Those who grew up in Watts in the 1970s in the wake of the riots watched their community struggle to rebuild, only to be torn down again by gangs and crack cocaine in the 1980s.
Some local children turned to education to make it out of the neighborhood, where the lure of the gangs and drugs was difficult to escape.
Marrietta Scott, 45, was one of those lucky ones, only be pulled back in by her desire to help change the community that shaped her.
Scott has become one of Watts’ most influential leaders through her work at Children’s Institute. The organization helps more than 24,000 children gain access to education and mental health services, giving the next generation a real chance at a brighter future.
“So this is the area I was told where I was born,” Scott explained, walking through the Jordan Downs public housing development one recent day.
On a hot August day in 1970, Scott was born to a single mother on the floor of a bathroom in Building 86, in a complex that later became a symbol of the tough times children faced growing up in the neighborhood.
“Her water broke and I started to come immediately,” Scott recalled she was told.
Scott said her mother was neglectful due to drugs and alcohol, so she and her four brothers and sisters were sent to live with her father and his parents in another house just outside of Jordan Downs.
Despite her inauspicious birth, she remembers her early childhood in 1970s Watts as a happy time.
“It was a somewhat dangerous place to grow up, but as a child I didn’t know that, so it was fun,” Scott said. “Everyone looked out for everyone.”
All that began to change in the 1980s. By the time she was a young teenager the crack cocaine epidemic and gang violence had taken over her neighborhood.
“So I started to see my friends parents getting hooked on drugs,” Scott said. “My life changed from me and my friends sharing clothes to some of my friends stealing from me.”
Scott’s protective grandparents forbid her to walk through Jordan Downs and sent her to a school outside the community for gifted children.
“Although I loved my community and these people, I see the changes in them,” Scott said. “I loved them and it was heartbreaking. It was embarrassing to bring my friends from my school into the community.”
Scott knew that education would be her key to a better life, but she got pregnant right out of high school.
It wasn’t until the 1992 riots that she realized she had to make a change.
“At that point I made the decision I didn’t want to raise my kids here. I’d seen enough.”
Scott packed up her two young sons and moved to Long Beach, and eventually made her way through college and worked her way up to earning a master’s degree.
“I wanted (my sons) to see someone in our family graduate from college.”
Scott thought about leaving Watts behind for good, but her love for her community wouldn’t let her stay away.
“I’m hearing of my peers I grew up with -- their children are being killed and I’m hearing of constant raids in the area and how the children were affected,” Scott remembered.
“I said, ‘OK, let’s help them,” she said.
And so Scott returned, first as a teacher and now as a supervisor with Children’s Institute, a nonprofit that operates Head Start programs in South LA and Watts.
“It’s crucial to have leaders and staff like Marrietta, both because there’s already an element of built-in trust. She is of the community and she’s been through some of the same things the children and families now are going through,” said Nina Revoyr, chief operating officer of Children’s Institute.
As she walked through the neighborhood the day she visited Jordan Downs, Scott greeted residents who passed her on the street.
“I’m Marrietta, nice to meet you.”
She returns to Jordan Downs to recruit children for Head Start -- a preschool program -- hoping early intervention and education will give more kids a chance to succeed like she did.
“Looking at this building, coming into this community it makes me strive harder. It reminds me there are a lot of children coming behind me from this community and I have to do all I can while I have the opportunity to be a decision maker,” Scott explained.
She said she is returning to her roots to extend a hand to the next generation to show them by example that no matter what their circumstances might be, it’s OK to dream big.
“It’s really surreal,” Scott said. “Sometimes I just think about it and I have to know there is something bigger than myself that guided me to be here.”
“I’m here for a reason and I have to make it count.”