Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Local leaders encouraged by gang truce


Several days after a group of youth activists brokered a three-day truce between local gangs, Santa Barbara city leaders said they are encouraged by the move, which they called particularly significant because of its community origins.
“The police can only do so much,” Councilmember Dale Francisco said. “Social service agencies can only do so much. Ultimately, it’s the people in the neighborhoods.”
Put together by the Collaborative Communities Foundation, a recently formed alliance of former gang members and youth mentors from other community groups such as Mi Gente, Tri-County Youth Program and Community Action Commission, and signed by “elders” from three main gang factions, the agreement allows for neighborhood gatherings to take place on three consecutive Sundays without fear of violence.

The first of those gatherings took place on Sunday in Ortega Park. Councilmember Helene Schneider attended the event and said everyone seemed to be simply hanging out and enjoying the nice weather.
“I was just kind of impressed by how mellow everything was,” she said. “…Wouldn’t that be nice if that were life for them every day?”
Mayor Marty Blum said the city has waived park fees for the two events in Santa Barbara – at Ortega Park last weekend and Bohnett Park this Sunday. A third gathering is planned at the Isla Vista Teen Center in Goleta on March 16.
Mayor Blum seemed in agreement with Francisco and others that a grassroots approach is a necessary cog in reducing the level of youth violence and gang activity in the community.
“I don’t think that government can do it alone, or police or schools alone – or even parents,” she said. “So having someone like Babatunde [Folayemi] in the neighborhoods is very needed.”
Folayemi, a former city councilman and longtime youth activist, is one of several leaders who helped put the gang truce together. Though Mayor Blum said she is fully supportive of the peace agreement, she also articulated hopes that at-risk youth will have an opportunity to meet neighborhood activists who didn’t join gangs themselves.
“I want us to go to the next step,” she said. “…I’d just like to see them find some mentors who didn’t join gangs.”
County Supervisor Salud Carbajal said the truce is a commendable accomplishment that is playing a role in the overall collaborative approach.
“It’s important to remember that no one effort is the panacea,” he said. “…I think you need an effort that is both bottom-up and top-down. To take both approaches is what at the end of the day will yield the kind of effective outcomes we all want.”
On the “top-down” front, a stakeholder meeting organized in late January by city staff with representatives from nonprofit groups and youth and family agencies resulted in the formation of a committee of community leaders.
That group is slated to gather for an open meeting on March 11 as they start drafting a strategic plan to address youth violence issues ¬– a plan designed to focus on the most critical portion of the youth population, city special projects manager Don Olson said.
“We’re really focused on not just the kids that are engaged in the criminal activity, but the kids who are at risk of joining the gangs,” he said, referring to approximately 750 youth identified as gang associates or high-risk individuals.
“By remaining … focused on what we can do better to reach that population, we’re hoping this committee will be successful in moving this forward,” Olson said.
In addition, the committee plans to continue efforts to bring together a comprehensive directory of youth and family services; support gang intervention and prevention programs that are proving successful; and reduce bureaucracy and overlap between government agencies and community groups.
Olson said while he is encouraged by the temporary peace agreement among local gangs, he does have some concerns about its sustainability.
“It’s not something you can rely on by itself,” he said. “It’s a timeout. It’s where you start to hopefully build better relations and help people meet their needs.”
Eduardo Cué, director of delinquency prevention programs for the Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, agreed that the truce is a momentary respite, an opportunity for gang-involved youth to take a break from tremendous peer pressure pushing them to act out violently.
“It might be the stopgap at the moment,” he said, “but we need to look a little deeper. … If we slowed the momentum toward violence, what are we doing to curb and redirect that energy into a positive approach that is equally as attractive to these young people?”
As a longtime gang expert with a more national perspective, having served as an officer with the California Youth Authority, Cué said he hopes to work with the Collaborative Communities Foundation to offer his opinions and learn from other youth leaders.
“Each community-based organization and each government entity … has their strengths and it is collectively harnessing each of those strengths,” he said.
For example, CADA’s Fighting Back initiative approaches youth and gang issues through the lens of alcohol and drug abuse, he said, explaining that youth who use controlled substances are more likely to be involved in violence.
Community leaders echoed that concept of a collective approach that plays off each organization’s strengths.
“Everybody is trying to do a little piece,” Carbajal said. “…There’s always room to do more. It’s something we all need to be asking ourselves ¬– what more we can be doing.”

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