Engaging Communities for Healthy, Equitable Development
Dayana Molina, Organizer at The City Project*
I started to advocate for green open spaces in Los Angeles at the age of thirteen. This was before I knew what marginalized communities, community participation, or sustainable communities meant. What I did know was I was part of a diverse community-driven coalition that advocated for the creation of what is today the Los Angeles State Historic Park and the Río de Los Angeles State Park. The journey to create both of these state parks was long and bumpy but ultimately successful. It was so successful it kicked started a much bigger urban greening movement in Los Angeles that included the greening of the Los Angeles River. Through this long process, I learned community engagement not only matters, but also is essential for the creation of healthy and equitable development that benefits all residents. I know this is true because I lived it.
Dayana Molina, center, age 13
Dayana Molina, right, with Anahuak Youth at a Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority graduation for a Junior Rangers Program.
The northeast Los Angeles of my childhood is very different from what it is today. The youth in my community didn’t have many choices for extracurricular activities, and though we had small neighborhood parks, they were not enough and were often the site of gang territory disputes. The gang culture could not be escaped; my neighbors, and even some of my childhood friends, were affiliated with gangs. The community was made up of low-income, Latino and immigrant residents. Many residents wanted more for their children, including my parents.
At the age of thirteen my parents decided I needed an activity to take up my spare time and enrolled me in a youth soccer team with Anahuak Youth Sport Association (Anahuak). I soon learned Anahuak was, and continues to be, more than just soccer. Anahuak engages and encourages their members to participate in community projects. But beyond just participating, Anahuak emphasizes the importance of having a voice in those projects. I was one of the many Anahuak youth who advocated for the creation of more green space in Los Angeles because we had few safe places to play soccer. Over the years, I learned this was about more than just soccer, it was about community empowerment, health, and bettering the lives of all families in Los Angeles.
In the early 2000’s, Anahuak, The City Project, and diverse community leaders advocated for the creation of two state parks as an alternative to proposed warehouses in two of the last, vast open spaces in Los Angeles. Families in northeast Los Angeles were not in favor of more dead-end jobs. Instead, they wanted what they knew would better serve community needs – more accessible places in Los Angeles for children and their families to enjoy.
After attending many community meetings and visiting various elected officials to advocate for the creation of two state parks, we celebrated our first victory. In December 2001 then Governor Gray Davis announced the purchase of the two lots that would become Los Angeles State Historic Park and Río de Los Angeles State Park. It was not until years later that I realized the importance of this announcement. This victory, however, was short lived. It was soon announced the two state parks would be passive recreation only – this meant no soccer. The families who had advocated for these parks were disappointed and ultimately felt cheated. But once again, communities’ members came together to advocate for a complete park that better served the needs of the community and included both active and passive recreation.
Former Governor Gray Davis with Anahuak Youth. Dayana is the third person to his right. Photo: The City Project
In the end these two victories were and continue to be about more than just parks. The creation of Río de Los Angeles State Park is a victory I hold close to my heart. I remember asking my parents for permission to leave school early to attend the groundbreaking for the park. In many ways I feel a piece of that park is mine, and a piece of me is with the park. This park helped start a much needed healing process for the community I grew up and continue to live in. The original park design incorporated landscaping and sidewalks to prevent drive-by shootings. Río has never been the site of a drive-by shooting, but when it first opened this was a real threat.
Since the park has opened, gang activity and crime has gone down, and now more families feel safe. This was not due to increased policing, it was due to a park. Río is a beautiful park and serves the needs of many families. The community had input in the way the park was designed, and I believe this is the main reason why the park is beautiful today; the community feels invested and wants to protect what they created. This is a park by and for the families who advocated for so many years to make it a reality.
Today there is a buzz around forthcoming plans and pending funding for projects along the Los Angeles River. These projects will have a direct effect on the lives of the people who live along the river, predominantly low-income and Latino. Despite the successful campaign for two state parks to serve these families, there is still a need for more green open spaces and access to these spaces. The greening of the Los Angeles River will alleviate some of the need and will provide green spaces close to home for many families. However, as communities become greener and more desirable, they also become unaffordable for the families who fought to make them green.
The revitalization of the Los Angeles River has the potential for economic, environmental, and social benefits for all residents of Los Angeles. Yet, this better quality of life can only be realized by engagement that promotes healthy and equitable development along the river. This means engaging low-income communities and communities of color every step of the way.
Many of the Anahuak families and diverse allies who advocated for Los Angeles State Historic Park and Rio de Los Angeles State Park have the experience and desire to be involved. The key to success is to get families invested in the revitalization of the Los Angeles River; their voices need to be heard.
*Dayana Molina is an Organizer at The City Project, a non-profit civil rights team based in Los Angeles, California. She is also a Dreamer. She immigrated to the United States from Mexico with her family when she was eight years old.
Click here for the full Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum’s Urban Waterways Newsletter: Community Engagement Along Waterfronts.