Pursuit of Justice

I’ve covered the ugly side of race relations in Los Angeles for many years. Among my memories are the Watts Riots, the 1992 riot, the public school desegregation
fight and the breakup of the Tom Bradley black-Jewish political coalition.

This may have been the reason for the unexpected emotional high I felt on Sunday, March 7, when I sat in the sanctuary of Temple Isaiah. More than 450 whites, Latinos, African Americans and Asian Americans filled the room to capacity. Most of the whites were Jews. All looked serious as they pondered how to have better public schools in Los Angeles, starting with nearby Emerson Middle School and the elementary schools that feed it.

It was an afternoon of both spiritual and secular concerns.

When Rabbi Dara Frimmer spoke from the bimah, I saw the spiritual side. “The words above me read: ‘Tzedek tzedek tirdof, justice justice you shall pursue,’ ” she said.

It was clear that she was talking about pursuing justice far beyond Temple Isaiah or the Westside Jewish community.

“If you only want to tell the story, ‘Isaiah cares about Emerson,’ you’re missing the bigger story,” she said. “This is the story of people who have come together to work for change. Who start with their relationships and expand out beyond the walls of Isaiah, beyond the classrooms of Emerson and the feeder schools, to South L.A., to Northeast L.A., to churches and synagogues and community groups.”

The secular concerns came from One LA, a community-organizing group that had teamed up with Temple Isaiah to put on the event. One LA has a long history of bringing together diverse groups for a variety of causes. Several months ago, I attended a One LA meeting in the Northeast San Fernando Valley organized against home foreclosures. Synagogue members took part. Years before, when Los Angeles seemed to be collapsing under the pressure of racial discord, the group, then called the United Neighborhoods Organization, put together large multiethnic coalitions to fight slums and food markets that overcharged in poor areas.

Saul Alinsky, a legendary Chicago community organizer, spread such groups around the country through his Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF). The most famous IAF veteran is ex-Chicago organizer Barack Obama.

Temple Isaiah linked up with One LA when congregants with elementary school children said they were afraid to send them to Emerson Middle School. White students were a minority, and test scores were low. At the same time, Emerson principal Kathy Gonnella was trying to persuade more neighborhood families to send their children to her school.

One LA had found that children and parents all over the city were frightened by the prospect of moving from small elementary schools to larger middle schools. Its goal was to develop a model for the transition at Emerson and its feeder schools and expand it throughout the Los Angeles Unified School District. The feeder elementary schools range from Saturn Avenue in Mid-Wilshire to Warner Avenue in Westwood.

One LA worked with the temple and the school to organize house meetings and other sessions with parents from Emerson and its feeder schools. People of several ethnic groups and income levels sat around in living rooms and talked. They spoke of their hopes and fears and found they had much in common. The experience was unusual for Los Angeles, with its neighborhoods too often segregated by race. These small meetings grew into the big meeting at Temple Isaiah.

Being a pragmatic organization, One LA seeks to come out of meetings having achieved specific and achievable goals. Once these are achieved, the group moves on to larger goals.

Up on the bimah, which suddenly turned into a hot seat, were Superintendent of Schools Ramon Cortines, District 3 Superintendent Michelle King and school board member Steve Zimmer.

The demands seemed small — and doable. First was that teachers and administrators be given time to work together to prepare fifth-graders for middle school. Second was expansion of “Camp Emerson,” a two-day orientation for graduating fifth-graders. It used to last a week, but school officials cut it down. The third was to provide a safer stop for buses returning students to the neighborhood of the Saturn Avenue School. It now apparently lets them off at a busy convenience store parking lot.

Cortines, King and Zimmer pledged to follow up, but I can just see what will happen. Lower-level school administrators will be reluctant to release teachers for the transition preparation sessions. Expanding Camp Emerson will cost money for a school district strapped for funds. The transportation officials will balk at finding a new bus stop. It will take much vigilance and nudging by the parents, teachers, One LA — and maybe a prayer from the rabbi — to accomplish these goals.

The school bureaucracy may find this hard to resist. And if the goals are reached, the coalition will be empowered, ready to make more and bigger demands — and to help parents all over the city organize.

This would be reform from the grass roots, improving the schools, bringing a divided city together, and lifting public middle and high schools out of a pattern that has driven parents to private schools.

Bill Boyarsky is a columnist for The Jewish Journal, Truthdig and LA Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).