Voices of South LA promotes social justice

On Thursday night at Annenberg Auditorium, Visions and Voices held “Voices of South Los Angeles: Food, Recreation and the Arts as Social Justice,” the second of its three-part series examining community building in and around USC and the rest of South Los Angeles. The event was composed of a panel of leaders from the South Los Angeles community to give their input on how to promote social justice.

With a focus on the organizations and movements that are responding to the disparities in the area surrounding USC, the event was organized by Visions and Voices coordinators Alison Trope, Robeson Taj Frazier and George Villanueva and co-sponsored by the Environmental Student Assembly and the Black Social Work Caucus.

“Voices of South Los Angeles” brought panelists from the South L.A. community together to discuss their views on food justice, urban agriculture, community arts and recreation. Panelists included Ben Caldwell, founder and director of Kaos Network, a media and arts organization based in Leimert Park; Karen Mack, founder and executive director of LA Commons; Javier Partida, founder of the Los Ryderz Bike Club, a youth cycling and gang-intervention program; and Neelam Sharma, the executive director of Community Services Unlimited, Inc., where she helped create and develop a food-justice education and training project called “The Community Food Village.”

CSU unites people of all ages, from children in pre-kindergarten to senior citizens, by building urban farms locally. Currently, there are six urban farms located in South Los Angeles.

Sharma began the question and answer session, moderated by Villanueva, by explaining the importance of food to the community.

“Food is one of the best connectors that there is,” Sharma said. “It’s an entry point into any social issue you can think of.”

CSU attempts to bring together various races by allowing community members to first discuss the differences between races that have been affected by oppression and then by using the history of food to highlight commonalities that exist between all races.

Villanueva then turned to Mack and asked her about how the arts are related to social justice. Mack founded and is currently the executive director of LA Commons, a community arts organization that promotes the cultural diversity of Los Angeles neighborhoods through the arts. She is also president of the Board of the Los Angeles Neighborhood Initiative and an appointed member of the Los Angeles Board of Neighborhood Commissioners.

Mack sees art as a connector between people and as a way of telling a story about a neighborhood. She uses LA Commons to engage artists and transform stories into public art. For example, LA Commons partners with high schools and recruits students to work in the community on art projects such as murals.

Caldwell then articulated his view on art, which he believes is holistic in nature.

Through Kaos Network, Caldwell opening up a discussion with the community on how to take charge of the relationship between media and the arts and replacing the negative media images we are often faced with.

Originally from New Mexico where he was raised as a farmer, Caldwell moved to California to study film at UCLA. He went on to teach at Howard University for three years, where he realized how much he enjoyed working with students. As a result, he founded Kaos Network.

In May 2012, inspired by East Side Riders, Partida founded the Los Ryderz Bike Club, a youth cycling and gang-intervention program that works with other bike clubs to educate youth about bicycles and to organize rides to explore South Los Angeles. The program provides youth with a safe space to talk about problems in the community and come up with potential solutions. Partida has noticed how the program he created has built up the self-esteem and confidence of participants.

“I thought in general it was really eye-opening towards the problems we ignore as USC students,” said Ariel Sobel, a sophomore majoring in writing for screen and television. “The story of the man who got all these kids to bike together and the fact that he personally has made it his goal to make kids feel safe and to have a childhood is really a beautiful and powerful thing.”

A reception held on the second floor patio of Annenberg followed the question and answer session with the four panelists.

“I think the talk tonight brought up some key issues that we as a university need to think about,” said Alexandria Donnelly, a sophomore majoring in communication. “I really enjoyed listening to Sharma discuss her organization, as well as her own experience living in Downtown and South Los Angeles.”

The three-part series concludes on March 7 with a walking tour of South Los Angeles.