Outside Lucy Florence Cultural Center in Leimert Park on a mid-April morning, a woman stops to chat with two men sitting at a table reading a newspaper. One of them says she looks familiar. When she introduces herself as Pamela Bakewell, he asks if she's Danny Bakewell's sister.
Pamela Bakewell loses a touch of her warmth. She's grown a bit tired of people who want to connect her with her brother Danny, the multi-millionaire commercial developer, the owner of the Los Angeles Sentinel and a controversial leader who helped build the civil rights charity organization Brotherhood Crusade. Pamela says she has worked as second-in-command for her brother in the past and now she wants to move on.
In this chapter of her life, she wants to be known as the face of the Los Angeles Urban League's Neighborhoods@Work program--a five-year revitalization effort for Crenshaw High School and the neighborhood surrounding it. She is the executive closest to the ground in a far-reaching effort by the Urban League to transform a struggling, predominantly African-American neighborhood into a safer and more pleasant place.
She sees gaining visibility and recognition throughout the community--on her own terms--as key to her success.
"That's why I'm thriving and loving this position," she said. "Because I get to be Pamela Bakewell a little more than Danny's sister."
Urban League President Blair Taylor hired Pamela in 2008 as chief neighborhood officer of the initiative, and both he and Pamela say that Danny--a leading South L.A. powerbroker--played no role in her getting the job, in which she oversees efforts to improve public safety, health, education, employment and housing in the community.
In her interactions with residents during community meetings, the mother of five comes across as smart, thoughtful and well-connected. Though it's hard to imagine her knocking on doors and digging in the trenches with residents, she seems genuinely engaged with the people she meets, particularly community higher-ups and business owners.
Bakewell, during an interview at Urban League headquarters, says her job is to take Taylor's plan and "make it human on the street" so the community can understand and relate to it.
The nearly nine-decade-old Los Angeles Urban League, long associated with black economic development, has acquired a mixed reputation as a frontline civil rights advocacy group and also as one often aloof from the community it purports to serve. Its critics and rivals have long mocked it with the nickname--"the Urban League on a hill."
Indeed, the League offices are adjacent to one of the wealthiest predominantly African-American neighborhoods west of the Mississippi--View Park, an unincorporated part of L.A. County. The offices are also a few blocks south of what has become the cultural heart of hip African American L.A.--Leimert Park. The offices are just a few blocks from Park Mesa Heights, the neighborhood the initiative seeks to transform.
"We are smack in the center of an affluent black community east and a poor community west," she said.
As visible as Bakewell may be, some community leaders say she doesn't strike as high a profile as her predecessor, Anthony Maddox, and that she's known to miss neighborhood council meetings. Bakewell concedes that she misses some of those meetings and said she plans to attend more of them in the future. She said she allows her staff to control her calendar, making herself available to go to residents' homes and where she is deemed needed.
Bakewell (second from left) and N@W staffers at the Urban League offices.
Given her background in the corporate world, her choice seems either unlikely or shrewd and strategic, depending on the Urban League's goals. For decades, she wheeled and dealed as the No. 2 of The Bakewell Company with powerbrokers who travel in her brother's orbit. The question now is how much does Pamela Bakewell, in her mid-50s, know about organizing the lives of much humbler people, and will they be accepting of her? She insists that she can be a vocal advocate for the community.
When asked if she and her colleagues at N@W faced resistance to their efforts, Bakewell does not hesitate: "Of course." Community members have been "surprised" and "suspicious."
She said the first two years of the initiative were focused on building "believability and trust," and says she believes, the "tide is turning."
"The momentum is changing," she said. "I don't think we have 100 percent support. I think we're getting there."
Helping others advocate for change
Pamela Bakewell sits at a community meeting listening to some 60 residents of a mostly lower-middle class neighborhood near Crenshaw High School complain about public safety issues.
Their problems include: A mother who waited two hours for police to respond to her 911 robbery call, a man who was told by a dispatcher to "call back," and a woman who is too fearful to walk to the public library because of kids hanging out on the street.
"Oh my God" and "Yes" and "It's true," Bakewell sympathetically affirms as people tell their stories during the two-hour meeting. She's heard all of these complaints before.
She has high hopes. She wants to cut crime. She wants to see residents involved in civic affairs, advocating for themselves at the first sign of injustice. And she wants to change the perception of Crenshaw High--transforming it from a place people move away from to a place that draws people looking for a safe and comfortable neighborhood.
She is careful not to be condescending during community meetings, sometimes seeming to dance on eggshells. Even when describing the neighborhood, she often adds a parenthetical thought to avoid insulting residents.
On the overall goal of the Urban League's project, she says, "This a five-year concerted effort to change the lives of the residents of Park Mesa Heights. Not that they have bad lives, we don't know that."
She adds a similar postscript when she explains her goal to ensure residents can "advocate for themselves a little better." She quickly adds--"Not to say that they don't now."
At the community safety meeting, she takes time to say hello to everyone, introducing herself to some, giving hugs to others.
Bakewell has a comforting air about her--something intangibly natural and nurturing. Her body language is welcoming and open even with people she has just met.
Being out in the community helps Bakewell's team identify what still needs to be improved, she said. Neighborhoods@Work is only now taking baby steps to involve a significant Spanish-speaking population. No fluent Spanish speakers are on Bakewell's staff even though one-third of the students at Crenshaw are Latino.
Bakewell says this is an omission they plan to address. "The Spanish-speaking residents are still the ones we have to tap to become part of our work," she said, noting that few Latinos attend the initiative's meetings.
Bakewell says the community is predominantly African American--"one of the remaining few that are left in Los Angeles"--though she is not sure how many Spanish-speaking residents fall within the initiative's boundaries and says she needs to look into it. In the Census tract surrounding Crenshaw High, the population was more than one-fifth Latino in 2000, and growing.
"I don't think [not having a Spanish-speaker on staff] is an oversight," she said. "It's something we know we have to tackle. But the responses to us have been by the African American community. This is the community that traditionally the Urban League has supported."
In a written statement to Neon Tommy, Taylor refuted this information, noting that the initiative's "Education Director speaks and understands conversational Spanish and approximately 20% of our Neighborhoods@Work staff are Spanish-speaking."
Bakewell had previously said Carlene Davis, the education deputy Taylor referred to, speaks "only a little Spanish," but that she can "hold her own" and is "pretty good at understanding."
Taylor said the Urban League has an "unwavering commitment to ethnic diversity on our staff," and prints most of its documents in English and Spanish.
While the community safety meeting did have flyers in both languages, Bakewell said they did not prepare for Spanish speakers with a translator that night as they have for other events.
Bakewell spends considerable time with her team at the initiative's headquarters at the Urban League but notes that about 70 percent of her time is spent out in the community.
"I'm out dealing with this from a see-all level of the neighborhood components," she said.
Bakewell said a common misconception is when people call the Urban League a "moneybags" organization.
"We don't have the money to come back and write a check," Bakewell said. "But we know people," she added, referring to the vast network of corporate contacts and contributors amassed by the League over decades.
Bakewell's busy schedule has her out and about forging relationships and meeting with higher-ups like the CEOs of Cedars Sinai Medical Center and Starbucks, to ensure that the initiative remains "partnership based."
"We know we can't get all the work done," she said.
Instead she turns to these relationships to satisfy the needs of the community.
Citing one example, Bakewell said she called a friend and former Lakers player when the Crenshaw High basketball team wanted blazers. "He said, 'I'll write the check this afternoon,'" she said.
When a teacher called and asked her to help a student whose wheelchair had broken, keeping him from going to school, Bakewell could tell things were getting on the right track.
A woman she connected with Crenshaw High recently donated money to fund a trip to Africa and helped students applying to UCLA write their personal statements.
She calls these partners "little personal angels."
Bakewell and community outreach director Adrianne Sears. (Callie Schweitzer)
But surely there are other neighborhoods in South L.A. that could use similar attention? When explaining the choice behind Park Mesa Heights, Bakewell cites the 2005 State of Black L.A.
, a report that showed 44 percent of black high schoolers fail to graduate with their class in four years, blacks have the highest rate of homelessness and are estimated to be 30 percent or more of the county's homeless population and blacks have the lowest median household income at $31,905 compared to Latinos at $33,820 and whites at $53,978.
"We began to look at this as a holistic model addressing the issues that really surfaced in the SOBLA in 2005," she said.
The first step was to try to connect with involved parents at Crenshaw High.
When the Urban League first arrived, they faced strong resistance from one woman in particular, Bakewell said. It took two years for that woman to begin to understand Neighborhoods@Work, its structure and the power behind its fundraising.
Recently, Bakewell recalled a meeting at Crenshaw where the woman stood up and formally apologized.
"She literally publicly said, 'I owe everybody an apology. I was skeptical about the Urban League and now I see the partners and police out here at the schools not because there's an incident but because they're here,'" Bakewell remembered.
"So comfortable in South L.A."
Pamela Bakewell calls her road to Neighborhoods@Work a great learning experience. She spent most of her adult life working for her brother Danny, a founder of the Brotherhood Crusade and the founder of The Bakewell Company, which has built several commercial malls and a luxury condominium community. Bakewell recently acquired the Los Angeles Sentinel, the city's oldest and largest African-American newspaper.
After more than 20 years working in the family business, she joined a friend to do mortgage lending and home real estate. The effort failed during the real estate crisis, which she said was a "humbling" experience.
"You're never too old to learn," she said, citing one of Taylor's favorite books, John Maxwell's "Failing Forward" and applying it to her own life. "The failing forward is the business, going out on my own wasn't successful. I could either go back to the comfort zone of working with my family or I could start challenging myself."
But, she said, "I felt there was another purpose for me here to have done all I've done and keep growing."
She began setting up coffee meetings with influential leaders across Los Angeles and was referred to Blair Taylor who had just been named president of the Urban League. Bakewell was very close to former Urban League President John Mack who presided over the organization for 36 years.
Before accepting her position as chief neighborhood officer of the Neighborhoods@Work initiative, Pamela Bakewell did not have a resume. Well, at least not a paper one.
But despite not having a piece of paper to hand Taylor during their informational interview in 2008, Bakewell had a long history of employment and a list of responsibilities that could fill more than one page. Yet many would argue her last name speaks louder than any resume.
Pamela said her experience in real estate development led her to a deep understanding of what makes a corporation stay afloat.
"Whenever our family acquired an asset, I was the person who went in to analyze the asset," said Bakewell, who had become skilled at "analyzing a business and understanding how we can turn it around."
She filled many roles including executive director at Brotherhood Crusade where she worked both full and part-time for more than 20 years. She also served as the vice president of operations at The Bakewell Company and ran operations for The Sentinel
when the Bakewells first acquired the newspaper
"[Taylor] said, 'I need someone who can navigate all the way from City Hall to the depths of the environment and someone who knows how to lead people and run a business,'" she said.
One of her biggest personal goals is leaving behind a legacy that's more than just a "nice model" that can be replicated elsewhere, she said. One legacy she hopes to create is a leadership institute for girls in the community much like one Taylor has set up for boys at Crenshaw High.
But Bakewell has made it clear that she saw the opportunity with Neighborhoods@Work as a time to separate herself from years of working in the family business and carve her own way.
Danny, a controversial figure in South L.A., has an established presence around this area with plenty of admirers and plenty of naysayers. He's been called everything from the "Godfather of South Central
" and a "poverty pimp
" to "one of the most dynamic leaders
in America today." His brash and aggressive style often led to comparisons to the younger Al Sharpton. Observers were equally in awe of his capacity to build a successful commercial empire while drawing negative reviews for several racially divisive outbursts he made in the wake of the 1992 riots. (Outbursts directed not at white people but at other communities of color.)
Though her background is in commercial development, Bakewell said her previous employment and roots in the community have left her more than prepared for the job.
"I felt I could do this with my eyes closed," she said. "I felt so comfortable in South L.A."
Bakewell, who grew up in New Orleans, made her way to Los Angeles after finishing college at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Missouri.
Her father Frank, who was divorced from her mother Marybell, had moved to Los Angeles to run a series of businesses and was a victim of a violent crime in Compton. He was shot and killed by robbers in 1982 while working for the One-Stop check cashing service in a shopping center. According to a 1991 Los Angeles Times article
, Bakewell owned the business and the shopping center.
Marybell moved to Los Angeles after Hurricane Katrina and passed away in 2009. Her obituary
in the Los Angeles Sentinel
said she spoke to Pam "at least 4 times daily to check on her and ask about her day and the most important questions of all had to be answered - 'Did you look cute today? - What did you wear today? And, how does your hair look'."
While it's clear family plays a huge role in Bakewell's life, she's intent on making this experience her own.
When Taylor was looking to fill the project's top spot, Pamela Bakewell said she knew he wanted the female Bakewell and everything that came with her. He recognized her background as a businesswoman and a non-profit leader.
Blair Taylor on why he chose Pamela for the job.
"Blair never asked if he was getting Danny Bakewell along with me," she said. "From day one it was what I think, how I feel, what I lead."
There's no doubt, however, that the Bakewell name has helped Pamela in her outreach.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson, an author, political analyst and social issues commentator who has lived in the area for more than 40 years, said the name has deep history in the area. "For many years when you thought of activism and L.A. you thought of Danny Bakewell," he said. "And frankly, many people still think of the Bakewells that way."
Hutchinson said the Bakewell name is a "draw because it is a name and it is a reputation and he is so entrenched in the community. I would say he's almost an icon in our community. There's a circle that revolve around him and essentially things radiate out from him. Bakewell has been a stellar force in the community."
Though she entered the interview with Taylor looking for a consulting contract, he ended up inquiring about her interest in a full-time position.
"I wanted my thing," she said. "This was really personal growth about me, Pamela."
With three divorces and five kids, Bakewell says her time with Neighborhoods@Work has served as a great distraction from a rocky personal life.
"Life happens and life has happened to me," she says. "This work keeps me above the water, keeps me smiling...It's really true when they say just stay active."
Winning over the community
In many ways the Neighborhoods@Work initiative will be a test for the Urban League, and perhaps the ultimate test for Taylor and his leadership team.
Though there are signs that Bakewell and her team are overcoming suspicion in the community and that tensions in the area may be beginning to thaw, some members of the community seem to be looking for answers and success markers.
Damien Goodmon, a community activist and member of numerous community organizations including six within the Leimert Park area, said he's looking for the "deliverables" the initiative promised when it first began, "It's not that I'm not getting notified of meetings, it's that I'm not hearing about the report card. You'd think it'd be broadcast loud and wide."
Goodmon said though he knows of Pamela Bakewell by name, he can't recall seeing her at a community meeting. By comparison, he says he saw much more of Anthony Maddox, who was interim chief neighborhood officer from July 2006 until April 2008 when Pamela took over.
Maddox, a professor of clinical education at the USC Rossier School of Education, is still involved with the Greater Crenshaw Educational Partnership
, a non-profit formed by the Urban League, Tom & Ethel Bradley Foundation and the USC Rossier School, but says he no longer has any formal ties to the Neighborhoods@Work initiative.
He recalls how easily the community adjusted to Pamela Bakewell, "I tried to make sure I introduced her to people that I knew, gave her a sense of the dynamics and the state of things, where we were in Neighborhoods@Work and offered my assistance in any way I could help her or do anything to ensure a smooth transition."
"I think she did really well...She was really respected in the community and from my sense, the community welcomed her."
Maddox said Bakewell, who came in with a "fair set of contacts," has not contacted him since he left the Urban League.
Goodmon, who is co-president of the Empowerment Congress West Area Neighborhood Development Council, said the council has not forged any formal relationships with Neighborhoods@Work despite its proximity to Vernon Avenue, the initiative's northern border, which also happens to be the southern border of the neighborhood council.
A history of failed initiatives in the South L.A. community have left many skeptical of new projects that come in with big promises, Goodmon said. Taylor and other members of the initiative's staff mentioned this same problem in previous interviews.
"As a community we're now more skeptical of any initiative that does not have that transparent accountability built within the structure of the plan," Goodmon said.
He cited Rebuild L.A., a non-profit formed after L.A.'s 1992 riots, as one example of a failed initiative that couldn't connect with community organizations.
Neighborhoods@Work has succeeded, residents say, in reaching out to some community organizations in the area.
Sears and Bakewell at the Urban League offices. (Callie Schweitzer)
Robert Norris, director of operations for the West Angeles Community Development Corporation, said the development corporation signed a memorandum of understanding to work together on a green jobs initiative.
Ted Thomas Sr., president of the Park Mesa Heights Community Council, the neighborhood council that presides over the majority of the 70-block area, said the goal of the two organizations is the same--to better the community.
"We figure that we have to work together," he said. "We're not trying to step on each other's toes. What they can't do maybe we can do, and what we can't do maybe they can do."
The council has not had the opportunity to work as closely with Bakewell as they did with Maddox when he was chief neighborhood officer, Thomas said.
"When Mr. Maddox was here we had a close relationship," he said, adding that the interim chief neighborhood officer attended nearly every monthly community council meeting during his two-year reign.
"Mr. Maddox was much more involved with the neighborhood council than Ms. Bakewell has been, but she hasn't been there long enough to make a judgment on that," he said adding that he sees her at meetings in the community.
"She's in the neighborhood all the time," he said, noting that Bakewell has come to a few of the community council's meetings since she began at the Urban League.
Though residents say they have seen bits and pieces of the initiative's efforts while out in the community, some are questioning the success on a bigger picture scale.
Even Bakewell acknowledges the unlikelihood of solving the neighborhood's problems within the Urban League's original time frame of five years.
"I'd like to see us truly make this a better community, but I don't believe this can all be done in five years," she said noting that it has taken two years to gain the community's trust.
Bakewell said a resident came up to her at the community safety meeting and said the Urban League had overcome the initial distrust by sticking with the project. "'I came to one of your first meetings,'" the woman told her. "'And I didn't think you'd stay this long.'"