POWER meeting leaders: (l to r) Bill Przkucki, Jaime Zeledón, Maria Sanchez, Edgar Satisteban, Marco Galindo.
It is 4 a.m. and Jaime Zeledón has just started his day. As he is dressing, 90.7 KPFK is playing in the background and he ruminates on the day: the bus to work, the elderly client he will take care of and—in between all of that—the texts, emails and phone calls he will make to his fellow leaders at People Organized for Westside Renewal (POWER).
Since 1991, Jaime has been a leader at POWER, a Liberty Hill grantee organization that works in low income areas of West L.A. on affordable housing, education, social safety-net and other issues, but his roots in the social justice movement began three decades ago in Nicaragua. As an organizer, he is, as some like to say, “a lifer.” He learned community organizing in the late 1970s during the Sandinista Revolution. “The revolution was the best education I could have received because it developed my spirit and love for community,” he says.
Jaime’s recent accomplishments through POWER include leading the Mar Vista Campaign in the Mar Vista Gardens Housing Project in Culver City, his home. That campaign improved pedestrian safety by getting a traffic signal installed at a dangerous intersection where children had been killed. “I couldn’t be happy sitting silently as these things are happening,” explains Jaime about what prompted him to get involved.
Early on in his life, Jaime began to place the needs of the community over his own. It’s a sensibility he feels is needed to make the world a better place. As a result, he has spent his life working with his neighbors to improve their quality of life. Currently he is involved in the Trash Campaign through which POWER members in coalition with other tenant groups are working to lower the cost of the trash service in the housing projects.
Events in the late 1970’s in Nicaragua catalyzed Jaime to become an organizer. He was then an elementary school teacher, and he lost one of his students, 10-year-old Luis Alfonso Velasquez, who was murdered by the Somoza dictatorship after being seen at a demonstration. Jaime could no longer stand on the sidelines and so he joined the student activists in the Sandinista Revolution.
Jaime remembers how under the dictatorship schools had few resources and illiteracy was widespread, particularly in rural areas. He noticed how illiteracy was tied to ignorance and resulted in political corruption.
“An unorganized community is easy to dominate and take over,” he says, pointing out a connection between those times and the present.
As an organizer, Jaime became one of the thousands of Nicaraguan teachers who, after the revolution, joined the Sandinista Literacy Campaign, successfully reducing illiteracy from 50% to 13% within five months according to a 2005 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) report. The campaign was so successful that in 1980 Nicaragua was awarded the UNSECO Literacy Award. This experience proved to Jaime that organizing among the most disadvantaged populations could bring about significant change.
In 1985, he emigrated to the United States. By 1991 he was living in the Jordan Downs Public Housing Development in Watts during a time when tensions between the Latino and African American communities were high over access to housing and jobs. These tensions reached a climax in 1991, after an arson fire resulted in the deaths of a family of five. Because Jaime sees the need to organize wherever he goes, he joined a task force that aimed to bring the residents together in peace and improve race relations in the community.
When asked what he’s sacrificed to be a devoted community activist he says spending more time with his wife and four children. However he hopes that his life will serve as a good example to his kids about taking responsibility for one’s community. At 62, Jaime never stops. He says that his work gives him energy and motivates him to keep going.
The photo slideshow above was created by Liberty Hill photographer Warren Hill. Subtitles and sound production by Sara Harris.