States, he was shocked to find a “medical apartheid,” where certain services are readily available for the wealthy but not for the poor. And so, he is now determined to make quality healthcare available for all through his medical research and through the Chan Soon-Shiong Family Foundation.

“I want to give you hope,” he said. “I will work hard for this community. California has always led the way, and we will.”

Other speakers, such as Dr. Robert Ross, chief executive of the California Endowment, spoke of the urgent need to offer mental health services and better educational opportunities to young people living in poverty.

“Our young people are carrying toxic levels of stress and exposure to trauma,” said Ross, who is overseeing a $50 million initiative to help young men and boys of color overcome difficulties. “If they are showing defiance in the classroom, it isn’t because they are a bad kid, it is a child screaming for help.”

Attorney and human rights advocate Sandra Fluke spoke of the continued need to address violence against women and girls while SEIU ULTCW – the United Long Term Care Workers’ Union President Laphonza Butler noted that more people live in poverty today than in 1968 and 30 percent of poor people in California live in Los Angeles.

But Supervisor Ridley-Thomas sounded an optimistic note in his key note speech closing the plenary session.

“If Nelson Mandela could endure brutalities of an apartheid system…surely we could face we the difficulties we are challenged with today,” he said. “If Martin Luther King, Jr. could be subject to the injustices of segregation, surely in our day and time, we can empower and educate and engage Los Angeles County.”

After the opening session, attendees visited several workshops dealing with issues like sex trafficking in Los Angeles, the future of the Crenshaw-LAX connection, the Affordable Care Act and of course, how to engage in civic government.

Mary Ann Sawayne, 68, of Inglewood attended the LAX workshop to understand what kind of transportation is planned.

“In Cleveland you come down the escalator at the airport and transportation is sitting there all you have to do is pick up your bag and get on the train,” she said. “It doesn’t cost you an arm and a leg to use it. We are the only city that has an archaic mode of transportation. I’m hoping that LA comes up to convenience and standards of other cities around that nation.”

At the sex trafficking workshop, advocates and survivors spoke about the need for all residents to be aware and to step into action to help children that are being sexually exploited.

“We need to put all of our strengths together,” said Nola Brantley, a survivor and advocate who founded the nonprofit organization MISSSEY to help young people caught up in the sex trade. “We need to work together as a community.”