Young achievers also roam tough South Central L.A.

June 18, 1992|By Sara Rimer | Sara Rimer,New York Times News Service

LOS ANGELES -- When Disneyland came two weeks ago to the First AME Church in South Central Los Angeles to hold interviews for 200 summer jobs, it was a goodwill gesture born of the riots.

When more than 600 young men and women, many in coats and ties or dresses, showed up, the Disney officials were taken aback.

America has been bombarded with television images of the youth of South Central Los Angeles: throwing bricks, looting stores, beating up innocent motorists. The Disneyland staff who interviewed the job applicants, ages 17 to 22, found a different neighborhood.

"They were wonderful kids, outstanding kids," said Greg Albrecht, a spokesman for Disneyland. "We didn't know they were there." Nor, Mr. Albrecht added, had they known that the young people of South Central Los Angeles would be so eager to work at Disneyland.

Joe Fox, a spokesman for the First AME Church, said that had there been time to better publicize the Disneyland jobs, thousands would have applied. "People just want to work, period," he said. With hundreds of small businesses destroyed during the riots, jobs are harder to find than ever.

One of the 600 who wanted to work at Disneyland was Olivia Miles, at 18 the youngest of seven children of a nurse's aide and a disabled roofer. "My friend Lakesha's mother told us Disneyland was hiring," said Miss Miles, who has worked at McDonald's and Popeye's since she was 15. "I said: 'Disneyland! C'mon, let's go!' "

Miss Miles will graduate on June 30 from one of South Central Los Angeles's public high schools, where she has earned mostly A's and B's and was the co-captain of the drill team. Next fall, she will attend Grambling University in Louisiana.

Her high school, Washington, has 2,600 students; 70 percent are black, 30 percent Hispanic.

The principal, Marguerite LaMotte, says that as impressive as Olivia Miles is, she is not exceptional. "I have a lot of Olivias," she said. Indeed, 118 seniors plan to attend four-year colleges, and 131 will go to two-year colleges.

The world knows about the gang members; estimates put the number at 100,000 across Los Angeles County, and last year there were 771 gang-related homicides. No one has tried to count the young people like Olivia Miles. They are among the invisible people of South Central Los Angeles.

Ms. Miles is tall and slim and walks with her head held high. "My mama tells me: 'Be the best of everything; be proud, be black, be beautiful,' " she said.

In some ways, Miss Miles is just another high school senior. She admires Bill Cosby and Oprah Winfrey. She enjoys reading books by Maya Angelou. And shopping. She loves soft-spoken, 17-year-old Damon Sewell, the defensive football captain at South-Central Los Angeles's Hawthorne High School, who will go to Grambling with her.

Two days before her high school prom, Miss Miles went shopping for shoes for the big night. It was April 29, the day the four policemen who beat Rodney G. King were acquitted.

"This lady on the bus told me, 'Baby, you better hurry up and get in the house,' " she said. "I said, 'Why, what's going on?' She said, 'The verdict was not guilty.' "

Miss Miles bought her shoes -- "two pairs for $24.99" -- and went home. The prom was postponed because of the riots. Watching the images of fire and violence engulfing her neighborhood on television, she wept. "It hurt me when they beat that man in the truck up," she said.

Her father, Aubrey Miles, said the acquittal shattered his daughter. "She was about to lose it," he said. "She kept saying: 'Why am I working so hard? Why have you been telling me that I can achieve?' She had been sheltered. This was reality."

Mr. Miles, who grew up in a segregated Louisiana, said he agonized over how to comfort her. "I didn't want her to just use it to sit on the curb and say, 'I'm black so I can't achieve,' " he said. "I told her: 'Don't let this stop you.' "

His daughter plans to be a lawyer. So does Mr. Sewell.

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