Student Leads Hundreds in South L.A. March

March 18, 2013
by Cursta McCullom
Eugene Durrah leads a rally to get the I Pledge Compton march started. Photo by Damion Lowe.

As Eugene Durrah began to lead a march through the streets of Compton -- bullhorn in hand and a heart full of passion -- he hoped his effort to bring awareness to his hometown’s social and economic issues would be a success, however small.

What he didn’t realize was how many other people felt the same way.

The chants of “I pledge Compton” grew louder behind him, and as he looked back, he saw that his initial group of 20 activists had ballooned into hundreds.

“There were so many people coming from their houses and out of their businesses and really supporting what we were doing,” said Durrah, a Master of Social Work student at the USC School of Social Work. “People were chanting, raising their fists and whistling because there were young people trying to better the community. That was amazing.”

Durrah, who was born and raised in Compton, hoped to use his devotion to the South L.A. city as a catalyst for change in the community and organized the march to bring awareness to the area’s issues, such as prevalent poverty and crime. He said that his experiences growing up in a single-parent household in a neighborhood rife with gang activity, police brutality, incarceration and poverty drive him today.

“I have numerous childhood friends who have been murdered through gang violence, sentenced to years in prison and who are currently living lifestyles that lead to both,” Durrah said. “I feel like my purpose in life is to give back to the community in the best way I can.”

The march started with a rally at the corner of Rosecrans and Central avenues and ended at City Hall, where representatives from the City Council and Compton Unified school board voiced their support for advancement through community involvement. Aja Brown, a Compton mayoral candidate, attended the event and said Durrah’s initiative is critical for policy makers to see when considering the future of the city.

“It’s vital to have positive youth organizations that can mobilize people and change communities,” Brown said. “There isn’t a lot of investment in youth programs or centers [in our city]. It’s important for policy makers to understand that there are young people in Compton that care and are aware of what's going on.”

The community instantly benefited from the march, as participants carried trash bags and cleaned up streets along the way, as well as provided handouts that described five actions anyone could do to help make their neighborhoods better. Even local law enforcement officers pitched in by passing out water bottles to marchers.

Because of his personal connection to the city, Durrah held this first march in Compton, where he hopes to one day see a flourishing area with higher graduation rates, less violence, varied businesses and effective youth programs. But he plans on organizing marches at least once a year in different locations that could also use some motivation to instill pride in their communities.

“We want this to inspire other people in other communities to want to pledge their communities like we want to pledge ours,” Durrah said. “It might not be the same ills, but improving whatever problems that area has and giving your all to your community is important to make it better for the next generation.”

To effectively reach other underserved areas, Durrah started the organization Greatness By Nature, which works to encourage and improve impoverished cities. The group also sells custom clothing and regularly gives a portion of its profits to other community outreach efforts, including donating money to the Salvation Army, providing school supplies for the Hub City Autism Network and organizing community clean-ups.

Durrah’s interest in addressing social issues is what drew him to the Community Organization, Planning and Administration (COPA) concentration at the USC School of Social Work.

“I feel like the COPA program is for people who ask the big questions about the problems of the world like, ‘Why are people homeless?’” Durrah said. “I’ve always been a person that thought about how I can better my community, and COPA trains you to address problems on a macro scale.”

Tory Cox, clinical assistant professor and COPA field coordinator, said Durrah’s march embodies the initiative the school hopes students will take when applying their education. 

“Eugene is passionate about making positive change in South L.A., and this march is a clear example of how he puts his dreams into action,” Cox said. “He epitomizes the type of social work student we want in our program – one who has vision and utilizes the resources our school provides to realize that vision.”

Durrah ultimately wants to use his master’s degree to expand Greatness By Nature and work there full-time to benefit underserved populations. His goal is to encourage young people who grew up in the inner city like he did to realize they deserve and are capable of attaining greatness.

“I went from not believing I could get into USC to being fully supported by the School of Social Work and featured in an article,” Durrah said. “This is a dream come true.”