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OCtober 16, 2009

BILL MOYERS: President Obama was in Texas today with the first George Bush urging Americans to volunteer for more community service, a good thing to do.

Barack Obama actually began his political career as a community organizer on the south side of Chicago. Since his run for the presidency, special attention has been paid to this unglamorous and tough line of work.

Community organizers go toe-to-toe with the powers that be, and so they are often feared and ridiculed by those who believe America should be run from the top down. Remember last year's Republican National Convention?

RUDY GIULIANI: He worked as a community organizer. What?

SARAH PALIN: I guess a small town mayor is sort of like a community organizer, except that you have actual responsibilities.

BILL MOYERS: Despite such rank disparagement, dedicated community organizers never give up. They work at the grassroots to help their fellow citizens stand-up for the change needed to improve their lives and their communities.

This year, on the Journal, we've reported on some remarkable community organizers. In Chicago, you met James Thindwa, speaking out on behalf of low-income workers for better pay and jobs.

JAMES THINDWA: No more abuse of workers and this is where we draw the line folks!

STEVE MEACHAM: What we're witnessing is a courageous woman…

BILL MOYERS: In Boston, we saw Steve Meacham organize neighbors to fight back against the banks and protect their homes from foreclosure.

STEVE MEACHAM: We have intervened in a key arena, which is stopping eviction after foreclosure! And by doing that we are getting leverage to negotiate good deals with the banks.

BILL MOYERS: Half a world away, in Liberia Leymah Gbowee organized the "Women in White." They stood in righteous defiance of violence and war and helped topple a brutal dictatorship.

LEYMAH GBOWEE: I am going to be in the front of the line with my sisters. If we get arrested, fine. But just to say, I feel your pain. I've been down this road. And I'll walk this walk with you.

BILL MOYERS: For our final report in this series, we want you to meet a woman whose very name reflects hope and faith in her adopted country. America Bracho came to Santa Ana, California, a decade ago to fight a public health crisis in the town's Latino community. But her struggle against one disease blossomed into a much broader mission. Over time, she has organized and helped to empower a corps of home-grown leaders determined to help their community.

If on this bright summer day you were just a passerby, you would never guess that these people are celebrating a dream coming true.

This young man wasn't even born when that dream took hold in the dusty ground of this vacant lot seven years ago….. But in a few months he and the other kids here will be swinging from monkey bars, playing ball and chasing each other around a brand new community center in a public park that only a handful of hardy souls ever thought possible.

AMERICA BRACHO: Muy buenos tardes.

BILL MOYERS: The creation of this park is only part of our story…

AMERICA BRACHO: Welcome to this park, welcome to this project, welcome to this dream.

BILL MOYERS: Our story is also about what people can do when they finally find their voice.

AMERICA BRACHO: If you ask me what that lot means, it means… You could see it like it doesn't mean anything. It's just a small vacant lot that is going to be a park in an area, in a neighborhood that lacks so much. You could see it that way, or you could see it as one major accomplishment for a community that went from not having any voice to getting a park built.

BILL MOYERS: To get why one small park is a major accomplishment, you need to know a few things about Santa Ana, and its environs.

This is Orange County, California--one of the richests spots in the Golden State. Home to Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm, John Wayne Airport, Crystal Cathedral and Saddleback Church.

It's also home to enough fantasies to fill hours and hours of cable television.

WOMAN: I want the power and the money, and I want them both! Whoo hooo!

BILL MOYERS: For several years now, cable TV has practically camped out in Orange County.

WOMAN: I'm just your typical Orange County housewife.

BILL MOYERS: At least four different series have portrayed this place as a rich, sun-baked oasis stretching along forty miles of ocean beaches.

But it's a different picture here in Santa Ana, whose 350 thousand residents live a world apart from their TV counterparts. 70 percent of Santa Ana is Latino. The average family of four earns just above poverty level wages.

Four years ago, in a national survey of the toughest cities to live in America -- a survey that weighed levels of crime, poverty and disease -- Santa Ana ranked number one.

So it's hard to imagine a park sprouting up on these neglected streets, but it's happening here, and it came about in a most unexpected way.

It all started when this woman, America Bracho, a public health doctor by training, founded an organization in 1993 called Latino Health Access. The community she wanted to serve was facing so many challenges she knew she couldn't confront them all at once. So she settled on one to begin with.

AMERICA BRACHO: We did a survey in Orange County among Latinos. And we found that there were major diseases devastating this community. And one of those conditions is diabetes. Diabetes is causing blindness in a very young community. So you find a dad at 40, blind. You find a productive woman at 42, amputated.

So this is one of the diabetes programs…

So diabetes not only was a relevant agenda, but diabetes is a great entry point to community work because it's pretty safe. It's pretty safe. I didn't think it was strategic to enter our community dealing with issue of gangs, or with domestic violence. So, we decided to start very quiet. We didn't say we want to transform Orange County. We don't want to transform our communities. We just wanted a good program that could produce outcomes.

BILL MOYERS: The best way to achieve those outcomes, Bracho knew, was to recruit her 'experts' from among the very people living in the neighborhood, who were themselves living with diabetes. With good training, each one could teach one.

AMERICA BRACHO: We wanted to use the model of 'promotores,' which are community workers. And these community workers-- we wanted to train them to be in charge of the programs. And there is something powerful in having people with diabetes telling another person with diabetes, "I was there. I wanted to die." "And guess what? Now I learned to manage my diabetes. I don't want to die anymore."

And we started teaching classes in laundromats, in garage, in apartments, in churches, everywhere. Thousands of people with diabetes have come to our classes. Excellent clinical outcomes.

INSRUCTOR: Uno punto tres.

AMERICA BRACHO: And when we started having those incredible outcomes, then hospitals started calling us. "Well, what exactly are you doing, that you are having these results? We are not having those results even with our doctors and nurses. Can we talk?" So, again, that was our beginning. Latino Health Access is this organization that uses community people as teachers! And they are called 'promotores.' And actually, they give results, clinical results.

BILL MOYERS: Within a few years Bracho had deputized dozens of these 'promotores', which in Spanish means "promoter." They fanned out across the neighborhood like missionaries, spreading the word about diabetes and inviting people to their free classes.

All this effort started a human chain reaction, one that gets to the very heart of successful community organizing.

AMERICA BRACHO: Promotores are very connected with a community, and they will tell you what is happen immediately. They have the pulse of that community. So what came next was that these community workers started seeing other things in the community. They started identify that many of our clients, many of our participants in the diabetes program were victims of domestic violence. And we created our first domestic violence program.

BILL MOYERS: And on it went.

They launched a series of after-school programs for kids.

They started classes for moms who wanted to learn how to shop smarter and eat better.

They taught a class on 'healthy weight' so their kids won't become obese -- an affliction that strikes one in three Latino kids in Santa Ana.

GINA TORRES: Two pounds off! That's great, Antonio!

AMERICA BRACHO: What I want our community to know is that nobody is going to do this for us. There is a proof to that. You know, there is a proof to the fact that nobody's going to bring the diabetes program to our neighborhood, and the proof is that it took for us to do it, to have one.

In this promotores world, you don't recruit the brain. You recruit the heart. Because you can train the brain, but you cannot train the heart. So here we are talking about the clusters of skills for the promotores.

BILL MOYERS: Bracho knew about 'promotores' from her experience in her native Venezuela as a young doctor in the late 1970s.

AMERICA BRACHO: I practiced in a little town in rural Venezuela. Very, very poor. And I just was a rural physician. When I met these community workers in that town, they had all the kids immunized. And I remember asking them, "How do you keep track of this?" And they show me a shoe rack. And on the shoe rack they had pieces of cardboard with the names of all the kids in town. And they will go -- they'd show me -- they will go house by house and these promotores will push and push and push to get people to respond and to get all the immunizations up to date. 100 percent of the kids were immunized. There is something about being resourceful. There is something that is in the capacity of the community that you cannot compare with computers and technology.

BILL MOYERS: Bracho came to the U.S. to get her masters in public health at the University of Michigan, and in 1988, she took a job there helping to fight the aids and crack epidemics that were ravaging inner city Detroit.

And again there we just did it with community workers. And we hired people with AIDS. And we had addicts. You know, the same model -- the peers, the people that can hear them and can reach them, the people that are not afraid to go into crack house because they have been an addict. And the people going to reach the sex workers in those streets, were not afraid of reaching them. But not only were not afraid, they actually love them. You know, when you recruit this sex worker that is infected and now she becomes a community worker and she's reaching other women, there is some level of love and solidarity. They are not just serving them to have a salary. They are serving them because they have been there, done that. And now they understand that they want these women to have a chance in life.

BILL MOYERS: Irma Rivera is one of the Bracho's newest promotores. She first came to Latino Health Access to learn how to manage her own diabetes, and she's been improving her health through exercise and nutrition ever since. Now she's on staff, teaching others.

IRMA RIVERA: When we come here, we come with that goal -- to teach them how to eat healthier, more nutritiously in order to avoid obesity and diabetes for the kids in the future. Because right now, there are a lot of things they're eating that, unfortunately, the moms don't know, or are unaware, that are bad for their health. So, that's our goal. To show them that point of view.

BILL MOYERS: Rivera's work with Bracho taught her that living a healthy life is even harder when you live in an unhealthy neighborhood. She says, for example, just look at the signs all over the apartment complexes in town.

IRMA RIVERA: In the apartments where a lot of us live, you're not allowed to run, you're not allowed to play, you're not allowed to skate, to ride a bike, to play ball. We're not allowed to do anything -- just be in the room we're renting, locked up and grabbing the remote to watch more television.

BILL MOYERS: Outside, kids wanting to play encounter chained-up lots that read: "no trespassing." It's stunning, actually -- block after block after block of vacant lots, sealed off from the community. They're the result of the city's oft-promised, yet never delivered, redevelopment plan. What's left is an urban desert.

AMERICA BRACHO: It's very dense, it's a very dense city.

BILL MOYERS: To bracho, the chained-up lots are only the beginning, but they prove a point she often makes: this is a community "designed to be sick."

AMERICA BRACHO: Some people choose not to see the issues - not to confront of the problems, not to talk about it. It's really bad.

BILL MOYERS: As evidence, Bracho points out there are more liquor stores in this neighborhood than elsewhere in Santa Ana. She says budget cuts here mean that kids don't get the required physical education classes in school. As for parks: believe it or not, there's less open space per resident in Santa Ana than in New York City.

Bracho doesn't think any of this happens by accident.

AMERICA BRACHO: I have to confess, when I see that vacant lots and many other vacant lots, I see injustice. If we are invisible to the people that allocate money, if we are invisible to the people that do planning, if we are invisible to the people that have the resources, there is something wrong with that picture. If you can make the decision, as a political representative, or as the leader of an institution, you can make the decision of putting a park in a place and liquor stores in another place and you put the liquor stores in my neighborhood, and the parks in the other neighborhood, there is something very wrong with that.

That's French Park. That's what they call the park right there to your left there, that triangle. This is what, like central park in New York, more or less? Of course, you know, nobody can be active in this park. Here we are facing an epidemic of obesity. And the people cannot move! I always say in a park like this, what can they play? Theoretical baseball? They can draw people playing basketball? You know? We want a place where kids can run, and play, and jump, and be kids.

IRMA RIVERA: I've lived in this area for 9 years. Since I didn't have a place to take my children to play, what I would do is, since the school's parking lot is here and there are no cars there in the afternoon, I would always take the kids there in the afternoon to play.

BILL MOYERS: Rivera would've liked for her kids to use the vast school playgrounds around the neighborhood, but they're all locked up after school, so they ended up playing in a parking lot. What she saw there would drive her to action.

IRMA RIVERA: Two times, I saw cases in which a child was almost run over by a car in this section of the street. But there was one time when a car did hit a child chasing after a ball. I saw that mom's reaction -- she was so scared, so desperate, to the point that she was crying from such a fright, from seeing that. Such a big crash. As a mother, I felt horrible. I mean, these things can't happen. Unfortunately, they are happening, because we don't have any space.

AMERICA BRACHO: Irma was one of those moms that we met, in a local school, when we were teaching classes of diabetes. So here, she's listening to all of this advice that becomes empty, if you have a community that is designed to be sick. You know, so okay, "So I heard that, my kids should exercise, so they can increase their opportunities for prevention -- where?" It is that contradiction that raises your awareness, to a point in which Irma said, "I don't want to take this anymore -- there has to be a way." And Irma approached us and said, "Can we organize the moms and get a park?" And we said, very much in the Latino Health Access's style, "With your help, we will."

BILL MOYERS: And that's how the campaign for a park began, with Irma Rivera its unofficial leader. She organized other moms, participated in rallies, and hounded city officials.

They got the press' attention too, generating coverage in several local papers.

When Rivera and others from Bracho's group suggested this lot as a possible site for a park, city officials said no. It's within that proposed redevelopment zone and the city had other plans for it. But Rivera wouldn't give up.

IRMA RIVERA: This is the City Hall building where I came with a group of moms, many moms, who came to support this point of view concerning our park. We came to talk with our city councilmen, specifically because they have the power to say yes or no. I was a bit scared because I was like, well, maybe they will tell us no, maybe they'll ignore us. So in the beginning that was my fear, but then I said, no, why be afraid? It's something that I'm advocating for. It's my right, it's the right of my community. Not just me, there are so many moms -- if I turn around, I see many moms in the same situation I am. So that was my greatest motivation. And I'm still anxious to see what we started become a reality.

AMERICA BRACHO: Irma is a peer, is a peer to many women in the neighborhood. And she has a lot in common with the women in the neighborhood. When these women look at me, they see that a lot of the things that I have accomplished in my life is because I'm a professional. They don't relate to me as peer. When they see Irma, and they see Irma advocating and Irma caring and Irma going and offering testimonial, they say, "Well, you know what? If Irma can do this, I can do this. If Irma can open her mouth on behalf of her kids, I can open my mouth on behalf of my kids." And the only thing that it takes is just to open your mouth.

KIDS: Kids need a park! Kids need a park!

BILL MOYERS: After several years, the pressure started paying off. In 2004, city officials agreed that this lot might work as a possible location, but quickly added that they couldn't afford one dime towards building it.

So Bracho's group would have to raise all the money themselves, and build a permanent community center on the site.

AMERICA BRACHO: This is the place -- our community center.

BILL MOYERS: It was a huge challenge -- they'd need hundreds of thousands of dollars just to get started.

The local hospital, St. Joseph's, weighed in on their side -- even loaned one of their top engineers to help oversee the project. A local grocery chain donated an adjacent lot, making the proposed park a little bigger.

Then, one day, after reading one of those articles about the fight for the park, a wealthy local resident came through with a hundred thousand dollar donation.

It's taken seven years, but they're ready to break ground this November. They estimate they'll need nearly three million dollars more to run the park year after year. But for now, it was time to celebrate.

AMERICA BRACHO: You know that know people talk about hope a lot? Well, we have been talking about hope forever!

IRMA RIVERA: This is something very big for me and I'm very moved to see that we have the support from our community. And I feel very proud of that. We've been looking for all the possible ways to get what we now have -- thank God -- which is this ground. Well, we're going to start. The seed has been planted. We will accomplish what we want for our children.


AMERICA BRACHO: This project is seven years of people organizing and asking and finally, after a lot of struggle, the community, Latin Health Access and many other groups, have succeeded in getting this land that you see here.

This land is more than dirt. This land is the dream of seven years for our community to have a place where our children can play. For this project to get this far, we have had to do a lot of asking.

But, it doesn't matter, I'm not ashamed to ask. And no one should feel ashamed of asking and fighting. What we should feel ashamed about is not participating in providing our families a better life. Because if we don't do it, no one is going to. This park is here because we chose to participate.


From day one, when we started this project, we said to each other, you know, the most important, but also the most dangerous part in doing community work is when people actually believe they can transform their community. That's pretty dangerous. Because when people believe that, they want to do that again and again and again.

BILL MOYERS: We have to admire America Bracho for fighting on, as well as those other community organizers around the country. But if they won't give up, the rest of us have no excuse for sitting it out.

That's it for the Journal. Go to our Web site at and click on "Bill Moyers Journal." You can learn more about community organizers who make a difference, and you'll also be able to read essays and war reporting by our guest Mark Danner. That's all at

I'm Bill Moyers and I'll see you next time.

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