Community Activist in Los Angeles Stresses Economic Clout for Blacks

`IN the civil rights era, African-Americans should have been looking for economic power instead of the political power which we thought was the answer," says Mark Whitlock, executive director of L.A. Renaissance.

The 38-year-old founder of this new grass-roots response to the Los Angeles riots says that such fundamental misdirection resulted in a long-term impoverishment for blacks in South Central Los Angeles that has remained largely unchanged in the quarter century since Watts exploded here in 1965.

"Instead of taking government money and investing it in homes and urban development, we should have put it into black businesses," Mr. Whitlock says. "We would now be employing ourselves, doing business with ourselves, and we would have our own economy that would ensure our place at the decisionmaking tables."

The lesson needs to be learned in every large city in America, says Whitlock, a St. Louis native who went to L.A., later became a Chicago businessman, and now is a Los Angeles father of two. If blacks controlled a more proportional slice of each community's economic pie, he says, clout would extend naturally into politics, culture, and education. Since they do not, he says, "the American dream is still a dream deferred for most African-Americans."

To emphasize his fundamental difference in approach, Whitlock has been creating an alternative to the more well-known consortium of city, state, and federal bodies known here as "Rebuild L.A." That organization is attempting mere patchwork from the top down, he says, and is doomed to repeat past failures.

"You can't rebuild something that was built wrong in the first place," Whitlock says. "We need to build anew, from the community up."

Enter L.A. Renaissance, an umbrella organization for about seven programs intended for African-Americans to break their cycle of financial and psychological dependency and poverty.

To get low-interest loans of $2,000 to $20,000 to start a business in the community, for instance, applicants must first complete a 10-week entrepreneurial program. A job-creation and employment section focuses on career development and promotion, developing skills for particular industries. Another program provides mentoring for young men and women about discipline, self-esteem, and getting on successful educational tracks early.

Other ideas include breakfasts to hear national and community leaders, and sports activities to provide alternatives to gangs and the drug culture.

"This is a response to the total reversal of the Great Society programs of the '60s," says the Rev. John Cager, an L.A. Renaissance project manager. "CETA [the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act], JTPA [the Job Training Partnership Act], Job Corps - you don't hear about [federal] programs like that anymore. They failed because they just threw money at the problems until things quieted down. So we're starting our own."

By most accounts, credit for the success of L.A. Renaissance in securing nearly $5 million in underwriting from such companies as the Disney Company, Reebok, and ARCO goes to Whitlock. A self-described ex-drug user and dealer, formerly a gang member and a homeless person, Whitlock broke that cycle through his involvement with the leading African-American church in Los Angeles, First African Methodist Episcopal (FAME).

After rising to vice president of a Chicago insurance firm, Whitlock wanted to harness his experience for struggling blacks back on the streets of his former community. "I learned how millions of dollars were advancing the goals of my employers from real estate to banking," says Whitlock. "I thought, why not translate my experience directly to the African-American community?"

"Mark has come to Los Angeles as a CARE package," says Cecil Murray, head pastor of FAME. "He is equally comfortable in the boardroom, on the gang streets, or in the pulpit. He helps African-Americans believe in themselves because they believe in him."

The wall of Whitlock's office bears tributes to his civic accomplishments. Certificates from the police department, the mayor, and the city attorney recognize such programs as one he spearheaded four years ago to rid the local community of gangs, crack houses, and prostitution. Fifty to 200 men walked the streets for months serving notice that such behavior would not be tolerated. Fourteen crack houses were closed.

"I want everything I do to send a message to African-Americans that you cannot blame the system for what has happened," Whitlock says. "If you do, you will continue to remain a victim."

African-Americans are still "denied the same financial opportunity, fair housing, and education" as whites, he says. But he adds that the time is ripe to reverse the pattern. His clarion call for African-Americans in the 1990s: Harness the best and brightest, not for the Fortune 500 companies, but back in the 'hood where they can help the brothers pull themselves up by the bootstraps.

"Many have had an employee mentality for so long they don't know how to break it," Whitlock says. "Well, it's the employer who creates the rules, and it's time for us to create our own rules."

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