Salinas Community Leaders Welcome Luis J. Rodriguez

Salinas community leaders welcome intervention expert Luis J. Rodriguez; Vow to target the roots of youth violence….

Over two nights, 40 grassroots leaders met with urban peace activist and author Luis J. Rodriguez. They came from all over Salinas as well as Castroville, Seaside and other Tri-County communities to the first gathering of the Salinas Area Youth Violence Intervention Project.

Salinas, California—On November 9 and 10, 2015, forty community leaders representing over half a dozen organizations from across Salinas met with urban peace activist and author Luis J. Rodriguez.  Speaker after speaker at the two sessions blasted the failure of the City of Salinas to address the roots of spiraling violence engulfing our youth.

Leaders of “Peace in the Streets” from Castroville and “Black Lives Matter” from Seaside added strong voices and their own front line experience as Rodriguez urged the creation of an aggressive, community based approach that targets the problem at the roots. “This is systemic,” said Rodriguez, linking gang violence to a failure of the City to provide comprehensive, healthy alternatives to gang violence. 

During his three-day trip to Salinas, Rodriguez also met with students and teachers at Everett Alvarez High School where students are reeling from the violent death of one of their own just days earlier. “Let’s face it,” said one teacher, “This city is controlled by agribusiness and the only future they have for our youth is working in the fields, gangs or the school to prison pipeline.” Members of the faculty senate know their students cannot learn if they are continually traumatized…and they are joining the movement to do something about it.

Rodriguez finished up his tour addressing a standing room only crowd at the Victory Mission in Chinatown, where one of the state’s largest homeless encampments exist. Rodriguez drew cheers declaring, “What the homeless have in common with the youth of Salinas is the systematic devaluation of life.”

Finally, Rodriguez vowed his ongoing commitment to support the movement to empower youth and address the violence at its roots.

On a Comprehensive & Rooted Peace and Justice Plan in Salinas—a City in Transition, a City of Hope 

By Luis J. Rodriguez

November 16, 2015

There have been 34 murders in Salinas this year, the highest number on record. Salinas is already known as among the four most violent cities in California. And despite millions of dollars in police and suppression—65 percent of the city’s budget is for law enforcement—people in the poorest sections of East Salinas, the former Alisal community with the largest number of Mexicans and Central Americans, are asking, “When will the violence stop?”         

There is no simple answer. There is no one answer. Yet, there are answers.         

This is my conclusion after spending four days there from November 8-12 to help initiate a community-rooted, community-driven plan to transform the environment that creates and feeds violence and crime. I’ve come to Salinas a dozen times in the past several years, including speaking at high schools, the Steinbeck Center, Hartnell Community College, and various community gatherings about comprehensive community-based gang prevention and intervention. Salinas was also a major stop in my travels up and down the state when I ran for governor in 2014 as a Green Party-endorsed candidate.      

City Councilman Jose Castaneda and community leaders invited me to begin a process of such a plan when it appeared that the city would do nothing substantial. While this is a critique of current city actions and inactions, this is also a critique of what has happened throughout California. Suppression to curb violence and crime has established the largest prison system in the world, outside the U.S. federal system, at a cost of $10 billion a year. New laws created more lawless—three strikes and you’re out, trying youth as adults, gang enhancements, and more.

The state went from housing 15,000 prisoners in 15 prisons in the early 1970s to 34 prisons with some 150,000 prisoners (and since the 1980s only one university was built). It costs $62,300 a year to house a prisoner, only $9,100 per student per year in our public schools (2014 California Endowment).

There has also been a squeezing of the poor, primarily black and Latino, with gang injunctions—where whole communities are under arrest, not just individuals—gentrification, and lowered job opportunities with the shift from industrial-based work to digital-driven and service-oriented employment. For some time the concern in cities like San Francisco, Oakland, and Los Angeles, the most insidious examples, is whether the most valuable land and property will be for the rich only.      

The concentration of wealth, culture, arts, and jobs in key areas—and its relative lack in others—has made California the richest state in the union (the world’s eighth largest economy) with the highest poverty rate of any state (around 24 percent), more than the poverty rates of Georgia or Mississippi.       

Salinas is a microcosm of what’s happening in the state and across the country, with all the issues of class and racial divide, economic disparity (including the largest homeless encampment between the Bay Area and Los Angeles), and violence.

Salinas is also a city with great imagination, leadership, innovation, and immense possibilities.

What remains to be seen is whether there is the political will to deal with the problem at the roots.  

What does this have to do with Salinas?

I have learned much from my intensive and extensive work in urban peace and gang intervention, both in our successes and in our losses. This knowledge can be extremely helpful in Salinas. However, it’s imperative that any plan in Salinas not be the brainchild of any one person. Nor can this be fully applied from cities like Los Angeles or Chicago. Despite key similarities and related economic realities, this plan has to be Salinas-rooted and Salinas-directed, taking into account the local conditions and unique circumstances of Salinas. My job is to assess, advise and assist, wherever possible, but nothing more.      

Therefore we have to begin a process that involves the voices, stories, ideas, and experiences of the people of Salinas, in particular from East Salinas where most of the violence exists today. This will take time, although this does not have to take the two years that were required in Los Angeles.

Patient but persistent, we can have a plan submitted to the Salinas City Council soon after the 2015 holidays.

A whole community plan, therefore, needs to have these dynamics in place:

• Multi-pronged, and multi-layered: hardcore, specialized street mediation; truce processes; peace agreement maintenance; crisis intervention; rumor control; creation of “peace” zones with agreements among gangs, businesses, schools, churches, law enforcement. ALSO re-entry, relocation and transition services for former prisoners; safe passages to schools, parks and home; mentoring and training; prison outreach. AND mental health services; job creation and preparation; gender-specific services; LGBT specific services; sex & drug education; independent living and housing; tattoo removal; arts & culture; faith-based and indigenous services. FINALLY community engagement; public policy development; court & legal advocacy and services, and more.

• From trauma to transformation—healing has to be built into the process, including personal, family and community healing. Trauma is both individual and historical (for example, Salinas has a long history of poor, migrant worker communities against large, multi-billion dollar agri-business, as written about in books like those from Nobel Prize winning John Steinbeck). We need talking circles, poetry & art therapy, sweat lodges, faith-based church projects as well as short and long range mental and drug treatment. I’m also for deep brain neurological knowledge, connecting brain to soul to body, that addresses broken brain connections and their repair and healing.

Arts as powerful means to transform persons and communities: A fully creative and expressive community is a healthy community. Community festivals, book fests, murals, other public art projects, lowrider shows, open mics, dance, theater, publications, music, and more are vital. We need support for neighborhood arts projects—cultural storefronts, independent bookstores, barrio museums, film labs and theaters, computer arts, and training in all manner of creativity.

• Educational opportunities must be expanded. Learning is an ongoing human trait. When this is blocked or derailed, learning continues but in negative ways. Juvenile lockups and prisons are still “universities,” but mostly for enshrining the worse aspects of people and in far too many cases into higher-end criminal enterprises. We often make better criminals by sending our youth to such institutions, all at taxpayer’s expense.

Schools should expand their doors. Suspensions and expulsions should cease. In-house detention with proper mental/emotional programming and engaging activities is more meaningful. Standards should be removed—most of them in the poor schools purposely keep students at low standards, such as reading at a 7th grade level so they can read ads, commercials, newspapers, but not higher end books and deeper information. The standards can be as high as anyone can reach if the downward push of existing “standards” would be changed. “Zero tolerance” in schools should be modified—we need to tolerate all manner of trouble (trouble often helps make a life with proper guidance, mentorship and teachings). After school programs should be adequately funded and include sports, arts, and more schooling for those who want this.

Safe social recreation: Recreation means that—to re-create. We need fully funded sports programs in parks and recreation centers for after school hours and on weekends. Boxing, martial arts, running/track, etc. as well as team sports (soccer, football, baseball, volleyball, basketball, hockey, etc.)

• Restorative to transformative justice: Instead of imprisoning or pushing out youth who have stolen, hurt or damaged families and communities, they are given opportunities with the victims and in sight of the whole community to restore, repair and renew the hurt and damage that was done. This should come from their own gifts, talents and propensities. Transformative justice is used to change a person from being broken, fractured, hurt to being whole and healthy. They in turn work to help transform community to become integrated, healthy and thriving.

• Initiation and rites of passages: Gangs use these long-held rites, initiation processes and rituals to draw in and engage the most empty and lost youth. They can do this because community won’t. Young people need recognition and help through various “threshold” times in their lives (around age 7; then in puberty stage from 11 to 13; also the late teens/early twenties). Youth need to go through hard but safe ordeals guided by community that initiates them into their own geniuses, their own destinies, their own stories. Indigenous peoples from around the world incorporated appropriate initiation processes for boys AND girls. Ours can be modernized and relevant, but they also follow age-old concepts and traditions.

• Peace and security zones: In some cases, such zones can be created where agreements are made between gang leaders and members to end violence, drug sales, and crime if agreements are also made with businesses to provide jobs and training; schools to open up facilities for safe & sane activities; churches to have spiritual engagement and circles; and law enforcement to allow safe and peaceful passage. While law enforcement should not drive any community integrated prevention and intervention plan, they should be part of the whole package. It’s not enough to simply “stop the killings,” although again if this happens nobody would oppose it. We also have to bring in resources and opportunities so that trauma, violence and killings have no more fertile ground. For gangs and drugs to not be the most attractive option, youth need to have a strong and meaningful relationship to many options.

Who Is Luis J. Rodriguez?           

Why me? Why now? What qualifies me to help Salinas?

I’ve been involved in gang prevention/intervention for forty years ever since I left a gang-and-drug life in my teens in the San Gabriel Valley, just east of Los Angeles. I wrote about this in my best-selling memoir, “Always Running, La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A.,” one of the state’s most checked out books in libraries—and one of the most stolen. This book is also read in schools despite being one of the most banned due to its graphic nature (which was necessary in describing such a life). Books saved my life as a youth. Libraries were my refuge even when I was briefly homeless in downtown L.A., on heroin, with a .22 handgun in my possession. I was the weird homie that brought books with me to the barrio. With mentorship, community support, a vision of a new and just world, and clarity on my own role in this, I left crime, drugs and gangs before age 20.

Now my world is filled with books, writing, teaching. I’ve written 15 in all genres—poetry, children’s literature, short stories, a novel, and nonfiction. I helped create a bookstore and cultural center—Tia Chucha’s in the San Fernando Valley—now operating for close to 15 years. And for 35 years, I’ve talked, read and conducted workshops in prisons, juvenile lockups, public & private schools, universities, colleges, libraries, migrant camps, bookstores, festivals, community centers, conferences, and Native American reservations.           

I’ve worked on gang peace and intervention with San Gabriel Valley gangs and Boyle Heights/East L.A. gangs, including attending End Barrio Warfare Coalition meetings in the 1970s. In early 1980s I helped found Galeria Ocaso and Barrio Writers Workshops in Echo Park and elsewhere. From 1985-to 2000, I lived in Chicago during its most violent years. I co-founded Youth Struggling for Survival, a gang and non-gang empowerment group; the Increase the Peace Network; and Humboldt Park Teen Reach. I also worked with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless and the Chicago Teachers Center bringing workshops to homeless shelters, schools, juvenile facilities. I returned to Los Angeles after the 1992 Uprising and assisted truce efforts by Bloods and Crips and Chicano gangs. In 1993, I received a Dorothea Lang-Paul Taylor Prize from the Center for Documentary Studies of Duke University to study the Mara Salvatrucha (MS) gang, mostly made up of Salvadoran refugee youth, and those deported to El Salvador.

I took part in urban peace summits in Santa Cruz, CA; El Paso, Texas; Washington D.C.; Chicago; and Kansas City. In 1996, I helped bring together MS gang youth and their rivals in 18th Street in El Salvador for a conference that included peace agreements among gangs, mayors, police representatives, churches, and non-governmental agencies. Unfortunately, the Salvadoran government, with U.S. government pressure, sabotaged all peace efforts and El Salvador became the most violent country in the world as immigration authorities deported thousands of LA-based gang youth to the poor and war-torn country.

I returned to El Salvador in 2012 when MS and 18th Street, along with other local gangs, began a truce in prisons that soon permeated the country—killings went from 14 a day to 5 a day. I arrived as part of a transnational team from Washington D.C, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and London, visiting six adult prisons and one juvenile facility as well as meeting with community leaders, factory owners and government officials on how to spread the peace and bring badly needed resources to the country’s impoverished people. In 2013, I helped present at an Organization of American States (OAS) gathering in 2013 in San Salvador on adequate gang prevention and intervention. As before, the government failed to build on this and peace derailed—today El Salvador is again the world’s most violent country with 30 killings a day in the month of August alone.           

I also went to two prisons and several poor communities in Guatemala in two separate trips, including with the YMCA and Homeboy Industries. And I traveled to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico in 2010 when it was the most violent city in the world (with three times the violence of El Salvador and Honduras today, the most violent countries in the world). I spoke in a prison, a juvenile hall, to community groups, and in some of the worse slums imaginable. I also ended up in Argentina, visiting five prisons, the slums surrounding Buenos Aires, and poor provinces of northern Argentina. My work has also taking me to Manchester and London, where I visited crime-ridden Afro-Caribbean communities, and a prison in southern England. I’ve also addressed these issues in Puerto Rico, Peru, Venezuela, Japan, Italy, France, Sarajevo, and throughout Germany.      

In addition, I’ve worked with gangs and community groups throughout the United States, including the Bay Area, the Central Valley, San Diego area, Inland Empire, and cities like Albuquerque, Las Cruces, Tucson, Phoenix, El Paso, San Antonio, Houston, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Boston, Cleveland, New York, Hartford, New Jersey, throughout North Carolina, and others.

Today Tia Chucha’s Cultural Center & Bookstore serves 15,000 people a year, of all ages, with arts & literacy: mural painting, music, dance, theater, writing, and more, including guiding the Young Warriors project, working with gang and non-gang youth, headed by local youth activist, Mayra Zaragoza.

My articles in this area have appeared in New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Christian Science Monitor, The Guardian, The Nation, The Progressive, Granta Magazine, Fox News Latino, and Huffington Post.

Most importantly, some 40 gang interventionists, peace advocates and researchers, including myself, met every week over a two-year period, without pay, to write the “Community-based Gang Intervention Model” under the auspices of then-Los Angeles City Councilman Tony Cardenas. Cardenas, now a U.S. Congressman, has also introduced this plan as a bill in the House of Representatives.

In February of 2008, the L.A. City Council adopted this model. However, the mayor’s office initiated its own plan beginning in 2008—the Gang Reduction & Youth Development Zones, situated in 12 communities with services and under the control of Homeland Security and law enforcement. Many of us in the field felt this was wholly inadequate to the scale of the problem. In the 1990s L.A. had upwards of 2,000 people killed in one year, and hundreds more in other years—one researcher claimed around 15,000 people killed from 1980 to 2000 in the L.A. area.

Still, based on positive youth development (versus reaction to negative youth activities), the violence and crime in L.A. fell significantly. The downward trend can be credited to GRYD in the zones that provided wrap-around services but also to powerful community efforts of groups like Homeboy Industries, Homies Unidos, Communities in Schools, the Violence Prevention Network, Maximum Force, Youth Justice Coalition, Soledad Enrichment Action, Aztecs Rising, Advancement Project, the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, and others.

Unfortunately, however, without a thorough and sustainable effort, crime increased in L.A. and our advances become threatened, particularly in the poor Black and Latino communities of South Los Angeles.

What this means for Salinas….

I’m aware there are many gang prevention/intervention programs already existing and funded in Salinas, including for decades. Those working in these programs are valuable assets, often facing adverse conditions and heroically trying to provide help in any manner possible. They are all invited to be part of this process.My main approach is to look at the whole fabric of the economic, political, cultural, and spiritual components at play, and where the gaps and empties exist. In city after city, I’ve seen piece-meal approaches to violence and crime, although in my view these are “organized inadequacies” unless a whole community approach is envisioned and instituted.

The “I’m saving one starfish” at a time approach is fine, heroic as I’ve said. I’m not against this, obviously, but we need more—and we should not be comfortable just doing this over and over again. We need to save one person as well as create the environment to save all; we need immediate needs and demands met, and we need to leave adequate structures for the long haul.

I can bring in more aspects, but this seems like a good place to start to incorporate proven, evidence-based ideas and practices that the people of Salinas can build on to make a plan with full ownership from all involved. The next process is create the plan and then to obtain full “buy in” from gangs, youth, families, schools, faith-based organizations, non-profits, government agencies, and more.    

This plan must not be “pie in the sky,” but it has to be big and encompassing. It also has to be imaginative yet also feasible with a budget that can be met and a process that can pull everyone in. And evaluations and metrics have to be included to measure and gauge progress. Costs are always a problem, but I find that most city, county and state funds are already in place—the problem is they are not allocated in a whole-community and integrated manner.

Proper and full communities are made up of shared agreements. That’s the direction we need to go. We have an arduous path ahead of us. But I’m convinced the people of Salinas are more than a match for the challenges we’ll face if we become imaginative, integrative and keep a vision of both short-term and long-term goals.

I leave you all for now with this: “Unity in essential things; liberty in nonessential things; compassion in all things.”

Luis J. Rodriguez,

Advisor to “Salinas Youth Violence Intervention Project”

The next meeting of the “Salinas Area Youth Violence Intervention Project” will be held December 2, 2015 at 7:00 pm.  All community members welcome. Please call 831-2402568 or 510-301-1472.

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