Tanvi Varma
Apr 3 · 7 min read

In the South Central community of Florence-Firestone, three young Latinx women are working to eradicate the mentality of “leaving the hood.” Instead, they want to encourage residents to not only succeed, but to use their talents to help the community flourish.

Yanel Sáenz, 24; Ashley Orona, 22; and Alex Melgoza, 31, are the new executive board members of the Florence-Firestone Community Leaders. Sáenz and Orona are the youngest board members in the group’s history.

Since Florence-Firestone is an unincorporated community, the community leaders group makes sure the voices of residents are being heard by serving as a liaison between them and the county. They provide resources for residents, institute service projects, and host events.

For the first time in history, the executive board of Florence-Firestone Community Leaders is made up of all women, and that too, women of color.

Florence-Firestone is a largely Latino community that makes up 91 percent of the population. African-Americans make up 9 percent of the population. The median household income is about $35,000, which is lower than the county average.

“We need people to stay here and put their money and love in their communities,” said Orona.

Last December, the Florence-Firestone community members gathered to vote for their new executive board. Residents that attended three community meetings were eligible to vote. The previous president, William Allen, nominated all three women on the executive board, who were voted in.

A big priority for the women is preserving the Florence Library, which over the years has served as a safe place from gangs.

It’s now planned to be replaced by affordable housing. Residents were originally told the library would remain and reopen as part of the new housing complex. The library was relocated inside a trailer at Roosevelt Park, just a couple blocks away. The women want to make sure their constituents can fight the relocation of the library, which they say was once a place with ample resources for the community.

The women are spearheading a petition that currently has over 7,000 signatures to maintain the library.

“If we have to tie ourselves outside the library, we will,” Orona said.

Orona said their leadership is a microcosm of what’s happening all over the country.

“I feel very confident, that we do have the experience that we can move the community forward. We see it nationwide, a lot of millennials are getting into public seats, we are getting more involved in politics, we’re a generation that have seen consequences of previous generation,” said Orona.

Their youthful energy gives the community hope for change.

“We need these young motivated activists to help the community, we’re tired, we want to see that [that the community is] not dying out, that we continue living, so we can enjoy the community and not see it deteriorate, and not give it to the gangs, and stay on the map,” said resident Monica Andrade.

Learn more about Sáenz, Orona, Melgoza and their goals for the community:

Yanel Sáenz pictured at Carlito’s Tire Shop (Photo: Tanvi Varma)

Yanel Sáenz, 24

Sáenz is the president of the Florence-Firestone Community Leaders.

She graduated from UC Berkeley in 2017 and began working for community service organizations just a few months after returning home. Sáenz worked as a case manager for a program that helped unemployed L.A. County residents. After that, she began to work as a quality assurance specialist at a healthcare clinic that provides care to underprivileged patients.

Allen, the former president, said she’s fit for the position because of how much she spread the word about the community via social media. Sáenz, on the day of her election, was even awarded a plaque for her work in bringing the community together through social media.

One of her main goals is to make the community leaders group more organized by maintaining thorough records.

“Structure is so that we’re ready for big projects in the neighborhood,” said Sáenz.

She also wants to motivate more people to get involved in the community, including the youth.

“We can’t really do a lot of things without people, more community involvement in the group, there aren’t a lot of residents, it’s the same people that would come to the meetings, more than half the people at our meetings are county people, the same people, more community involvement which will help with our structure as well, overall a good thing with us,” said Sáenz.

She said it’s important to encourage young people to do good in their neighborhood.

“I hope they see that it’s cool to get involved, and that the things that we’re trying to tackle affect them, and have affected them in some way or shape. Growing up all I would hear is do good in school so you can go get out of the neighborhood, and I definitely fell into that. There’s no looking to stay here,” said Sáenz.

Ashley Orona at Carlito’s Tire Shop (Photo: Tanvi Varma)

Ashley Orona, 22

Orona was voted in as vice president because of her energy, commitment, and passion to create new ideas and solutions, Sáenz said.

Orona graduated from UC Berkeley last year, and currently works at a nonprofit that provides legal immigration services. She said she finds joy helping people become U.S. citizens, working on family petitions and helping immigrants feel safe.

She got involved in the Florence-Firestone community during her last semester as a college student, which she completed back home last year.

One of Orona’s main goals as vice president is making sure residents use all the county resources that are available to them.

“There’s a lot of programs in place and residents don’t know these programs are available to them. Part of our job is getting people to know that these services are available,” said Orona.

Since the gang boundaries and increasing police presences create fear in the community, Orona wants to work to motivate residents to speak up, and not settle for an unsafe community.

“I still don’t leave my house when it’s dark. I don’t like walking alone outside once I see the helicopter out looking for someone. I know it’s stuff we normalized,” said Orona.

Her motivation to be a leader comes from her drive to show that women can be bold and impactful leaders, and also, to be a good example for her younger sisters.

“There’s a lot of toxic masculinity in the community, within that, they’ll see. We’re for sure trying to show them that we can do it” said Orona.

One of the board’s top priorities is the youth, Orona said. The board is creating a youth program or committee that will function within the group of community members. The goal will be to mentor neighborhood youths.

Orona said the library is a huge need in the community.

“The library holds a lot of projects that are very beneficial to the community, it provides people the ability to people to get their GEDs, and online courses.We live in a community where a lot of people don’t graduate high school. There’s homework services for young kids, books are there to borrow, the library has a lot of programs,” Orona said.

Alex Melgoza with her daughter at Carlito’s Tire Shop (Photo: Tanvi Varma)

Alex Melgoza, 31

Melgoza, a legal processor for L.A. County, is the treasurer of the leadership group. She takes initiative and always goes out of her way to volunteer, Sáenz said.

Community organization and resilience is what she’ll be focusing on, Melgoza said.

A big priority for her is addressing gang violence.

Just on the eve of New Year’s, Melgoza’s car was shot at in a friend’s backyard in the neighborhood. No one got hurt, but it reminded her of her priorities in stopping gang violence.

“We’re trying to get together, we’re working with sheriff’s and THP (Transitional Housing Program), and they’re doing the best we can, we’re trying to track the guns, it’s a really hard thing to try to fix,” she said.

Melgoza says an important key to creating unity against the gangs is to have better community communication.

“I’m trying to get the community involved with the community to start letting people know if they see something, report it. Just the neighbors communicating, if you see it, you report it. Also coming to our meetings,” said Melgoza.

Before she was on the executive board, she was an active community volunteer.

Melgoza said she wants her daughters to understand the power of activism and community building.

“I want my kids to learn from this. They hand out presents with me. They volunteer. They’re helping out, they don’t see it as work. I’m getting them involved so they can know and learn, and don’t expect much in return,” Melgoza said.

Intersections South LA

News and views from South Los Angeles.

Tanvi Varma

Written by

Intersections South LA

News and views from South Los Angeles.

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