InnerCity Struggle works with families on movement building on the Eastside of Los Angeles, specifically for healthy and safe neighborhoods. At the organization’s new youth and community center, there is a message for families: “You belong!”
Along a bustling boulevard in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, the sounds of Mendez High School’s Mariachi Jaguares filled the outdoor plaza of InnerCity Struggle’s new youth and community center. Nearly 300 people gathered on a sunny Tuesday in May to celebrate the official opening of the new headquarters with a ribbon-cutting ceremony and building tours.
It’s been a long time coming – five years, to be exact – for the staff and mostly Latinx community members, many of whom have been organizing together in East Los Angeles for the last 25 years.
The youth and community center is a nearly 6,000 square-foot, two-story building that’s fully owned by InnerCity Struggle. It will be dedicated to training more than 1,200 youth and residents annually to take on policy campaigns to improve the quality of life on the Eastside.
“This center will serve as a vehicle for community organizing in the Eastside,” said Maria Brenes, executive director for InnerCity Struggle. “Where residents, parents and youth will work on solutions to issues affecting their families and community. A place where young people can find their voice, and where families can advance change.”
Even though the building is new, it speaks to a legacy of empowering Eastside residents to become active in their community.
The walls highlight InnerCity Struggle’s contributions to Eastside families and young people. Posters with slogans like “Schools Not Jails” and “Love + Joy + Power” hang next to photographs of students protesting gentrification with signs that say “Push Us Up, Don’t Push Us Out.”
Colorful wall art promotes college access and showcases campaign victories against school crowding. There are also plaques and commendations that InnerCity Struggle has received for years of dedication to equity in Los Angeles.
Arianna Romero, a senior at Mendez High School and a third-generation Eastside resident, spoke during the ceremony about how being a “United Students” leader influenced her future.
“My time at InnerCity Struggle has inspired me to be a lifelong leader in this movement and fight against racist, anti-immigrant policies to protect our families,” said Romero, who is headed to the University of California, Irvine in the fall to study political science. “My mother’s dream has been for me and my siblings to live in a safe neighborhood, go to college and have the life she never had. I am living that dream.”
The movement is intergenerational. Ana Alvarenga, a 13-year member of the organizing program for Eastside parents, said she got involved in activism in 2005 because her daughters invited her to a rally about education and the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) board.
“When I saw my daughter fighting for her education, I saw the leader my daughter had become,” Alvarenga said, speaking in Spanish. “I realized that if my own daughter had the power to create change, then what was my excuse for not getting involved? It was the power I saw in my own children that empowered me to join InnerCity Struggle.”
When Alvarenga first became involved, they met in a tiny room that barely fit everyone. She was too shy to speak up. Over time, and as the organization grew, she felt more comfortable using her voice for educational justice – particularly as a parent.
“This building represents a new era in this neighborhood, a time where we’ll have the resources and space we need to unite our community to fight for change,” said Alvarenga. “This organization is like a family to me. And now my family has a home.”
The $6-million building includes a technology center for youth and an academic services room for after-school program participants. The heart of the building is the assembly hall, where the organization will provide training on leadership development, immigration, tenant protection, health care coverage and access to college. There’s also a kitchen area, contributing to creating a welcoming, community gathering space.
The architects, Barrio Planners, incorporated modern Mexican architecture into the design. That’s especially apparent in the sunny back patio which is full of succulents. The building is also completely ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant and has gender-neutral bathrooms.
Local elected leaders and donors attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony. U.S. Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis, City Councilmember Jose Huizar and LAUSD Board President Monica Garcia were among those who spoke about InnerCity Struggle’s work in the community.
“You have changed LA Unified [School District] in many ways. You have taught us all how to not be afraid, and be the district our students need and deserve,” said Garcia.
“Your building says to all of our people, mostly low-income families, people who aren’t at the front of the line in economics, ‘You belong!’ You say out loud, ‘You matter!’ You say out loud, ‘Come close, join us.’’’
InnerCity Struggle continues in the civil rights tradition of East Los Angeles, particularly Boyle Heights, which has been home to Chicanx organizing since the 1950s. The sense of joy and pride for what is possible in this new space was palpable.
Brenes, executive director for InnerCity Struggle, said: “On our 25th anniversary, we can say ‘Si se puede!’”
Janna Zinzi is a Los Angeles-based strategist and storyteller. Zinzi uses language and performance to uplift the voices and stories of people of color, especially women and gender non-conforming people. Follow Zinzi on Twitter at @JannaZinzi. Equal Voice is Marguerite Casey Foundation’s publication featuring stories of America’s families creating social change. With Equal Voice, we challenge how people think and talk about poverty in America. All original and contracted Equal Voice content – articles, photos and videos – can be reproduced for free, as long as proper credit and a link to our homepage are included. This story has been updated since it was posted.