A Time for Elders and Youth--A Way out of Gangs

I've been working with a number of young people in the Northeast Valley, led by an 18-year-old former gang member (who only recently left the gang) and a 16-year-old high school student, in helping create a new Youth Center for the Pacoima/Sylmar section of LA. They are working diligently to establish a group called Young Warriors, Inc. Their vision is to obtain a space with a computer lab; job resources; referrals for treatment, tattoo removal, housing, training; among other things. One of their concerns is "Rites of Passage"--helping people become properly initiated and welcomed by community. We plan to help them establish a 501 (c) 3 tax exempt status and to have fundraisers, board development, and staff development to get this process off the ground.

Last Sunday, July 15, these two young people and myself were on Power 106-FM radio's talk show "Knowledge is Power" with Wendy Carrillo. They were strong, intelligent and articulate about the issues facing youth and their solutions. We had good response from callers and evoked a deeper sense of how to work with troubled youth in LA.

I have done this kind of work for many years, particularly with the Mosaic Multicultural Foundation's work with men, including young gang members, and in Chicago with Youth Struggling for Survival, the Increase the Peace Collaborative, and other organizations. The work I've done is to place the power, decision-making, and accountability in the hands of the young people. However, there is a role for adults, mentors, and elders. Our role is as guides, teachers, helping bring resources, structures, and options for what the youth need. However, unlike many "youth programming" going on these days, it's not about adults deciding for youth what they should do.

At Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural we've had a number of field trips from schools all over the LA area, including from Pomona (about 40 miles away). We've even had an alternative school in Oakland come by twice. These youth, including many gang and troubled youth, have always been respectful and participatory. I try to get the schools to help buy books so that as many of these students as possible leave with a book in their hands.

One of the last groups that came recently created an amazing folder with original poems, letters, drawings, and such thanking me and Tia Chucha's for having them come visit. I remember that group well because one of the youths was caught spray painting graffiti just outside our building. A principal of a local elementary school happened by at the same time, and she came into our space ready to pounce on that youth. My wife Trini, in her calm manner, was able to diffuse the situation. The principal wanted to call the police right away. Trini felt there was another way to go--a way we can handle this without having to bring in the police (which seems to be happening a lot lately... even to the point where the police have been called in to handcuff 5-year-olds who were being unruly, something that happened recently in Florida).

In the end, the principal, Trini, the teacher with the field group, and the graffiti artist met and were able to work out a measure of apology and retribution. The young man went with the principal to buy paint and they returned to paint over the young man's markings. He even wrote Tia Chucha's a letter of apology, which I include here:

Dear Luis and Trini Rodriguez,

I am so sorry that I had to bring that type of behavior and drama to your cafe. My intentions were to go there to hear some speaking about the negatives about living a lifestyle like that and I screw myself over by acting like an idiot and committing a felony. I am sorry that I embarrassed myself and my teacher, and I hope you know that I cleaned up the spot where I originally did the graffiti, and decided that the situation on Friday was too close a call for me to risk doing something like that again, so I won't be writing on walls any longer. Once again, I am sorry that it had to happen.

This is what's possible when adults and young people work together, show they really care, and help each other see themselves as stakeholders and owners of their own communities.

Recently, I did an interview at Telemundo (Spanish-language) in LA and was quoted in a couple of articles (including the Washington Post) about a new study by the Justice Policy Institute that said suppression is not working when it comes to reducing gang violence. The study compared the levels of violence in three major cities--LA, Chicago, and New York City. NYC, with much more people, had the lowest crime rates among youth and much lower gang problems. Chicago and LA are known as the most violent gang cities, although most of what policy makers do in those cities is predicated on suppression. NYC has a myriad approach to gangs; they have brought services, jobs, treatment, schooling, and other similar aspects to bear over just police and suppressive tactics.

We've also articulated similar points on the Community Engagement Committee of the Ad Hoc Committee on Gang Violence and Youth Development for the City of Los Angeles (I happen to be a member of this committee). Our plan, written to challenge and enhance the Mayor's new "Gang Reduction Strategy," calls for meaningful rehabilitation/reentry programs, jobs, treatment, more intervention services, adequate funding, and such. We know that gang violence cannot be properly addressed unless we get to the root of the problem. Presently, many LA schools and youth programs do not even allow alleged gang members to take part, even if they may be the ones who need those services the most and are often the most committed in coming through.

It's time for real elders, mentors, and youth relationships to be established all over the city. Youth need proper Rites of Passage. We can train people about how this works. We can re-weave community all over this vast city. However, we need the backing of policy makers who, unfortunately, want the "immediate" and often superficial results that come with more police and jails (the long-term effects of these only make things worse). I'm glad the Justice Policy Institute is taking this battle head on and that they've included me in their press/media outreach plans. I also want to thank Laura Rodriguez and her students for the colorful, art-filled and word-filled folder they did for Tia Chucha's.

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