Thriving in Watts, Calif. is a coin flip. Exactly half—49.7%—of the families on the block live below the poverty line. At the local public school, David Starr Jordan High, barely half of the students graduate, and those who do are tempted to run fast—literally, in the case of its most famous alumni, Florence Griffith-Joyner. Five years after Griffith-Joyner set a world record at the 1988 Olympics, Jordan Downs, the housing complex where she grew up, made headlines again as the setting of the gritty crime movie Menace II Society.
Watts is famous for its gangs. But it's also famous for its dreamers, like the Italian immigrant Sabato Rodia, who spent three decades building the ten-story tall Watts Towers from discarded scrap metal, broken glass, and ceramic tiles. Mix Rodia's ambition with a pragmatism about the hardships facing the neighborhood, and you get 73-year-old Milicent "Mama" Hill, a former LAUSD school teacher who's turned her living room into a makeshift community center. With their parents working late to keep the family afloat (or absent altogether) and the Grape Street Gang roaming the streets looking for new members, kids in Watts need a safe place to go after school. They need someone who's going to ask them about their homework and give them a hug. And so, at an age when most people retire and relax, Hill opened Mama Hill's Help and started her second career as the entire block's mentor and mother.
Over the last decade, nearly 3,000 kids have come through her door. In a house—and neighborhood—this small, there are no secrets. Mama Hill knows her kids' friends and she knows their enemies. She knows what they did this weekend, she knows what they're doing when they leave, and she knows who they're going with. Everyone is accountable, from who owes his friend an apology to who left that orange peel on the piano. And the kids seem to thrive under her watchfulness, even though they don't always smile when she orders them to clean up their trash.
Hill's small house is wallpapered in goals, needs and rules. Goals: an inner city boarding school, adult classes, trips out of state—or at least out of Watts—for the kids. Needs are more immediate: Jell-O cups, Ziploc bags, hotdogs, bread. When the kids get out of school, they're hungry, so after they give Hill her mandatory hello hug, she lets them crowd her kitchen to take turns fixing a Cup O'Noodles.
As for rules, there are dozens. Commands to leave their anger outside the metal security door, reminders not to touch her lotions in the house's only bathroom, bribes that if the boys wear their pants up for a month, she'll give them $20 to put towards a bus pass. There are even rules about following rules, like the sign that says: "Do not disobey, always obey." Most of all, there are lists of what kids can't say. The n-word is out. Say that and you'll have to pay her 50 cents. There's a quarter charge for blurting "white people," "stupid," "shut up," "y'all," and "ghetto."
Hill likes to wear bright purple, her favorite color, though she's so small that you can't see her in a crowd, just the respectful wake of people allowing her to pass, which she does very slowly, a result of last year's spinal surgery that nearly killed her twice. At church lunches, she can barely eat with all of the people coming up to shake her hand—or really, because her hands are curled inward and useless from arthritis—to embrace her hand whole as though they were cradling a bird.
A former piano player and opera singer, Hill's hands are a perpetual annoyance. In the mornings, she has to wait for help to get dressed and curl her hair. If she drops a sheaf of papers, she can't pick them up. She's forced to sit in a chair and ask for favors. Her daughter-in-law now writes the wish list on her bulletin board and the kids, especially Je'Bre and Marshell, are her new hands, filing her nails and organizing her papers. Her home is so small that simple things become elaborate group events. One afternoon, Hill asked for a paper clip from a table ten feet away, and the space was so crowded, it took three people to pass it her direction.
Born in Nashville, Hill was a sickly baby who wasn't expected to live. At eight, her asthma worsened and her father, a doctor who accepted payment in hogs and canned vegetables, uprooted the family to Pasadena to heal her lungs. It helped, but she didn't fit in. Her classmates followed her home from school, making fun of her two long braids. "I did not look like the other kids," says Hill. "That's why I don't let anybody make fun of anybody here."
Her dad was happy that Pasadena had made her healthy, but he'd say, "You need to know who you are, you need to be with your own people." After high school, he insisted she return to Nashville to earn her education degree at the all-black Fisk University. In Tennessee, she marched with Martin Luther King and got an unofficial second degree in anger management. As training for the sit-ins, Hill and her fellow protestors would practice staying calm while their friends shouted obscenities and threatened them with violence.
"I found that very powerful and I still use it," says Hill. "I teach the children not to respond, not to let anybody call them out. If people can call you out, then they have control over you. When you're angry, you've lost the battle."
Hill married and moved to Oklahoma City. After giving birth to a son and daughter, she left her ex and returned to her adopted homeland of California to teach English, Social Studies and French. She logged 18 years at Crenshaw High, five at Hollywood High, and five more at Markham Middle School. During those nearly three decades, Mama Hill was popular with her students, less so with the LAUSD administration.
"There were some books on the curriculum and one of them was about slavery. The school said, 'You're trying to get them to riot!' I said, 'I beg your pardon? This is on the curriculum—I can have them read it if I want to,' " laughs Mama Hill in chuckling indignation. Even her methods of calming her over-stressed, under-fed, and violence-prone kids were suspect. "In the morning, I would turn the lights off for 10 minutes and tell them to put their heads down and get themselves together. Teachers would come by and flick my lights on, and the kids would say, 'Please go away—we're meditating.' "
Compounding the problem was the regular heartbreak that comes with teaching in one of America's most dangerous school districts. Mama Hill estimates she's known—or at least known of—2,000 children who've died, an impossible-sounding number that becomes believable only after hearing the matter-of-fact way she describes their shootings, many of them random and all of them senseless. She keeps composed even when talking about the murder that struck her the most, a boy nick-named Scooby Doo who announced during class discussion that he was a virgin. The girls swooned and clapped. Then later that year, he was shot in the mouth for his pair of sneakers.
"When we had Shakespeare, he could quote all of the parts. He read it, he knew it, and he would be the one to get up and do it in class," sighs Hill. "He lived with his auntie and she donated his eyes to someone who had to have eye surgery, so I know a part of him is still here. Unless they shot them, too," she jokes, bleakly.
There were limits to what Mama Hill could teach inside the school system. To succeed, her kids needed manners and self-esteem, not standardized testing. And so in 2000, she retired early to escape the exposed asbestos that was destroying her already-fragile health. ("I was so sick every day. I was coughing foamy stuff out of me and the kids would run up to me with cups.") Mama Hill's Help started as a tutoring session for a friend's daughter, but when the girl started bringing her friends, and those friends started bringing their friends, Hill realized this was her chance to really make a difference.
The house has seen a lot of changes. A stern, but devoted postal employee named Abdur Rahman teaches a class called Black/Brown History/Life Skills on Tuesdays. There was a foreclosure scare that caught the attention of some parishoners at St. Francis Episcopal Church in Palos Verdes, who formed a private consortium to buy Mama Hill's home for her, and now donates diapers, springs for summer camp, gives the children presents every Christmas, and even bakes them individual birthday cakes. "Often, it's the first time the kids have received a homemade personalized birthday cake," says parishioner Jayne Bray. "Mama Hill is so desperately needed by her neighborhood. When Mama communicates a need, the parish goes to work to try to meet that need."
The house has even managed to shoehorn in a wheelchair ramp, which Hill occasionally uses herself. Most often, though, it's for teens like Ronell, a young father, who was shot five times in Marshell's front yard for insisting—truthfully—that he wasn't in a gang. Marshell is helping organize receipts as Mama Hill speaks, and the girl doesn't blink as she describes the scene.
"Blood was everywhere," says Hill. "She had to drag him in the house—that's like a combat zone. She's too young to have to do that." And as Mama Hill sees it, her job isn't just to help Ronell, it's also to help his shooters. "I thought about those people who shot him point blank and I thought, 'Who hurt them?' Who made them so hard and so cold that they thought that was okay when they didn't even know him? And I see little bitty kids who are going to be the same way if we don't get to them because they're already being taught that."
"Hurt people hurt other people," is Mama Hill's mantra. She claims that if you watch a person closely, you can see what age they were wounded. Pain stunts people. If you were abandoned by your mother at nine, then until you heal that feeling of helplessness, you'll revert to being nine years old every time you're angry. The first thing she asks a new child when they sit down for their initial one-on-one conversation is, "Who hurt you?" They might not want to answer at first, but eventually they always do. If they don't, they're just not ready to be healed, like the Crip member Mama Hill describes who once cut his interview short by hastily picking up his cellphone and pretending his aunt needed him back at home.
Hill's family doted on her, but she knows loss. After her marriage broke up, she wrote three books of poetry trying to make sense of the hurt. It's clear that her mission to break the cycle of anger has to involve both the kids and their parents. A single mother herself—and a "Mama" ever since her students started calling her that at Crenshaw High—she understands the competing stresses to make enough money to support children, while logging in the hours to raise those children to be solid, confident and happy.
"She taught me to be a better parent," says local mother Alvina Chaney. "A lot of the parents that come here come from dysfunctional families and we don't know how to parent. When I was little, we didn't kiss. My parents didn't embrace me. And it's not just my family—most families that are raised in certain communities are raised with a lot of bitterness and animosity. Mothers are mad at their children because the dads left, dads are mad at the children because their mother filed for child support."
"What I love about her is even though I was grown when I met her, she impacted my life and taught me how to love differently," adds Chaney. "I thought I loved well, but she showed me that there was more love that I had to give—whether people accepted it or not." Hill's parenting lessons aren't just about love and affection; they're also practical how-to guides. "She teaches us, 'Hey, you don't have to talk to them like that. What you could say is, why don't you just pray about it and we'll talk in a couple of days.' And it works—I had been fighting with my oldest daughter three or four times a week."
Mama Hill has heard every story. Her current batch of kids includes one who tried to take a suicidal jump off his school's roof, one with severe birth defects, and one whose mother illegally pulled her out of school at 14 to help take care of her siblings. And then there are the kids with no parents at all. There's the one whose dad was shot in their front yard, the one whose mom died of cancer, the one who's been kicked around a circle of irritated aunts. For them, whenever she can, she gets on the phone to find foster homes—and in some cases, she has to go hunting across town. She talks about one bouncy 15-year-old who is one such lucky kid. After he was beaten by the neighborhood's Grape Street Gang, she helped him find a safe living situation across town.
Hill isn't afraid of the gangs, but they affect her choices. Because of them, Rahman drives the kids home when it gets dark. She shakes her head when one of the 15-year-old's godparents gives him a lavender sweater for Christmas because he can't be seen wearing Grape Street purple. The gangs made it impossible for Mama Hill's Help to decide on a color for the matching T-shirts for a trip to the beach. Every color had an association: red, blue, pink, orange, yellow, black, gray, green. In the end, they settled on chartreuse.
Watts might never be a safe place for Mama Hill's kids. At least she can record the little changes she's seen: her kids make eye contact, speak clearly, hug more, and pout less. They do their homework and they think about their futures.
But it's exhausting to raise a neighborhood in your living room. In the early mornings, Mama Hill has a ritual that prepares her for another day of challenges: a kid who needs a transcript, another who must unearth a birth certificate, squabbles in the front yard and her never-ending stack of bills. Then, there's the impossible problems that bracket her life's work in Watts: poverty, abandonment, apathy. But at 6 a.m., those struggles can wait. Mama Hill rolls over in her at-home hospital bed and turns on cartoons. "It's calm and peaceful," she says, "because at the end, there's always a solution."
Amy Nicholson is a critic and playwright in Los Angeles. The former editor-in-chief of Boxoffice Magazine and film editor of the IE Weekly, her range of credits spans the Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, LA CityBeat, Movies.com, Movieline, and IndieWire, and she holds memberships in the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle. Amy holds a double B.A. in Film Studies and Anthropology from the University of Oklahoma and a Masters in Professional Writing from USC, and can be found on Twitter at @TheAmyNicholson.