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SCOPE Organizer Puts South L.A. Into Perspective

Corrina Liu |
February 22, 2012 | 11:11 p.m. PST


SCOPE's Simone Andrews says the challenges of the job are worth it. (Corrina Liu)
SCOPE's Simone Andrews says the challenges of the job are worth it. (Corrina Liu)
It’s 10 a.m. on a Saturday and roughly 30 people have gathered outside of an old fire department building on West Florence Avenue in South Los Angeles.

As they ring the doorbell one after another, a young African-American woman wearing a bright orange T-shirt opens the door and welcomes them inside with a big smile.

Her name is Simone Andrews. She’s an organizer for Strategic Concepts in Organizing and Policy Education (SCOPE), a group whose mission is to help low-income communities fight for better jobs and living conditions. Their campaigns have ranged from initiatives to create green jobs with government support, and to encourage voter participation in underserved communities.

“Today we are going to get signature training for the new tax plan,” Andrews said, pointing to a poster with "Millionaires Tax" written across the top.

The Millionaires Tax is an initiative proposed for the November 2012 ballot. It asks Californians who earn $1 million or more to pay an extra 3 percent in state income taxes. As a result, an estimated $6 million will be raised to fund the education system and other vital public services.

California Calls, which consists of several grassroots organizations including SCOPE, carried out Saturday’s training.

“Our job today is to go over the Dos and Don’ts when you try to collect signatures and make sure people are within guidelines so they’re collecting valid signatures,” said Annetta Starks, a California Calls organizer who led the session.

Trainees were expected to collect signatures in their neighborhood. “I’m going to some public sites and get signatures,” said participant Jonathan Lehrer-Graiwer, “first from my family and then from the public. “

With help from California Calls, SCOPE initiated its own campaign to back up the tax plan. "Building Power at the Ballot Box" began last December with the goal to build a base of 50,000 voters in support of tax reforms. “I think this is what we can do to restore the California dream,” Andrews said, “so people can have easy access to public education and other services as they used to. “

Activism comes naturally to Andrews. Born and raised in Houston, Texas, she was concerned about pollution and air quality on the Gulf of Mexico and Galveston beaches. Both of her brothers had asthma but her family never talked the environment. She said they just accepted the conditions as normal.

“I don't think people really tune into Mother Earth until some natural disaster happens or their health becomes affected in a negative way,” Andrews said.

Then 2005’s Hurricane Katrina hit. Thousands of families were forced to relocate from New Orleans to Houston, throwing the city into a panic. Andrews realized pollution from cars and oil refineries was contributing to global warming and harming the people of her city.

“It was at this point that I began to think both my brothers' asthma could be linked to Houston's air pollution,” she said.

But she wasn’t sure how to fight back. In Texas, Andrews said, the few environmental organizations dealing with global warming and pollution are outweighed by oil companies’ influence.

She found a much different scenario in California when she was admitted to USC’s Annenberg School for Journalism and Communication two years later in 2007. “In L.A, a whole new world opened for me,” Andrews said. “There are a lot of people wanting sustainable development, environmental protection. "

As a junior, she joined the school’s Political Student Assembly. While involved, she met a SCOPE organizer at an on-campus workshop about environmental justice. The organizer talked about creating green jobs addressing environmental and social justice in South L.A.

Andrews said she was amazed by SCOPE’s merging of community organizing and research. The group studied why South L.A suffered from poverty and unemployment at such higher rates than other neighborhoods. They found the biggest problem facing the community was a lack of involvement from residents.

Still, the barriers to finding jobs were many, including low educational achievement and racial discrimination. Organizers address these by helping residents campaign for policies targeting each obstacle facing the community.

Andrews said SCOPE helped her find an application for her talents to make a difference. Having majored in communication, Andrews was prepared with a broad skills set for such a job: She was friendly, open, and able to write and think critically. She started as an intern in 2008 and became a full-time organizer two years later.

"As a woman of color who cares about environment and justice, I've always dreamed of working in an organization like that," Andrews said.

Most of Andrew's work involves talking to people about what is happening in South L.A., meeting people where they are. She goes door-to-door, organizes membership materials and meets with members or other organizations to push ongoing campaigns.

"We are a grassroots, bottom-up group,” Andrews said. “A lot of work depends on community members.”

But SCOPE also works to reach decision-makers, campaigning them to bring about systemic change.

"As long as you get in Scope, you are doing real work,” Andrews said. “It’s not like when you just graduated, and you answer phone calls for the whole day. You are making a difference.”

After two years with the group, Andrews has already gained hands-on skills in community organizing. And she believes in what she is doing.

But it's not always easy to keep members motivated, especially when the campaign runs on for a long time and things don't happen as expected.

Sometimes, the decision-makers SCOPE tries to reach are unreceptive. Andrews recalled one campaign in which she collected surveys at the Department of Public Safety to support inmates as they reenter society. She visited DPS offices all over the city, but despite her best efforts, only 30 percent of the people surveyed came by SCOPE’s office.

Being an organizer also means having little control over the schedule from day to day. Sometimes members of SCOPE end up working late into the night, starting again bright and early the next morning. Often they work weekends as well.

But Andrews said the personal value that comes with the job makes it all worth it, even if the pay is lacking. "This is not a job where you make big money. You know you won't be a millionaire,” she said. “But I can make a living with what I earn.”

Andrew’s goal is to help create a place where people want to stay in the community. That means bringing jobs and building more public assets like grocery stores and schools. “In SCOPE, we want to make a long-term and sustainable changes for black and brown families,” she said. “That goal really resonates with people in south L.A."

For Andrews, SCOPE has become something of a family. After Saturday’s training session ended, a member of the community approached her to talk about getting those signatures. They chatted for over half an hour, during which the rest of the group left. The room was quiet and nearly empty before Andrews finally had a moment to breathe. As she started to clean up, she explained what all the work meant to her.

"You really want to see the world a better place,” she said. “You will be in this for a long haul, give your heart, and get love back from the community."

Audio Slideshow: SCOPE Training

Reach Contributor Corrina Liu here.



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