Monday, January 30, 2012

Former D.A. Gil Garcetti: Creating Opportunities

"Never, never, never, never give up!" ~ Winston Churchill

Been keeping up with the GOP primaries? If so, you've probably noticed that the race to the White House is a marathon with many laps and hurdles. Contestants soar, trip, fall, pull out or bounce back - proving that the elder statesman, Winston Churchill, hit the nail on the head in his response to "What is the secret to your success?" Never give up.

Former District Attorney of Los Angeles from 1992 to 2000, during some highly publicized murder trials, Gil Garcetti has run his share of races, cleared some hurdles, tripped over others and bounced back. Although he still continues to occupy the spotlight, it's now as a world-renown photographer and humanitarian. When Gil speaks about his pet cause, Wells Bring Hope, everyone gets it. It's about the water. Water is life. When wells are drilled in poor West African villages, girls and women are released from their long daily treks of carrying heavy containers of contaminated water to their communities. Wells transform their lives, by providing clean water and the freedom to go to school, become teachers and nurses, run businesses. Having undergone a sea change of his own, it makes sense that Gil Garcetti now brings the hope of clean water to these villages.

I met Gil last year when Spirited Woman founder, Nancy Mills, invited me to her series of conversations with Los Angeles artists. I saw his powerful photographic collections and heard about the cause to which he is passionately dedicated. Photographer, inspiring speaker and humani-

tarian seemed a far cry from my memories of the 90's and I wondered - What led to his shift? And what connects him to the girls and women of West Africa?

Later, speaking to students at Loyola High School, Gil shared about his life. He was born and raised in Downtown Los Angeles, to poor, immigrant Mexican parents. His father had been a non-violent gang member, but after getting married and in response to his wife's wishes,he became a barber. Gil remembered, as a boy, admiring the skills and grace of garbage collectors in his neighbor-hood. This was the seed, I thought, to his powerful photographs of the iron workers constructing Disney Concert Hall.

Another seed was planted when Gil was in the sixth grade, during career day. He met his first lawyer, learned about the "rule of law" and his eyes lit up. "I wasn't sure what I would do as a lawyer, but for the first time, I heard about college-level education and the growing possibilities that came with it!"

Throwing his hat over the wall, Gil graduated from UCLA's Law School, worked for Senator Eugene McCarthy and eventually was hired by the Los Angeles DA's office. Later, as a husband and father of two, with a fire in his belly and some experience under his belt, Gil decided to run for DA against the incumbant, who had fired him... and won!
Then came the murder trials of the Menendez Brothers, OJ Simpson and the feeding frenzy of gawkers, detectives, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, reporters, photographers (with the rest of us glued to our television sets and car radios). Gil was re-elected to office shortly after the OJ "not guilty" verdict, but - as anger about the verdict and related LAPD prosecution grew - when he ran for office a third time, he was defeated.
"It was embarrassing," Gil admitted to his teen audience at Loyola High. "I was kicked out of office, in front of everyone. But that's life and you've got to deal with it." At this point in his story, I recalled when he was speaking at an elegant fundraiser to a group of 200 community leaders. He cheerfully greeted us with "I have many of you to thank for booting me out of office so I could be here tonight sharing about Wells Bring Hope!" We laughed and he was off and running. Being voted out of office turned out to be a blessing, clearing out the old and leaving room for Gil's love of photography to take off.

"There is a natural law, a Divine law, that obliges you and me to relieve the suffering, the distressed and the destitute." ~ Conrad Hilton

In early 2001, at the invitation of the Conrad Hilton Foundation, Gil and his wife visited several poor countries in West Africa, including Niger. Gil was struck by the "joyous beauty of the people" and by the fact that 70% of them did not have clean, safe water. He photographed what he found, but it wasn't until after 9/11, that Gil saw the possibility of using these photographs to bring wells and clean water to these poor countries - poor Muslim countries - and demonstrate that the industrialized world cares about them. This was the turning point for Gil, a global cause he could devote himself to.

I'm confident Gil was a wonderful speaker before Wells Bring Hope - he's warm, funny, natural - but he's also a magnetic fundraiser and caring mentor. The November 2011 fundraiser at the elegant Lladro Gallery in Beverly Hills honored 15 year old Kevin Kilroy, who had raised money for 5 wells in Niger. She did this after learning about the staggering water-related mortality rate among African children and comparing her opportunities to those of the teen girls in Niger. Although afraid of public speaking, Kevin felt so personally connected to the cause and compelled to help that she spoke during 5 masses at St. Paul's cathedral and at her school. Her voice trembled, but people pitched in and she raised the money (matched by World Vision). Her father and brother traveled with Gil to witness the wells being drilled. When Kevin shared at the fundraiser, she was poised, purposeful and seemed completely at ease - there was no hint of the fear she had felt earlier! The results of the trip were captured in a brief, stirring video shown at the fundraiser and also at Loyola High, where Kevin's brother, Ross, joined Gil in his presentation.

This was Ross's first time to speak publicly about Wells Bring Hope. A young man, recently out of school and at the beginning of his career, Ross was marvelous - passionate, in charge of the facts and in touch with his personal experience in Africa, as a witness to the villagers when clean water shot up from deep underground and splattered onto their ecstatic faces.

Wells Bring Hope gained another moving speaker that day at Loyola High and we have Gil to thank for creating the opportunities for Kevin, Ross and other future speakers who will leap beyond their fear to follow their hearts and contribute to the people of Niger; and for reminding us that - if he and Churchill can trip and fall over hurdles, pick themselves up and throw themselves back into the race, so can we.

"For to the man who pleases him, God gives widom and knowledge and joy." ~ Ecclesiastes 2:25

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