Hope That Transforms: Women's Collective Builds Community in L.A. Inner City. (Ministries Special Section)

By Jones, Arthur | National Catholic Reporter, January 18, 2002 | Go to article overview
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Hope That Transforms: Women's Collective Builds Community in L.A. Inner City. (Ministries Special Section)


Jones, Arthur, National Catholic Reporter


Sister of Social Service Diane Donoghue is a community artist who can't paint, doesn't draw and none of the tile murals in this region of South Central Los Angeles are hers.

Though Donoghue's face is in one of the murals, her own picture of community is in her head. It's a juxtaposition of all the ordinary things the multiethnic folk in some of the nation's poorest urban census tracts lack: decent housing, access to jobs that pay enough to live on, access to child care, to medical care.

Her canvas is the Esperanza Community Housing Corporation, known for its public art and its uniqueness in being operated as a women's collective. ("I'm first among equals," said executive director Donoghue. "We make decisions by consensus.")

Make no mistake, though Esperanza's driving force may be social, its mission is political -- the politics of everyone's right to human dignity. What Esperanza (Spanish for hope) provides are stepping-stones toward that achievement.

The housing corporation is seven brightly painted apartment buildings dotted around the 12-square-mile area known as the Maple-Adams/Hoover-Adams neighborhood, bounded by the Santa Monica 10 Freeway to the north, and Martin Luther King Boulevard to the south.

Alice Salinas, director of housing and policy, uses exterior paints in colors dominant in the Mexican and Central American towns that once were home to the bulk of Esperanza's tenants. But Salinas isn't just about pretty colors and well-appointed buildings. She's local politics to her core.

Following the Los Angeles riots of 1992, Salinas was a leading figure in the successful campaign for a Los Angeles Living Wage Ordinance.

"Most public agencies are pretty clueless about how to bring good jobs to the inner city," she said. "Now city contractors' workers can work one fulltime job -- instead of holding down a second job just to survive -- plus have health insurance. But public policy is only as good as it's implemented. We're watching."

So she could die at home

Esperanza's story really begins in 1985.

Donoghue had worked in the area since the early 1970s. By the early `80s, she was a community organizer based at the magnificent St. Vincent's Church at the corner of Adams and Figueroa. (Esperanza's headquarters' building today is at the northeast end of the St. Vincent's School parking lot.)

A couple came to Donoghue and said the woman's mother, dying of cancer, was about to be evicted from her home. Donoghue met the man who wanted to build a factory on the site and neighboring homesites, and got an extension of the eviction until the woman died. Then Donoghue began a four-year neighborhood organizing campaign. Once the community identified what it most needed -- afford able housing -- Esperanza was launched.

In 1994, Villa Esperanza, 33 units for 220 parents and children, opened -- on the site of the proposed factory, which the community had opposed in favor of housing units.

The Villa's art includes a pair of fine ceramic tile tableaus by Guillermo Granizo showing Los Angeles at work and at play. At ground level in the community building, there's a University of Southern California-run Head Start site, part of a USC training program. Upstairs, there are neighborhood classes ranging from literacy, to English as a Second Language, to computer training, all under the watchful guidance of Yadira Arevalo, Esperanza's director of education and outreach.

"This is a heavy gang area," said Donoghue, during a tour of Esperanza housing, "but there's no graffiti spoiling our art. The people who live in the area know Villa Esperanza is for them. What we're trying to do," she said, "is make the neighborhood a neighborhood of choice, not a neighborhood of last resort. We're trying to tap into the cultural richness the residents bring."

That richness is reflected in the Head Start children's colorful work, taped up around the center.

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