Shakespeare in Watts

As a sophomore at George Washington Prep, Javier Gutierrez flirted with gangs, never contemplated going to college and rarely ventured outside of his West Athens neighborhood. But then he met the Bard.

Cast as the lead in a high school production of Romeo and Juliet, Javier became so attached to the works of William Shakespeare that he began reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Then came Twelfth Night, followed by Hamlet and now Javier sees the 17th Century Prince of Denmark as something of an alter ego.

Shakespeare, it turns out, has a lot to teach. Being in a play, learning to read Old English verse and seeing the human connection in literature has inspired Javier to focus on school, enroll in college and, as he puts it, understand that “your limitation is the universe.”

“At first I thought he was some old British guy who didn’t know what he was talking about. I couldn’t understand him,” he recalled. “But now I know Shakespeare is so awesome. He is everywhere inside my life. I love him.”

This and other life changing experiences brought by the intersection of urban students with Shakespeare, was captured in the documentary Shakespeare in Watts, which will premiere at the Pan African Film Festival February 11 and 17. The documentary, directed by the late, award-winning filmmaker Mel Stuart, shows the journey taken by a small band of students at Washington Prep, as they learned 16th century English and are guided through the process by their tough yet erudite drama teacher, Dr. Melanie Andrews, their nurturing den parents and producers Paul Heller and Katy Haber and the tireless troupe of Los Angeles-based British actors and actresses who coached and mentored them along the way.

“If it wasn’t for this experience I would probably be in the military right now,” said Javier, who has been accepted to Cal State Los Angeles.

At first Shakespeare was not an easy sell. The students were not only unfamiliar with his plays, but the archaic patterns and phrases of Elizabethan English were baffling.

“They had never heard of Shakespeare,” said Andrews. “It was like learning Egyptian for them; it was a whole other language.”

Producers Haber and Heller, who founded the program as co-chairs of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) Los Angeles Education and Outreach Committee, decided it would be great to bring classic theater to high schools. It began in 2005 with BAFTA LA’s Inner City Screening Program at Helen Keller Park in collaboration with the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation and the South County Community Services Agency.

Eventually, the program moved to Washington Prep High School, with a screening of Why Shakespeare, the Lawrence Bridges documentary short that discusses how learning about Shakespeare and performing live theatre changes lives. Then the program evolved from a one day acting workshop with BAFTA LA actors coaching Washington Prep students reading scenes from Romeo and Juliet, to a full production of the romantic tragedy.

Since 2011, two public performances, funded by BAFTA LA, in collaboration with Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation, have been staged in Ladera Park.

“Everybody was going into unchartered territory,” said Haber. “But the experience has been life changing for the students and also for the mentors. It was an experience that changed them forever.”

The mentors learned the hard reality of living in an area with gang activity when one of the boys auditioning for a part was killed in a drive – by shooting. Another student, cast to play Juliet’s loquacious nurse, broke down in rehearsal, grieving the death of a loved one. As the students absorbed Shakespeare, they learned that his themes of love and loss, tragedy and betrayal, loyalty and courage are timeless. They also saw that life beyond their neighborhood was possible.

Wanting to reach out to more schools, Heller, Haber and the original mentors founded The Inner City Shakespeare Project to bring the plays and works of the Bard to four high schools, including Washington Prep and Los Angeles High School with the cooperation of the Los Angeles Unified School District. The Department of Parks and Recreation, which helped build the sets and create the outdoor space, will continue as a partner with the Inner City Shakespeare Project.

“Arts education gives you good diction, good posture and the ability to communicate in this world,” said Andrews, who now serves as the artistic director of the Inner City Shakespeare Project. “People of color are only 25 percent of this country. So if you want to stay in the inner city, then that is fine but if you want to go beyond that, you have to be aware of other things.”

The group is now on to their next, independently funded production of Twelfth Night at Washington Prep and L.A. High Schools with performances scheduled for May and July.

“This experience has played a larger role in my life than I could have imagined,” said Janelee Rodriguez, 17, who played Juliet and is now hoping to attend USC or UCLA. “It was amazing.”

As she recited the lines for her forlorn love, “Romeo, Romeo wherefore art though Romeo,” Janelee could not help but smile. “I always wanted to be an actress. This is a dream come true.”

Click here for more information about “Shakespeare in Watts” and the Pan African Film Festival.

RAVE Cinemas
Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza
Screening Times:
Mon, Feb 11 – 1:30p
Sun, Feb 17 – 3:15p

Lennox is Ready for its $6 Million Street Makeover

The days of driving through bumpy roads and dodging pot holes in the eastern portion of Lennox are coming to an end. Crews from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works will soon begin an extensive street make-over on 105th Street and the residential streets in Lennox.

As part of the project, the Department of Public Works will repave dilapidated streets, remove and replace trees that are obstructing street lights or overlapping sidewalks, and repair sidewalks, curbs, gutters and driveways that have been damaged as a result of overgrown tree roots. The street upgrade comes after Lennox residents turned to Board of Supervisors Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas, and the Department of Public Works, seeking help for an issue that for years has seriously impacted the quality of life in the South Bay city.

Twenty-one year Lennox resident Yolanda Herrera is looking forward to the improvements coming to her neighborhood. “I’m very happy,” said Herrera. “It’s about time they fix the streets.”

Herrera learned of the improvements from a community meeting held by Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas back in December. She joins other Lennox community residents, such as 27-year-old Cesar Garcia, who are thrilled about the project.

“I would like to see wider streets but I certainly welcome the improvement,” said Garcia.

The street improvements are scheduled to begin the summer of 2014 and will occur East of Hawthorne Boulevard between 104th and 11th Street. Additional details about the street improvement project will be discussed at the next community meeting tentatively scheduled to occur this fall. For additional information about this project, please contact the Department of Public Works at: (626) 458-5152.

The Lennox street make-over is estimated to be completed in the fall of 2014.

School Based Clinic Opens at Dominguez High School


New School Based Clinic at Dominguez High School

Not too long ago when students at Dominguez High School in Compton got sick, the only option was a trip to the nurse’s office.  At best, the nurse was equipped with a thermometer, a tongue-depressor and a hard vinyl couch where students could recline until a parent arrived.  Fast forward to health care delivery in 2013.

Now students are able to walk a few yards on campus to visit a brightly colored, full-scale health clinic, complete with doctors, nurses, dentistry services and even a small scale pharmacy.  The St. John’s Well Child & Family Center at Dominguez High School  is one of eight  new school -based clinics in the Second District ,  with an on-site  health clinic available not only to students but to the community at large.  In addition, seven more centers serving both students and families are expected to open in the next five months. Establishing school based clinics has been a priority for Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who has secured $4.1 million in county funds and partnered with the Los Angeles, Compton and Lennox Unified School Districts to build the centers.

“These clinics are an integral part of a community,” said Chairman Ridley-Thomas. “This is where easy access to medical care and preventing illnesses begins.”

As part of a national emphasis on preventive care, nearly 2,000 school-based health centers have been opened nationwide, according to the most recent National Assembly on School-Based Health Care census.

At these clinics, students and their families  can be treated for acute illnesses, such as  the  flu, or chronic conditions,  such as  asthma  and  diabetes . They can receive pre-natal care, reproductive health care, immunizations, dental care, vision and treatment for hearing problems. The Dominguez High School clinic is expected to open full time in March.

“We really want to be seen as a medical home not just for students but for communities that we serve,” said S. Nomsa Khalfani, chief of Policy and Support Services St. John’s Well Child & Family Center. “Some people think of a school – based clinic as a nurse’s office. But this is like walking into any other doctor’s office.”

Khalfani said lack of easy health care access can adversely impact a child’s education.  Recently, one student at Dominguez was missing days of school, prompting administrators to find out why.  They discovered he was sick but had not gone to the doctor because his family lacked insurance. The clinic, which has been operating on a part – time basis since September, was able to treat him and follow up with the family to make sure he was recovering.

“Enabling students, [or their parents] to have access to healthcare without missing school or work so they can go to the doctor is important,” said Khalfani. “Schools are a hub where families get resources and where students and families can get help quickly.”

At other school clinics , such as the  Jefferson High School Wellness Center, operated by South Central Family Health Center, students come in frequently for non-urgent illnesses like colds or stomach ailments. But they are also using the clinic to get questions answered about contraception and the threat of sexually transmitted diseases. Approximately a quarter of all chlamydia and gonorrhea infections in Los Angeles County in 2010 were diagnosed in South Los Angeles, according to the STD Morbidity Report for Los Angeles County.

“There are a lot of children who do not know or do not think they will get it,” said Dr. Gustavo Roldan, the on-site physician at Jefferson. “ But there are a high percentage of kids getting STDs like gonorrhea or chlamydia. There is definitely a lot of peer pressure to have sex.”

To help in student outreach, Genevieve Filmardirossian, associate director and chief operations officer of South Central Family Health Centers and her staff meet with school administrators once a month to discuss student and community needs.

She also plans to hire two students to serve as “teen workers” to conduct presentations to the students about health related issues like obesity and peer pressure. Zaira Castro, 16, wants to be one of the teen workers to help her classmates understand that the decisions they make in haste could end up causing them major problems in the future. She sees friends with terrible nutrition habits, eating too much junk food. Other friends are sexually active but not physically active, she said.

“I don’t know if they have all the information on the consequences of what can happen. It is easier to influence them if it’s by someone their age,” said Castro, who wants to be a psychiatrist. “If an adult is telling me what to do I wouldn’t pay attention but they will listen to me because I am a teen.”

Homeless Count 2013

As the stars began to shine in the night sky Thursday, more than two dozen volunteers gathered around the table in the education room at Holman United Methodist Church in the West Adams neighborhood, eagerly waiting to hit the streets.

“We’re gonna get this done tonight, are we not?” said their site trainer Carolyn Fowler.

“Yes!” the group cheered.

The group was among the 5,000 volunteers who turned out in late January to participate in the 2013 Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority’s (LAHSA) biennial homeless count , which seeks to locate and count the men, women and children living in cars and tents, makeshift shelters or sleeping out in the open. During the four-day event, volunteers fanned out throughout Los Angeles County and covered more than 1,400 census tracts, making it the largest turnout ever in the biennial count’s fifth year history. Volunteers, who received training on how to identify homeless people and count them correctly without making assumptions about people who happened to be loitering or near makeshift shelter, were given pre-determined census tracts to canvass.

The count is essential for understanding and tracking how many people are living on the streets and what kind of services and housing will best help them in secure permanent shelter. In 2011, the effort revealed that more than 51,000 people in the county are homeless. In recent years, there has been a concerted effort by cities and the county to improve homeless services and become pro-active in getting people the help they need, said G. Michael Arnold, executive director of LAHSA.

“Local cities are really stepping up and trying to understand homelessness in their communities,” said Arnold. “They are trying to find solutions.”

Individuals, like Holman Senior Pastor, Rev. Kelvin Sauls, are also stepping up.

“We want to be with our brothers and sisters who happen to be homeless,” he said before the group began the count.

Ashley Wilson, who is making a documentary about the homeless, noted that homelessness is not a faraway concept in our society.
“It can happen to anyone,” she said.

Indeed, Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas , who joined the group of volunteers in West Adams and Leimert Park, reminded volunteers that being homeless does not diminish a person’s right to compassion and care, saying, “We share a common belief that the dignity and worth of all people matters. They are God’s people and created in his image and likeness.”

The volunteers then fanned out across South Los Angeles until midnight, blanketing the area, using flashlights and maps to try to find homeless people living in parks, cars, trailers or alleys. Remnants of belongings, blankets, clothing, tents, bottles of vodka or beer, often were giveaways for encampments that had been temporarily abandoned. But by midnight, dozens of homeless people would appear in Leimert Park seeking safety in numbers under the brightly lit park palms.

As the Supervisor stood in night shadows of Leimert Park, an area that had suffered a long period of neglect but was redesigned when he was on the Los Angeles City Council in the 1990s, he noted the poignancy of seeing former classmates from his school days at Manual Arts High School, on the streets. Drug and alcohol dependency, mental illness or misfortune such as a health crisis or losing a home, play a large role in the downward spiral of many who never expect to find themselves sleeping out of doors, he said, adding, “It doesn’t get more real than this . These are members of our family, friends and associates, black, brown, yellow, red and white. This is sobering.”

As he ventured out of the park, a man who identified himself as A.J. approached. A.J., it turned out had been chronically homeless years ago and someone who Jeanette Rowe, director of homeless services for LAHSA, had met on the streets 20 years ago in Venice and Santa Monica.

Rowe, who was accompanying the Supervisor on the count, spoke of the long effort to help A.J. transition to indoor living.
“I tried so hard to get him into a shelter,” she recalled. “He told me how much he hated it and I said, ‘OK, you go back there and tell me tomorrow how much you hate it.’ After 90 days in the shelter, it is really hard to return to the street. You’ve lost your step.”

Today, A.J. has an apartment and is living with government assistance. He was selling recorders in the park and seemed to be doing well.

“Years ago, he was a mess,” said Rowe. And then as he walked away, giving her his telephone number, she smiled. One less person was on the street. She had done her job. “It is very rewarding to see that.”

Perspectives on Gun Violence

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Like people all across the country and indeed around the world, residents of the Second District have been engaged in debating the appropriate role of guns in American society and culture. Here in the United States, there is division on many points regarding gun control and agreement on few. Around the world, however, other nations are baffled that we accept 100,000 gun shot victims a year as a normal part of life. If there’s one thing I know, it is that there is no problem either in personal or public life that is best resolved with a gun. I’ve written about my support for Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s proposed ban on assault weapons and President Obama’s sensible package in opinion pieces posted on here and here. Now I would like to hear from you. In the video above, you’ll find a small sampling of diverse opinions from around the Second District, from Culver City to Carson, Compton to the University of Southern California and places in between. Please weigh in with your opinion as well. All comments that maintain a level of civil discourse, regardless of point of view, will be posted. With hope — MRT