Rising From the Ashes

August 20, 2015

Fifty years ago this month, a 12-year-old boy looked outside his window at a night sky that was not black and filled with stars, but painted red and smeared with smoke. Glancing down at the corner of 103rd Street, he saw a lone National Guard member standing on watch.

“He stood there all night, with a giant gun.”

That boy was Dr. Chris L. Hickey, author of Admired Man Why?: The Making of an Admired Man and executive director of Each One – Teach One, which is dedicated to closing the academic achievement gap for inner-city youth.

Hickey had been away at summer camp the day the Watts Riots started in August 1965. Wanting to be with his family, he quickly returned home to the Watts public housing development of Nickerson Gardens. Along the way, he saw burnt-out buildings and soldiers, but didn’t understand what was happening.

During the day, Hickey recalls that his siblings would play outside like normal. Then at night, he would watch his neighbors come back with bags of stuff, like they had been shopping. He even saw them carrying couches and the large, heavy television consoles of the day.

“I remember thinking that they were the strongest people I had ever seen,” Hickey chuckled. “And they were so happy.”

It wasn’t until he learned that a neighbor had been killed the night before that he understood what was really happening. He talked to his mother, Ardelphia Hickey, a community activist and a founding member of what would become the National Welfare Rights Association, who was writing articles for the local newspaper about the riots.

“The issues facing Watts are not based on differences in race. They are grounded in the need for improved education and feelings of worth for both parents and their children.” – Dr. Chris L. Hickey

“That’s when I started to have a consciousness, to see that this was not just random fighting in the streets – this was something deeper,” said Hickey. “My mother told me terms I had never heard of before, like police brutality and looting.”

Hickey’s mother provided the kind of parenting that demonstrated much of what is now called the “protective factors”. In face of the chaos, she was able to provide a safe, positive environment for her children and had the social connections and relationships in the community to deal with the stress and share information, especially with her eldest son. First 5 LA has made increasing such protective factors in families a cornerstone of its new Strategic Plan.

This experience was the beginning of what would be his solid commitment to helping the Watts community and a lifetime working on social justice issues. Consequently, becoming involved in Best Start was easy and simple for Dr. Hickey.

“I had no choice, really. If there’s something going on in Watts, I’m there,” Hickey said.

In 14 communities throughout Los Angeles County, First 5 LA’s Best Start program brings together parents and caregivers, residents, organizations, businesses, government institutions, and other stakeholders to collectively build a vision and develop strategies to create the best possible community for young children and their families.

As a Leadership Group member of Best Start Watts-Willowbrook, Dr. Hickey has built close relationships with Community Partnership members and knows how hard they are working to make a difference for the families of Watts.

“They are encouraging community leadership and empowerment,” said Hickey. “Not just using the words, but by having activities that allow space for community leadership. The issues facing Watts are not based on differences in race. They are grounded in the need for improved education and feelings of worth for both parents and their children.”

But issues of race are the main focus of a flurry of media attention brought on by the 50th Anniversary of the Watts Riots. Several articles highlight the change in Watts’ demographics, where the once predominately African American population is now mostly Latino.

One Los Angeles Times article about the changing race dynamics in Watts stated that even though Latinos make up 70 percent of the population, they hold little political power and leadership roles in the community. It also said that “Latinos aren’t lining up to lead” and “that it’s tough to get them to even show up for community meetings.”

This isn’t the case when it comes to Best Start Watts-Willowbrook. Attendance at the monthly Community Partnership meetings can be as high as 90–100 community members, with half of the participants being Latino and the other half African American. Its Leadership Group includes 15 members, 10 of whom are Latino.

“We’ve listened to the community and made the space for everyone – regardless of race, age or gender – to work together on common issues regarding our children and families,” stated Luis Rivera, Program Officer for Best Start Watts-Willowbrook. “We are showing the real Watts, that there is collaboration and shared leadership among all people who feel equal at the table.”

Adding to this space is Best Start’s commitment to providing basic supports, such as interpreters, childcare, and transportation in order to help remove barriers to parent and resident participation and interaction. All Partnership meeting materials are available in both English and Spanish.

“But it’s not just about language,” said Blanca Gonzalez, Leadership Group member and a 19-year resident of Watts. “Even if we don’t speak the same language, we can see inside the person. In Best Start, everyone is positive and we treat each other nice and with respect. We are equal and we are the same.”

“I feel that through their openness to the community at large, greater appreciation between the diverse races is a natural outcome,” Hickey said. “When people feel that they are thriving, relations improve organically.”

​But challenges remain. According to a recent study by the American Human Development Project, a resident of Watts can expect to live 15 years fewer and is 15 times less likely to have a bachelor’s degree. In addition, in 2009, 17 percent of mothers in Watts-Willowbrook who gave birth were less than 20 years old, as compared to 10 percent in Los Angeles County.

Best Start was created as one way to address these and other challenges in order to create communities where children and their parents can thrive.

Hickey is hopeful that efforts like Best Start–especially its work to build social connections among parents and residents–will help to accelerate the promise of and progress in Watts. It will be a Watts that his mother dreamed of and fought for, and one Hickey continues to build through his work.

Gonzalez herself has worked hard to raise her children and keep them safe amidst the infamous violence of Watts, which she says has decreased so much in recent years. Three of them are now in college.

“A while ago, my daughter told me that in a few years, we will get out of here. And I said, ‘Why leave?’” Gonzalez recalled. “There are people here who need a lot of help. Why go try to help people somewhere who already have everything? I laughed and said, ‘You kids can go. I will stay because I hope that someday I can help someone and be there for others.’”