Alberto Retana is the president and CEO of Community Coalition. Before serving as the moderator for “How Does a Community Save Itself?,” the 13th annual Zócalo Book Prize event, he joined us in the green room to chat about the D.C. punk rock scene, soap operas, and his best advice for aspiring organizers.
What was your favorite band growing up?
Fugazi was one of them. They were a D.C. punk rock band that was anti-establishment, challenging people to think about racism and think about systems of oppression and to free themselves. It was fun. It was a way to let loose and shake your body and liberate yourself.
What was your most memorable birthday?
When I turned 30, I had a big birthday party. It was a pretty significant year for me because we had just made college prep classes a civil right in Los Angeles. And right after that victory, I was like: I’m gonna have a big party. A lot of old friends came out—friends from high school, friends from college, new friends. It was just a moment to take stock and recommit to this purpose, like I want to do this—I want to spend the rest of my life bringing about justice and change.
How did you get started in organizing?
I was at UCLA. At that time, Pete Wilson was the governor and he was proposing really awful legislation that would send people to prison for 25 to life for stealing a piece of pizza. I was just incredibly motivated to get involved with other students who were organizing, who were protesting, saying this wasn’t right. I met some remarkable youth that had dreams and visions of a different society, of a more just place.
What’s the last book you read that moved you?
The last book I finished reading was Bird Uncaged. It’s a powerful story about a young man in New York who was incarcerated and criminalized and abused as a child and ended up going to prison and finding his purpose in relationship to other folks who have been incarcerated, and commits his life to liberation and organizing. It’s a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful book.
What’s your favorite public space to gather in Los Angeles?
Community Coalition, 81st and Vermont, where I spend my days. It’s a sacred space. It’s a sanctuary of hope and justice. It’s where people come together to tackle complex problems and do their very best to come up with solutions and, probably more important than that is, to come together and challenge each other to love one another, to be in kinship with one another, to remind ourselves that we are a human family. Black and brown folks struggle it out to unite there on a daily basis. In a place as segregated as Los Angeles, a place with so much poverty and homelessness, or extravagance for that matter, there aren’t a lot of places where we’re allowed to be in union.
What’s one piece of advice you have for aspiring organizers?
Stay connected to purpose and to stay connected to everyday people. Because the minute you disconnect yourself from everyday people, you’re no longer an organizer, you become an activist or you become an advocate, you become a voice for someone else. An organizer’s job is not to be a voice for someone else, it’s to empower people to have a voice for themselves, for people to speak their own truth. You’re there to facilitate and get out the way. Oftentimes organizers, we get into this work because we want to see change. But we treat ourselves as the sort of vessel when we’re not where we are. We are of service to others.
Who is your role model?
I have various role models within my family. My parents for being resilient and working through the racism of south Orange County and persisting and continuing to be optimistic about their kids and our future.
My sister for caring for me and helping to raise me. My sister was there to watch out for me and to teach me about soap operas and talk to me about fashion, and who I thought was cute, and challenged gender roles for me as a kid.
And my brother, who was probably the biggest advocate for me, who stepped in for me in middle school when I wasn’t doing so well. He advocated for me and pushed me to be proud of my people and my community.
What was your favorite soap opera?
Oh man. General Hospital, Days of Our Lives. I liked the romance and the drama.
What’s your favorite show now?
Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, The Wire, Friday Night Lights. Those are my favorites. Right now, I really like All American. It’s based on a real story of a young man raised by a single mom in South Central who ends up going to Beverly Hills High School and is straddling two worlds. It’s all L.A. There’s so much about L.A., so much about South Central reflected in it. And it’s just a wonderful story.