Valerie Shaw, M.PR Staff Writer
April 12, 2005

Q: What’s the only difference between getting to school in Baghdad and getting to school in Watts?

A: The Climate!

As in Baghdad, the 126 kids served each month by Mama Hill’s Help after-school program in Watts, California, live in shell-shocked stupor. Every day, every block, every car or bus, every stranger, every unfamiliar face or noise presents a new unwelcome opportunity for harassment, confrontation, crossfire, robbery or even death.

Don’t take my word for it. Just click on Black Gang Territories of South Los Angeles, at. All 270 of them!

“If you don’t know the boundaries, if you’re in the wrong neighborhood, you could get shot,” says Millicent Hill, life-long educator and founder of Mama Hills Help, a California non-profit corporation that serves kids of all ethnicities, ages 10 to 18.

“Many children can’t remember their math because they are concentrating on the neighborhoods they must stay away from,” says Mama Hill. “Just walking down the street is a matter of life and death. Their memory banks can’t take all of that and pick up a pencil.” Some gang turfs are only a block long, some encompass a neighborhood, but all are adversaries and just passing through presents a fresh challenge.

Lee lives in a Blood Swans neighborhood, but goes to a school that is Hoover Crips, so when he gets on the bus he gets harassed. Hector lives in Swans, but is threatened by several Latino gangs. Girls are vulnerable to girl gangs, particularly in Hawthorne, and any studious-looking boy is subject to “hood hustling,” the practice of stealing anything from a kid who appears defenseless. Mama Hill’s kids must use public transportation to carry them from Inglewood, Crenshaw, Hawthorne, Compton, Watts and North Long Beach to Mama Hill’s headquarters, traveling in pairs, where possible, but never in fours. Even as they try to learn, all of Mama Hill’s street-savvy kids are threatened every day of their young lives.

“The problem is that on a daily basis, youth, particularly young males, are targeted, harassed, courted and killed by gangs,” says Mama Hill. “Many students are frequently truant because they are afraid to walk to and from school due to gang violence.”

In the world of Mama Hill’s kids, walking three blocks can get you jumped by three gangs. Other problems traced to turf-dodging are low (or no) test scores, poor school performance and behavior issues.

“It is assumed that these students are irresponsible, lazy, undisciplined and unable to perform,” says Mama Hill, “when in truth, he or she cannot cross the barriers of violence in order to get to school and thus perform well.”

There is an old proverb Mama Hill recites passionately, “`Do not cut off my legs and then ask me why I can’t walk.’ My kids can’t walk anywhere, literally!”

Given that the police can’t be everywhere, protecting every child from danger, and the mad mobility of South L.A. gangs, Mama Hill’s solution is a Safe Passage program – enough vans and licensed, insured drivers to carry all of her kids from home to school, from school to Mama Hill’s Help and other after-school activities, and safely back home again.

“Safe Passage,” says Mama Hill, “is likened to Harriett Tubman and the Underground Railroad, because our youth are slaves to the violence in our communities. They must feel safe if they are to learn and grow into healthy adults.”

If you’ve got a dolla’ to holla’ with, won’t you please help Mama Hill’s kids find safe passage. And if you want more info, contact her directly at

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