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February 13, 1989|JANET CLAYTON | Times Staff Writer

Although acts of hate often grab the public's attention, there are many people throughout Southern California who are working quietly behind the scenes to fight discrimination. Times staff writer Janet Clayton talked to five people who have made a difference in their communities.


Soledad Castellanos' back porch in the William Mead housing project just northeast of downtown Los Angeles looks out on a graffiti-strewn wall of the county's Central Jail. Castellanos, 46, has organized neighbors in hopes of blocking plans to expand the jail. Her efforts have helped to forge an unusual alliance between Latino and Asian neighbors who often have been at odds. She and others angry over the proposed jail expansion have formed LA Action (Latino/Asian Coalition to Improve our Neighborhood).

"I see this as discrimination. Why are they trying to do this here? Because they think we are people who will say nothing. They wouldn't try this somewhere else."

Latinos and Asians "are united now. We're putting our heart into it. I learned that when you fight for something right, it's not color, it's what right. It's not a matter of 'you're Chinese and I'm Mexican,' but that we are human beings fighting to get justice."


Sadie Reid-Benham, 58, has smashed a few walls of prejudice since she moved to Orange County in 1964. A former welfare recipient herself, she helped start the Parent Involvement Council, an interracial group that worked to break welfare mothers out of the poverty cycle. She served on Santa Ana school board from 1983 to 1987, was a delegate for the Rev. Jesse Jackson at the 1988 Democratic National Convention, and ran unsuccessfully last year for mayor of Santa Ana.

"I guess particularly because Orange County was and is such a prosperous place for most people, you kept hearing this idea that people on welfare wanted to be on it, that they just wanted to keep having babies to get more money. Well, that was wrong. That wasn't what I had experienced at all. . . . I've come a long way for a so-called one-time radical. You can knock me down, but I get right back up and brush off my clothes and keep going."


Mike Watanabe, 42, grew up in rough areas of Venice and while serving in Vietnam saw soldiers turn to drugs. He returned, became a student activist at Cal State Northridge and UCLA and studied social work. He worked his way up from an intern to counselor to executive director of the Asian American Drug Abuse Program in 1982. Today, more than 30% of those seeking help at the program's Crenshaw area office in Los Angeles are non-Asian, an unusually high percentage for a program targeted at only one minority.

"We have more integration here in part because, of course, we're located in a heavily black community," Watanabe said. "But it's also because Asians don't threaten blacks, Latinos or whites because we're a middle minority, a positive, if you will, manifestation of racism.

"Part of the stereotype is that Asians are passive and small. That might be appealing to an addict thinking that might mean our program is 'easier.' That doesn't bother me. It's one less obstacle to getting a person in here. Once he's in, we straighten him up right away that he's not going to get away with anything."

"There simply are certain principles you value, like the right of the individual to self-determination. If you accept that, you can accept the habits, clothing styles, food or whatever of that person."


Dr. Maher Hathout, spokesman for the Islamic Center of Southern California, remembers being invited several years ago to speak to a local church as part of a program to learn more about other religions.

The invitation read, "Please wear native dress," said Hathout, 52, an Arcadia physician. "So naturally, I wore a suit." When he arrived at the church, he found its walls decorated with pictures of camels and Arabs wearing kaffiyehs whipped by a desert wind.

"I wasn't offended, really. It just made me feel a sense of mission, of responsibility, to relay the real and correct message. I came back to the Muslim community and said, 'Don't blame members of society. We're not getting the word out.' "

Hathout often visits churches and synagogues, making presentations and answering questions in the hope of bringing greater understanding about the Islamic faith and Muslims. He usually gets a variety of what he calls "strange, astounding questions" such as "Do Muslims believe in God?"

Born in Egypt, Hathout moved to the United States 18 years ago "in search of democracy and freedom. . . . I have found what I searched for here. Things for Muslims have become much better, but they could be better still. So I will continue this because I'm talkative, I'm nosy, and I've never hesitated in expressing what I believe is right."


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