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Her Calling: To Help Others Find a Voice

A nun and social worker motivates residents to speak up so local leaders listen

August 12, 2002|MARY ROURKE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The playground of Santo Nino Center filled up with families from its downtown L.A. neighborhood one recent evening. Parents, grandparents and children ventured into a part of town where most people stay home after dark, but this gathering meant enough to them that they were willing to risk the danger.

As representatives of the Los Angeles Police Department, L.A. Unified School District and City Council arrived to meet with them and answer their questions about safety and local school conditions, other neighbors watched from the steps of their battered stucco homes. Squad cars parked nearby were reassuring, but fathers still pulled their children close when a gleaming car crawled past, thumping like a boombox.

At the chain-link fence, Sister Maribeth Larkin, a Catholic nun who walks with the tilt of a general, handed out programs but kept one eye on the speaker's platform. After all, she had coached the parents and schoolteachers who would speak out, asking some tough questions this night, and she was eager to keep things moving.

Larkin is a Sister of Social Service, a professional social worker and a senior organizer for L.A. Metro Strategy, which teaches concerned members of churches, schools and community centers how to make allies of local leaders who can then help them improve their neighborhoods.

Some of her latest students, 100 or so organizers in training from cities around the Southwest, filled the back rows of chairs set up on the center's playground. Larkin, 52, is teaching them to launch community gatherings like the one they have come here to observe.

She winced at the suggestion that she deserves any credit. "I show people how to exercise their own power, to organize themselves and confront injustice," she said. "They get the credit. All I do is identify talent and mentor people. It's all about relationships."

In the last year or so, the families living near Santo Nino at the edge of the city's garment district have lost 10 young people to street violence. Eight-year-old Anthony Ramirez, the most recent victim, was killed in April by a random bullet that shot through Trinity Park, the local patch of green. For the evening's meeting, fourth-graders at Trinity School decorated the playground with messages of grief: "No More Broken Promises," "I Am Tired of the Gangs."

Their pleas seemed weary beyond their years, but the words expressed just why most of the 300 people in the audience attended. This gathering, or "action"--a word Larkin has coined to describe a dialogue with city representatives to voice specific concerns--included questions to the officials but also stories about the children. In their schools, residents said, the bathrooms are so dirty that the young ones wet their clothes rather than use them. The local park belongs to the drug dealers, and the dangerous streets cost elementary schoolchildren like Anthony Ramirez their lives.

Each story ended with a question put to the speaker's platform.

Schools Supt. Roy Romer, will you meet with us and make sure that money actually goes to the schools most in need of repairs? And get us the school maintenance staff we need?

Deputy Police Chief Peggy York, will you help create a strategy for better policing in our community? And is it true there will be a new police substation in Trinity Park?

Romer made some general promises; York was specific. "To answer you directly, yes," she said about the police station. "We've worked very well in the past with L.A. Metro groups who've taken the initiative to take back their streets."

That night was a new beginning for a neighborhood that is ready to turn things around. For Larkin, nights like this are part of a personal mission of more than 20 years.

She chose the Sisters of Social Service for that reason and joined the community at age 21, then went on to earn a social work degree. "As a younger person I wasn't really attracted to religious life," she said. "All I knew of, for nuns, was teaching and hospital work. I didn't want to do either."

Raised in Long Beach, one of four children who lived "on the lower side of middle income," Larkin worked at a summer camp run by the Social Service nuns and learned more about them.

Later, at Holy Names College in Oakland, she did her share of protest marching against the war in Vietnam. "I didn't feel that I was very good at agitating," she said. "We live in an anesthetized culture. We're not supposed to talk about certain things. But by being around it we learn to keep agitating, and we overcome our personal histories."

Her first lessons in standing up for herself, and others, came from her older cousin, Mary Margaret, who has Down's syndrome. "Mary Margaret taught me to be attentive to others and not embarrassed," Larkin said. She remembers Mary Margaret at a recent family funeral leading the cousins in an impromptu dance around the coffin.

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