Growing up in the 1980s and’90s in a racially divided part of Los Angeles, where drugs and gangs were prevalent, Siris Barrios remembers well the days of the 1992 L.A. riots and the civil unrest she saw.
She also recalls the community organizers with Building Up L.A. — a group that emerged from the riots — who taught her leadership skills at the age of 16 and educated her about poverty, crime and class consciousness.
That influence put her on the track to where she is now: on Peconic Avenue, working as the community liaison for Renaissance Downtowns, which is partnering with Southampton Town on a project called “Riverside Rediscovered,” which aims to revitalize the economically depressed area. Ms. Barrios was hired two weeks ago and faces a deadline of next spring, when the company must submit a plan outlining its vision for the future of the hamlet.
Ms. Barrios, now 35, is a native of El Salvador, was raised in Watts, Calif., and went on to help start the nation’s first advanced studies program devoted to Central American culture at California State University at Northridge. The program now offers students over 20 courses.
Three years ago, she moved to Hampton Bays, where she now lives with her husband and 18-month-old child. She took some time this week to let us know about her past and how she hopes to use her experience to help build up Riverside.
Q: What is some of your past experience that would be helpful as a community liaison for this project?
A: When I was 16, I came across several community organizers who were bringing together young people to talk about race, class, poverty and crime. They really took me under their wing and saved my life, I think, because they got me into community organizing.
That organization came out of the riots to get young people involved in things like rebuilding houses or nonprofit programming. And it got me organizing young kids in the area, but they also started cultivating my own leadership. They said, “You have other options beyond the military.” So I went to college.
In college, I was very active in helping the Central American Studies Program and Policy Center at Cal State Northridge. That process really helped me recognize power relationships and political officials at a young age. It gave me a sense of power as a person — that if you organize and if you come together as students, you can win things. I had that experience already in my community and, as time progresses, I’ve continued that path.
I eventually went back to my community and worked with Community Coalition for a little over three years, where I started as an organizer and moved up as being the director of the biggest component of the organization.