This year marks the 50th anniversary of the California Conference for Equality and Justice (CCEJ), which for decades has collaborated behind the scenes with various groups and government agencies to confront “bias, bigotry and racism” in the Long Beach area.
Originally part of the National Conference for Christians and Jews, CCEJ was founded in 1963 and today considers itself “the premier, nonprofit human-relations organization in Southern California,” dedicated to breaking down social, racial and cultural barriers through advocacy, conflict resolution and educational programs.
Over the years, CCEJ has spearheaded various human-relations efforts such as helping to create the Long Beach Human Dignity Program, assisting the Long Beach Police Department with gang-prevention and working with local school districts and charter schools to offer youth-leadership training and educational programs, while providing four human-relations “Building Bridges” camps for children.
After assuming the Los Angeles, Orange County and San Diego chapters, CCEJ has now expanded its reach throughout the Southland, and the organization has 42 board members and more than 250 volunteers who range from high-school students to senior citizens.
“The reason it was called a conference originally was that it really indicated that for the first time there was a dialogue between people who didn’t talk to each other, and the basis was religion,” said Gene Lentzner, founding member and treasurer of CCEJ who turned 91 last month. “Now it’s a conference between different races, different ethnicities, different ways of living your life and so forth.”
Continuing a longstanding tradition, CCEJ is hosting its 50th Annual Humanitarian Awards Dinner on Wednesday, May 15 at The Renaissance Hotel in downtown Long Beach.
This year’s honorees include: Cal State Long Beach President F. King Alexander, who was recently hired as the president of Louisiana State University; Ivy Goolsby, marketing director and manager of the Long Beach Division of International Realty & Investments, Inc.; J. Christopher Lytle, executive director of the Port of Long Beach; and Judy Ross, executive director of the Long Beach Nonprofit Partnership. Philanthropists Barbara and Ray Alpert are being honored with the “Building Bridges” Award, which is given to organizations or institutions that have shown continued commitment to CCEJ and have made financial contributions to the organization and its programs over the years.
“When you look at the list of honorees over the last 50 years, they are an extraordinary group of human beings,” said Wendelyn R. Nichols-Julien, president of CCEJ. “They are representative of the community in terms of their leadership skills and their high profile… So, this year is no different.”
A selection committee made up of the CCEJ board president and past Humanitarian Award recipients selects honorees. All members of the CCEJ Board (active and sustaining) as well as representatives of social-service agencies and clubs in the greater Long Beach area and past honorees are able to submit nominations.
Nichols-Julien said, even though Alexander is leaving Long Beach for LSU, it’s the right time to honor him for his service to the community before he departs.
“It’s interesting we chose F. King Alexander before knowing he was leaving the university, but it’s really a wonderful, timely opportunity and a tribute to him for what he’s done for the community,” she said. “Cal State Long Beach, of course, is a great partner of ours. They’re the best in the Cal State system… for what they do for diversity, internally with their staff, and the way they treat students and the way students treat each other.”
Ross was selected as an honoree for her many years helping nonprofits assist “the most vulnerable people in our community,” with work centered around children, poverty and health issues, Nichols-Julien said.
Goolsby, who works in real estate, is being awarded for playing an active role in the community, serving on several boards and being involved with business organizations, such as leading women businesses through the Long Beach Area Chamber of Commerce.
Lytle, who has been the Port of Long Beach’s executive director for a little more than 18 months, is being honored for his service as a “humanitarian leader,” and his recognition allows CCEJ to acknowledge the Port sponsorship and support, Nichols-Julien said.
Lentzner, who was once the victim of discrimination as a Jewish child growing up in a predominantly Italian and Catholic neighborhood in St. Louis, said the history of CCEJ goes back decades to a time when diversity was looked down upon even though Long Beach had started to become more and more of a cultural melting pot.
Expanding from the original focus on religious differences, CCEJ started developing various conferences on different ethnicities, such as Cambodian, Hispanic and African-American, he said. Although just hosting an annual dinner that brought together different religions, races and classes of people today might seem trivial, back then it created a “sea change,” Lentzner said.
“The attitude was that everybody had to be of the American culture,” he said. “You have to describe that to me, but everybody had a vision of that. So we started discussing what it would be to embrace other cultures at the same time and make the country even richer than it was at that time.”
Unlike most Conference for Equality and Justice chapters, however, CCEJ’s annual awards dinner isn’t its only fundraising function. Partnerships, large financial contributions, an interfaith/intercultural breakfast and grants have enabled CCEJ over the years to expand its services while the organization has focused more on education in schools and local communities to “create systemic change,” Nichols-Julien said.
“We all grow up with prejudice because it’s transported to us from our parents, it’s transported to us from our friends, the people we really like and most importantly from the people who we respect, our ministers and our religious counselors, who are just carrying it from generation to generation,” Lentzner said.
CCEJ partnered with the City of Long Beach to create the City’s Human Dignity Program in 1998, the year when two horrific deaths based on hate crimes occurred. That year, James Byrd, an African-American, was murdered in Texas by being dragged behind a truck, and Matthew Shepard, a gay college student, was killed not far from the University of Wyoming by being strung up and left to die in a field.
Lentzner said the City no longer fully funds the Human Dignity Program and the school district no longer pays for human-relations camps, adding that both programs are currently being backed by CCEJ. However, he said he expects the City and the school district to eventually restore their investments.
CCEJ has also stepped in and intervened to help moderate tensions during times of crisis and criminal acts or incidents surrounded by discrimination. One such example is the racially charged attack by a group of African-American men and women against three white, young women in 2006 on Halloween in Bixby Knolls, which, he said, “almost became a national incident.”
Lentzner said CCEJ represented the adjudication between the perpetrators, the victims and the City. He said CCEJ helped come up with a “solution” by having the suspects’ sentences suspended so they could go to one of CCEJ’s human-relations camps to learn about what they had done, while raising money to help the victims.
Today, CCEJ has broadened its educational scope to cover incidents of discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people as well.
Christopher Covington, who, as a teenager, was called anti-gay slurs that caused him to drop out of Lakewood High School, said attending one of CCEJ’s camps has helped him see the meaning of “social constructs” and how to deal with forms of discrimination, such as derogatory remarks.
He said CCEJ helped him start a campaign on campus to discourage the use of discriminatory terms. Today, the 22-year-old Long Beach City College student volunteers for CCEJ as a community leader at local schools and is working toward a degree in either public policy or business administration.
“What it really comes down to is creating a conversation and dialogue around certain core issues rather than automatically jumping to the gun and starting a fight or pulling out a gun or shanking somebody or going to the extreme,” Covington said. “What CCEJ really does within our community and what it’s taught me is to have that conversation because that conversation can save a life.”