Master's Project Introduction
The content of this Master’s Project attempts to reflect upon observations, conversations, and video documentation involving the community activist organization Union de Vecinos. Conversations, interviews, and documentation with staff members of Union de Vecinos and involved community members from Boyle Heights and Maywood, Ca. provided a perspective on how Union de Vecinos approaches a solution to confront issues of social, political, and environmental injustice in what are sometimes referred to as disadvantaged communities. On going there is an expansive array of issues to confront. What is observed is that solutions do not come about quickly and require extended time and effort to complete. Solutions are not always transparent and where one is solved another may arise. Union de Vecinos attempts to inspire a constant vigilance to solve problems as well as empower individual community members. They take actions that assist in solving the issues of concern to the community. Through this empowerment process they create and enhance both individual and community identity as both preventative and promotional solutions.
Union de Vecinos is a Los Angeles based community activist and non-profit organization that came into being eighteen years ago in response to the need to protect public housing in Los Angeles. In particular it came out of the struggle to protect the Pico-Aliso Housing project in Boyle Heights. Demolished and rebuilt by the Housing Authority of Los Angeles, the original Pico-Aliso Housing project was replaced by a significantly reduced number of housing units. This resulted in a large displacement of residents into other existing housing units located out of the immediate area.
Originally founded by residents, Union de Vecinos consists of more than twenty four neighborhood committees. Largely immigrant led, coming out of Central America and Mexico, the priorities and leadership are mostly focused on the needs of extremely low income people. With two office locations they address concerns in both the Boyle Heights and Maywood areas of Los Angeles and surrounding areas. Addressed issues of concern include healthcare, education, tenants rights, housing rights, immigrant rights, neighborhood improvement (improving existing parks, creation of new public spaces, cleaning alleyways), social justice, and environmental justice (cleaner drinking water, clearing toxic ground pollution). It is also about reclaiming neighborhoods from gentrification, protecting the local economies, and making the neighborhoods safe and clean by utilizing social engagement. Through community actions it seeks to bring dysfunctional city government back to its original role of caring for the needs of the people that it is meant to serve.
Established initially in Boyle Heights it was the experience with public housing that attracted the attention of an already existing grassroots community organization in Maywood, Padres Unidos de Maywood (PUMA) who requested help from Union de Vecinos to address tenant and landlord conflicts within the city. It was through these initial contacts with the residents that they began to see larger issues of concern involving unfair city governmental practices including corruption within both the city council and the established police department.
Maywood is a 1.18 square mile city located just southeast of downtown Los Angeles. The official 2010 U.S. Census shows the population set at 27,395. Union de Vecinos believes that the unofficial number is over 40,000 because of undocumented immigration. The population is 96% Latino. Spanish is spoken by 90% of the residents. Sixty percent of the population speak English less than very well. Median income as per the same census exists at $35,000 per household. Seventy five percent of the population are renters (United States Census Bureau, 2010).
Membership for Union de Vecinos is approximately 1,200 members total including both Boyle Heights and Maywood communities. Funding comes through donations, grants, and fund raising. Each office maintains up to six paid staffers at each location and consists mostly of people who live in the community. The Board of Directors is made up of the leadership of the individual committees who come together throughout the year to set goals and priorities for the entire organization. The Union de Vecinos offices provide a space for meetings where staff members, organizers, and committees get together on a regular basis to discuss and assess current and potential issues. The office also provides space for numerous local events that involve a wide range of activities for both youth and senior populations. There is always an open door policy.
Union de Vecinos acts largely as a source for organizing and educating members of the community on how to take action to make changes in the community. Organizers are trained and educated to work with varying projects that the community wishes to address. It is the job of paid staff and organizers to be on the street, canvasing the neighborhoods, talking to people about potential and ongoing related activities, researching community concerns, organizing neighborhood committees and informing community members about related meetings.
In this way Union de Vecinos acts as a catalyst for bringing together different groups and concerns within the city and it is their philosophy and belief that citizens must be involved in their own communities and are therefore active participants that give shape to the world they live in. Within this belief is the idea that Union de Vecinos acts as a facilitator whereby the residents of the community make decisions about what issues must be addressed. They take no steps unless the community is involved. For Union de Vecinos there is an individual and organizational component that must be established in order for action and reflection to occur to initiate positive and lasting change. It is the community that defines the problems and issues through the establishment of boards and committees.
Philosophically and structurally Union de Vecinos takes an approach that originates from Liberation Theology, Liberation Psychology, and Community Social Psychology. Participatory Action Research is also a utilized approach that engages the community in action and reflection.