By Dorany Pineda
While the 1992 Rodney King riots brought a lot of tension to Los Angeles communities, it also fueled a civic consciousness among its residents.
Shortly after being elected to the Los Angeles City Council, Mark Ridley-Thomas founded the nonprofit Empowerment Congress in response to the civil unrest. It’s goal was to promote civic engagement by uniting residents, businesses, nonprofit organizations, neighborhood groups, religious institutions and community leaders.
“The Empowerment Congress really created a space for community members to be able to sit at the table, to have conversations and to create policy in the areas of interest with their officials,” said Cassandra Chase, the nonprofit’s coordinator.
Using his platform as a public official, Ridley-Thomas created an opportunity for underrepresented communities to take matters into their own hands and “continue to build together the communities [they] deserve.”
“Los Angeles is a county that is as big as many states are in the country,” said Andrew Henderson, co-chair of the nonprofit. “Our social challenges, economic challenges, social services challenges, are pretty vast. The Empowerment Congress creates a critical role in organizing around that.”
Through education, engagement and empowerment, the organization has amassed more than 3,000 members –– most of them from South Los Angeles –– who help create policies that address various social needs.
Divided into 10 committees, members meet once a month to discuss policies and legislation in the areas of health, education, environment, arts and culture, economic development, emerging civic leaders, human services, public safety and justice, mental health, and senior services.
Among some of the legislative work members have participated in include combating human trafficking, ensuring that development companies hire locally and, most recently, advocating for the investment and reopening of the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital.
Guided by a strategic annual work plan, members also design events throughout the year.
Its largest event is the annual summit, which draws several thousand people every year, Chase said. Attendees get an opportunity to see civic engagement in action and to hear social justice leaders discuss the work they are doing.
Another one of its events last year, a gubernatorial debate in South Los Angeles, attracted more than 2,000 people. And to Chase, that number speaks volumes about the issues people care about.
“People say that folks are not engaged right now … and that they are just chanting because of what’s going on, but the [gubernatorial] event really proved the opposite,” Chase said, laughing. “Inside the townhall conversation, folks were letting the candidates know what was important to them vocally.”
Of course, a civic engagement nonprofit couldn’t be without emphasizing people’s right to vote. So in September, the Emerging Civic Leaders committee is hosting “The Woke Vote: Why Your Vote Matters” to encourage millennials and other community members to vote and to ensure that they know who and what they are voting for.
Although Henderson knows there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the city’s social, economic and political issues, he believes Empowerment Congress’s model is unique.
“Because we’re a volunteer-run organization, it gives those involved a sense of commitment that others don’t have… it gives rise to a higher level of engagement,” he said.
“One of our biggest benefits is that we are responsive and evolving. We don’t have a rigid sense of principles or expectations…[Instead], we’re responsive to what communities need at the time.”
Coordinator: Cassandra Chase
Years in operation: 26
Annual budget: N/A
Number of employees: 2
Location: 1000 N. Alameda St. Suite 240, Los Angeles 90012