Some Defy Yuppie Life Style to Keep Idealism of the 1960s Alive : 'Participatory democracy is of value . . . it can work.'

Times Staff Writer

In the world of work, it is the era of the yuppie. Although there is evidence that they are more media creation than demographic fact, the affluent, self-indulgent, status-hungry baby boomers born in the two decades after World War II have come to dominate our image of professional life today. But the hunger for money is not the only force at work in the work force. To provide some perspective, The Times recently interviewed four baby boomers who have kept alive the idealism of the '60s and work for peanuts--by choice.

Steve and Estela Rubalcaba Klink suffer from terminal idealism. At the ages of 38 and 39--old enough to know better--they are wont to say the most ingenuous things.

"Basically, I think the system works," said Steve, seated in the San Diego Organizing Project's office at 29th Street and Imperial Avenue, a neighborhood whose shabby look questions the accuracy of his assertion. "Participatory democracy is of value, and it can work. If it fails, it is because of us and our greed, that we didn't ensure that people had meaningful vehicles to participate (in)."

Plugging Away

Long after most other baby boom activists have burned out and washed into mainstream occupations with decent hours and sensible salaries, the Klinks remain the city's most durable community organizers--a husband-wife team with a combined 16 years of behind-the-scenes plugging for stop signs, better housing and more police protection in Southeast San Diego's poorest neighborhoods.

Although they are among the 76 million Americans born from 1945 to the late '50s, they could not be more at odds with the hedonistic image of their generation. The Klinks are proof that, in the decade of the yuppie, some examples of selflessness and populist political activism persist.

"I feel that people who do the work that they're doing must be committed to that because they give so much of themselves," said Philomene White, the organizing project's vice president and one of the community leaders whom the Klinks have nurtured. "You never hear them complain, and they go from morning until night.

"You don't run into too many people like that. They're just that rare kind of people."

Much of that sentiment is rooted in the couple's strong religious beliefs. In 1978, when the San Diego Organizing Project was just the dream of a small band of community leaders, Estela Klink was teaching parochial school in Southeast San Diego and volunteering at Christ the King Catholic Church on 32nd Street. Steve Klink was in Berkeley, nearing the end of 13 years as a Jesuit seminarian but concluding that he did not feel the call to priesthood.

Estela joined the committee that decided to raise $55,000 in an attempt to establish a community organization, then helped to hire a staff when the goal was met. After a summer working with the organization in 1979, Steve was hired as a full-time organizer in 1980. A year later, as the most experienced person on the staff, he was appointed director.

Later he challenged Estela, who was still unwilling to give up teaching, to forswear her "bourgeois" summer trips and organize with him part-time.

A year later, her summer job turned into a full-time position at $10,500 annually. Steve started at $12,000, then was given a salary increase to $15,000 when he was appointed director of the organization. The couple married in 1982.

Their salaries remained frozen at those figures for the better part of five years, as the project endured lean times, nearly going out of business between late 1983 and early 1985, Steve said. Today their pay is up to $18,500 and $21,900, respectively--hardly a wage on which BMWs are purchased, but more than adequate for their needs.

Job Satisfaction

"I would rather be in a type of job that I personally believe in and feel a high level of commitment (for)," Estela said. "I don't have to be there because I have to earn a living. Because I've chosen this, I feel more happy to be able to do what I personally enjoy, even though I know that it is strenuous and stressful and it is hard."

"The emphasis on material things as the path to happiness just seems to me so hollow," Steve added. "People are so much more hungry for deeper human relationships and goodness. And I think a lot of times the quest for wealth and the material things that wealth enables one to enjoy weighs the heart down. It is so all-consuming in this society.

"I think there's something morally off in a world society, and a society like the United States, where 30 million people are allowed to live in poverty in the midst of gross--it's real gross--materialism."

Not that they aren't tempted. Steve likes to keep their van in shape, adding improvements here and there. But each time he does, he finds that new worries come with new parts.

"What if I had a second house in the mountains? It would just be another thing encumbering me," he said. "There's a trap in it, too. . . . I think there's something about gross materialism that there's an inherent trap in it."

Instead, the Klinks are consumed with the desire to organize Southeast San Diego, to teach, train and develop leaders, then step aside to allow them to help themselves in the classic style made famous in Chicago by Saul Alinsky, the father of community organizing.

Originally, the project built itself on the neighborhood groups and block clubs that dot Sherman Heights, Encanto, Golden Hill and Skyline. But today its strategy is to work through the churches that have become forces in the battle against crime, drugs and the other evils that afflict poor neighborhoods. With both types of organizations included, the organization claims about 2,500 members, Estela said.

From Potholes to Police

They started with potholes. Getting the city to fill in the holes on Commercial and 29th streets in Logan Heights showed low-income residents that they could fight City Hall and win. People Against Weeds followed, as residents demanded that the city reduce fire hazards by trimming dry weeds near homes. The community successfully demanded that fencing be installed along Chollas Creek after a father of seven drowned in an open storm drain.

They went on to tackle larger issues: helping to block approval of California 252, asking Southeast San Diego stores to stop selling drug paraphernalia, winning the placement of a detail of walking narcotics officers for the drug-infested Sherman area, finding corporate supporters for a community center in Sherman.

There have been losses, most notably a failed attempt to interest the Navy in moving the Balboa Park Navy Hospital to Helix Heights and an unsuccessful attempt to force the school district to develop programs to raise test scores in low-income schools.

No matter, said Fern James, San Diego Organizing Project president. "I think the difference they have made is that they have given people the power to dream," she said. "They have empowered them, (made them understand) that they can dream and the dreams can be fulfilled."

In a job notorious for rapidly burning out those who try it, "I never say it's not worth it," Estela said. "I'll say: 'I'm getting too tired. I'm getting too old for this type of work. I want to move into a schedule where there are sane hours.' But never that it's not worth it.

"The rewards in this work are the wink from a leader's eye, having another one come up and say, 'How did I do?' "

Steve said: "Whatever the cost is in terms of time, energy or what it takes from personal life, I feel more than rewarded because of the people I've met in these communities, what they've given to me and the people I've been able to work with."

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