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THE SUNDAY PROFILE : A Step Up in Life : Alice Walker-Duff firmly believes that money spent on child care pays off. But can she convince America?


These are desperate times. Usher in Act I of desperate measures:

"What is this? A lounge act?" whispers one be wildered late arrival, eyes wide, sliding into his seat.

Certainly it's not a starched-and-pressed affair of the Roberts Rules of Order variety; these proceedings have shades of some circuitous Lucy Ricardo-Ethel Mertz scheme to usurp the Tropicana, if only for a day.

For its staff appreciation luncheon, Crystal Stairs, one of the state's largest nonprofit providers of child-care services, goes all out--with talk of menus, costumes, music, intricatechoreography.

But their skit, "As the World Turns at Crystal Stairs" is more dire than satire.

Alice Walker-Duff, Crystal Stairs' executive director, looks on during rehearsal as Karen Hill-Scott, stealing the scene for a moment with her Casio keyboard, vamps on a few familiar themes. Taking five, she then doles out alter egos to the assembled employees: the Voice of the Future, the Rich Lady, Newt Gingrinch. . . .

"Your roles are relatively small, but significant to Alice," says Hill-Scott, shifting the spotlight back to the new boss, who sits quietly behind broad-framed glasses, scratching notes, her hand a blur, like a student in seminar.

Her unspoken wish: If only the real Newt Gingrich could be as easily defeated as a powdered-hair and Sunday-suited effigy. Plans for his demise? If all goes well, he'll be felled by a brief rain of Nerf balls.

The underlying theme of this skit (penned by Hill-Scott), however, is more dire than satire.

The Republican-backed "contract with America" promises severe repercussions for many federal and state social services. Walker-Duff and Hill-Scott, who oversees development for Crystal Stairs, have done the math. And the numbers are no laughing matter. As much as 82% of their $19-million budget could go by the wayside in the next few years, jeopardizing child-care resource and referral services for parents citywide, a child-care center, a food program and GAIN (Greater Avenues for Independence), which provides employment and job training.

"It would be a shame if the funding on the state and federal level was cut," says Charlotte Allen, assistant director of the Hollywood-based social service agency Home SAFE, who also stares at the future with uneasiness. "But if I know Karen and Alice," she adds with a conspiratorial chuckle, " they will have a talk with President Clinton themselves. And get it taken care of."

Since the beginning, the duo has made for intriguing foils: Hill-Scott the bluster, Walker-Duff the calm center of the storm. Walker-Duff, 48, co-founded with Hill-Scott the precursor to Crystal Stairs, the nonprofit Childcare Resource and Referral Service, in the late '70s. Their fledgling organization set up shop, using funds from the Joint Center for Community Services, in a couple of storefronts--one in Leimert Park, another in Inglewood--staffed by half a dozen or so students and mothers, the curious and others, who touched down to help out for a spell. But "temporary part time" somehow protracted into 15 years.

Levi Kingston, board chairman of the Hoover Intergenerational Child Development Center near USC, remembers the landscape as not only barren but indifferent. "There really wasn't much happening in South-Central in terms of child care. People of color didn't have much representation. And when you thought about child-care providers, they were generally out [in] the Valley," he recalls. And no one at that time had anything to do with policy.

Ara Parker, then director of the neighboring YWCA child-care program on Vernon Avenue, quickly made the newcomers' acquaintance. "They were the only black alternative program in the state," says Parker, who now serves on the board of the Washington-based Black Child Development Institute. "They were involving as many community people as they could. And from the very beginning . . . all races."

Parker has heard a range of fervent testimonials--formal and otherwise--from mothers: ". . . that Crystal Stairs allowed her to go back to school. To get off AFDC [Aid to Families With Dependent Children]. . . . What people have to realize, if families don't have safe child care . . . they won't get into the [training] programs. And they won't be able to move out in the working world."

That issue is one of the primary engines driving this child-development movement, and Crystal Stairs has been a catalyst.

"I knew that they were both leaders. Not just in their community, but in the child-care community as a whole," Patricia Siegel, executive director of the San Francisco-based California Child Care Resource & Referral Network, says of Walker-Duff and Hill-Scott. "The skills they have are unique. They've been able to bring child care this broad vision."

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