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Banking on the Community : Credit union manager studies interethnic relations to attract investments from everyone in the neighborhood.


A yearning to be politically correct might have driven some to take a course in multicultural awareness, but Tammy Brown's motivation was dollars and sense.

Brown, 30, is the manager of the fledgling South-Central People's Federal Credit Union on Crenshaw Boulevard. The credit union is striving to provide some economic arms and legs for a community that has been crippled by a lack of financial institutions.

In order to succeed, Brown must convince those who live, work or worship in the area bounded by the Santa Monica Freeway on the north, Imperial Highway on the south, Alameda Street on the east and La Brea Avenue on the west to bank with the credit union so it will have the funds to invest in the community.

But in a target area that is 50% Latino and growing, less than 2% of Brown's members were Latino last year.

"We don't want this to be an African American credit union, we want this to be community credit union," Brown said.

So nine months ago Brown, who is African American, enrolled in the Leadership Development in Interethnic Relations program so that she could learn to surmount cultural barriers and attract more Latinos. She graduated earlier this month and is putting what she learned to work.

The program was begun by the Asian Pacific American Legal Center in 1991. But after the 1992 riots made the need for greater interethnic understanding obvious, an old-school, civil rights organization, the Martin Luther King Dispute Resolution Center/Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and a legal advocacy group, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, signed on to help organize the program.

Each year organizers select about 20 people from nearly 100 Los Angeles applicants. Those chosen are different colors, different ages and have different jobs and educational backgrounds, but all must have demonstrated some commitment to bettering their communities, said Laura Mendoza, one of the program coordinators.

The program provides a safe forum where participants can openly discuss potentially explosive topics such as ethnic tensions in their neighborhoods, racial stereotypes and identity.

And personal revelations during these sessions offered the opportunity for the entire group to learn.

During one workshop, Father Richard Estrada, 50, was asked to which group did he belong, Latino, Hispanic or Mexican American?

Estrada paused, then realized he could not choose. Hispanic--too generic, Mexican American--too conservative, Latino--just not right, none of the labels fit. While he stood before the group struggling to understand himself, he explained to the class why he is Chicano.

"I'm American but with the baggage of the culture and memory of my Mexican family. I can have filet mignon with refried beans and tortillas. I can speak both English and Spanish and that's a gift. I'm Chicano. It's a political statement," Estrada said.

Estrada said he hoped he was able to help his fellow classmates better understand his people. The program's organizers emphasized that honest communication can defuse potentially volatile interethnic relations.

"It's a program that gives people tools to address the challenge of racial tension in their own communities," said Kathleen Hiyake, project director.

The nine months of training is divided into three phases. The first phase focuses on cultural sensitivity. Brown's class went on a weekend retreat to examine what were real ethnic differences and what were just misperceptions.

The second phase helps build organizational leadership and conflict resolution skills. Members are trained in public speaking and ways that disenfranchised communities can influence the media to portray their communities truthfully.

During the first two phases the participants meet for training two Saturdays each month. The third phase, however, is more demanding. The participants divide into teams and implement projects in communities facing interethnic strife.

Brown's class, which graduated earlier this month, initiated four projects.

One team provided a curriculum of cultural awareness, communication and conflict resolution training to Explorer Scouts helping Wilshire division officers with non-hazardous duties.

Because some of the Scouts eventually become police officers, it was important to program member and former Police Officer Julio Perez that they be sensitive to the concerns of communities of color.

Two teams focused on challenges facing South-Central Los Angeles.

One worked with local youth and the Crossroads National Education and Arts Center in Leimert Park to organize a national video teleconference that gave youths from around the country a chance to speak out on race relations.

The other South-Central group worked with Eureka Communities, an umbrella group of 25 youth service agencies, to devise a comprehensive model to educate teen-agers in interethnic conflict resolution.

The San Gabriel Valley Team provided five days of diversity training to 30 Pasadena High School students. These students will serve as mentors for younger students.

But program organizers are most concerned with how graduates implement their training in their communities.

When you telephone Brown's credit union the message you hear says "Thanks for calling" and "Gracias por llamar." And although the tray holding the Spanish brochures for low-interest home loans is still full, Brown has made some progress in attracting Latino clients.

She has added two Latino client assistants to her staff and her percentage of Latino credit union members has increased to 5%. They aren't flooding her office yet, but Brown said she has put out the welcome mat.

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