South LA for Vice President

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

Can South Los Angeles teach America how to lead?

That’s the promising question behind the news that Karen Bass is a top contender to be the Democratic vice-presidential nominee.

Bass is best known as a consensus-building and uncommonly kind politician who has served South L.A. in the State Assembly and in Congress over the past two decades. But far more important than her political career is Bass’ role in a larger story about South L.A.’s transformation into a better place—and about what true leadership looks like now. 

South L.A., with 850,000 people covering 50 square miles, is the size of San Francisco. At the heart of its complicated story is Community Coalition.

Bass and other activists started Community Coalition in 1990 amidst the crack-cocaine epidemic. Since then, CoCo has been built—through block-to-block work that rarely gets media notice—into a California success story.

CoCo works on a broad array of issues—from nuisance abatement to college access—because it organizes around the varied concerns of South L.A.’s residents, not a poll-tested political agenda. The wonderful paradox of CoCo is that its focus on street-level organizing has made the organization extraordinarily successful in developing leaders for the city and state.

CoCo’s leadership philosophy almost seems contrarian: You rise not via self-promotion, but by empowering your neighbors, and learning how to follow their lead. Bass and her unflashy, collaborative  style embody this approach, but she is just one of hundreds of CoCo alumni in Southern California governments and civic institutions. Among these leaders are L.A. City Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson, and Albert Retana, an organizer who, after a stint in the Obama administration, returned to serve as CoCo’s president and CEO.

Bass was a physician’s assistant when she gathered neighborhood activists in a living room 30 years ago to address crack cocaine’s toll on their community. The goal of  CoCo—originally Community Coalition for Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment—was that South L.A.’s people should be more involved in solving such problems.

That premise still defines Community Coalition’s stated mission to “elevate the voices of our members, shift power to the community, and tackle the root causes of poverty, crime and violence.” But in method, CoCo is flexible, and adapts to new challenges. In its early efforts with the crack epidemic, CoCo tried multiple tactics before discovering that shutting liquor stores was most effective at countering crime and drugs.  

From there, CoCo branched out—to almost everything. CoCo developed a youth organizing program, led efforts to reform foster care, and advocated successfully for more school  construction and college prep classes.

CoCo’s work often built on itself. After CoCo started to organize the King Estates neighborhood around nuisance abatement, residents suggested revitalizing Martin Luther King Jr. Park. So CoCo held an Easter egg hunt, which evolved into Power Fest, a popular South L.A. music festival.

Bass departed in 2004 to enter politics, but the group kept increasing its reach.  It has sought to remake the justice system, address structural racism, transform the built environment and give neighborhoods more power over economic development. Such work led CoCo into ballot measure politics, notably the statewide tax hike Proposition 30 and the criminal justice reform measures Propositions 47 and 57. This year, CoCo has started a center offering national fellowships in organizing. 

In all of this, CoCo has been sensitive to South L.A.’s demographic changes, with Black people leaving and Latinos arriving. The organization carefully balances Black and Latino representation among its leaders, and at meetings. USC sociologist Manuel Pastor has credited CoCo with helping make South L.A. a model of “ethnic sedimentation,” where ethnic groups build on each other’s histories, rather than “ethnic succession,” where conflict arises as a new group replaces an old one.

The notion of South L.A. as a national model for anything may seem odd to an America that still associates the area with gangs and riots. But no place could be more relevant to a country that finds itself near rock bottom. Over the past 30 years, crime in South L.A. declined by more than two-thirds, access to health care expanded, schools opened and education improved, home ownership increased, and transportation, arts, and food options exploded. Is there any doubt that the United States could benefit right now from emulating Community Coalition’s devotion to cultivating new leaders and building unity from the ground up? 

If Joe Biden picks Bass as his running mate, it’s a safe bet that CoCo organizers, past and present, will be leaders in a new administration. And given their track record, the prospect of a South L.A. vice presidency might offer Americans something that is hard to find these days:

Hope.

 

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.

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