Retaking Avalon Gardens

Giving up on the political system doesn't mean giving up.

I got that lesson in persistence this week at Avalon Gardens, a housing project in the poorest part of South Los Angeles.

The predominantly black residents--faced with gangs, drugs, poor schools, dropouts and unemployment--have plenty to gripe about. As they see it, they have been failed by the police, the courts, the social welfare bureaucracy and all the traditional instruments of government.

With the help of the Brotherhood Crusade, which supports a variety of self-help, education and health activities in the black community, they have launched a movement called Taking Our Neighborhood Back. Its goals: Stop gang violence, drug sales and crime. Beautify the community. Make the neighborhood safe. And, save the children.

They began with a rally in August, 1989. Avalon Gardens residents marched to a nearby park that was controlled by gangs. Gang members were surprised to see them. But they caucused in the gym and agreed not to interfere. Avalon Gardens is like a small town and the marchers were the gangbangers' neighbors.

Today, life's not much better in Avalon Gardens. Economic hard times have hurt.

But the mood wasn't gloomy Wednesday when I attended the first meeting of Taking Our Neighborhood Back's new youth leadership project, in a small kitchen of the Avalon Gardens apartment that the organization uses as its headquarters.

The gathering began with a shout from the kids. "The Batmobile's here." The Batmobile is an old, big-fin Cadillac Coupe de Ville. Their Batman wears blue sweat pants and a Lakers T-shirt and has a beard tinged with gray. He's 50-year-old Cliff McClain, the Brotherhood Crusade's representative in Avalon Gardens.

Fifteen boys and girls joined him in the kitchen. They ranged in age from 10 to 16. He explained he'd picked them because he thought they'd be good leaders. "You picked me?" said Michael Smith, 11.

Michael, short, bright-eyed and active, is the kid who drives teachers nuts. He restlessly poked and pushed the kids around him. So did some of the others. As I watched, I thought this do-good scheme was doomed from the start.

But McClain was patient, talking softly where I would have shouted. "Excuse me," he said, when the children interrupted. "This is serious stuff. I won't be taking something from you. I'll be giving you something. It doesn't matter to me if you don't take it."

Slowly, the tide turned in his favor. Even Michael paused briefly in his poking to listen. McClain began his sermon.

"Some people choose to lose," he said. "There are people walking around in the project, they've decided to lose, they've just given up. They may be very bright. They may have gone to college. It may be drugs. It may be something else. But they've just given up."

McClain counts the school system among those he believes have given up. He illustrated his point in his dialogue with the kids: "One of the things I want to talk to you about is what you want to do for your vocation." He turned to a high school student and asked, "What do I mean by vocation." The boy didn't know. "I don't want to get on your case," said McClain, "but you're in the 11th grade and you should understand everything I'm saying."

McClain is bringing in tutors to make sure the leadership group knows reading, writing and mathematics. The tutors also will be role models, mentors. Two of them were there that night--Renaldo Wodley, 23, from the South L.A. Baptist Church, and LeAndre Miles, a 21-year-old woman from West L.A. who studies nursing and education at Pierce College in the San Fernando Valley.

As the unruliness at the start of the meeting showed, it's not easy to get a bunch of teen-agers and preteens interested in self-help. McClain knows that. That's why he's got some rewards--a weekend camping retreat in the Angeles National Forest, a trip to Magic Mountain.

There are other problems beyond education that Taking Our Community Back has targeted for self-help. Drugs, gangs, unemployment are among them. I don't know how all the activity will turn out. Neither does McClain. But there was a lot of hopefulness in that kitchen. Read. Write. Speak. Pick a career. If you can't beat the political system, go around it. You can't change the world that way, or even the city. But you can make life better in Avalon Gardens.

"You can be a nurse like LeAndre, you can be a reporter like Bill over here," McClain said, pointing to Miles in the back of the room, and to me, standing by the stove. "You can be what you want. Just don't give up."

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