Local Activist Shows Businesses Can Thrive in Community

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TED WATKINS, president of the Watts Labor Community Action Committee (WLCAC), is showing visitors around his center of operations on South Central Avenue.

An intense local activist who made his earlier mark as a tough national union leader, Mr. Watkins built and now presides over a vast network of public housing projects, worker-training programs, senior citizen and child day care centers, transportation services, homeless shelters, food-stamp operations, and thriving commercial enterprises.

The mission of the WLCAC, which was founded just months before Watts erupted in the 1965 riots, has been to engage local residents to improve the economic quality of life for impoverished South Central. It receives contracts and funding from federal, state, and local governments, foundations, and private grants.

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But unlike other community development organs, the nonprofit WLCAC recycles revenue from investments in business ventures and commercial properties. As an example, Watkins points to the $10 million purchase of the nine-block long Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company site in 1982 that WLCAC sold two years later for $15 million to the US government for a post office.

"Every penny we make we put back into the community," he says.

Seated in his motorized wheelchair, he buzzes through clusters of desks, boxes, and office machines. This wide open space, he explains, served as a WLCAC furniture store until it was smashed, looted, and burned during the riots in April of last year.

Watkins moved his administrative offices into this old furniture space because his nearby headquarters, jammed with files and equipment, was burned to the ground.

"It was every man for himself," says Watkins, who was injured during last year's uprising.

Born in Mississippi, Watkins has lived in South Central since arriving at age 14. He started as an assembly-line worker at the Ford Motor Company and fought his way up to become chairman of the bargaining committee for the United Auto Workers. Today, he says, he is working against even tougher odds.

He describes problems in South Central that he says are greatly exacerbated by a "growing majority" of undocumented Latino immigrants who live in squalor. Their livelihoods are largely based on an informal economy, he says. "They are willing to work for less than minimum wage, [or] sell oranges at the entrances to freeways."

The burgeoning number of undocumented immigrants is a drain on already-limited local resources, including jobs and social services, he says. As a result, ethnic and racial tensions are rising.

Despite the success of the businesses he started, Watkins is troubled by the tension and confusion in South Central. "We're out in limbo. In terms of violence, we don't know what to expect."

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