Annetta Wells: Born Activist
- Written by: Pilar Marrero, Portrait by: Ricardo Palavecino.
Find more firsthand accounts of the campaign against Prop 187 here.
Growing up in what was then called South Central L.A. in a single-parent home fueled Annetta Wells' desire to fight for her family and the people in her community.
Her fighting spirit started early on and continues to this day, now that she's the deputy political director for the largest labor local in California, SEIU 2015, representing over 400,000 long-term care workers up and down the state of California.
She talks about how she had trouble breathing when she was born and had to spend some time in an incubator. But she ended up burned, and for two years, she had to get skin treatments.
"My parents really didn't fight or challenge the hospital because my mom was concerned about her status as an immigrant, and she was not aware she had any rights that she could even challenge the hospital,” she recalls. "Had someone told them or showed them they had these rights…but like most immigrants, you don't want to create waves. You just figure out how to survive.”
Wells heard this story growing up, and it frustrated her. It does to this day. "How many families? How many people experience similar traumas? That's what made me so angry about Proposition 187, and the target was really focusing on Latinos.”
Her mom is a Jamaican immigrant, and her dad died early on, leaving the immigrant mom to fend for herself and her kids. And Wells remembers when her mom became a citizen explaining the ballot to her so that she could vote.
But her political conscience was awakened during her school years when for the lack of capacity in her local schools, she was bused from South Central to the Westside of Los Angeles every day.
“As I sit on that bus, 23 miles drive every day, I begin to take in the different pictures, and there was a huge difference between where I went to school and where I lived,” she remembers. “I began to have a lot of questions about that, who decided where the resources go, because in my community there was a liquor store in every corner, and that wasn't the case near my school.”
Early on, Wells developed a need to do something about the injustices in her community. She also saw the huge influx of drugs, the crack cocaine epidemic, the white flight and the decline of the area, the loss of jobs, the criminalization and heavy policing of her neighbors.
“It was a direct attack on people of color and poor people, and I felt like I needed to fight, to advocate for folks."
Early on, she joined Community Coalition, a South Central organization founded by now-congresswoman Karen Bass. But when she originally went to Bass, she wanted answers about getting politicians to change her community's condition.
“She was like, ‘No, that's now how that works. I believe in investing in young people, but we have to raise the next generation of leaders, so the answer lies in you,’” Wells says. “So after being knocked off my pedestal of having someone else do the work, I rolled up my sleeves and said, ‘So, what do I do? How do I change it.’”
At that time, the policy changes happening in California, mostly voter initiatives, woke the young activist up. There were three of them: Proposition 184 (Three Strikes), Proposition 187 (which targeted undocumented immigrants and others) and Proposition 209, to eliminate affirmative action programs.
“When 209 came about (in 1996), Karen brought these to the young folks who had decided we were going to reboot what they did in the ‘60s. We were going to be that new generation of freedom fighters of changemakers.”
As a young activist, she was picked to speak on 187 at a protest at the state's capitol. "I referenced my disdain with the proposition because it offered no solutions, but it was requiring schools and hospitals to report immigrants when they sought services? We were just going to have folks running around sick and uneducated to…just create chaos?"
But Wells' "chart in life,” as she calls it, was set after this. “I decided that what I really wanted to do above everything else was help people. My life started that way.”
At some point, she felt like “being normal, behind a desk and a computer and punch numbers from 9 to 5 but one day I kind of just look up to God and asked, ‘Why? Why am I even Black?’ Our struggles are stupid. You can't wear a hoodie. You are followed in the store. There's legislation that comes out to discourage you from going to college….why?"
But she did get her answer. "We keep fighting, and we overcome. My ancestors didn't take it lying down. Why give up now?”