The Power of Art and Youth

This past Saturday, August 16, Luis Villanueva, a high school student, and the Los Angeles Mural Experiment, an art group he started, had a mural inauguration at Dyer Street Elementary School in the community of Sylmar in the Northeast San Fernando Valley. This mural project is sponsored by the Young Warriors, the arts-based youth empowerment wing of Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural, founded by Mayra Zaragoza and Brian Dessaint. I was also able to speak to the various young artists involved--around 20--as well as their parents, school officials, and others who gathered that beautiful August day to honor the artistic resource we have in our young people.

Tia Chucha's and Young Warriors continue to involve youth, including graffiti artists, in creating artistic works that the community can appreciate, value, and support. The mural encompassed various animals from the deserts and jungles of northern Africa, such as giraffes, tigers and elephants. It was beautifully done for the elementary school students and the surrounding community. Food was then provided for the guests that numbered around 100 people. Luis proved to be an amazing organizer by planning, mobilizing, and inaugurating this project in less than a month's time.

Unfortunately, this community is under a gang injunction zone approved by the courts against the so-called San Fer gang. This has caused many young people to be arbitrarily stopped and searched. Those served under the injunction cannot associate with other alleged gang members, and they are under a strict curfew. If they are seen with two or more people, they can be arrested and the people who they are with can also be served, even if they aren't in a gang.

This is not even done in some of the most repressive countries in the world.

The target of California's gang injunctions, started in LA in the late 1980s, are black and brown alleged gang members (no white or asian gangs have ever been placed under a gang injunction to date). In LA alone there are more than 20 gang injunctions, including the most recent in the Sylmar/San Fernando area (this is also where I live). It's now the largest gang injunction area in the city.

Still Tia Chucha's/Young Warriors, in collaboration with organizations like the LA Mural Experiment, will keep providing meaningful, healthy, imaginative, and community-based options to the most troubled and neglected young people. Gang injunctions are not the answer and never have been.

Two weeks before, I had more than 30 young people, most of them hard-core gang members trying to change their lives, come to San Fernando's Sweat Lodge, located behind a sober-living home. I'm one of the founders and one of the facilitators/water pourers (my wife Trini is another one). They came from Homeboy Industries in downtown LA as well as from Watts (thanks to the efforts of Fidel Rodriguez and Adrian Veliz). Many of the young men and women were heavily tattooed. At one point some of the guys shared the various bullet wounds and scars on their bodies.

They were most Mexican males, but also included a few African Americans and women.

The ceremony was taken seriously, but it was a battle for these young people, most of whom had never been in a sweat ceremony. There was lots of moans, loud prayers, tears, and more as we connected the intensity of the lodge to the intensity and pains of their lives. At one point about nine young people left the lodge in-between rounds. But just before the last round, Hector, a member of our sweat lodge circle who also pours water, sings and plays drums, kept a strong solid beat that helped calm all the participants. I said words of knowledge and prayer over the drum beat to keep the group from fracturing and losing focus. The nine people outside, gathered around to hear and listen and learn. In the last round, they all came back to take part.

It was an amazing ceremony, although it was extremely hard. It was a battle, but the ceremony is meant to symbolize the battle of our life. With much respect, courage, and struggle, these young people fought to be present and to come back. Those that stayed all the way through were the stronger for it.

Getting shot, having friends and family killed (one young girl's mother was recently found murdered in an alley with no idea so far about who did this), being on drugs (in particular crystal meth), just out of jail (a few of the participants had just been released from prison), now found an intense healing and purification space, run by community for community.

Tomorrow, August 18, I go to the Mosaic Multicultural Foundation's Men's Conference called "Holding the Thread of Life," a mentoring retreat with Michael Meade, Jack Cornfield, Orland Bishop and myself as teachers. We'll be in the Redwood Forest surrounding Mendocino, CA. I've been doing these with Mosaic now for more than 15 years. This coming week -- it lasts about six days -- we'll have mentors, mentees, therapists, teachers, organizers, as well as gang youth and other young people. Homeboy Industries, Youth Mentoring Connection, Street Poets, Tia Chucha's are some of the organizations bringing youth.

There are way to help gangs, those on drugs, and the most abused and neglected young people. Prisons, juvenile halls and jails only deliver these youth to the mouth of the lion. We can do lasting and vital inner-core work with these young people, but we are often lacking as a society the political will, funds, other resources, and the community awareness to do so. We'll do it anyway, but many more youth are being pushed into the web of the prison/criminal world (at taxpayers' expense).

I will do my part to help change the culture in this country about how best to deal with trouble, young people, and our fractured communities. The mural project, the sweat lodge, the men's conferences, Tia Chucha's arts programming, and organizations like Homeboy Industries and the Mosaic Foundation are all part of the change that brings lasting and long-range healing, peace, and health to all our communities.

We will maintain ourselves as the example while we continue to fight against the laws, injunctions and upcoming propositions like Proposition 6--the Runner Initiative--that will do more to harm our youth in the poorest communities than any such proposition to date (and California has had some doozies).

More on this and other initiatives in future blog posts.


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