LA CAN Represents at Second Annual South LA Health and Human Rights Conference

December 10, 2010 [International Human Rights Day]

The Second Annual South LA Health and Human Rights Conference went off without a hitch. While the agenda was jam-packed most in attendance were eager to hear about current campaigns. Additionally, attendees wanted more information about international treaties and international tools that could help in our local struggles.  Of course they got that and a whole lot more.

LA CAN Organizer, Deborah Burton was on the morning plenary following Supervisor Mark Ridley Thomas. After the completion of her remarks you were hard-pressed to find a dry-eye or closed heart. You will find her entire speech/remarks below:

My name is Deborah Burton. I am a long-time resident of both Downtown and South Los Angeles. I am a member of the Los Angeles Community Action Network, an organization dedicated to fighting for human rights. We work to promote and defend the inter-related rights to housing, health, and dignity and safety.

My work as a community organizer and my personal experiences cannot be separated. I lived in public housing at the Nickerson Gardens for many years – I raised my son there and I know on a first-hand basis the need for the government to provide this housing directly. I lost my job about 10 years ago and lost my rent-controlled apartment not long after. I was forced into homelessness for more than a year, and ended up moving to Skid Row in search of affordable housing. I live there now.

For the majority of my life, I dealt with the struggles of poverty in South LA and similar communities. About 7 years ago I became a member of LA CAN and I had no idea I would end up as a human rights defender. But that’s what the human rights frame demands – it demands that those of us who have been most impacted by human rights violations MUST lead the efforts to protect and defend our human rights.

As many social justice leaders before us made clear, we must focus on human rights for ourselves, for our communities, and for the world.

If we continue to focus on one issue at a time, without making the connections between rights, we will fail to achieve social justice.

If we continue to isolate ourselves within our own communities, without making regional, national and international connections, we will see far smaller gains. If we continue to make small requests – instead of demanding full human rights – we will continue to see our communities suffer.

If we continue to stay silent when we observe human rights violations, we will continue to be ignored.

This is what the human rights fight means to me.

South Los Angeles and the LA region have been in the international human rights spotlight over the past couple of years. I was a part of the team who coordinated the first-ever mission by the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing last fall. The mission was coordinated by impacted residents across the country who were dedicated to ensuring Ms. Raquel Rolnik saw the real struggles of homeless and low-income people and the massive violations of the human right to housing in the midst of great wealth. Her report, informed by us, made sweeping recommendations to the U.S. to correct its current actions and policies.

Last month, I was part of a delegation to Geneva, Switzerland that participated in the Universal Periodic Review of the United States. The community delegates were organized to ensure the Human Rights Committee heard directly about a wide variety of human rights violations. It was urgent to us that a clear message was sent that the U.S. is NOT a model for human rights and that our government is doing everything it can to remove themselves even more from their obligations.

I wanted to be a part of the Geneva delegation as a representative of thousands of Angelenos who have experienced what I have. I testified to the horrific fact that between 50,000 and 80,000 people are now homeless in LA. Instead of providing the solution to homelessness, which is housing, Los Angeles chooses to use the police to harass, move and incarcerate homeless people.

I also testified that Black people are by far the most impacted by homelessness – highlighting the connectedness of housing rights and racial justice. In Los Angeles, 1 in 18 Black residents are homeless, compared to 1 in 270 White residents.

I testified that in Los Angeles, our housing authority just introduced a plan to sell off EVERY public housing unit in the City, and eventually lose these units as affordable. Instead of investing in public housing communities, they plan to dispose of them.

Seven years ago, I didn’t view myself as a human rights defender. Seven years ago, I would have been too nervous to speak in front of a group this size, let alone as a human rights expert. I would not have had the opportunity to represent poor people in this country in front of the United Nations. But taking action changes that. Becoming a part of a collective organization changes that. Thousands more like me are fighting every day to push our local, state and federal governments to acknowledge our human rights. We are building power. We are making progress. We will win. But the task is huge. If regular, everyday people like me can get involved in the solution – then those of you with degrees, influence, and other skills must also get involved. We don’t need to be led, we need people willing to step forward, speak out, and walk with us – side by side. This conference is one day. The fight continues tomorrow and every day after that – I challenge all of us to be more engaged, take more action, and make human rights a reality here in Los Angeles and beyond.

I will close with a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King that I think is relevant to today’s conference themes:

The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? The nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

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