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A Fire on the Cross
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Human Rights Leadership Profile

U.S. Representative Maxine Waters

By Gaabriel Bratschi

From freedom of speech to freedom to learn, the congresswoman from California stands tall for the rights of the individual.

hen you come from the kind of background that I’ve come from, you just have to fight to make things better,” said U.S. Representative Maxine Waters, who has represented California’s 35th district since 1990.

With problems clouding the nation’s future, declining educational levels, proliferating crime and rampant drug abuse, Waters provides a model in her personal and professional life of the dedication and drive needed to combat these social ills.

Born in St. Louis into a family that subsisted on welfare in public housing, she married, moved to California, got a degree from California State University, raised two children, and embarked upon a career whose hallmark has been consistent efforts to improve conditions for those around her.

She began with Project Head Start, a federal effort to provide assistance to disadvantaged youth. In 1976, she ran for a seat in the California State Assembly and won, going on to become the first woman in California’s history to be elected chair of the assembly’s Democratic Caucus.

During her 14-year tenure in the state assembly, she gained a reputation as a tough and fearless advocate of human rights. She championed the passage of a bill banning investment of California state pension monies in South Africa while that nation practiced apartheid, established the nation’s first statewide training program in child-abuse prevention, and authored landmark legislation to guarantee access to state procurement opportunities for businesses owned by women and minorities.

Fighting for a Better Future

Elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1990 with 79 percent of the vote in her Southern California district, she won reelection in 1992 and 1994 by even larger margins.

“I see my job as much more than simply casting votes on the issues of the day,” Rep. Waters said. “Whether the issue is empowering our youth or striking a blow against crime, improving the veterans’ services or helping our small businesspeople, I believe in a hands-on approach to solving our community’s problems. Creating jobs and promoting economic opportunities are my first priorities.”

The emphasis of her work has long been youth—an interest that today extends not only to those in her own neighborhood and city, but across the country. Her public activities reflect a personal conviction that the secret to rehabilitating society and creating a better future for children lies in strengthening communities and empowering citizens to control their own lives.

On the streets of every major city in the United States, thousands of young men and women face empty futures. Illiteracy, unemployment and homelessness breed a lack of hope, a despair about building a decent life.

Rep. Waters’ concern about these young people and the circumstances that darken their lives led her to take action. Believing that welfare reform, tougher crime laws and more prisons will not solve their problems, she recognizes that the real hope for these youth lies in education.

Increased knowledge leads to greater responsibility, and enables people to take more control of their own lives. Rep. Waters’ view is that those who are educated can think and act for themselves. Not only are they more suited to get and hold a job, they are in a far better position to know what to believe and what not to believe and to make correct decisions about any aspect of their lives. Providing opportunities to learn and imparting knowledge are thus direct and sweeping forms of empowerment that lie at the heart of Rep. Waters’ work.

Waters is a strong proponent of training programs, both for jobs and for vital skills in life. And when programs aren’t readily available to provide the tools so people could hold jobs, she creates them. “You just have to confront problems a little bit differently,” she said.

She organized the Black Women’s Forum, which in turn launched a community-based effort called “L.A. 17 to 30” to help men and women between the ages of 17 and 30. The program provides participants with a “case manager” and a nominal weekly stipend to cover basic necessities so they can participate.

The case manager learns everything there is to learn about each of his or her charges and works with them to improve their lives. That includes making sure they enroll in, and attend, an educational program appropriate to their needs and educational level.

The experiment has been a success: many of those enrolled in “L.A. 17 to 30” have gone on to colleges and vocational training programs, mastered new skills and obtained employment.

“The Best Crime Prevention Program”

After extensive work in the halls of Congress, convincing her colleagues of the need to support such efforts to help inner-city youth, Waters expanded the successful “L.A. 17 to 30” program into the national arena, where it is known as Youth Fair Chance.

President Bill Clinton signed into law a $50 million appropriation for the program in 1994. Like its predecessor, the Youth Fair Chance program provides training in skills for jobs and life.

Today, Youth Fair Chance operates in 17 locations throughout the country, with two in Los Angeles—known as Community Build and Youth Fair Chance Plus—and others in New York, Connecticut, Arizona, Texas and elsewhere.

“I think that Community Build and the Youth Fair Chance Plus programs represent [many] of the things that I set out to do,” President Clinton stated on a visit to Los Angeles. “We’re helping people become part of the economy. And that’s important. ... People need an education. They need jobs. They need a future, to give dignity to life.”

“Whether the issue is empowering our youth or striking a blow against crime, improving the veterans’ services or helping our small businesspeople, I believe in a hands-on approach to solving our community’s problems.” - U.S. Representative Maxine Waters

He added that American cities and the country as a whole “are better off because of programs like this, and better off because we’re giving ... young people some activities they can be engaged in that are positive so they have something to say ‘yes’ to as well as something to say ‘no’ to.”

A report prepared for the U.S. Labor Department profiled a number of youths helped by Youth Fair Chance and stated that the program “has had an impact on the lives of many youth served, just a few of whom are profiled in this report. For the profiled youth, the impact has been tremendous. Although their involvement in Youth Fair Chance program activities may not be the sole motivating factor in turning their lives around, it can be credited with making a positive difference and helping to lay the foundation for their future successes.”

Rep. Waters calls it “the best crime prevention program” because youth who complete it and are gainfully employed generally do not turn to crime.

More than 300 people have been placed in jobs through one program site in South-Central Los Angeles alone, according to Marva Smith, program director. She gives full credit for the program’s success to Rep. Waters’ efforts over more than a dozen years to develop and implement solutions that help people to help themselves.

Support of Basic Freedoms

Throughout her career, Rep. Waters has supported and defended human rights. An outspoken advocate of personal rights and freedoms, particularly freedom of speech, she has said, “We should not fear freedom of expression.

“As an African-American woman, I appreciate the civil-rights struggle and the struggle of my people, who were captives in a slave system that denied all freedoms.

“I cherish the ability our Constitution gives us to speak out. I would never support any public policy that would deny the right even of my enemies to speak their minds.”

Maxine Waters’ direct and persistent approach to solving social ills has earned both controversy and respect. But whether advocating freedom for Nelson Mandela more than a decade ago, or lobbying for funds to support job-training efforts today, her work has advanced the cause of human rights.

In an address to the House of Representatives, she said, “I believe that, in the end, we shall measure whatever progress we may make in our urban agenda not just by bars and graphs and thickets of numbers in reports we wave around on this floor, but rather by whether we’ve given some hope for a better life to those who now have so little.”
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