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Diverse Group of Activists Gathers to Seek Clout in L.A.

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Times Staff Writer

More than 1,200 community activists toting a host of political wish lists gathered Sunday in a drive to create a single community organizing body large and strong enough to influence such myriad and weighty issues as public education, healthcare and immigrant rights.

In a final push leading up to the scheduled July 11 founding convention for the L.A. Metro organizing group, leaders held a pep rally at the Los Angeles Convention Center for the scores of ministers, teachers, union officials and church members throughout the county who have pledged to become involved in the group.

Their goal is to build a grass-roots colossus that would wield more power than smaller community groups. L.A. Metro leaders, who include clergy and educators, have recruited members in houses of worship and neighborhoods for several years.

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They are modeling their organization after the once-influential Los Angeles affiliates of the Industrial Areas Foundation.

“We are not about issues, we are about people,” declared Pastor Carol Scott of Inglewood’s Holy Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. “When you are in solidarity and relationship with others, you have power.”

The rally was intended to inspire the fledgling membership during a gathering that showcased Korean dancers, and speeches that emphasized the importance of racial and ethnic diversity in their organization.

The Rev. Daniel Choi spoke about cultural inclusion in Korean, which was translated into English and then Spanish, prompting giggles from the audience.

Bringing and keeping people together who have a panoply of concerns is likely to be one of the group’s fundamental challenges, however. One speaker raised the problem of too few school buses, another the ongoing failures and investigations at King/Drew Medical Center, which mostly serves the poor.

Others focused on school funding, toxic landfills in impoverished neighborhoods and the controversy over granting driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants.

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Juan Parrino, of United Teachers-Los Angeles, acknowledged that the array of agendas could be problematic, but argued that it also offered a somewhat inverse logic for the group’s being: “Almost a sense of shared vulnerability.”

“What’s key here is we’re creating a force that will be enduring,” Parrino said. “It won’t ebb and flow on the basis of a single issue

The group, officially titled the Greater Los Angeles Metro Strategy-Industrial Areas Foundation, represents the rebirth of an organization that once epitomized successful community organizing in Los Angeles, a city especially troublesome for organizers because of its sprawl.

Made up of four groups with separate names and representing 80 churches from across the city and their tens of thousands of worshippers, the original organization wielded considerable influence for two decades.

Before foundering in the early 1990s, the groups included SCOC, for the South Central Organizing Committee, and UNO, for the Eastside’s United Neighborhood Organization. Along with sister groups in the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys, they worked to ban some assault weapons in the state and influenced the LEARN schools reform strategy in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

The organizations also conducted a countywide effort that helped slow an epidemic of gang killings and worked to stop the proliferation of liquor stores in their neighborhoods.

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Relaunched in 1999, L.A. Metro -- which is funded with dues -- has grown slowly but steadily, and organizers said Sunday they expected more than 11,000 community, local and state leaders to attend the founding convention in July.

At that time they will vote on an agenda of issues to target as one group. Already, common themes have emerged including the importance of affordable college education, home healthcare for the elderly and disabled and universal funding for preschool.

In order to become truly influential, leaders said individual groups must abide by the mantra “power before program,” which means they first need to claim a large membership before taking on specific issues.

“As important as all of these and your other issues are,” Cardinal Roger M. Mahony told the gathering, “your most important contribution in Los Angeles is fighting isolation by bringing together Jews, Protestants, Buddhists and Catholics, congregations, schools, unions and community organizations into a powerful force for change.”

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