Earlier this year, Witnessla and Spot.Us collaborated on our first joint project under the banner of The LA Justice Report.
The resulting two-part investigation was called Follow the Gang Money, and was reported and written by Matt Fleischer. It examined how the city of Los Angeles spends its $26 million per year in gang violence reduction dollars.
Just to recap: LA’s Gang Reduction and Youth Development program, or GRYD, as it is called, has mapped out the city’s most troubled communities into 12 zones. Inside those 12 GRYD zones, the city’s gang strategies are divided into two categories: Prevention and Intervention. Prevention tries to keep high-risk kids out of gangs. Intervention, in the most general sense, deals with those who are already in gangs. In LA right now, the intervention side of GRYD consists primarily of a form of pro-active peacemaking that attempts to interrupt individual cycles of violence and retribution by literally going into the street to talk to the participants.
Those of you who read the two Follow the Gang Money stories know that, in both cases, we were critical of GRYD.
Yet, over and above the criticism, we want to support the fact that LA is committed to having a rigorous gang strategy and that significant strides have been taken since 2008 when the city’s fractured and ineffective LA Bridges program was disbanded in favor of a single entity housed in the mayor’s office, the now more than two-year old GRYD initiative.
With the positive strides taken in mind, we offer Part 3 of the Follow the Gang Money series: 6 Suggestions for Moving Forward
To arrive at these suggestions we spoke to approximately 20 different experts in the field, both national and LA-based. Some of those interviewed were academics and researchers such as:
• Louis Tuthill, social science analyst for the National Institute of Justice (the research arm of the Department of Justice)
• Thomas Abt, Chief of Staff of the DOJ’s Office of Justice Programs
• Dr. Jorja Leap from UCLA’s School of Public Affairs
• Civil rights lawyer Connie Rice from the Advancement Project
• Dr. Barry Krisberg from the Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice
• Dr. Denise Herz, of Cal State LA’s School of Criminal Justice and Criminalistics.
Just as many were practitioner/experts working on the ground, including people such as:
• Blinky Rodriguez from Communities in Schools
• Aquil Basheer from the Professional Community Intervention Training Institute (PCITI)
• Father Greg Boyle from Homeboy Industries
• Hector Verdugo from Homeboy Industries
• Guillermo Cespedes. Director of LA’s GRYD program
All of the LA based people I spoke with—those within the GRYD structure and those outside it—unmistakably care very much about healing the violence afflicted communities in our complicated city—even if they might occasionally disagree about what path we ought to take to get there.
It is in that spirit that WitnessLA and the LA Justice Report offers our list of recommendations:
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE? 6 SUGGESTIONS FOR MOVING FORWARD
1. RIGOROUS EVALUATIONS ARE ESSENTIAL TO ANY SUCCESSFUL GANG PROGRAM
One of the things that the mayor promised when he allowed GRYD to come under his roof was that the city’s new gang programs would be evaluated from Day 1.
The thinking was that, this way the new GRYD programs would be evidence based. We would know what was working and what was not. It wouldn’t be like the bad old days of LA Bridges when no one had any idea if any of the programs receiving big bucks from the city were doing any appreciable good.
Yet despite all the promises, the GRYD office did not follow their own dictums. Evaluators were eventually hired, but they were not brought in at the planning stages. This error led to a year’s worth of wasted time, money and opportunities when data was either not gathered properly or not gathered at all. [All of this is outlined in Part 1.]
“The purpose of a real evaluation,” said Dr. Jorja Leap, “is to determine how to make a program better and what is not working and should be eliminated. As a research evaluator I’m saddened by the loss of opportunity missed to do a real evaluation, and that is one of the things I’d most like to see changed.”
Jim Mercy of the national Center for Disease Control and Prevention agreed: “Good data helps cities to change their plans so that they get better results.”
There are signs that the city is taking seriously the need to revamp its evaluation strategy. Most notable is the fact that the GRYD office has retained Dr. Denise Herz, which was a great move. Herz is loaded with experience and is knows what needs to be done.
“We need a model that is informed by best practices and then evaluated to see if it works,” she told me on the topic of evaluations. “That way everyone is held accountable.”
She pointed out that the public is unlikely to support additional investments in the city’s gang strategies “unless they can see some quantified results”—in other words, solid and ongoing evaluations.
Let us hope that Dr. Herz will be allowed to make sure such evaluations are launched quickly and correctly.
2. GANG MEMBERS NEED VIABLE ALTERNATIVES TO LIFE ON THE STREET
GRYD’s intervention programs have, to date, primarily consisted of what is described as hard core street intervention—a kind of “proactive peacemaking” in which former gang members and others with street clout in various communities reach out to gangs to broker peace treaties and stem retributive gang violence.
No one can argue that saving lives and diverting violence is a worthy goal. In addition, the GRYD office has worked to professionalize hard-core street intervention by creating an intervention training academy called Lavita.
Monday morning, I attended the second Lavita graduation (a picture from which is posted here). It was impossible not to be caught up in the excitement the 29 graduates felt at the ceremony. As we watched them pose over and over for photographs with their diplomas, Connie Rice pointed out that some of these men and women have never before graduated from anything in their lives.
Yet, even at its best, violence interruption is a tourniquet to stop the bleeding temporarily so that, hopefully, the underlying condition may be treated. It is a single puzzle piece in a very large and complex puzzle. Every study done on the matter, every piece of research and every prominent researcher tells us that violence interruption alone (AKA hard core street intervention)—without some kind of services offered as an alternative to gang involvement—(job training and placement, mental health services, reentry programs, community support, etc. etc.) does not lead to a sustained drop in crime nor does it lead to healthier communities.
Gangs are not nation states that, in addition to warring with an enemy, build roads, schools, electric grids and hospitals. Neither are they equivalent to armed separatists and/or guerrilla fighters who engage in violence to achieve a political end. Thus if young men and women are to walk away from gang violence, they must have something other than gang life that is visible to them to walk toward.
Thomas Abt was unequivocal when he described to me earlier this week what the programs that have been proven effective in lowering gang violence in a community have in common. Abt is Chief of Staff of the DOJ’s Office of Justice Programs and has, as he describes it, the 10,000 mile view of the programs that have been implemented across the nation.
“The programs that work are comprehensive and multidisciplinary.” Under multidisciplinary he ticked off the same elements I have listed above, jobs, mental health services, et al.) “And they have to involve the community.” [We’ll get back to the community piece in a minute.]
Dr. Barry Krisberg of Berkeley said it more plainly. “Overall, street outreach has failed. The research is very clear.”
Connie Rice strongly favors hardcore street intervention. But when we had lunch last week, she also agreed that the other components are needed. “Reentry has to be a part of the model,” she said. “You can’t do prevention and intervention work in a hot zone without reentry”—reentry being the wrap around services of jobs, housing, mental health counseling and the rest of the list.
The question is: how does the city get such additional programs up and running on its limited resources?
Collaboration with existing programs is one part of that answer. Organized community involvement is another.
3. THE COMMUNITY MUST BE ACTIVELY ENGAGED
One of the widely acknowledged success stories of GRYD programs is the six-week end of summer program known as Summer Night Lights.
SNL keeps parks open after dark, employs up to 100 high risk youth at each park, and has a slew of activities and programs, plus lots of free food. Guillermo Cespedes, GRYD’s director—otherwise known as LA’s gang czar— was the original architect of the SNL and says that the first of the SNL programs was born out of extensive meetings with the community. Then when it expanded into rest of the 12 GRYD zones, and was in 24 parks, each time it was with community input, involvement and, therefore emotional buy in.
“I don’t think of SNL as a model,” Cespedes says, “I think of it as a way of thinking. It taps into the problem solving method of the community. You have to provide resources and leadership. “ And the involvement and of the community makes those resources have impact well beyond the sum of their parts.
Hector Verdugo of Homeboy Industries articulated much the same sentiment. Verdugo is a former gang heavyweight who grew up in Ramona Gardens, one of the city’s toughest housing projects—and among the highly successful sites for Summer Night Lights.
“Summer Night Lights doesn’t just involve the community,” he said, “It helps build community. People suddenly come out of their houses for the movie nights, the video games, the little kids getting their faces painted—and it’s beautiful to see. And it changes how the community thinks.”
SNL should be expanded.
However it is still only a six-week program. (Although Cespedes would like to add additional weeks during the holidays.) The challenge is for the prevention and intervention sides of the GRYD programs to similarly engage and involve the various community groups and stakeholders in each GRYD zone.
Cespedes is very much a fan of community involvement. When I asked him recently what he would do if GRYD was suddenly handed an extra $20 million, he named the programs that would be first on his list, like a jobs program and a program that specifically target at girls and women “I think Father Boyle has it right when he says ‘Nothing Stops A bullet like a job.’” Cespedes said.
But they would all need community involvement, he said. “The community organizing piece would still have to come first.”
4. THIS IS A PROBLEM THAT REQUIRES ALL HANDS ON DECK
When it began in 2008, in an effort to standardize and professionalize its programs and to create replicable “models,” GRYD became very exclusive, working only with its contract agencies. While this was perhaps a well-intentioned effort to guard against the higgledy-piggledy disorder of LA Bridges, as is often the case in such matters, in attempting to correct one wrong, it created another larger one.
Instead of finding ways to partner with and build upon, some of the nation’s most valuable and proven gang intervention and prevention resources, which fortunately happen to be located in Los Angeles, GRYD instead excluded them totally. The most high profile of these exclusions is, of course, Father Greg Boyle’s Homeboy Industries, which provides the kind of wrap-around services that GRYD most notably lacks.
But Homeboy is far from the only such exclusion. Aquil Basheer’s Professional Community Intervention Training Institute (PCITI), which does intervention training all over the country, yet is deeply embedded in LA’s communities, is another perplexing example. But there are more.
It is time—way past time, really— to find a practical way to turn that early exclusiveness into inclusiveness.
Simply put: We cannot afford to have the city’s officially sanctioned programs siloed off from some of LA’s best resources. Addressing gang violence and healing our endangered communities requires all hands on deck. Connie Rice’s excellent Advancement Project report (which everyone involved in this work ought to reread, by the way) made that clear many times over. And all of those interviewed for this story acknowledged it.
Yes, there are limited dollar resources. But if all are brought to the table to work toward the same goal of partnerships, cooperation and inclusiveness, a plan can be found. Exclusiveness means we get less bang for our buck. Reinventing the wheel is inefficient. Collaboration is one of the best ways to stretch resources.
5. IF GANGS ARE A PUBLIC HEALTH PROBLEM, IT’S TIME TO WALK THAT TALK
“I look at gangs as a symptom,” Cal State LA’s research expert (and GRYD’s new evaluation guru) Denise Herz told me.
That same view was repeatedly expressed at The California Wellness Foundation’s Conference on Violence Prevention held this past October: at it’s heart gang violence is a public health problem not a crime problem.
The Advancement Project’s 2006 report, A Call to Action: A Case for a Comprehensive Solution to LA’s Gang Violence Epidemic, (generally considered LA’s bible when it comes to gang violence reduction analysis) documented the public health perspective all through its 131 pages.
For instance, there is this from its executive summary:
City approaches must stop focusing on isolated, tiny programs that address less than five percent of the problem and must begin to confront the size and scope of the gang problem.
City approaches must address the conditions in neighborhoods and the unmet
needs of children that allow gangs to take root, flourish, and expand.
The strategies must focus on the ecology of neighborhood violence using
the public health and healing, child development, job development and
community development models that address the major underlying drivers
of violence and gang proliferation.
Father Greg Boyle has been communicating various versions of this message for nearly 25 years.
When tens of thousands of LA’s children worry that they cannot walk safely to school, and as many as one third of LAUSD’s middle schoolers in high crime areas suffer from equal or higher levels of PTSD–-Post Traumatic Stress Disorder—than soldiers returning from Iraq, that’s a public health problem.
Add to that the fact that every month thousands of guys and women—many of them gang members or former gang members— are paroled from prison on to LA’s streets with many of the pathways to a positive future blocked to them, and the fact that most coming out of prison and/or gangs are dealing with high levels of emotional scarring, and you have a public health problem that provides fertile soil for future gangs to grow.
“That’s why the programs that have worked come out of a public health model,” says Berkeley’s Barry Krisberg. “Kids often join gangs because they’re scared and feel unsafe. Gangs provide protection.”
GRYD has made a valuable structural start by taking the time to map out the city’s highest need communities with its 12 GRYD zones, so that in this era of chronically limited resources we are putting our efforts into the neighborhoods most critically affected.
Ideally, we’d have $500 million to aggressively address the health of our communities. But we have 5 percent of the needed amount.
So we will need to be creative.
Aquil Basheer pointed out that if community needs are prioritized after consulting with the community members themselves, then methods can be found to begin to address those needs. Kids can’t walk safely to school? Do what one small community in Boyle Heights has done with their Camino Seguro/Safe Passage program:
Twice every school day, 70 mother volunteers in bright green T-shirts and jackets emerge from their homes and offices to help children walk to and from school safely.
Such programs can be inexpensively expanded and replicated, said Basheer. “We are invited into cities elsewhere in the country to give what we call Community Survival Training,” he said, adding that one community victory breeds others. “When you give people some level of self sufficiency, they’ll get out there and find solutions you’ve never thought of.”
Blinky Rodriguez, whose Communities in Schools is a GRYD provider for hard core street intervention, offered his own example. “When we organized the mothers in Pacoima to march against gang violence, pretty soon we had the men coming out too. And before that, the men had never come out for anything. Now it’s evolving into a mentoring program.”
Surprisingly, none of Blinky Rodriguez’s community organizing is part of his GRYD contract.
“But it should be,” says Basheer. “Because the best of what Blinky does can be systematized and made replicable for other communities.”
6. THE GRYD OFFICE MUST PROVIDE LEADERSHIP TO COORDINATE STAKEHOLDERS AND FOSTER PARTNERSHIPS
So how do we make all of the above happen given the available resources and the existing GYRD structure? Leadership is required and the GRYD office is in an ideal position to provide it. It has the clout and the manpower.
Yet it need not do it alone.
“I would put together the best brains we have and talk about where GRYD goes from here and how we should get there,” says Connie Rice.
“Leadership,” agreed Father Greg. “All this requires good leadership.”
It’s the next step.