October 6, 2011 Issue

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L.A. River Park Remediation to Begin At Lincoln Heights Dairy Site

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Plans to turn the Albion Dairy site, where local youth teams once practiced football, into a full-fledged riverfront park got off to a symbolic start during a demolition ceremony held last Friday.

Los Angeles Councilman Ed Reyes (CD-1) and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa each drove diggers into the last standing wall of the old dairy buildings, which crashed down to cheers from the audience.

Last week, Councilman Ed Reyes, left, and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa , right, celebrated the demolition of a dairy site in Lincoln Heights that could one day be turned into a riverfront park. (EGP Photo by Elizabeth Hsing-Huei Chou)

Reyes, who spearheaded the project, marked the latest milestone, the purchase of the dairy site and the beginning of its remediation, saying Albion Park will not only “serve as a national model for natural stormwater treatment,” but also as “significant relief in a densely-populated, park-poor area” where it will “produce cleaner air to offset pollution from nearby freeways” and provide an outdoor environment that can address “diabetes and obesity in the area, especially among kids.”

A definite funding source has not yet been identified for the construction of the park itself, but a Reyes aide said they are competing for Prop K park funds.

The majority of the $17.4 million in Proposition O – Clean Water Bond funds went to the purchase the dairy site, with the remaining $3 million going toward its remediation. Until recently it was an active warehouse and distribution site for the Swiss Dairy Company operating at the end of a residential street.

Currently the site located at 1739 Albion Street is a concrete-paved lot containing brick debris from the old dairy buildings, and may stay this way for some time. It must first go through a clean-up process to remove toxic contaminants from the site, expected to be completed by Sept. 2012.

Stormwater management practices, which include diverting stormwater and pollutants away from the L.A. River, are expected to be in place by 2015.

The plans have the 6-acre dairy property in Lincoln Heights linking up with the Downey Recreation Center, one of the existing pocket parks available to residents of an industrial neighborhood in the city of Los Angeles, to form a 10-acre park.

Plans include expansion of existing Downey Recreation Center. (EGP photo by Elizabeth Chou)

Plans for the project include natural landscaping and an irrigation system meant to work together with the city’s master plan to clean up the Los Angeles River, with features such as natural detention basins with simulated streams, bioswales with native plants and tree-lined berms, permeable pavement and permeable parking lot, and trash capture devices.

The proposed plans also show basketball courts, a skate park, picnic tables, a playground, fitness equipment, an amphitheatre, and chess tables. These park features have also not yet been funded and do not qualify for Prop O funds.

City Council to Officially Support Occupy L.A.

October 6, 2011 by · 1 Comment 

The Los Angeles City Council moved Wednesday to support a group of demonstrators camped on the lawn of City Hall as part of a nationwide series of demonstrations aimed at calling attention to the gap between rich and poor.

Seven of the 15 council members signed a resolution to support “peaceful and vibrant exercise in First Amendment Rights carried out by ‘Occupy Los Angeles.”’

Hundreds of demonstrators have been camping on or near Wall Street in New York City since Sept. 17. As many as 700 people have been arrested since then.

The Los Angeles resolution calls for a vote on a “responsible banking” measure by Oct. 28. It would require the city to divest from banks and financial institutions that have not cooperated with efforts to prevent foreclosures.

“This resolution supports the goals of Occupy L.A. and the need for responsible banking reform,” said valley-area City Councilman Richard Alarcon, who co-sponsored the motion with his Westside colleague Bill Rosendahl.

Alarcon sent a memo to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, asking him to issue an executive order preventing Occupy L.A. demonstrators from having to move their tents from the City Hall lawn to sidewalks at night. Protesters have been camping on the north side of City Hall since Saturday morning.

Police have been enforcing a city ordinance that prevents people from sleeping in city parks, including the lawn of City Hall, at night to move their tents from the lawn to the sidewalk around 10 p.m. and back to the lawn about 6 a.m.

Alarcon said the enforcement has pushed the campers within feet of a major road, “inadvertently contributing to a potential major public safety issue, should a vehicle swerve off the road.”

The mayor does not have the authority to change Los Angeles Municipal Code, even by executive order, Villaraigosa spokesman Peter Sanders said. The City Council is the city’s lawmaking body.

“The mayor does support Occupy L.A. and the right to peaceful assembly,” Sanders said, adding that Villaraigosa’s office provided the demonstrators with 100 ponchos this morning.

Dozens of demonstrators, drenched by an unseasonable downpour, took the demonstration inside Wednesday to address the council.

“My current address is 200 North Spring Street (City Hall),” Marlen Stern told the council. “I am a 2009 graduate of Cal State Northridge who can’t find a job. I’m 27 and at the mercy of my father’s L.A. County pension.”

Stern, a history major who wants to teach or do social work, said he joined Occupy L.A. to fight for “health care, jobs, and education and against the environmental degradation caused by rampant unchecked consumption.”

Councilman Dennis Zine, a former cop, thanked the protesters for being respectful and under control.

“It’s not a hostile environment as we see in Greece and other parts of the world,” Zine said. “Stay on the focus of what you’re doing. You’ve got our support … You’re out there in the rain, which is a miserable condition to live in.

Councilman Bill Rosendahl called Occupy L.A. democracy at its best.

”There was an Arab Spring. You’re seeing an American Autumn. And it’s connecting all over America,” Rosendahl said. “And if Washington can appreciate that, they’ll withdraw the troops from these crazy wars. They will make the rich pay their fair share and reinvest in education, health care, infrastructure and the American people.”

“So thank you for making the American democracy work today,” he added.

The full City Council is expected to vote on the resolution in support of Occupy L.A. on Tuesday.

Cityhood: The Only Way to Go, Says East LA Residents Group

October 6, 2011 by · 1 Comment 

Day-to-day quality of life issues, long-term community planning and infrastructure would improve if unincorporated East Los Angeles were to become a city, according to members of the East Los Angeles Resident Association (ELARA) board of directors, the group leading the incorporation effort.

So far, most of the debate has focused on a study detailing the area’s financial state, but a deeper discussion of the issues related to the area becoming a city is needed, ELARA members told EGP during a recent interview.

The group raised funds for the CFA through menudo breakfasts, car washes and other grassroots efforts. (Courtesy of ELARA)

Yes, money is an issue, but so is having a say in how the money is spent. Residents should at least get a chance to vote on whether incorporation is a good idea, the board members told EGP.

Later this month, the Los Angeles Local Agency Formation Commission (LA LAFCO) Commission will decide whether it will recommend the LA County Board of Supervisors place East Los Angeles’ incorporation question on the ballot, or vote to stop the process.

“ELARA will not settle for anything less than the people voting,” said Alberto Palacios, ELARA parliamentarian.

The commission will decide whether it believes the area has enough of a financial base to be self-supporting.  A Comprehensive Fiscal Analysis (CFA) required by law, and paid for by ELARA, detailing the area’s revenues and expenses was released in September. It showed the area could face a sizeable multi-year deficit should it become a city.

ELARA disagrees with many of the study’s findings however, and is deciding whether to seek an independent audit by the State Controller, which comes with a $25,000 price tag and an Oct. 17 deadline.

A menudo fundraiser at the Eugene Obregon American Legion Hall in 2009 and volunteers setting up to sell t-shirts. (Courtesy of ELARA)

While much of the attention has so far been focused on the CFA’s projected deficit and fears of cuts to law enforcement and business taxes increases, ELARA says revenue neutrality negotiations—the terms of incorporation that sets the percent the county collects or gives up in property taxes and sales tax—could give East LA the upper hand.

ELARA has met with County CEO William Fujioka to discuss issues such as “over payment” for law enforcement, management of Belvedere Park and other revenues sources and cost saving options. If they are satisfied with the Fujioka’s response, they will not seek a review, they told EGP.

ELARA says it asked Fujioka for a “very fair share” of property tax allocations since the county has many large tax-exempt properties located in unincorporated East Los Angeles. ELARA President

Benjamin Cardenas compares this to annexation, saying one way to take away revenue-generating sources is to have them annexed, the other is to make them tax-exempt.

The group also asked for a fair accounting of East Los Angeles’ share of Community Development Block Grant (CDBG), federal infrastructure grants, and Prop 172 funds that are earmarked for public safety.

ELARA’s board members said the CFA is difficult to understand, and they suspect many of their critics have not read it in its entirety. They said residents should read the study for themselves and ask questions, and think about the benefits cityhood would have on East Los Angeles as a whole.

The benefits are more than just numbers on a balance sheet. There is a lot to be said for having city council members who live in the area and are sensitive to the area’s quality of life issues, according to ELARA. They can fight to protect residents from air pollution, or be a place where residents can take their grievances, ELARA said, citing as examples changes to street-sweeping parking rules made by the county without first consulting local residents.

“To me it’s simple why I want East LA to become a city. It’s the day-to-day things that impact our lives,” said Palacios, who helped get this incorporation effort started in his Garfield High School government class.

“David Vela, (East L.A. field deputy to Sup. Gloria Molina) nice guy, but he doesn’t live in East LA and Gloria Molina, nice lady, she does a lot for East LA, but she does not live in East Los Angeles. It’s not the same living where the problems or frustrations are, and the agitation when it happens. It’s different when your own government lives right there, when they are your neighbors. They’re the ones who have the power to do it and, to me, that’s as basic as it gets: power at the local level,” Palacios said.

“There is no general plan, no city manager looking out for the quality of life” in unincorporated East LA, Cardenas said.

Responding to their critics’ claims that they haven’t done enough outreach in the community, the group — made up of un-paid volunteers with full-time jobs, families and other responsibilities — said others need to take some ownership and ask themselves what they can do.

“If this community isn’t running in the black, why is that? It is not acceptable that this community is in the hole. Who is responsible to make sure this community is thriving? If you’re a stakeholder, what are you going to do about it? If you’re a community leader, take a little responsibility and help outreach …” Cardenas said.

Just getting the CFA done was a major victory, they said. Now residents and the county have real financial data about East LA, which was not available before. While the study has found a structural deficit, it now gives the community a basis to create an economic recovery plan, the board members added.

They say a locally elected city council could put together a budget that stimulates the local economy and includes local businesses incentive programs, like redevelopment and enterprise zones.

“Being a city is the only way to go. It’s the only way to improve economics…” according to ELARA Treasurer Gustavo Camacho, director of a local business group.

Accepting the excuse that the area is “too poor” is condescending and paternalistic, and whoever says East LA doesn’t have leadership is living in the past. Those who say East LA’s city council will be corrupt are insulting the community, Cardenas said.

Too many people underestimate East LA. The Latino buying power is no joke, but many residents have to leave the area to make purchases. The area has also lost human capital. When East LA’s brightest students return from college they move next door to nicer communities—including the cities of Montebello and Monterey Park. A city could help turn that tide around, promote opportunities and East Los Angeles as a cultural destination, said ELARA’s board members.

East Los Angeles is a brand, it is recognized around the world. ELARA’s website gets hits from every continent on the planet, said directors Ana Mascareñas and Kristie Hernandez. “People know about us, but we have no formal voice,” Hernandez said.

Read this story IN SPANISH: Formar una Ciudad Sería lo Mejor, Dice Grupo de Residentes del Este de LA

While some people don’t get the connection between local government and quality of life, the group says the two are related.

Businesses continue to operate illegally because the county makes it too hard and too expensive to get required permits, said Camacho. In turn, business owners who can’t show they’ve been in business can’t get a business loan.

Many of the difficulties local businesses face could be improved and streamlined with local planning and community development departments, he said.

For example, a permit to put up a sign for 60 days can cost less than $100 in neighboring cities, but in unincorporated East LA it costs closer to $1,000. “Any legit business sees benefits [to incorporation],” Camacho said.

Cardenas told the story of an aspiring restaurant owner who has spent five or six years trying to open, following the rules: At this rate, it could take less time to start the City of East Los Angeles, he said.

They point to recent infrastructure improvement projects on Cesar Chavez, City Terrace and Whittier Boulevard over the last three years as proof that the cityhood movement has already raised the bar.

Several of ELARA’s executive board members—including Cardenas, Vice President Diana Tarango, and Hernandez—have been, or are currently employed by an elected official.

They say their first-hand experiences fueled their desire to incorporate East Los Angeles and empower residents to create positive change and have a real voice.

Hernandez said they feel “voiceless” with no local government or formal pipeline where they can express their needs.

ELARA has lobbied for cityhood in Sacramento and Washington D.C., where they said the response has been positive.

When members of Congress make appropriation requests for projects back home, they are usually acting on requests from city officials, but no one does this specifically for unincorporated East LA. If money is approved for the county, there is no guarantee the funds will actually come to East LA, said Cardenas, who works for U.S. Rep. Grace Napolitano.

“When I’m working, it’s part of my job to advocate for the community or to advocate for a representative [former Sen. Gloria Romero], yet I go home to my community and I don’t have a local government … these things just kept adding to the fact that I didn’t have a voice,” Hernandez said.
The group speaks highly of Molina, but notes that she is termed out and unincorporated East LA is just 6 percent of her district. It’s not only Molina making decisions for East LA,, but all five supervisors who have a say, they added.

Residents in East LA have been criticized for their low level of civic participation, but they have never really been given an opportunity to engage, the board members said.

“We are trying to mobilize a community that for 30 years has been under a very paternalistic type of approach where the status quo is better: ‘What we give you should be used to’ … ‘We give you crumbs, you should be happy with it, don’t ever think of the potential.’ But now we are saying wait a minute, no…” Cardenas said.

“Incorporation is likely the best way to improve the civic infrastructure of East Los Angeles,” says Mascareñas, who notes that if East Los Angeles becomes a city it would be the 10th largest city in LA County.

Important upcoming dates: The 30-day period to challenge the accuracy of the CFA by requesting a review by the State Controller ends at 5pm on Oct. 17. If a State Controller review is not requested, LAFCO has tentatively scheduled a public hearing on the issue for Oct. 26. If the review is requested, the public hearing could be moved to Dec. 14.

During the public hearing, the LAFCO Commission could decide whether the City of East Los Angeles is feasible and could recommend that the County Board of Supervisors place incorporation on the ballot for a vote.

Bell Gardens Labor Talks Lead to Agreements, Impasse

October 6, 2011 by · 1 Comment 

The Bell Gardens City Council approved labor agreements with two of its unions but declared an impasse with three other city unions during Monday’s Special City Council meeting.

Two-year agreements were reached with the City Employees Association (CEA) and Police Management Association (PMA) prior to the meeting and the Council ratified those agreements, according to Assistant City Manager Phil Wagner.

However, the city was unable to reach agreements with the Police Officers Association (POA), Public Works Association (PWA) and Public Works Supervisors Association (PWSA) and an impasse was declared, Wagner said.

“Since we were not able to come to agreement, the City Council imposed one-year agreements on these three labor groups for the fiscal year 2011-12. There are no layoffs proposed at this time,” he said in an email.

The City Employees Association (CEA)’s two-year agreement includes a 4 percent employee contribution to the PERS retirement fund, 62 furlough hours, no leave cash-out, caps on health coverage for family members, and 24 hours of additional floating holiday leave.

In the second year, the employee’s PERS contribution will go up to 8 percent, and vacation cash-out for up to 40 hours could be allowed.

Key items in the Police Management Association’s (PMA) agreement includes a 9 percent employee contribution to PERS, with 4.5 percent being due upon completion of the agreement,  and 4.5 percent due January 1, 2012; no cash-outs of leave time; caps on health coverage; and two days of additional holiday leave. In the second year of the agreement, cash-outs could be allowed for up to 80 hours of vacation time and 96 hours of sick time.

Disagreements with the other city employee groups ranged from employee contributions to the retirement fund to being able to cash out unused sick days, as well as a new workweek schedule.

The Police Officers Association (POA) and the city could not agree on the employee portion of the PERS contribution, or on caps on health insurance costs, according to Monday nights’ staff report.
The Public Works Association (PWA) and the city could not come to terms over the implementation of a 4 day-at-10 hours per day (4/10 work schedule). The city had proposed a one-year trial period, but the negotiations failed, according to the staff report.

The Public Works Supervisors Association (PWSA) and city negotiations failed to reach an agreement regarding an additional take-home vehicle and reduction of sick leave cash-out upon departure.

These three groups will be paying 100 percent of the employee portion of PERS. The employee portion of PERS is 9 percent of compensation for the Police Officers Association and 8 percent of compensation for the Public Works Association and Public Works Supervisors Association, according to Finance Director Will Kaholokula. These employees will pay 50 percent now and 100 percent of the employee portion of PERS beginning on January 1, 2012, he said.

In addition, all three groups will now have caps on the amount the city will pay for medical insurance at the 2012 health insurance rates, according to Kaholokula.

In it’s report to the city council, staff noted that a number of other local cities have used cuts to employee benefits to balance their budgets and to help stave off continuing negative impacts from the slow economy on city governments.

The report also noted that declines in revenue from the Bicycle Casino, increases in retiree and health care costs, as well as looming $8.75 bond balloon payment due in Aug. 2012, had created a deficit in the Southeast city, where the unemployment rate is still over 20 percent.

The labor agreements and imposed conditions save the city approximately $775,000 and cuts the city’s $1.2 million budget deficit to about $425,000.

“You are correct in saying that the City was not able to eliminate their entire budget deficit through employee concessions,” Kaholokula said. “Part of the reason is the amount of time it took us to finalize the deals—3 months after the beginning of the fiscal year.”

Montebello May Borrow From Itself To Keep Going

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Montebello may go into survival mode after hitting snags in securing a loan to keep the city running.
City officials originally intended to secure a $3.9 million short-term loan by the end of September, but have been unable to do so after exhausting its entire list of “preferred investors,” according the city’s financial advisors.

At its Sept. 28 meeting, the city council approved a backup plan that includes borrowing $1.7 million from unrestricted internal funds in case continued efforts to secure a loan go south, and the city ends up with no money to pay for city services, such as police, fire, and park maintenance and recreational programs, during dry cash flow months.

Officials claim they came close to securing a loan, but last week’s release of audit reports by the state controller jettisoned any hope of closing those deals for the time being.

According to Interim City Administrator Larry Kosmont, one deal he thought had been a sure thing fell through the day after State Controller John Chiang’s audits of the city’s redevelopment agency and gas tax funds were released.

Chiang claimed the city misspent $31 million “at the expense of local job development, street repair, and schools.”

City officials claim most of Chiang’s findings were based on “fundamental errors” and lack “proper legal authority.”

As the city and the controller’s office sort out the claims, several more audits that examine the city’s internal controls and the city’s use of state and federal funds are expected to come out of Chiang’s office in the coming weeks.

Under the backup plan, if officials fail to obtain a loan in the next month, they will borrow $1.1 million from its water fund, $250,000 from its self-insurance fund, and work to speed up $325,000 in grant reimbursements.

Kosmont said the transfer of these funds are “entirely legitimate” and will be documented by the city attorney.

Without an external loan, the city would be less able to respond to unforeseen circumstances, and they will not be able to pursue revenue-generating projects as planned.

The city administrator and finance staff will also spend more time watching ledgers to ensure compliance with spending limits. Officials say the backup plan will keep employee jobs intact.

Mayor Pro Tem Frank Gomez said in a city press release that while the backup plan – also called “Plan C” – would mean “belt-tightening,” the city council does not “anticipate it will impact the city’s ability to continue to provide quality public services.”

Kosmont said at the Sept. 28 meeting that cash will likely be tight between November and January, and in early April, as the city awaits reimbursements of its share of tax revenue from the state and county.

He also confirmed the city continues its search for a permanent city administrator. “The cash flow management issue is going to be a longer-term issue. The sooner that the city really gets a permanent leadership in place that’s technically qualified, the better for them,” said Kosmont, who was hired in May when the city could not find a qualified city administrator to serve permanently.

EDITORIAL: Occupy LA: Power To The 90 Percent

October 6, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Seeking what they call a more equitable and democratic society, protestors across the country have now given voice to the anger and disgust a great many Americans have for government and corporate America.

Yes, these protests are highly disorganized with no central leadership, but they are growing in numbers and locations. Including here in our own front yard, so to speak.

It is getting more and more difficult to to direct fault for the country’s large number of economic problems. Even the economists, who profess to see glimmers of improvement, do so with little enthusiasm, and words filled more with caution than with hope.

And if they are having a hard time seeing down the road, is it any wonder that many of this country’s “regular people” are uncertain about their futures?

The growing numbers of protests, which include people from all walks of life, young and old, the educated and jobless, and one time middle income wage earners, should give the banks and Wall Street, as well as our federal, state and local governments, an idea of what people in this country are mad about, and how close they are to saying we just are not going to take being pushed aside and minimized any more.

It seems the people who invest in the stock market are less concerned about the lasting impact of long-term unemployment, declining incomes and the U.S.’s rising rate of poverty, than they are about bank revenues, stock dividends and corporate profits, as if those things alone will solve our financial crisis.

Bank revenues are growing not because of a growth in their business, but because they continue to squeeze Americans with an ever-growing number of fees, consolidations and labor cuts.

The public is warned that efforts to enact a minimum tax for corporations will also add to unemployment, yet major corporations continue to offshore their workforce and layoff American workers while they still benefit from tax policies that more often than not shield them from taxes most other smaller American companies must pay.

State legislators continue to pile on taxes even while cutting services to their residents.

Insurance companies continue to raise rates even while they continue to increase their profits and pay their CEOs enormous sums of money, some of which could be used to lower premiums.

These are only a few of the issues angering many Americans, including those now “Occupying L.A.”
So we won’t laugh or criticize those protesting, but will instead hope that more Americans will engage in these demonstrations, or find another way to communicate to our elected officials, and the holders of our capital, that the power of this nation also belongs to the bottom 90 percent of our country’s people.

Positive School Environments, Not Metal Detectors, Are the Key to Student Success

October 6, 2011 by · 3 Comments 

Graduating from high school is the dream of most L.A. students. We understand that education and a diploma can make the difference between a healthy, successful future and a dead-end job, or worse, the criminal justice system.

But just getting to and staying in school can be a daily struggle, especially for those of us coming from the poorest communities. And when we arrive at campus, we often feel unwelcome and unmotivated in a climate where police and parole officers may outnumber counselors, and teacher layoffs create overcrowded classes.

It starts on the way to school. The trip could mean walking through five or more neighborhoods, each with its own dramas, including drug and gang violence. A monthly bus pass costs $24, a big expense for families, and when buses are full, they will pass you by. A late bus could mean arriving at school after the bell rings and getting a $250 truancy ticket from the police just for being a few minutes late.  And then you have to miss more school to go to court, the only way the truancy ticket fine can be reduced.

Arriving at school, we may be greeted by a security guard or police officer, sometimes metal detectors, and gates that lock behind us when the bell rings. The police can enter classrooms, at the principal’s direction, to do random searches of our belongings, using metal detector wands. They’ve even used dogs to sniff our lockers for drugs. It’s not violence from our classmates that worries us. It’s the prison-like conditions that make us feel unsafe.

Teachers and principals use suspensions too freely, sending students out of class for behaviors they label as “willful defiance,” a catch-all term in the state Education Code that can be used as a reason to remove students without explanation for what that actually means.

If we are late to class, their attitude often is, “Why bother being here? Just go home.” They don’t realize that for many L.A. public school students, school is a safer haven than their own homes, a place to escape the problems in their families. We stay in school because we don’t want to get in trouble. If we aren’t welcomed in school, where can we go?

We are calling attention to this issue as part of the National Week of Action on school discipline, taking place Oct 1-7 in 25 cities across the U.S., including Los Angeles.  It’s time to raise awareness about the overuse of truancy tickets and other forms of harsh school discipline that are on the rise in California and across the nation, and that research has shown don’t help schools become safer and more successful.

A quality education is our ticket to great possibilities, but L.A.’s schools are failing in their mission to educate. Aggressive policing in and around schools, high suspension rates and a basic lack of respect for students by staff create the conditions that have the effect of pushing out students who most need to stay in school. For too many of us, this results in being pushed into the juvenile justice system.

We call on the Los Angeles Unified School District to address the challenges students face in staying in school. Fully fund “safe passages to school” programs to make the trip to school easier and more secure.  Instead of more law enforcement on campus, invest in counseling and programs like restorative justice that hold students accountable for misbehavior instead of simply kicking them out. Make sure that youth who have been in the juvenile justice system get enrolled in school once they are released, with all the support services they need to succeed.

And make the school-wide positive behavior supports policy, adopted in 2007 as an alternative to harsh and “automatic” zero-tolerance discipline, a reality.

In a school climate where students are treated with respect, and expectations are high, we will respond by respecting teachers and administrators and reaching our full potential. Help us stay in school so we can walk across the stage, diploma in hand, and into a brighter future.

Claudia Gomez, 20, and Leslie Mendoza, 16, are members of Youth Justice Coalition, a youth advocacy group that promotes reforms to LA educational policies and the juvenile justice system.

Exposing Official’s Sexual Harassment

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Xiomara Benitez Blanco was 19 years old with little formal education when she came by herself to the U.S. from El Salvador to find work. She made her way to Durham, and by 2009 had worked in a series of service jobs that gave her hope for a better life. She led a peaceful and quiet existence for four years. That was until she met Bedri Kulla.

They met through on an on-line social networking site. In his on-line profile he said he was a flight attendant. After exchanging a few messages, she agreed to meet him for coffee. He quickly manipulated Xiomara into talking about her background, and also made it clear he was ,interested in way more than just coffee. When she refused, he showed her his badge and informed Xiomara that he had the power to deport her. The next day, he showed up at her workplace with a bouquet of roses and a copy of a deportation order that had been issued against her a few years earlier.

Kulla worked as an Immigration Services Officer for the Durham branch of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, a federal agency under the Department of Homeland Security that works with people who want to legally immigrate to the U.S. He did not, however, work for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, which has the authority to deport. But having little knowledge of U.S. immigrations systems, Xiomara was petrified.

There was, indeed, a deportation order previously issued for Xiomara as she had come close to being deported in 2008. But police had released her after ICE issued an Order of Supervision that allowed her to temporarily stay in the U.S. and work legally while being treated for aserious kidney ailment.

During this time, Kulla sent her a barrage of alternately cajoling and threatening texts. She refused his sexual advances, despite the potentially devastating consequences. And he did not take “no” for an answer. Xiomara was so fearful that she thought she would be arrested if she went into the hospital for the surgery she desperately needed.

Xiomara told a social worker at Duke Hospital about Kulla’s threats. The worker put her in touch me, and working with other attorneys and volunteers, we able to gain her trust. We told her that just because she didn’t have the proper papers, didn’t mean she didn’t have any rights.

Despite the potential peril and ongoing medical challenges, Xiomara filed a complaint against Kulla with the police and cooperated with ICE and USCIS in their investigation. She later testified against him in court.

Xiomara stood up against him and pursued justice to the end. He is now in a Texas jail serving a 12-month sentence.

Xiomara was recently honored as one of 15 Freedom from Fear Award winners from around the country. The award was announced at Netroots Nation, a gathering of digital media makers and bloggers. It honors ordinary people who have committed extraordinary acts of courage on behalf of immigrants and refugees – individuals who have taken a risk, set an example, and inspired others to awareness or action.

Award recipients come from a broad range of people from all over the political spectrum who are all involved in standing up for immigrant rights across the country – ranging from a former police chief from Phoenix, a conservative immigrant from Columbia living in Utah, an undocumented worker from South Pasadena, California, and a number of students and activists.

The Freedom from Fear Award takes its name from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous “Four Freedoms” speech 70 years ago in which he outlined four fundamental freedoms that people “everywhere in the world” ought to enjoy: Freedom of speech and expression; Freedom of religion; Freedom from want; and Freedom from fear. These fundamental freedoms are just as important now as they were then.

I was honored to nominate Xiomara and she was equally honored to receive such an award. She stood up to Kulla because she believes that all of us can and should stand up for what’s right, such as basic human dignity for all people, including other immigrants.

The Awards are particularly fitting on the 50th Anniversary of the Freedom Rides that helped dismantle segregation in the South, and on the heels of the Arab Spring which has shown the power of ordinary people overcoming their fear.

Xiomara’s public resistance inspired other woman to come forward. After ,her case received media coverage, other women came forward either ,directly or through their attorneys and reported that Kulla had victimized them as well.

It was scary for Xiomara to work with ICE agents during the investigation. But she overcame her fears to make sure that what happened to her never happened to another woman. And while undocumented workers across America continue to be vulnerable, at least one victimizer is behind bars.

Rosenbluth, executive director of the NC Immigrant Rights Project. He nominated Xiomara Benitez Blanco for the Freedom from Fear Award, which honors ordinary people who have committed extraordinary acts of courage on behalf of immigrants and refugees. www.freedomfromfearaward.com. Copyright (C) 2011 by the North Carolina Editorial Forum

Montebello Unified’s Fight Against Hunger Hits Close To Home

October 6, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Montebello Unified kicked off a month-long “War on Hunger” food drive Sept. 29, at Suva Intermediate in Bell Gardens.

Donations can be made to the school district, as well as the Camino Federal Credit Union’s main branch, located at 520 N. Taylor Ave. in Montebello, right up until Oct. 28 when the drive ends.

“As a result of State budget cuts and rising unemployment rates, there is a growing need for food assistance in the communities we serve,” MUSD Board President Ed Chau said at the kick-off.

School boardmembers including Marcella Calderon, at podium, and Gerri Guzman kicked off the War on Hunger food drive campaign.

In Los Angeles County alone, 400,000 children go hungry. Last year the district identified 350 students as homeless, and eighty percent of students in the district are categorized as low-income and qualify for free and reduced lunches.

Boardmember Gerri Guzman, who spearheaded the project, said the effort will help students in the district whose families “simply cannot provide for them,” and says the food drive shows not only “how close-knit our district is, but also how effective we are when we work together toward a common goal.”

In past years the “War on Hunger” food drive drew more than 30,000 pounds in donations of non-perishable foods. This is the district’s third annual drive.

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