“Do you want to be part of the building crew or the wrecking crew?”
When an uncooperative parent, city official or school administrator hears that trademark question, he or she knows it’s time to get back in the good graces of “Sweet” Alice Harris, a celebrated and much-loved humanitarian and activist for the residents of Watts.
Well-known for her vision, leadership, compassion and generosity, Harris has dedicated her life to mentoring youth and providing assistance to people who are disadvantaged or underserved. She is also a well-respected community organizer who works closely with elected officials and often serves as a liaison between parents and their children’s schools.
Born in Alabama in 1934, Harris experienced poverty, homelessness and single motherhood as a teenager.
“I’ve been working with youth and adults for the last 52 years. The reason I’ve done this for so long is because I can remember when I needed help. In Alabama a family gave me help when I was considered ‘nothing.’ They gave me a job, so I promised them that whenever I find somebody in the same shape and wearing the same shoes I wore, I would do for them what they had done for me,” said Harris, who studied cosmetology and later operated her own beauty shop in Detroit, MI, before moving to Los Angeles in the late 1950s. “I won’t stop. I’ll be doing this until the lord comes and gets me because I love it. I love to see people smile and I know how good they feel, because I know how good I felt.”
For her dedication to the residents of Watts and those in other local communities, Harris will be honored with the Community Leadership Award during California State University, Dominguez Hills’ (CSUDH) Founders’ Dinner on Oct. 8. The dinner, which is part the university’s year-long 50th Anniversary Watts Rebellion Commemoration, will recognize the uprising by highlighting the university’s role as a catalyst for change in its aftermath, and by honoring those who, like Harris, have made an impact in the community.
“I can remember the Watts Riots because this is where I lived. I was a beautician, so I fixed a lot of clients hair in Watts,” said Harris, who used to learn about many of her neighbors’ problems from residents of Watts as she styled or cut their hair. “The Watts Riots hurt, but it didn’t hurt some as much as it hurt others, because we got a hospital [Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Hospital] out of the riots, which was great because not having a medical facility was really hurting us. [We knew that] if our children had asthma, we had no way to get them to Harbor General Hospital [in Torrance] in time on two buses. I witnessed three or four kids die that way.”
Parents of Watts
As a witness to the 1965 Watts Rebellion, and as a way to help ease the tensions in her community that followed, Harris and a group of volunteers worked out of her house to help rebuild the community. Linking with other civic groups, she formed the Black and Brown Committee, which eventually became the Parents of Watts (POW) in 1979 and was incorporated in 1983.
Today, POW operates more than 15 programs in eight houses purchased by Harris. It provides emergency food and shelter for the homeless, tutoring, health seminars and parenting classes, literacy courses, drug counseling, college and career preparation, and housing assistance for anyone who needs it.
“We started working with youth and adults. I gave up my house so we would have a community center to help the children and keep them from getting killed,” said Harris. “Then enrollment started going up at our schools. It let us know that what we were doing in the Parents of Watts was working.”
Harris has been honored many times over the past five decades for her leadership in the community, her activism, and her legacy of improving the lives of countless individuals.
In 2004 Harris became a recipient of the Minerva Award, which was created by then California First Lady Maria Shriver to honor remarkable women.
In 2002, Harris was named “Woman of the Year” by Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante. The University of Southern California bestowed on Harris a Doctor of Humane Letters in 2008, and she was named as one of U.S. President George H. Bush’s “Points of Lights,” bestowed upon citizens who make significant impacts in their communities through volunteer work.
Harris went on to attend CSUDH in the late 1970s, where she studied sociology and child development.
All of Harris’ children and many of the children she has mentored through her organization have gone on to attend CSUDH. Her granddaughter, Renaissance Forster, is currently attending the United States Military Academy at West Point.
“When I was fixing people’s hair, I would tell them what a great time my children and I were having at Cal State Dominguez Hills. I told them that college had class, and that we needed class because we had never had it before,” she said. “We were always considered nothin’, and I know how it felt to be called nothin’. But Cal State Dominguez Hills brought this love—brought me this feeling that I’m somebody. That meant so much. That’s what we needed, and we got it. I thank God every day for that.”