Making a Difference West Edition

MAKING A DIFFERENCE: Social Justice Learning Institute works to empower youth

D’Artagnan Scorza is used to being on the front lines.

He spent five years in the Navy, including a tour in Baghdad. Today, he still considers himself on the front lines as the founder and executive director of the Social Justice Learning Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the education, health, and well being of youth and communities of color by empowering them to enact social change through research training and community mobilization.

“Our mission is to close disparity,” said Scorza, who is based in Inglewood, where he also serves as president of the  Inglewood Unified School District’s Board of Education.

“Racial disparity needs to be addressed. So does the digital learning divide. We’re about transforming conditions. Inglewood has been hit hard. We always have to fight so hard to get over these challenges.”

At 39, Scorza, who received his Ph.D. from UCLA, has already lived a lot. He’s determined to give today’s youth the tools to ensure they can do the same.

“We connect with and understand that some have faced historical challenges and disadvantages,” Scorza said. “We work with youth to make sure they understand their power and transform a condition in the community. We are not waiting for the government to save us. We seek to make a change across the lifespan of an individual.”

When you talk to Scorza, the passion he has for what he does pours out in every word. He understands the people he serves because he says he used to be one of them.

“I grew up in Inglewood,” said Scorza, a married father of two. “I was one of those kids. I was homeless and had to walk down the street and deal with issues. I have seen oppression so clearly. I was lucky that a lot of people helped me get into UCLA.”

What fuels Scorza is his own reality.

“Because of what I’ve seen in my life, I understood I had an obligation,” he said. “My brothers and my dad were incarcerated. My dad suffered from addiction. My cousin was shot and killed on 108th and Crenshaw. Another cousin is incarcerated. Another was killed 2 ½ years ago. I’m tired of this story in our community and having to deal with these challenges. I pledged to commit my life to resolve these things.”

Scorza said it’s about changing the story and the conditions. 

“I’ve seen the pain in our communities,” he said. “It angers me that it continues, but it’s enough to make me get up every day and do something about it.”

One of the things the Social Justice Learning Institute recently did was partner with the Inglewood Unified School District to distribute bags of fresh fruit and vegetables to community members.

Food distribution has been going on for about two years in Inglewood through a partnership with Food Forward, a charity whose mission is to fight hunger and prevent food waste by rescuing fresh surplus produce and connecting it with people in need.

Scorza said the food distribution is ongoing as long as there is a need. The institute worked with school distribution to align with the Grab N Go program.

The organization also created a community response fund to support families hit hard during the coronavirus pandemic. The institute received $25,000 from the All Ways Up Foundation to feed families in Inglewood, Lennox, Hawthorne, South Los Angeles and Lawndale. They were able to give away 250 $100 grocery gift cards.

“We have a lot of people in need,” Scorza said. “We’re also giving them laptops — about 100 of them to Inglewood school district families and about 60 to our programs in the community. I told my team we are on the frontlines. We just need to raise more money to get food in the hands of our community.”

According to Scorza, what makes the Social Justice Learning Institute unique is that they look at the “intersection of issues.”

“Kids come to class hungry and they would eat hot Cheetos and Kool-Aid and go to Del Taco and that would be their food for the day,” Scorza said. “How are you going to be successful with $2 per day for food?

“It’s important to address the physical needs of black folks. Walking down the street to go to school. How do you successfully navigate it to get to school in the first place? How do you learn in a facility that is falling apart?”

Scorza said understanding the whole picture and the whole individual and equipping them with the skills they need is what Social Justice Learning Institute is all about.

“Once they learn how to do that, return to the community and do that for others,” Scorza said. “That’s what we want them to do. Go to a community where there is a need and return and lift the conditions of all of our people. Come back and create something. Be the city planner or a business owner. We’re not preaching the get out of the hood narrative.”

The Social Justice Learning Institute, which Scorza calls “small but mighty” with its $2.7 million annual budget, envisions communities where education empowers individuals to use the agency for the purpose of improving each other’s lives and to advocate for policies that address their needs. So far this year, the institute has worked with 360 students between the ages of 12 and 24.

With a myriad of programs and moving parts under the SJLI umbrella, Scorza believes there is more than one road that leads to success.

In its quest to improve the community and its residents, the organization’s impact has built 103 gardens in the Los Angeles area, distributed 1,867 pounds of produce per year, has diverted 52,000 pounds of produce from landfills per year, led a $90 million bond campaign to improve Inglewood schools, it increased restorative justice funding in the Los Angeles Unified School District, advocated for statewide sugar-sweetened beverage fee and led community town halls, to bring more than 12,000 residents to talk about diabetes prevention.

In its efforts to empower through education, the Social Justice Learning Institute has taught more than 250 healthy lifestyle classes per year, enrolled 32 students at college campuses, and served 1,619 through its Urban Scholars program.

The Urban Scholars program, formerly known as the Black Male Youth Academy, is an educational program Scorza founded that is designed to empower youth to enable the change they want to see in the world.

Scorza developed the program at Morningside High School as part of his senior thesis. The emphasis was on literacy practices in black males. One of his goals was how to improve academic development. In doing so, he founded the Social Justice Learning Institute.

The program model has been replicated in 14 schools throughout Long Beach, Compton, Houston, South L.A., and the LAUSD.

Scorza admits there is a lot of work to be done and it may take some time, but he is “unapologetic about helping our people.”

“We keep getting hit over and over again,” he said. “We’re going to fight the good fight and not let our community suffer. The mantra should be to build up and buy back the hood. Uplift the hood and make it better for our people. The mantra shouldn’t be to get out the hood. That’s damaging. Someone has to stand in the gap.”

“Making a Difference” is a weekly feature profiling organizations that are serving their communities. To propose a “Making a Difference” profile, send an email to newsroom@wavepublication.com.