In April, the Community Coalition held its first open house, which will become a monthly event. The Open House event featured resources for the community of South Los Angeles, whose majority population is African American and Latino.
The Community Coalition for Substance Abuse and Prevention, more commonly known as CoCo, was created by a group of African American and Latino activists in 1990. They wanted to build a collective for people to not feel alone, especially in light of the crack-cocaine epidemic, which largely affected and targeted people of color.
Carlos Leon, the Associate Director for Organizing for CoCo, grew up in South Los Angeles as a young Latino immigrant. Now, he is in charge of events, such as the Open House, and plays an active role in getting residents of South L.A. involved and keeping them aware of their rights, policies that may affect them, and building a supportive community of people of color.
CALÓ NEWS recently interviewed Leon about his role with the Community Coalition and its efforts to help Latinos and other BIPOC people in LA County.
Responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.
WHAT WAS THE IMPORTANCE OF THE OPEN HOUSE?
The pandemic took the veil off people’s eyes and revealed how systemic racism really exists. With the pandemic, there was a digital gap in our community, and people couldn’t access the opportunities, funding and resources to apply online. Instead, people with more privilege were able to take advantage of a lot of the efforts that we were given.
The pandemic hit our community hard. We were already dealing with a lot of issues: displacement, gentrification, Black erasure and others. The community was isolated, and it was very difficult to try to engage people online through Zoom. Our community functions and thrives through helping each other, so we ended up turning ourselves into first responders, dropping off boxes of food to senior citizens. We also tried getting grants, so people could pay their rent, giving out essential supplies like water, toiletries and masks and becoming a vaccination and testing site.
We quickly learned that people in predominantly white, wealthier communities got access to the vaccine first, and South LA were last. Once we pushed for our community to get the vaccines, people from the outside were driving into South LA to take away what we had to help our community survive and stay alive. This affected our community mentally, and there had already been so many layers of systemic racism impacting our community for decades.
As the pandemic slowed down, we wanted to make sure that the Community Coalition did everything we could to reconnect and build community in the safest possible way. That was the purpose of our open house. We wanted people to know that we’re fully reopened and this can be their political home moving forward. We want people to know that this is a place they can find community, reconnect with their neighbors, celebrate each other and learn about policies and resources that can help them.
WHAT KIND OF SUPPORT CAN PEOPLE EXPECT FROM THE COMMUNITY COALITION OPEN HOUSE EVENTS?
We connect people to resources that can assist them with any immediate needs they might have. Whether it’s tenant rights protections, housing or mental health, we want these things to be accessible at a time and place they can attend. We’re very receptive to our residents. A lot of them work two or three jobs, so they ask for things to happen in the evening at around 6 p.m. or 7 p.m. when they are out of work. Or sometimes we might have an event at 10 a.m. or 11 a.m. on Saturdays to make sure we’re not impacting church, community or family gatherings.
We have a committee of residents helping us plan and coordinate what our events should look like. It was a beautiful reminder of community. Once people understand their power and ownership of a space, they’ll take it and reclaim their own joy, hope and resiliency for a better future. That’s what the open house was intending to do as we came back together as one community.
WHAT IMPACT DID THE EVENT HAVE ON THE COMMUNITY ESPECIALLY AFTER THE PEAK OF THE PANDEMIC?
We spoke to the members after the event and asked what their highlights were in doing this kind of work in the last three months. Some of them said, “I feel powerful when I’m able to welcome someone into my house. I know what we’ve done and what we can do.”
We’ve been able to do tours in our community space and our tour gives historical context about South LA and everything about how CoCo started. During the tour, we highlight different values and people can always see images of Black and Brown people working collectively to deal with campaign issues, and young people and seniors working to dismantle issues. Through the images, people can see that we have more in common as Black and Brown folks, and we are stronger together.
When members themselves take ownership of the space and are proud to show these images, they tell me, “I wish I had known earlier about this place.” This is a glimpse of regaining hope and during a time of displacement, gentrification, shifting demographics and feeling disconnected. Some may have had this feeling of isolation, but they are now grateful and excited to bring someone else into the space.
WHY IS IT IMPORTANT FOR MINORITY GROUPS SUCH AS AFRICAN AMERICAN AND LATINO RESIDENTS OF SOUTH LA TO COME TOGETHER?
It is important because we are more connected as people of color. When we’re united, the collective amount of power, vision, and transformation is just beautiful. There are several moments in South LA where you see a Black vendor selling tacos or there are black cowboys going around and you see many instances of blending and empowering each other’s cultures.
There are also commonalities in how we’ve been systematically oppressed and colonized. There are times we get almost pitted against each other on purpose, and we get side-tracked from what or who the real oppressor is. It’s important to have that background, context and knowledge, so we don’t get utilized by trying to assimilate to white supremacy ideals of being individualistic or polarizing each other, because that’s what happened to us.
Honestly, I think that’s one of the main reasons why areas like South LA are still dominantly people of color. Our community strives to thrive and support each other. Being able to come together as Black and Brown people is what makes this happen, and it needs to be constant.
There are similarities and differences between us, and we have to struggle through those conversations. We have to understand what brings us together and what makes us different, and not hide from it. In some ways, we use our differences to see, acknowledge, talk and maybe heal from old harmful habits, and use these to collectively heal together.
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