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How I Made It

Activist Paulina Gonzalez puts pressure on banks to help the poor

Paulina Gonzalez, head of the California Reinvestment Coalition, is guided by her heart and community goals

The gig: Former union organizer and community activist Paulina Gonzalez, 41, became executive director this year of the California Reinvestment Coalition, an advocate for better financial services and affordable housing in low-income neighborhoods.

Housing counselors, consumer advocates and legal service providers are among the San Francisco group's 300 members. The nonprofit uses the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act to contest bank acquisitions, urging regulators to require merging banks to provide more loans and other resources to the poor and minorities.

On the march: A Montebello High School grad, Gonzalez got a full scholarship to Pomona College in Claremont. But she quit after three semesters to join the United Farm Workers, where, she said, "this man, Cesar Chavez, had figured out how to win against powerful people."

There, "to my parents' dismay," she became pregnant and married a co-worker. She needed student loans two years later to attend UCLA, earning a degree in sociology in a year and a half.

She has since pressed for immigrants' rights, lobbied for South Los Angeles residents displaced by USC's growth and led union battles at hotels near Los Angeles International Airport and Disneyland Resort and in Bel-Air.

In her parents' footsteps: Her father, a Mexican with a second-grade education, came to the U.S. by crossing the desert on foot and wound up leading a campaign to unionize garment workers.

Her mother's family, also immigrants, aided miners attempting to form unions in Arizona. Her mother cared for her sister, who had cerebral palsy at a time when, she said, "bus drivers wouldn't stop if they saw a wheelchair." Her mother then earned a bachelor's degree in her 50s and became a case worker for disabled people.

With that background, Gonzalez said, "I knew I wanted to do social justice work." She also learned from such civil-rights and union activists as the Rev. James Lawson and Maria Elena Durazo.

The most important principle, she learned, is "never to be guided by career goals, but to be guided by the community's goals and most importantly by the heart and by the people."

Showdowns: Gonzalez's group objected to Banc of California's plan this year to buy 20 former Banco Popular branches in Southern California.

With mediation by former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, an advisor to the bank, the Irvine financial firm agreed to devote 20% of its deposits to community lending in the first year, design a checking account for lower-income customers and provide free use of its ATMs to recipients of state child-support grants.

In its latest battle, the coalition is challenging the planned $3.4-billion takeover of OneWest Bank in Pasadena by New York commercial lender CIT Group Inc.

Lessons learned: Research corporate directors carefully, looking for ways to exert pressure. Make banks go public with their pledges.

"Their tactic is to say, 'We'll shoot for outstanding [ratings from regulators].' But they aren't saying how," she noted. So she demands detailed commitments to mortgages, small-business loans, affordable housing.

"Banks need to know what you want. It's like labor organizing: You have to let the employer know what you are after."

With a staff of just seven, she said, "it's definitely David and Goliath, but we can win."

Family: Born and raised in the Los Angeles suburb of Montebello, Gonzalez now lives in Oakland. She has a 10-year-old son, who studies trumpet with a member of the city's thriving jazz scene, and a daughter, who "grew up on the picket lines" and now attends Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.

A transplanted L.A. Dodgers fan, Gonzalez was distressed to see the San Francisco Giants win the World Series. "The day of the parade, I stayed home," she said. "I can root for the A's, but not San Francisco."

scott.reckard@latimes.com

Twitter: @ScottReckard

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