The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
--From "To be of use" by Marge Piercy, Martha Diepenbrock's favorite poem.
It's dark in Santa Monica at 5:45 a.m. when Martha Diepenbrock turns the key in her new Toyota Celica, backs quickly out of her narrow drive and heads downtown on the freeway.
The pre-dawn start is part of Diepenbrock's workday routine. So is a stop at the 7-Eleven on the corner of Figueroa and Adams here the athletic, 5-foot-8-inch woman dressed in sweats is such a regular early morning fixture that before she gets to the counter the clerk already has rung up 65 cents for her decaffeinated coffee and newspaper.
It's a few blocks to Diepenbrock's office on the second floor of an old fire station at 29th and Main. There she reads her paper, drinks her coffee and organizes her day. Then comes 35 minutes of calisthenics and a quarter hour of jogging with 30 or 40 young men and women trying to better themselves.
Diepenbrock is a college dropout, a 32-year-old woman who spent four years working for room and board and $5 a week to become what she is today: director of the Los Angeles Conservation Corps.
"I've always tried to make a difference, to improve the way life is, to make a significant difference," Diepenbrock said.
"I want to have a positive impact on the way people live. I want life to be more fair for more people."
What saves Diepenbrock from appearing fatuous, pretentious or both when she talks like that is that she does make life better for people, most of them underdogs.
The corps she heads, for example, hires 18- to 23-year-olds who can't find jobs. They work in crews for minimum wage on assignments like clearing land and building trails in parks. The idea is to improve corps members' employability while helping the community by completing conservation and community service projects.
Diepenbrock recalls that helping people has been her passion since grammar school. Her direction has remained steady through the years.
"When we were in high school we went to migrant labor camps to work with the kids there," said Dave Sweigert, a Sacramento chemistry teacher who was Diepenbrock's boy friend when they were teen-agers.
"My ambition, and the ambition of most of our friends, was to go to college. Martha never thought college was too relevant. She thought it was more important to work to make the world a better place."
Relevance aside, Diepenbrock earned a 3.97 grade point average at St. Francis High School in Sacramento, where she was student body vice president and valedictorian.
She enrolled in UC Santa Cruz in 1972 and stayed on campus exactly one quarter.
Then she signed up for a field quarter course working with the United Farm Workers union. The "quarter" lasted four years.
Diepenbrock was 19 when she walked into the UFW office in San Jose. "I expected to stuff envelopes or run a postage meter," she said. "Instead, they told me, 'OK, Diepenbrock, you're in charge of Saratoga.' " She was there a month as a community organizer. For the next year she did community organizing in Milpitas and Palo Alto before becoming coordinator of the UFW's Santa Clara County boycott.
Diepenbrock went on to direct boycotts in the San Francisco Bay area and Los Angeles, where at the age of 21 she ran a staff of 60 full-time workers. She was in charge of the union's Santa Clara office in 1976, when there was a break between campaigns, and "I just knew it was time for me to do something different," Diepenbrock said. She resigned.
Two months later, she sent some photos to her former boss, Larry Tramutola, director of the national UFW boycott.
For a year after quitting the union, Diepenbrock took "junk jobs," like making sandwiches for fast-food markets. Then the California Conservation Corps hired her as a crew supervisor.
Assigned to the CCC's Orientation and Training Center in Calaveras County, Diepenbrock arrived for her first day of work training new recruits and was told, "'Martha, take those Pulaskis and McClouds and go cut a fire break.'
"I didn't know what a fire break was, and I thought Pulaskis and McClouds were people. It turned out they were tools to cut fire breaks with. I didn't like teaching what I didn't know. If I'd had a car, I would have left."
She didn't have a car, and she stayed with the CCC seven years, eventually becoming director of corps member development, a job that included recruiting and hiring between 300 and 400 corps members every month, managing career development and job placement programs, and evaluating curriculum and program development.
"They divided my job three ways after I left," she said.
Diepenbrock left because "I had met the challenge there and needed new opportunities. I like getting things started. I like figuring out from the beginning what works and what doesn't work, and doing something about it."