19 Mar The Spirit of South L.A. – Atlantic Fellow Alberto Retana Reflects on CoCo’s 30 Years of Black and Brown Unity
Alberto Retana delights in the beauty of seeing South LA residents band together daily to strategize for Community Coalition’s (CoCo) social justice campaigns. These impactful interactions are in keeping with CoCo’s mission to transform the social and economic conditions in South LA alongside thousands of Black and Brown residents. Although the COVID-19 pandemic has ushered in unprecedented times for South LA and the country, Community Coalition remains dedicated to the health and well-being of our community’s most treasured asset—our members.
In 1990, a group of community activists huddled together in a living room in South LA. Gathered by Community Coalition’s (CoCo’s) founders’ current Congressmember Karen Bass and Sylvia Castillo, the group was haunted by the raging public health crisis that had enveloped their community. The daily impacts of the crack cocaine epidemic were devastating and the city’s only response was to criminalize our community. The Black and Brown activists knew that criminalizing addiction would only make matters worse. They believed that South LA residents most impacted by the crisis should be included in creating real solutions for their community. It was from this vision that the idea of a community-driven organization was born.
As the current President and CEO of Community Coalition, Alberto is committed to people-driven change that mobilizes the Black and Latino community in South Los Angeles. Magnifying the racial inequities that are prevalent in the City of Los Angeles’s practices and policies, Alberto wants to end institutional racism affecting Black and Brown communities. Through its work, CoCo is redefining the narrative around what it means for Black and Brown communities to be in solidarity.
Since its founding, CoCo has witnessed the community’s complexion change. On historic South LA corridors that once boasted jazz legends played “here,” one is more likely to find carnecerias and botanicas. Today, immigrants from Mexico and Central America reside on blocks that were occupied by African Americans from Texas, Louisiana and other Bible Belt states just two generations ago. A place where barbershop laughs and black urban slang were spoken, you are now apt to hear Spanglish or Spanish from residents.
But Retana says that doesn’t mean that Black and Brown communities do not, cannot or are not speaking the same language. He contends that the same economic, social, racial and political conditions that were barriers for Black residents in South LA are equal to or even more formidable barriers for Brown residents.
As Alberto likes to describe it, “It’s the story of we; it’s the story of us. Black and Brown solidarity 30 years after CoCo’s founding is about fighting the erasure of African American community members in a collaborative way that celebrates black culture and seeks out connection to address the issues that plague all of us.”
Since joining CoCo as a youth organizer more than 20 years ago, Alberto has witnessed the growth of its organizing power. He says that the activism of the Community Coalition’s resident leaders and members has been the sole stimulus of economic recovery in South LA for decades. In the last 10 years, South LA voters have been the vital bloc for economic recovery by overwhelmingly supporting revenue-generating initiatives such as Proposition 30’s “Temporary Taxes to Fund Education.” At the same time, residents have electorally rallied to support justice initiatives (Prop 47 & 57) that have reduced state spending on incarceration practices in favor of greater investments in public education, youth development, and health and human services.
“I’m proud to lead Community Coalition. Our organization was founded by Black and Brown community members to target anti-black racism,” says Retana. “That spoke to me. That fact stood out for me and is vital to me as a non-black Latino who is in deep solidarity with the black community.”
Recently, Community Coalition partnered with the Los Angeles City Council to launch embRACE LA—which made history by successfully training over 40 facilitators and organizing 125 free dinners in homes and organizations throughout the city, in which everyday citizens discussed race and racism in Los Angeles. Over 1,200 residents participated in hundreds of authentic and honest conversations, each driven by the initiative’s core principle: we cannot heal what we will not face. Believing we are more powerful united together than when acting alone, the embRACE LA dialogues have grown into a movement to establish an Office of Racial Equity (ORE) in the City of Angels.
The ORE would institutionalize Los Angeles’ commitment to addressing long-standing and systematic racial disparities. The office would serve in several ways, including repairing the harms that Black and Brown communities throughout Los Angeles have suffered from previous policies that created, upheld or exacerbated systems of oppression plaguing people of color. The office would also address racial disparities and correct disparate outcomes seen in education, employment, wealth distribution, housing, and health. By working together in Black and Brown solidarity, CoCo continues its work to transform the social and economic conditions that foster inequity—for ALL people.
Most recently, Community Coalition supported community organizing efforts around Destination Crenshaw. Destination Crenshaw is a 1.3-mile long outdoor art and culture experience celebrating Black Los Angeles As one of the largest Black communities west of the Mississippi River, Destination Crenshaw is a history-making community-led project that will celebrate the 200+ year history of Black activism in L.A. Through education, arts and culture, Destination Crenshaw will cement itself as a cultural hub that will facilitate economic security and entrepreneurship for residents as a method of place-keeping and community building.
While Community Coalition remains an anchor institution of South LA and upholds its responsibility to espouse values rooted in Black and Brown solitary as we win policy victories, CoCo recognizes and acknowledges those who are most vulnerable and the implications COVID-19 is having on job security, housing, and more. We’re reminded of the importance of building and protecting our social safety net, especially in times like this.
Community Coalition remains committed to furthering its agenda which honors and supports the well-being of all peoples regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, age, religious affiliation, and geography.