Sunday, March 2, 2008

Local gang leaders sign peace agreement


Top leaders from the main gang factions of Santa Barbara have signed a peace agreement that allows each group to hold a neighborhood gathering without fear of aggression or violence from rival gangs.
Put together by a medley of local youth activists and signed on Saturday by three gang “elders” from Santa Barbara’s East Side and West Side, and Goleta, the truce declares that on three consecutive Sundays there will be peace.
“We the Elders agree that on these days there will be no acts of aggression between our neighborhoods,” the truce reads. “Our number one priority is the safety and happiness of our children, and it is for their sake that we do hereby agree to a truce on these days.”

The first of those violence-free days took place yesterday, when dozens of community members gathered at Ortega Park and enjoyed free tacos, face painting, a bounce house, gift baskets and a relaxed atmosphere.
“It was beautiful,” said Babatunde Folayemi, a longtime youth activist and a leader of the Collaborative Communities Foundation, which mediated the peace agreement.
It’s the first time in the history of Santa Barbara that rival gangs have agreed to a truce, he said, and while on paper it’s only for three days, he is optimistic it will essentially create a peaceful atmosphere throughout the month of March.
“All of the signers were aware of what it meant,” he said. “…It’s not like on Monday they are going to say, let’s go cap some people on the Eastside.”
A steady trickle of gang members arrived at the park yesterday afternoon, relaxing in the sun with their families even as several uniformed police officers patrolled the area.
“They couldn’t [normally] be hanging in that kind of grouping without being on their faces in the street with cops on top of them,” Folayemi said.
To see them able to come together to grab some food, have some activities for their kids and just “kick it” without even the hint of an incident, is incredibly encouraging, he said, not to mention the fact that they felt comfortable enough to do that even with a visible police and media presence.
“I’m extremely happy. We should all be happy. I talked to the officers and they were happy.”
Folayemi and other leaders with the foundation see the truce as the crucial first step in drawing down the level of youth violence in the community.
It took the efforts of a core group of organizers to bring the peace agreement to fruition — organizers like Mike Valdez, a former gang member and mentor with Mi Gente who started working on youth issues 10 years ago.
Valdez worked for a month prior to the signing, going to various leaders in each neighborhood and building support for the truce. He said it takes someone who has ties to the gang lifestyle, someone who has been through what gang members and at-risk youth are experiencing in Santa Barbara, to bring about change.
“Everybody wants it, but nobody brings it,” he said. “I have enough faith in the community.”
Fernand Sarrat, another community youth activist and mentor, said the effect of yesterday’s “family day” is more than simply getting gang members to hang out together without fear.
“The impact of this is not the one-day thing,” he said. “…The thing I think has been accomplished is behind the scenes.”
Getting gang leaders to talk among themselves and get a dialogue going is a huge accomplishment, Sarrat said, and part of the first phase of the foundation’s model — gang intervention and prevention. The truce and neighborhood gatherings are simply the result of those initial efforts.
Strengthening families will be the next move, with workshops and support services. Many parents immigrate to this country and are at a loss when they find out their child is in a gang, or don’t even comprehend the concept, Folayemi said, and will benefit greatly from advice and mentoring.
Career development and academic development is the next arm of the movement, directing gang members and at-risk youth toward developing skills that will change their lives.
“Most kids join gangs not because it’s something they want to do, but because all their other options are off the table,” Folayemi said. “…They need a trade, a craft, a skill.”
Getting youth involved in a bakery program or with trade unions for carpentry, plumbing, and other vocations will bump them up to a livable wage. Organizers are also working with Santa Barbara City College on credential programs for those who want to take an academic path.
Finally, the foundation plans to work on early intervention efforts, teaching children at a young age that violence is not an option. Instead, programs will focus on mediation, conflict resolution and anger management.
It’s the grassroots nature of the intervention that is the key to facilitating collaboration and bringing hope to marginalized youth, Sarrat explained.
“You can crack this thing if you go at it from the street level,” he said.
Efren Reynozo, a former gang member who now works with the Tri-County Youth Program, sees himself as a crucial component of bridging that societal gap. After working his way through the prison system, all the way to solitary confinement, in Chino State Prison, he said he had a simple revelation.
“Everything you heard growing up was bullshit,” he said, explaining that other inmates were more concerned with maintaining their drug habit than looking out for each other.
Kids join gangs because they want a sense of brotherhood, of belonging, he said.
“Everybody is looking for direction,” Reynozo said. “They all want to be a part of something. … But it’s going to land you in prison or it’s going to land you six feet under.”
His goal is spreading the message that there are resources out there for marginalized youth. Working with kids in Goleta and Santa Barbara’s West Side gives him the chance to pass on little messages, things as simple as advising them not to get tattoos on their arms or neck.
“We’re not turning these kids into Boy Scouts,” he said. “They don’t like the little shorts.”
Uniting members from each neighborhood is the next step in the process, through field trips and workshops, Reynozo said. Doing so will show them that the territory that divides them is nothing more than a fantasy.
“It’s an invisible line,” he said. “Just because you grew up on one side of the line doesn’t mean you can’t be brothers.”
For now, Folayemi said the group is taking things one day at a time, focusing on ensuring the peace agreement is maintained. Bohnett Park will be the location of the next neighborhood gathering, planned for Sunday, March 9. The following Sunday, organizers will move on to the Isla Vista Teen Center for the final gathering.
Then, in April, he said plans are being made to have each gang participate in the restoration of a 1951 Chevrolet to bring them together on a common goal. It’s a lengthy process, he said, changing the community one step at a time.
“It’s a day-by-day kind of thing. If we give people some breathing space and if we give people some passes to just be people, then things can change.”


Greg Knowles said...

This sounds like a terrific start. Changing and influencing the lives of our communities children in a positive way is a great mission.

Anonymous said...

About time someone does something for this kids. About time someone shows these kids that there is still hope for them. Critics will do their yapping as always and bring these kids to the bottom of the barrel. But by having these awesome people help these kids realize theres a way out by gathering them together and showing them we can all get along and work together is something that I believe will make a great satisfying change for this community.

Anonymous said...