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Activists Honored for Bringing Together Ethnic Communities

Community workers and activists in Los Angeles have been honored for bringing together the city's ethnic and racial communities. The awards from the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission recognize efforts to build bridges in a multi-cultural region.

One recipient, Lucky Altman, spent 20 years as head of the Los Angeles branch of NCCJ, formerly known as the National Conference of Christians and Jews. The organization fights bigotry and fosters understanding among religious and racial groups.

Ms. Altman says strategies include neighborhood dialogues involving different communities. "One was trilingual in Armenian, Spanish and English that really helped neighbors to understand one another across those cultural lines," she says. "Another was the interracial dialogue." That dialogue lets people discuss racial issues in a safe environment.

Award recipient Kay Ochi accepted an award on behalf of the organization Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress. The term Nikkei refers to second-generation Japanese immigrants, and the group was instrumental in getting the U.S. government to apologize for incarcerating Japanese Americans during World War II.

"We worked for over 20 years on reparations for this injustice," says Ms. Ochi. "When we were fortunate enough to succeed - and in 1988, former President Reagan did sign a bill which gave reparations of $20,000 to surviving former internees and an education fund - we worked all through the 1990s making sure that everyone who suffered this indignity would receive some compensation."

Since then, the organization has spoken out against the singling out of Muslims as targets of suspicion following the 2001 terror attacks by Islamic militants.

A much younger award recipient, 21-year-old Noe Orgaz of the Youth and Justice Coalition, is a neighborhood organizer who is trying to get youngsters out of gangs and involved in political action. He lives in Watts, a tough neighborhood and the scene of some serious crime. It is also the scene of misdemeanors such as petty theft, which too often get youngsters into trouble. He says he is surprised to be honored by a local government agency, the Human Relations Commission, because he challenges local officials, especially over the treatment of non-violent young offenders.

"We challenge the police department and the correctional facilities that lock up young people," he says. "We believe that it's an injustice and an unfair system that locks up young people with extreme and harsh sentencing when the crime is minor and petty." His group also works to relieves tensions between black and Hispanic youth.

Sylvia Rousseau, a district school superintendent in south Los Angeles, was also honored for her efforts in bringing together those two ethnic groups. She says there are tensions and misunderstandings as more Hispanics arrive in the once-black neighborhood, not only among children but also among adults. The inner city area has a high level of poverty.

"There are limited economic resources in that community," she explains, "so it is a challenge to help people learn to live together and to work together and maximize those resources, and still carve out a sense of community, with different cultures now emerging, potentially clashing, but we're hoping and we're working to make those cultures collaborative, and for our populations to understand the common culture and heritage that they have."

Yolie Flores Aguilar heads the Children's Planning Council, a Los Angeles organization that connects children and families to the public agencies and private charities that can help them. She says her group works with one of the world's most diverse populations.

"We have so many people from so many countries, and some are immigrants and others have been here for a long time," she says. "But regardless of what group you're working with, or how long they've been here, there are some fundamental basic needs that all children and families have to be able to succeed." She says those needs include health care, housing and education, needs she says are better met better in some communities than others.

Robin Toma of the Human Relations Commission says the awards honor those who promote skills that are needed in a multi-cultural era. "We need to understand, learn, develop the skills, the knowledge base, and train ourselves to operate in a way that's different than humanity has in many years past," says Mr. Toma.

He says the people and groups being honored show there are ways to resolve our differences without resorting to violence.