Empowerment Congress Leaders Work to Change their Communities

Standing on a vista in the Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook as the sun set over the Pacific Ocean and the Hollywood sign glimmered in the distance, Jesse Clark of Atlanta, Georgia inhaled the cool air. After a week meeting with civic leaders, community activists and policy makers at the Empowerment Congress Leadership Institute in Los Angeles, Clark said he had a realization: illustrated the importance of grassroots organizing, political alliances and community involvement are to creating social change.

Clark is one of 47 community leaders selected to participate in the week-long Empowerment Congress Leadership Institute of 2013, co-sponsored by Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Participants were selected from across the country, from Atlanta to Doña Ana County, New Mexico, to learn how to empower their communities and improve residents’ quality of life. They will take what they learned in Los Angeles and adapt it to their own community’s needs.

Clark and his colleagues from Atlanta are on a quest to revamp the historic district in the city’s Old Fourth Ward. The Old Fourth Ward is home to the Ebenezer Baptist Church and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial—the very seat of the American civil rights movement. Nearby, however, many of the Old Fourth Ward’s factories are becoming lofts, businesses, restaurants and bars. And yet, Boulevard, which runs through the middle of the neighborhood, is a corridor infamous for its Section 8 housing and street drug sales. More than 600 kids, 19 or younger, live along the Boulevard corridor, and almost half of them live below the poverty line. Clark and his colleagues are determined to turn Boulevard into a place worthy of its history.

“Some key elements of this conference struck me in the gut,” said Clark, executive director of the Historic District Development Corporation. “We are not just building projects but we need to include people in the development of ideas.”

The Empowerment Congress Leadership Institute was established to help communities around the country create effective ways of engaging and including residents in civic activities. Throughout the week, the participants joined in panel discussions and presentations as well as a grand tour of Los Angeles, to gin up ideas for improving their own communities.

Clark was joined by Dagmar Epsten, Harold Barnette and several others from Atlanta.

“We have learned that having a powerful political advocate is very helpful indeed,” said Barnette. “We also learned that communities need to get out in front of changes and make their neighborhood look like how they want it.”

In the case of Boulevard, its historically significant landmarks could make it a destination.

“Boulevard has a unique and international draw because of its history,” said Epsten. “We could have a global connection.”

Others learned valuable lessons as well. Police Chief Michael Davis of Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, said he and his team are trying to integrate together the largely immigrant communities from countries in Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America into an Upper Midwestern way of civic life. While Brooklyn Park’s diversity makes it interesting, the differences in language, assumptions about community and variety of cultures also present challenges. Davis and other city leaders have seen divisions sprout up, making their city a community separated by national and ethnic identities. Davis and the team from Brooklyn Park want to change attitudes so that a majority of residents feel they have a stake in their community as a whole.

“When you meet with so many people who are dedicated to making their communities better, you are re-energized,” said Davis. “We have spent a lot of time back home trying to convince people of what we want to do and this ratifies everything we have been saying.”

Mario Leonel Meraz, a community activist in his home of Radium Springs, New Mexico, said he was deeply moved by what he learned. Meraz has been trying to organize his community to establish better working conditions for workers in local factories. He wants to go home and let people know while they must work well and responsibly for companies, they also have rights.
“I am so happy to be here,” he said as he stood on the vista looking out to the Hollywood Hills. “I have learned that together we can become one voice.”