They probably first heard of him the same way they first heard of President Abraham Lincoln—as a preschool coloring project.
They never heard Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. give a speech, they never saw him preach or lead a march. But L.A.’s young community activists—21st -century organizers standing up for exploited workers, for bullied gay teens and for children sickened by polluters too close to their daycare centers—are walking in the footsteps that Dr. King imprinted on the American conscience.
These new leaders are an inspiration to all of us. They’re in the fight for the long haul, working fiercely and persistently for the justice they see lacking in our world. And they work the streets of Los Angeles every day of the year.
Who is on hand to talk to a dazed and terrified dance hostess, a single mother, caught up in a raid on the downtown nightclub where she’s been working in indentured-servitude conditions? Look for Xiomara Corpeño of Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, a new mother herself, who advises immigrant workers facing separation from their families.
Who came back from the Ivy League to her Commerce neighborhood to join her friends and neighbors fighting to survive the area’s escalating industrial pollution? That would be Isella Ramirez of East Yard Communities for a Better Environment, who knows that behind every childhood cancer statistic in low-income, high-pollution neighborhoods is a treasured loved one like her own baby niece.
Who stands with parents seeking safe haven and fair treatment for their gay, lesbian and transgender teenagers in their community’s turbulent streets, under-performing schools and reluctant churches? Latino Equality Alliance’s Ari Gutierrez and Eddie Martinez challenge faith leaders, healthcare leaders, education leaders and families to pull together and fight all kinds of discrimination in East L.A.
Who brings together Black and Latino student commuters, Koreatown grandmas, African immigrants and low-income seniors, raising voices not only for affordable transit fares but for all issues impacting low-income city dwellers? Meet Tammy Bang Luu of Labor/Community Strategy Center, a first-generation Vietnamese-American whose tireless work for people of all backgrounds is based on vision of people of the world meeting on an L.A. bus.
And who is calling forth democracy-movement, people-power emotions in struggling South L.A. neighborhoods, where African-American workers, business people and aspiring families of all races are making it a point to vote in ever-growing numbers? Let me introduce Gloria Walton of Strategic Concepts in Organizing and Policy Education. She knows that the families in South L.A. that she works with are no different than her hard-working mother in Mississippi who can’t afford to come visit or her brother who can’t find work.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” This generation of leaders has taken Dr. King’s injunction to heart and they are taking action. They and their peers find common ground by connecting not only through race, gender, sexual orientation or citizenship status, but also, on higher ground, through shared aspirations and hope for the future.
Eddie and Ari, Isella, Gloria, Xiomara and Tammy are just a few of this generation’s grassroots leaders. They’ve had soul-stretching personal experiences on their journeys from small towns overseas or modest working class American neighborhoods to colleges and universities where they broadened their abilities in other ways.
They’ve consciously sought out teachers—both the kind you find in our best schools and the kind found on corners where the day laborers congregate, at childcare centers and in church basements. Their vision is broad—although they may not yet be able to see the top of the mountain, they’ve seen a lot of ridges and switchbacks and winding trails. They’re able to see the shared human condition and bring that expanded vision to the fight for better health, better jobs and equal rights for their families and neighbors.
None of these community leaders are old enough to have known Martin Luther King, Jr. in his lifetime, but they are all fulfilling his legacy by taking to heart not only his words but his deeds and breathing life into his values every day. These are America’s new young leaders, and day after day, they bend the arc of history toward justice.
Kafi D. Blumenfield
Kafi Blumenfield is President and CEO of Liberty Hill Foundation and serves on the selection committee for the James Irvine Foundation Leadership Awards.