Thriving in Watts, Calif. is a coin flip. Exactly half—49.7%—of the families on the block live below the poverty line. At the local public school, David Starr Jordan High, barely half of the students graduate, and those who do are tempted to run fast—literally, in the case of its most famous alumni, Florence Griffith-Joyner. Five years after Griffith-Joyner set a world record at the 1988 Olympics, Jordan Downs, the housing complex where she grew up, made headlines again as the setting of the gritty crime movie Menace II Society.
Watts is famous for its gangs. But it’s also famous for its dreamers, like the Italian immigrant Sabato Rodia, who spent three decades building the ten-story tall Watts Towers from discarded scrap metal, broken glass, and ceramic tiles. Mix Rodia’s ambition with a pragmatism about the hardships facing the neighborhood, and you get 73-year-old Milicent “Mama” Hill, a former LAUSD school teacher who’s turned her living room into a makeshift community center. With their parents working late to keep the family afloat (or absent altogether) and the Grape Street Gang roaming the streets looking for new members, kids in Watts need a safe place to go after school. They need someone who’s going to ask them about their homework and give them a hug. And so, at an age when most people retire and relax, Hill opened Mama Hill’s Help and started her second career as the entire block’s mentor and mother.
Over the last decade, nearly 3,000 kids have come through her door. In a house—and neighborhood—this small, there are no secrets. Mama Hill knows her kids’ friends and she knows their enemies. She knows what they did this weekend, she knows what they’re doing when they leave, and she knows who they’re going with. Everyone is accountable, from who owes his friend an apology to who left that orange peel on the piano. And the kids seem to thrive under her watchfulness, even though they don’t always smile when she orders them to clean up their trash.
Hill’s small house is wallpapered in goals, needs and rules. Goals: an inner city boarding school, adult classes, trips out of state—or at least out of Watts—for the kids. Needs are more immediate: Jell-O cups, Ziploc bags, hotdogs, bread. When the kids get out of school, they’re hungry, so after they give Hill her mandatory hello hug, she lets them crowd her kitchen to take turns fixing a Cup O’Noodles.
As for rules, there are dozens. Commands to leave their anger outside the metal security door, reminders not to touch her lotions in the house’s only bathroom, bribes that if the boys wear their pants up for a month, she’ll give them $20 to put towards a bus pass. There are even rules about following rules, like the sign that says: “Do not disobey, always obey.” Most of all, there are lists of what kids can’t say. The n-word is out. Say that and you’ll have to pay her 50 cents. There’s a quarter charge for blurting “white people,” “stupid,” “shut up,” “y’all,” and “ghetto.”
Hill likes to wear bright purple, her favorite color, though she’s so small that you can’t see her in a crowd, just the respectful wake of people allowing her to pass, which she does very slowly, a result of last year’s spinal surgery that nearly killed her twice. At church lunches, she can barely eat with all of the people coming up to shake her hand—or really, because her hands are curled inward and useless from arthritis—to embrace her hand whole as though they were cradling a bird.
A former piano player and opera singer, Hill’s hands are a perpetual annoyance. In the mornings, she has to wait for help to get dressed and curl her hair. If she drops a sheaf of papers, she can’t pick them up. She’s forced to sit in a chair and ask for favors. Her daughter-in-law now writes the wish list on her bulletin board and the kids, especially Je’Bre and Marshell, are her new hands, filing her nails and organizing her papers. Her home is so small that simple things become elaborate group events. One afternoon, Hill asked for a paper clip from a table ten feet away, and the space was so crowded, it took three people to pass it her direction.
Born in Nashville, Hill was a sickly baby who wasn’t expected to live. At eight, her asthma worsened and her father, a doctor who accepted payment in hogs and canned vegetables, uprooted the family to Pasadena to heal her lungs. It helped, but she didn’t fit in. Her classmates followed her home from school, making fun of her two long braids. “I did not look like the other kids,” says Hill. “That’s why I don’t let anybody make fun of anybody here.”
Her dad was happy that Pasadena had made her healthy, but he’d say, “You need to know who you are, you need to be with your own people.” After high school, he insisted she return to Nashville to earn her education degree at the all-black Fisk University. In Tennessee, she marched with Martin Luther King and got an unofficial second degree in anger management. As training for the sit-ins, Hill and her fellow protestors would practice staying calm while their friends shouted obscenities and threatened them with violence.
“I found that very powerful and I still use it,” says Hill. “I teach the children not to respond, not to let anybody call them out. If people can call you out, then they have control over you. When you’re angry, you’ve lost the battle.”
Hill married and moved to Oklahoma City. After giving birth to a son and daughter, she left her ex and returned to her adopted homeland of California to teach English, Social Studies and French. She logged 18 years at Crenshaw High, five at Hollywood High, and five more at Markham Middle School. During those nearly three decades, Mama Hill was popular with her students, less so with the LAUSD administration.