Harris, Alice 1934–
Alice Harris 1934–
Activist, educator, community service organizer
Alice Harris faced poverty, single motherhood, homelessness, and despair—all while she was still in her teens. Now a prominent figure in the field of community activism, “Sweet Alice” works tirelessly to tear down the social, economic, and political roadblocks that threaten the future of an alarming percentage of people of color in urban America. In 1979 she founded Parents of Watts (POW), a nonprofit, Los Angeles-based community service organization. “I do what I do because I was given a second chance,” she commented in Essence magazine.
Harris learned about loneliness and rejection as a child. She did not have many friends; she was known in her neighborhood as “the missionary” because, coming from a religious family, she spent much of her time praying and singing. When, at the age of 13, Harris became pregnant, she felt further alienated from her family and community. “During the last month that I was carrying the baby … I really began to feel the terrible loneliness and the hurt,” she told Sherry Ruth Anderson and Patricia Hopkins, authors of The Feminine Face of God: The Unfolding of the Sacredin Women. “I was seeking love from people and it started to sink in that I had done something wrong, but I still didn’t know what to do to correct it.”
In time, Harris went to work for an understanding employer. “It wasa… lady I went to work for as a nursemaid after my own baby was born who helped me realize I wasn’t bad like my family and community had thought,” she explained to Anderson and Hopkins. “She told me she saw something in my smile that was good, and one day asked me a simple question: ‘Alice,’ she said, ’what do you want to be when you get older?’” That simple question opened up a world of possibilities to young Harris, who began to realize her worth as a person. Harris took an interest in hair design, and her employer enrolled her in a cosmetology course, provided her with transportation, and allowed her to continue her duties as a nursemaid part-time for extra money. A few years later, when she was 17, Harris moved to Detroit, where she eventually opened her own beauty shop.
Harris moved to Los Angeles in 1958 to care for her ailing mother. Several years later, in the wake of the infamous Watts riots—a serious racial clash that occurred in a 20-square-mile section of Los Angeles in the summer of 1965—Harris began her involvement in community
Born January 14, 1934, in Gadsen, AL; daughter of Henry and Lavinia Swain; married Allen Harris, 1958; children: James, Brenda, Katie, J.J.í., Alvinia, Audry, Tony. Education: California Slate University, B.A., 1986.
Beautician, 1952-58; formed Black and Brown Committee, Los Angeles, CA, mid-1960s; founded Parents of Watts, 1979.
Awards: Voted Ms. magazine woman of the year, 1988; one of Maxwell House Coffee’s “100 Real Heroes,” 1992; named President George Bush’s “703rd Daily Point of Light,” 1992; American Award from the Positive Thinking Foundation, 1992; Essence Award, 1993.
Addresses: Office —Parents of Watts, 10828 Lou Dillon Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90059.
affairs. Tired of the substandard living conditions existing in the impoverished Watts area, she became a vocal crusader for change. Harris urged city officials to reverse a pattern of neglect that she, along with other activists, viewed as a contributory factor in the degeneration of her neighborhood. At one point, when she could not get an abandoned car moved away from the front of her house, Harris stormed City Hall to get some action, demanding to see then-Mayor Tom Bradley. They talked; he promised to move the car, and she promised to organize her neighbors to help end the violence in the area.
As a committed activist, Harris devoted much of her time and effort to the continuing struggle for equal services in her community. She attended school board meetings and quickly gained a reputation for speaking her mind. She also attended meetings to plan the reconstruction of Watts. “All the urban consultants and planners—men in business suits with cigars—came after the riot, trying to figure out what should be in Watts.” she told Ms. magazine. “Some of us served doughnuts and coffee, then sat at the back of the room. But I spoke up.” She came to know many elected officials simply because she did speak up. Former California assemblywoman Maxine Waters (who became a congressional representative in 1990) told Ms., “You can’t find more of an activist than Alice. She’s all over the place.” Today, Harris can boast that she knows Dianne Feinstein, the U.S. senator from California, and that she has met U.S. presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton.
Harris realized that the violence in her community often stemmed from a lack of communication between neighboring African Americans and Hispanics. In the late 1960s, she formed the Black and Brown Committee to encourage meaningful communication across ethnic lines. In an interview with Ms. magazine, Harris described the early meetings, which were designed to get people talking despite the language barrier. “Everybody brought a dish [of food]. If you liked someone else’s dish, you pointed at it and smiled. When we wanted to tell people how we felt about them, we used sign language. Pretty soon, people got to know each other. Black could go to Brown territory, Brown to Black.… The problems between kids were really problems between parents, and we got to breaking those communications problems down.” In 1979, the Black and Brown Committee grew into an organization called Parents of Watts; Harris serves as its director.
Over a decade and a half after its inception, Parents of Watts sponsors more than a dozen different programs relating to education, job search assistance, job training, voter registration, counseling, drug abuse prevention, and even such basics as the provision of food, clothing, and shelter when necessary. Without POW-sponsored programs and a mentor like Harris, many Watts youths would never have been able to attend college. Harris is pleased to report that a majority of her students have enrolled at local colleges and universities, including the prestigious University of California at Los Angeles; in 1985, 40 POW teens were admitted to Morristown College in Tennessee on full scholarships.
Originally inhabiting one building on Los Angeles’s Lou Dillon Ave., POW now owns most of the buildings on that block. The program’s services have expanded over the years to provide emergency shelter, housing for the mentally ill, a computer lab and education center, and a residence for college students. Among POW’s innovative conceptions is the “Adopt-a-Bus” program, which employs young African American men—some of whom are convicted felons—as security patrol on local buses. Another of Harris’s pet projects is a program for teen mothers. An unwed mother, she stated in Ms., “is treated like the lowest thing on the totem pole, ashamed to go to church, ashamed to go anyplace.” Harris works to restore self-esteem in young mothers through counseling and practical assistance. In addition, she has linked her organization with other community groups, such as the Brotherhood Crusade, to provide extra support. One graduate of the program was quoted as saying: “Without POW, I would not have had a future, to tell you the truth.”
For her methods and achievements over the last two decades, Harris has received both criticism and praise. She has been called politically naive, unpolished, and unsophisticated; often, she won’t take “no” for an answer. She sparked considerable controversy in Washington— and raised the eyebrows of quite a few political officials— when she told the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee that their proposed welfare changes were “ridiculous.” But Harris has also received commendations for her community-focused efforts. Senator Feinstein, quoted by the Los Angeles Times, referred to Harris as “probably the finest person I know. I’ve never met anybody so solidly dedicated, so unselfish and practical.” Harris is also the recipient of numerous civic honors and was named former President George Bush’s “703rd Daily Point of Light.” And her fame keeps growing.
Despite the accolades, Harris remains modest. Sherry Ruth Anderson and Patricia Hopkins asked her: “How can you see so clearly what is going on with people and still not judge them, but let each person know that you are on the side of their deepest and best hope for themselves? How do you manage to be so honest and so loving?” She replied: “I don’t do it. I’m just a vessel that God works through.… The key to it is giving. Don’t store up anything. Whatever He puts in the vessel, give it away, keep it going.”
Anderson, Sherry Ruth, and Patricia Hopkins, The Feminine Face of God: The Unfolding of the Sacred in Women, Bantam Books, 1991, pp.38-43.
Essence, May 1993, p. 100.
Los Angeles Times, October 19, 1992, p. E1.
Ms. magazine, January-February 1989, p. 72.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from a telephone interview with Alice Harris conducted by Contemporary Black Biography on December 8, 1993.
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