Reflecting on 25 Years since April 29, 1992

By Renata Simril, President & CEO of the LA84 Foundation

Twenty-five years ago today, I was a senior attending Loyola Marymount University watching the fabric of our communities being torn apart and burned to the ground. My mom lived in Watts during the 1965 uprising and would often talk about her experience. She never imagined it could happen again; but ‘What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore — And then run?’ (Langston Hughes).

Renata Simril, with new friends, distributing sports equipment.

As an urban studies major, my interest was to find meaningful work in communities and with municipalities to use my planning, land use and economic development education to help ailing communities become vibrant, thriving and healthy. After graduation I was fortunate to be introduced to then-Councilmember Mark Ridley-Thomas’ office and in 1993 become Mark’s Deputy for Redevelopment. Over the next 5+ years the incredible team that welcome me into the movement: Carolyn Webb De Macias, Margaret Diop, Anthony Thigpin, the Honorable Karen Bass (then founder of the Community Coalition), Mary Leslie, Joan Crear, Dora Leon Gallo and many, many others went about rebuilding our community fabric, rebuilding trust and rebuilding many of those burned out lots. Our work still endures and the movement continues through the steadfast commitment of now Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, through the Empowerment Congress and through the work of my former colleagues, most of whom have moved on but continue to drive positive change in their new endeavors.

I was proud of the work but more importantly blessed to have found my path of service. Each step in my career maintaining an unwavering commitment to give back regardless of whether or not it was in the public or private sector, real estate or sports; as a deputy or senior executive. I am honored that over this seemingly short 25 years, many of my colleagues then have become my friends and collaborators today.

I am now President and CEO of the LA84 Foundation, the legacy of the 1984 Olympic Games. Our work is to engage youth in unserved and under-resourced communities through sports as a means to provide them with the skills to become life ready, whether that’s on or off the field. Many of the nonprofit organizations we support and partner with are the groups I worked with during my tenure with Ridley-Thomas, and my office is a few blocks drive from the flash point of that heartbreaking afternoon. It is like a coming home, and a phenomenal Foundation from which to continue the work we started 25 years ago.

The LA84 Foundation, in LA’s historic West Adams district, is located just a few blocks away from the epicenter of the events of 1992.

I was talking with my dear friend earlier this week as Supervisor Ridley-Thomas prepares for this evening’s ‘Remembrance and Teach-In’. During that conversation we reflected on where we’ve been, what we accomplished, the work still to be done and were our country is today. As our conversation was winding down, my friend said to me that our society is in ‘a spiritual deficit’. It was a profound point…a spiritual deficit. I thought about her comment in the context of my work and my love of sport.

Through my journeys, I come to believe that there is something in the human spirit that aspires to greatness. And through sport we are inspired to that greatness. It is a feeling of accomplishing something worthy, something that makes a difference. It enlightens us to the human ideals that we are capable of doing something that transcends the moment; that limitations are only an illusion. Sports connect us emotionally. It is an arena that brings community together and elevates the human spirit. Through sports we can imagine a world we have never known. Nelson Mandela famously said, “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope, where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers”.

Last October, I had the honor of representing the LA84 Foundation at the Vatican’s First Global Conference on Faith and Sport at the Service of Humanity. “It is timely and necessary for Faith and Sport to remind and re-awaken people,” the primer for the Vatican conference said, “to the massive power for good that these two pillars of human life can provide.”

I was educated in the Jesuit tradition at LMU, and I’ve been following the papacy of Pope Francis — a member of the Jesuit order — with particular interest. The Jesuits’ selfless belief is a focus on those unserved and underserved and to be, “men and women for others.”

It is no surprise, then, that the Vatican conference’s aim in part to provide a global perspective of sport in the service of humanity. Those of us at the conference shared examples with one another of how sport has manifested transformative change at the individual and community levels; how we all have an obligation to do our part to elevate playing fields and address inequity; and how sometimes, the actions of just one or two individuals can be enough to catalyze lasting change; individuals such as Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos.

For those of you who don’t remember, back in 1968, during a zenith of American turmoil, when civil rights movements, anti-war movements and a psychedelic frenzy of cultural changes fused like many raging storms into one, Smith and Carlos won Olympic gold and bronze medals, respectively, in the 200-meters sprint at the Mexico City Games. During the playing of the National Anthem honoring their success, the sprinters wearing black socks and an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge famously each raised a fist to the sky, the Black Power Salute to show solidarity with people fighting internationally for human rights. For that action, Smith and Carlos were kicked out of the Games and given 48 hours to depart Mexico. Their action was labeled “immature behavior” by then-members of the United States Olympic Committee.

But the race is not always to the swift but to those who keep running. “Their powerful silent protest in the 1968 Games was controversial,” said former President Barack Obama, who for the first time along with the USOC welcomed them both back to the White House with their 2016 Olympic family. “But it woke folks up and created greater opportunity for those that followed”, the President went on to say.

One of my cherished possessions is an autographed photo of that now-famous pose. It hangs on my office wall as a reminder to me that we each have an obligation to stand up and speak truth to power and to be men and women for others; however tough or inconvenient that might be. We are again at a critical moment in our history. So, as I reflect back on April 29, 1992; what caused it, what we’ve accomplished and the work still to be done, I am also using this time to renew my spiritual tank and my commitment to the cause I care most deeply about, our future generations. I am also heeding Pope Francis’ call to “challenge yourself in the game of life as you do in the game of sport.” I will continue to make a difference where I am and where I can. I hope you will all join me in doing so where you are and where you can. Let us all be guided by the African proverb, ‘Where you sit when you are old is where you stood in youth.’

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