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There Ain’t Nothin' You Can Do, Baby Girl

Mama Q has lived under the shadow of the drilling rig on Jefferson Boulevard for over 30 years.  She remembers when she and her friend would go to the site, pound their fists on the gate, and shout for them to stop.  But that was decades ago. In 2014, when Niki asked, “What do you think we should do?” Mama Q replied, “There ain’t nothin' you can do, baby girl.”

"Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in." Isaiah 58:12

When Niki first went for a walking tour of West Adams in 2013, she was considering a two-year internship with Servant Partners (SP) in this under-resourced neighborhood.  When Richard, a long-term resident and founder of Redeemer Community Partnership (RCP), pointed out the unassuming exterior wall of what could have been a parking lot, she was shocked to learn it was a long-standing oil-drilling site situated just feet from family homes. It’s so close, you can actually place one hand on a bedroom window and your other hand on the facility’s walls. Semi trucks hauled toxic chemicals through residential streets.  The site itself emitted excessive light, noise, diesel fumes, and the occasional uncontrolled spray of oil and unknown chemicals, wafting over the families renting along its perimeter.  The hazardous level of operations in such close proximity to residents was appalling, but the site remained active, largely unopposed, and tucked away in this urban poor neighborhood.  That day, Niki resolved to intern with SP and to work with RCP against this particular environmental injustice.

Previously, Niki engaged with the intersection of faith and justice for the poor during an InterVarsity Global Urban Trek in the Philippines.  While considering the way relief work traditionally happens and observing a model of holistic, transformational ministry in Manila, she learned to ask crucial questions about what a community actually needs and what systematic changes must happen.  Niki then turned her educational focus to urban studies, public health, and community organizing.

Fueled by her faith in Christ, Niki is inspired by God’s call to his people in Isaiah 58.  The fasting and true worship to which the Lord calls us is to oppose injustice and to pour out ourselves for the afflicted as our worship.  Then will the Lord hear our call.  As we pour out ourselves in this way, God make us a people who will “raise up the foundations of many generations,” who will be called “the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in” (Isaiah 58:12).

Niki has quite literally lived into that promise.  Since 2014, she has worked with RCP on the Make Jefferson Beautiful campaign, a community-initiated vision to make the entire Jefferson Boulevard corridor complete and whole. This includes working to shut down harmful industries along Jefferson Boulevard like this Jefferson drill site and decreasing fossil fuel dependency by increasing the feasibility of bike and pedestrian travel, and other public health concerns.  RCP has a strong grassroots and locally focused approach to community engagement, education, and awareness.  Simultaneously, RCP participates in advocacy on a systemic level with their coalition Stand Together Against Neighborhood Drilling to end neighborhood drilling city-wide.

Niki has worked tirelessly with RCP to canvass the neighborhood, asking neighbors, like Mama Q, about the site.  In response to regulation violations and community health concerns, RCP and the SP community at Church of the Redeemer in South LA have coordinated and participated in community demonstrations, amplifying the voice and concerns of the neighborhood.  It has been a long process involving engaging the community, gathering the community in demonstrations, petitioning the city, and waiting in prayer.  Finally in October 2017, officials issued an unprecedented set of stringent regulations on the Jefferson drill site with which it must comply to continue to operate.  Previously silenced and overlooked residents of West Adams will now be protected by some of the strictest rules imposed on any drilling site in Los Angeles.

“There is so much power in peoples’ stories,” Niki explains.  She reflects that taking time to listen to your neighbors on the grassroots level is so important.  Yes, it demonstrates to city officials and the powers-that-be that you’ve adequately engaged the community.  But Niki has learned that our neighbors often do not realize that their experience is significant and worth hearing.  Visiting them door-to-door, sitting down with them to hear them out affirms their dignity and communicates that they are not merely expendable casualties of the inner city.

And in their stories, there is power to fight.  When engaging city officials and systems of power, peoples’ lived experiences become powerful.  When Maria recounts her son gasping for breath because of environmentally-induced asthma, when Gabriel feels unsafe crossing the street to get to after-school tutoring at RCP, when Mrs. Rita is housebound because her wheelchair can’t navigate the cracked sidewalks of her block, we are compelled to affirm their humanity--the image of God in them--and to respond.

Niki’s work with RCP has sparked something new in the neighborhood.  The residents won a favorable determination regarding regulations for the neighborhood drilling site, something the owner will oppose and appeal.  But there are other signs of change that are more subtle.  They are in the smiles of neighbors demonstrating on the streets.  They are in the tears of the storytellers embracing the significance of their experience.  They are in the shouts of joy as they community celebrates its victories.  And they are in the new advice of Mama Q.  “Things are changing because you guys are making a lot of noise.  We just gotta keep praying that God will close this down.”

Yes indeed, Mama Q, there is something we can do.

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