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LA Community Action Network: Community Organization Interview Spotlight Focuses on Geo-Ethnic Media

A key piece of the Communication Infrastructure of a community is geo-ethnic media. When it comes to staying on top of what is happening in a neighborhood, residents often connect to local and ethnic media sources over and above mainstream news sources.

In this community-based organization spotlight, we are happy to feature the work of LA CAN, as told by community organizer Pete White, the Co-Founder and Co-Director. Pete shares how LA CAN was born, its communication strategies, and the history and evolution of its important geo-ethnic media publication, Community Connection.

MetaConnects:What was the impetus for creating LA CAN?

Pete White:The organization was born out of the need for downtown central city east residents to have voice, power and opinion in those issues that were directly impacting them on a daily basis. In the early days, the organization was primarily focused on human and civil rights abuses, often times at the hands of law enforcement and private security, and even shelter providers. As a result residents felt that the time had come to create an organization that protected their interest. That was the catalyst for the creation and formation of the LA CAN.

MC:What prompted LA CAN to create a communication strategy?

PW:Early in the life of the organization, community residents were very clear that we needed a communication strategy. The reason it was very apparent and clear was that anytime we picked up mainstream media publications we were always castigated, or put out there as “crazies, drug addicts, or transients.” There was never a sense of permanency. There was never sense that we had our own stories to tell. That we had stories of love, resistance, and political correctness. We wanted to share and offer ideas to make our community better because we were clear from the outset that this was our/a community. The first communication tool we developed was a newsletter highlighting the organizational efforts. That newsletter blossomed into what is now our community newspaper called the Community Connection.

MC:Tell us about Community Connection, the format, content, and contributors.

PW:At first it was just a little newsletter, 4 pieces of paper, stapled together, black and white […].As students of history we understood the strategic role of community newspapers and how they helped in advancing social change goals…We knew that publications like the Chicago Defender and Sin Fronteras were vehicles that gave regular people the ability to comment and become informed about real community impacts. So we wanted to have our own tool

The Community Connection had very humble beginnings.  From the outset it was a 4-page 8 ½ X 11 document that was hand-stapled on the sides. Once the publication gained traction in the neighborhood we quickly ran out of space because of the high number of submissions. We were forced to graduate and upgrade to a 12-page publication on newsprint. Today, once again responding to demand, we publish a 12-page tabloid, partially color newspaper—we never imagined that our early days communication strategy would lead us here.   

It’s important to note that from day 1, we knew that the stories, the news articles, the poetry—whatever was in that paper—had to come from community residents. So for us, it has always been a vehicle for expression for residents. The writers we have now are residents. The photos taken are largely by residents. Now, as the paper has grown we have guest contributors that regularly submit stories and opinion pieces for consideration.  As our work has grown and expanded so has the audience. In many respects we find ourselves, through our contributors, linking, local, national and global struggles. As a result it has become a space for academics, journalists, students, and interested people to add their flavor. However, the large majority of content is generated by impacted people.

MC:How is it that you go about getting people to be inclined and empowered to share their stories?

PW:In this community, like others, people always have something to say, people always want to share. But there are not many vehicles where people are given the opportunity to do that. An organization such as LA CAN gives people the opportunity to express their desires in many ways; through our committee structures we get to know individuals and their thirst for justice; through our leadership development activities we are able to contribute to and share very personal transformations—an awakening if you will; through our speaking truth to power activities we watch as our leaders blossom and formulate strategy and direction.

But, let’s be clear, it’s not just LA CAN members who submit, if you look through the paper, there is always an ad requesting content. When we started there was a lot of material related to human and civil rights, but residents in this community said let’s do poetry, obituaries, recipes,…so the paper has grown out of the will and desires and needs as articulated by the residents.

MC:How do you go about disseminating this publication to provide access?

PW:The first layer of dissemination, because it was born in this community, happens in downtown Skid Row. We deliver 2,000-3,000 copies to shelters, residential hotels, permanent support of housing developments, food lines, cultural meeting spaces and just about anywhere where our members are. Because we’re in downtown Los Angeles, near the halls of power, we deliver copies to City Hall East and West, in the court buildings, and Hall of Supervisors. We make sure that our newspaper reaches all of those responsible for making our communities better, and for the most part they are physically located in this downtown corridor of power. More recently, we’ve expanded our target area to many key locations throughout South Los Angeles. Our list includes DPSS offices, schools, universities [including USC] community- based organizations, churches, and other gathering places. We have a longer list of potential distributions points but we currently don’t have the capacity or infrastructure to pull it off.  We also developed a vendor program to be used as an economic development opportunity for residents in downtown and abroad. We have a training program that vendors must go through before they are eligible to vend the paper. Once completed vendors are given 20 copies of the paper and solicit a minimum $1.00 donation per paper. While the suggested amount is $1.00 vendors oftentimes exceed that amount. After the first run vendors are required to pay $1.00 per 10-copies of the paper. As a result of the vendor program we found that our distribution reach has increased and enabled us to communicate with an ever widening audience.  

MC:What about online presence?

PW:The Community Connection exists online as well. It can be found on our blog at cangress.wordpress.com by simply writing “community connection” in the search bar. The blog, as an aside, also compliments the newspaper and provides readers an opportunity to get day-to-day updates on issues facing poor Angeleno’s.

MC:What are some of the challenges that LA CAN faces with distribution for Community Connection?

PW:We’ve been attempting to get our newspaper into various correctional facilities and we keep running into roadblocks. The roadblocks are a bit of a mystery for us because we are fully aware of the presence of numerous publications currently allowed inside. Correctional facilities are an important point-of-distribution for so many reasons. First, information found in the newspaper can assist inmates upon their release by offering policy updates, program rules changes, and eligibility requirements. As you know our criminal “injustice” system is in a bit of disarray with the scheduled release of tens of thousands low-level offenders and minimal resources to aid them. A large number of these inmates will be headed to South Los Angeles which has minimal services compared to other areas. It is our hopes that our paper could help ease this transition and point folks in the right direction.  While we’ve had problems with the correctional department, some kind of way, our paper still makes it inside the walls. We get many submissions from prisoners saying, “I just read this article, this has to do with the case why I’m in here, can we get help?” It’s very interesting that there is a Community Connection underground/pipeline that’s getting into some of the criminal injustice institutions, however, we want to be in all of them. Our reach, intentional and unintentional, is pretty wide.

Another challenge that we’ve struggled with since the inception of the paper is that it is largely an un-funded project. So this magnificent endeavor has been cobbled together for more than a decade on peoples ingenuity, hopes, and prayers.  There has not been that “one” place or set of places that has said to us, “this is important, we like funding this type of stuff, come to us.” Storytelling and digital storytelling that is very popular. The California Council of Humanities is big on storytelling as are we; however,  funding resources for community newspapers are far and few between… We are in the process now of looking for ways to make sure we can keep the paper going so if readers have any ideas please be sure to contact me at petew@cangress.com.

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