Officials, organizers use King Holiday to work towards community change and civil rights

Elected officials and community leaders from across Los Angeles County congregated on the campus of the University of Southern California Saturday to discuss issues afflicting their constituents and neighbors.

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The Empowerment Congress Summit focused on issues afflicting areas around South Central, including improving the public transportation system and providing quality healthcare to residents.

The Empowerment Congress Summit focused on providing quality healthcare to underserved communities, eradicating sex trafficking and improving the public transportation system. The summit is held each year on the weekend of the federal Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. More than 200 people attended the 22nd annual event in USC’s Bovard Auditorium.

Los Angeles County Supervisor and former City Councilmember of the Eighth District Mark Ridley-Thomas founded the summit in 1992, shortly after the Los Angeles Riots engulfed areas of the Eighth District.

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Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas speaks to an audience at USC’s Bovard Auditorium at the 22nd Annual Empowerment Congress Summit.

South African President Nelson Mandela, who recently passed away, also inspired the theme of this year’s summit.

“If Nelson Mandela could present himself after 27 years of captivity, stand up, unbowed and yet willing to say there is power in reconciliation then surely the notion of empowerment can happen in our communities today,” Ridley-Thomas said.

Other speakers connected the milestone anniversaries, such as the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 60th anniversary Brown v. Board of Education case, to the work that currently needs to be done in the Second District of Los Angeles County.

“The missions we share are frequently not easy ones, but the empowerments we seek are always the necessary ones,” said USC President C. L. Max Nikias.

Some summit attendees said the goals discussed at the event gave them more insight on how they could be of service to their community.

“I believe that you should get to know your neighbor,” Tamara Johnson, 32 and Empowerment Congress member said. “Everyone has a story and their stories help you understand certain issues more. That’s what the whole Congress is about.”

In its history, issues discussed at the Empowerment Congress Summit have led to campaigns to implement a Metro station in Leimert Park and building more grocery stores in South Central’s food deserts.

Continuing the tradition, many politicians and organizers unveiled new developments and presented progress reports on on-going community efforts.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Hospital, which closed in 2007 after a swirl of controversy surrounding its patient care practices, was completed in December and is set to reopen in 2014. The closing of the hospital left South Los Angeles residents without a facility to seek medical assistance.

“Healthcare is a right and not a privilege,” Ridley-Thomas said. “It’s important to build a lot of things but you have to build them properly.”

Advocates from outside Los Angeles County also attended the summit to show support. Sandra Fluke, who entered the public sphere in 2012 after speaking to House Democratic members on the right for medical insurance to include a contraception mandate, said advocacy work must continue.

“I know that these fights for justice are not over. We can do better and we will do better,” Fluke said.

Going forward in the year, many politicians encouraged summit participants to continue building partnerships among one another.

“If we work hard and continue to work together,” said State Senator Alex Padilla, “we will make this great state of California better.”

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