Voices of Los Angeles
Call for Unity Through Human Rights
Throughout their 250-mile journey, the Los Angeles Multathletes encountered a deep recognition and respect for human rights. No matter where they went, they found agreement that these rights must be protected, and that as a culture, we have a shared responsibility for ensuring that they are.
Whereas increasing the awareness of the importance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a primary goal of the Multathletes, the event’s organizers also saw an opportunity to learn from the people in greater Los Angeles how they feel human rights bear on our society today. LA Freedom interviewed three Los Angeles community leaders on the subject of human rights.
We hope our readers will find their words helpful and enlightening as we strive to make Los Angeles a beacon for all those working to make human rights a reality.
“If you give us the tools, we will solve it...”
Tim Watkins is the son of the founder of the Watts Labor Community Action Committee and is today its president. He is deeply concerned with the problems of his community and has a strong purpose to solve them.
Freedom: From your viewpoint, what do you feel are the most important human rights issues facing Los Angeles?
Watkins: I think the key issue is the quality of life in Watts and the right to self determination — being able to actively participate in the decision making processes that ultimately leads to the formation of policies that affect us in our day to day life here.
Whether that has to do with education, law enforcement or economic development, that’s where we’re left out of the mainstream. It robs us of the opportunity to become a self-sufficient community. When people have control of the rights they are guaranteed, they can utilize those rights and become self-sufficient because we are all playing by similar rules.
What troubles me the most about Los Angeles is that poor people — predominantly of minority descent — are constantly pitted against one another by a dominant culture that causes them to focus their frustration on each other, as opposed to putting their attention on arbiters of economic and intellectual viability in our community who could help change those conditions.
“Were we to bring about tolerance and cooperation, the sky is the limit of what we can accomplish. Tolerance and cooperation are tools that diverse groups need to utilize in order to make progress.”
— Tim Watkins, Watts Labor Community Action Committee
Freedom: What do you see as the solution to that problem?
Watkins: There was a very interesting piece that was written for the American Council on Race Relations that sounded like Orson Wells wrote it, because it was straight out of the future. It talked about how poor people in Watts and East Los Angeles needed to get together to have spirited, contentious debate, to get the problems between them out of the way so they could focus on the real source of their frustration.
The real source of frustration comes from the affluent decision makers who determine the quality of life issues for people by serving as gatekeepers to the resources that deserve to be shared equally. Too often resources are diverted to those who have a stronger political or intellectual influence.
Both of these sides need to work together. Both groups are having independent debates that result in independent conclusions. If we are going to solve community problems, we must consult the people who suffer the disparities that Watts and communities like it suffer.
Freedom: How would you reconcile those two points of view?
Watkins: Instead of having the traditional external forces impose what they believe is the solution to poverty within our community, we should be presented with the question, “What is it that you believe would resolve your dilemma in Watts?”
We would answer that we need an opportunity to access the tools. To empower a community suggests it is given permission to use the tools that are available. Empowerment where the tools are inaccessible is not empowerment.
I also think that were we to bring about tolerance and cooperation, the sky is the limit of what we can accomplish. Tolerance and cooperation are tools that diverse groups need to utilize in order to make progress.
To prepare those groups to develop a greater capacity for tolerance and cooperation, they need to be conditioned and enriched. They need to become aware of the cultural differences between them in order to develop a greater appreciation and understanding of one another. They should encourage each other to enlighten themselves.
Freedom: So individual groups need to continue to foster and retain their own cultural heritage?
Watkins: I routinely tell Latino people they should keep hold of their culture as long and as far into the future as possible, because that constitutes who they are, and it is the product of their collective experience. Likewise, young black people who don’t want to listen to the blues are conceding one of our greatest cultural riches to other cultures, to other groups that had nothing to do with the experience.
Thirty years from now, rap will be the blues. And 30 years from that it will be whatever is happening. It’s an evolutionary process that people need to understand. It is a people expressing itself. Without that quality, it would be a very linear world, with very, very few colors and very, very few flavors — very few styles, everything would march in the same order at the same tempo and rise and fall at the same time.
“The real challenge is making religion relevant in people’s lives.”
Barry Smedberg is the Executive Director of the San Fernando Valley Interfaith Council. Mr. Smedberg sees religion as a powerful antidote to many of the problems that face our city.
Freedom: What do you see as the most important human rights issues in Los Angeles?
Smedberg: There are three human rights issues in Los Angeles: inadequate affordable housing, inadequate salaries and lack of space which is actually a byproduct of the other two, as people are stacked on top of one another in very small spaces.
We have a situation in Los Angeles, where because somebody is from a different culture, others contend they are not comfortable, and so it goes both ways. This tendency to seek comfort amongst one’s own has propagated many segregated segments within the society that want to remain segregated. We’ve got a section for Koreans, a section for Spanish, a section for Jewish and a section for Blacks. It is a natural thing for people to seek out their own, but it breaks down a sense of greater community where all are working together and doing something worthwhile together.
This lack of a sense of community is the most troubling situation I see in Los Angeles. Though we are working at building community, we have a long way to go to make it feel like we really have one. It goes back to no time to smell the flowers, to meet one’s neighbor, to respond to people who are in need in our midst, such as the poor and the elderly.
Freedom: What do you see as the solution to these problems?
Smedberg: I think the real challenge is making religion relevant in people’s lives. This is really the antidote to the rat-race existence that many people lead that leaves us with no time to hear or respond to the human needs in our midst.
We are so busy going from here to there, we lose our sense of community, and frankly, we lose our sense of religion, because that is what ties us back to something bigger. My biggest challenge is to keep religion relevant in people’s lives.
All religions provide us with an inner motive to do what we want because it is the right thing to do. On that common motivation we get the beginnings of a community. With that, we can then make cultural and religious diversity in LA an advantage that elevates us above indifference, even suspicion and fear.
Some of the questions I ask myself: If somebody becomes mentally ill, whose fault is that? When a man doesn’t have enough money because of hard times to provide for his family, whose fault is that? It is easy to wash one’s hands, but even in the case of drug abusers, you can ask the question, how did that man or woman, boy or girl, get into that situation in the first place, if we didn’t allow it to happen?
Freedom: How does our sense of cultural diversity contribute to that?
Smedberg: The goal is not to discover we are all the same. It is in fact vital to understand how we are different. This way we find our different strengths and weaknesses, and then knowing these, we can strengthen our overall community.
What religions have historically accomplished, and what our communities need, is the rehabilitation of hurting souls. When people don’t feel good about themselves, religion can offer ways for them to feel alright with themselves, and nothing could be more relevant to our lives. It gives people the chance to move forward. If they are bogged down in what’s happened in the past, they are never going to move forward into the future, and then only fear and suspicion prevails.
“Let there be no strangers among us...”
Rabbi Allen I. Freehling
Rabbi Allen I. Freehling is Senior Rabbi at University Synagogue in Brentwood and chairman of the Los Angeles Human Relations Commission. He was a member of the Multathlon Advisory Board and spoke at the opening ceremony to launch the Multathlon on Human Rights Day. Freedom asked Rabbi Freehling how we can make human rights a reality in Los Angeles.
Rabbi Allen I. Freehling, Chairman, LA Human Relations Commission: “It is particularly important to me to work with every religion, as they embody great wisdom that can be drawn on to teach the practice of tolerance.”
Freedom: What obstacles are there in Los Angeles to improving human rights?
Rabbi Freehling: There are three special conditions that contribute to the human rights climate in Los Angeles today.
The first, though not solely an outcome of current events, has nonetheless been seriously affected by them. That is our precarious economy. During times of economic threat, people begin to look at one another with suspicion. Certainly we have the precedent that anti-Semitic attacks are worse when economics are at their worst. When people feel that their livelihood is threatened, it is easy for certain societies and groups to be singled out as being at fault in creating the resulting hardship.
Such targeting also leads to the belief that certain people are outsiders or strangers in our midst — people who should not be tolerated. Our concern today in Los Angeles is that certain individuals use this as provocation to act irresponsibly.
The second factor is more specialized to current circumstances. The rush to war with Iraq is an issue capable of great division, not only here but across the United States. In our city there exist strong proponents of war, but also many champions of peace. The danger is that some will perceive failure to support a military action against Iraq as tacit alliance with enemies of the United States.
The third factor is that Los Angeles is affected by the declaration of war against terrorism, which has resulted in the Patriot Act and Homeland Security Act. To some, these signal tacit support for irresponsible actions against others. It also adds fuel to the idea of “strangers in our midst.” Real perception of individuals is replaced by the singling out of groups, and then targeting those groups, because they are “not us.” That attitude can affect any group that is perceived to be “not the same.” That for some translates to “we must protect our own.” It becomes the motivation for exclusion and even persecution.
Freedom: Have you seen this happen?
Rabbi Freehling: Oh, yes. Even before I took my present position at the Human Relations Commission, individuals came to me as Senior Rabbi of University Synagogue, because of their concerns for their safety. The people who came were very frightened. They were hearing hate language and they were witnessing hate crimes.
Freedom: What is the Human Relations Commission doing to address this concern?
Rabbi Freehling: The Commission has set up a network of satellite groups called the Human Relations Network. It is made up of numerous non-profit, human relations and social justice groups who are combining their forces so that they can be more effective and give better assistance to people affected by actions motivated by hate or suspicion.
Additionally, I have formed the Council of Government Representatives. This council consists of local, state and federal law enforcement commanders, myself and Robin Toma, Executive Director of Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission. We are looking at how we can improve our response in the event of natural disaster or human calamity.
Freedom: What role do religious organizations play in this?
Rabbi Freehling: I have formed a Faith Leaders Advisory Board made up of 30 different faith communities. The focus of this body is to work out ways to offer assistance when difficult times arise, so that we can rapidly deal with any threats to the community.
It is particularly important to me to work with every religion, as they all embody great wisdom that can be drawn on to teach the practice of tolerance. In the Judaic tradition, for example, is the teaching “What is hateful to you do not do to another person.” Similar ideas are echoed in all the religions, and it is recognition of this universal truth that we are ultimately seeking to instill through our work at the Commission and in every segment of this community of ours, which we engage in lasting collaborative efforts.