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Opinion, Santa Monica, Youth, Non Profits

Seeing Pico Youth & Family Center's Genius: Op-Ed

Posted Jun. 6, 2013, 9:01 am

Special To The Mirror

Editor's Note: This is an Op-Ed from Angel Villasenor who is a Syracuse University graduate student in Cultural Foundations of Education Program. He grew up in the Pico Neighborhood and attended PYFC as a youth. 

Prior to working with the Pico Youth & Family Center I worked for the city of Santa Monica, as a Community Service Program Specialist, at Virginia Avenue Park’s Teen Center.

Although we serviced much of the same youth populations, we didn't do what the PYFC does.

Most youth centers focus on outcomes, meaning they quantify success measuring numbers by calibrating the academic achievement, employment and non-employment of their participants.

The PYFC is held to the same standards, and structurally functions the same way; but it does something else.

When a person walks into the PYFC they are greeted by a community based mural highlighting African-American and Latino heritage.

As you continue through the center you will be struck by life size portraits of civil rights heroes Malcolm X, Cesar Chavez and Rigoberta Menchu.

You will also notice a banner that hangs as an overhead in front of the center's main office that reads "Ya Basta!", and although it loses some of its essence when translated into English, it means "Enough."

The PYFC is an organization founded on the principles of social justice and as an organization it embodies those principles in everything that it does.

This community centered approach, which city of Santa Monica officials call "unorthodox” and “deficient”, has been widely accepted in social science research as being effective in helping to foster and develop positive self-identities among underprivileged youth.

In fact in a Supreme Court case, Fisher v. University of Texas Austin, social scientist document just how effective strategies such as Inter and Intra-group dialogue, civic engagement, service learning, and cultural awareness and leadership are at countering some of the forces that stigmatize students of color.

Intergroup Dialogue in the form of Black and Brown unity workshops reduces prejudices across difference and helps develop cultural and racial competence.

Civic engagement and community organizing allow youth to be agents of social change and empowers them in ways standardized forms of learning cannot.

PYFC’s barrio service learning program where undergraduates from UCLA and CSUN serve as mentors and role models, is also cited in research as best practice because it encourages underprivileged youth to pursue college.

The cultural awareness component is the most valuable strategy because it affirms the identities of youth of color and enriches their understanding of themselves.

These strategies are emphasized nationwide by groups such as the Detroit Youth Dialogue, City of University New York's (CUNY) Public Science Project, and Syracuse Universities Intergroup Dialogue's Spotlighting Justice program.

These social justice principles function to improve and service the needs of their communities.

As a critical race theory student and a social justice educator I assure you these methods are heavily cited in social science research as innovative educational practices.

So why then when used by a grassroots youth center is it deemed inefficient?

What is inefficient is the way most Santa Monica youth centers operate because they overlook the cultural component and competency required to best serve the demographics of the Pico neighborhood.

By this I'm not talking about tokenized celebrations of race and culture, I am talking about how race and culture should strategically be a part of the principles from which these organizations are founded.

At the Virginia Avenue Park Teen Center, we worked with youth and families from the community to build an "altar", a traditional Latino practice used there to memorialize the youth and young adults lost in our community.

Many of them were victims of gang-violence.

When I left the organization this memorial was removed from the place where it stood for five years.

Opponents argued it was controversial, maybe a bit "too ethnic", so reverting back to "policy" and institutional practices the city staff removed the long standing community based memorial.

To them it was about policy to us it was yet another racist microagression used to alienate former VAP loyalist and lifelong community members.

Whether or not city staff understood this, the removal of a culturally affirming and community built memorial, can only be interpreted as an insensitive and discriminatory act.

Most people don't understand that racism is more than just overt isolated acts of discrimination.

It is also covert, systemic and institutionalized operating to disadvantage and disenfranchises people of color.

For example the fact that there has never been a Pico neighborhood resident of color on Santa Monica's city council, is a form is systemic racism.

The Pico neighborhood is home to the majority of Santa Monica’s African-American and Latino community.

This means that there has not been one single city council member with firsthand knowledge of the conditions plaguing the Pico neighborhood community.

This sends the message that our needs are not valued by our leaders

Unfortunately the PYFC is currently on a lifeline and may be defunded by our city council this June. All we ask is why?

I can't help but be reminded of the racism that's going on in Tucson, Arizona where their school district's Mexican American Studies program was forcefully shut down; a program the graduated over 90 percent of its cohort each year.

There are parallels between what happened in Arizona and what is happening here in Santa Monica.

Arizona school board members and elected officials banned the program without attempting to witness firsthand the transformative affects this program had on its students.

Much like Santa Monica's city Manager, Rod Gould, who has never stepped foot inside of the PYFC yet he is proposing to defund it.

That is a perplexing thought to fathom given that the previous city manager Lamont Ewell allotted PYFC with an additional $100,000 dollars to help move and upgrade its facility after he spent a mere two hours inside the PYFC some years ago.

Need I remind you, Lamont Ewell is an African-American and understood that the PYFC serves a need that most other youth organizations do not.

This again brings us to the question of why?

I hope this helps you grasp how questioning financial deficiencies (that have been rectified) is code for racism.

City staff claims to the community that if PYFC is defunded they will appoint their staff to continue program operations. This is delusional.

How would you feel as a youth walking in to the center you've come to know and love, to find that your friends, role-models, mentors, case managers, executive director, and ultimately the people you attribute as being life-savers are no longer there?

I can't imagine such trauma either!

Fortunately PYFC, its allies and community members understand that progress  never came easy and they will stand together with the youth to do whatever it takes to keep the PYFC and everything its stands for alive!

Like the old saying goes, where there is no justice there is no peace.

Angel Villasenor

Post a comment


Jun. 6, 2013, 10:23:59 am

Oscar de la Torre said...

The PYFC is the last standing cultural space that people of color have created in their own image. It's destruction will speed up the removal of communities of color in Santa Monica. If we care about protecting the City's cultural and economic diversity we must take a stand to protect the PYFC. Residents are losing cultural institutions like the nativity display, the altar at VAP etc. The demolition of cultural space and removal of working class families is paving the way for the City Manager's vision of "progress". Santa Monicans who want a better future for our City must unite and take a stand before we wake up and feel like foreigners in our own City.

Jun. 6, 2013, 11:33:31 am

Mayor of Virginia Park said...

Amen!!! to Villasenor and De la Torre's comment: "...It's destruction will speed up the removal of communities of color in Santa Monica." I'm sure some "anonymous" will comment and DENY RACISM but the evidence and the INSIGHT speak for themselves. I think that's a great idea: Christmas altar, Virginia Park altar folks, Preservers of the Mobile Park apts gotta unite and fight outsider development interest that does not have our interests as a historically DIVERSE community.

Jun. 6, 2013, 11:56:08 am

Roberto Dr. Cintli Rodriguez said...

I lived in Santa Monica and West Side in the 1970s... I remember those days when people would talk about gentrification and urban renewal etc. It seems that it has happened and the one center that remains... that it is under [constant] threat. Why would the city eliminate a place of hope and a place of dreams? It's not too late. The city can do better. The city and its residents should stand with the youth of PYFC. Great work Angel in bringing to light this great living history!

Jun. 6, 2013, 12:30:42 pm

george daniels said...

if it weren't for thy pyfc i wouldve roaming the streets throwing up gang signs getting pulled over and arrested all the time... but because of the py' im throwing up peace signs and staying out of trouble and i now feel wanted being a latino in a city where the population is mostly whites.

Jun. 6, 2013, 3:51:54 pm

Jon Mann said...

If PYFC is really concerned about providing services to youth it should reduce it's staff payroll and stop padding the director's pension fund. Now that de la Torre is no longer running the show, enquiring minds would like to know how much he is receiving as a "consultant"...?

Jun. 6, 2013, 4:03:16 pm

Angel said...

Nonense Jon I worked there, trust me we were all underpaid for what we do! Including Oscar

Jun. 6, 2013, 4:24:54 pm

Oscar de la Torre said...

I will discuss openly any accusation that has been made regarding pay, pensions etc. The City staff has recently acknowledged innacuracies in their reporting regarding these issues. I have asked for the City to publically correct the record but I doubt they will. Please visit the PYFC and I will gladly discuss these issues. I have raised more than $400k for youth services and have given alot of my life to founding PYFC.

Jun. 6, 2013, 4:37:28 pm

Gracie Rodriguez said...

I recently spent some time at the PYFC Santa Monica youth center. I was impressed with the interaction between staff members and the participating youth, as well as the relationships the students had with each other. How fortunate that this organization provides a safe haven for so many. I hope city officials pay a visit to the center before making decisions about future funding.

Jun. 6, 2013, 11:11:03 pm

David Mendez-Yapkowitz said...

If anything, PYFC staff is UNDERPAID for the work they do. But of course the City of Santa Monica doesn't value saving the lives of black and brown youth. Inquiring minds would like to know what Jonathan Mann has done to address social justice issues in Santa Monica and the blatant disrespect of the Pico Neighborhood and its residents of color? Jonathan Mann likes to "champion" the residents of Santa Monica and is an "advocate" of social, political, and economic justice as per his most recent City Council candidate page, but here he is attacking an organization that does just that. He really comes across as a talking head that shouldn't be taken seriously and the residents of Santa Monica know that as evidenced by his track record of failure for City Council. What is it, 12 years now?

Jun. 8, 2013, 8:39:59 am

Alex said...

This is getting tired already. Only suggestion, keep the graffiti inside so the place looks presentable from the outside.

Jun. 11, 2013, 11:54:12 am

Blair Smith said...

Great Op ed, Angel! I love your vivid description of what it is like to walk into the center and its community based qualities. I wish you all the best, and let me know if I can support in any way.

Apr. 1, 2014, 5:13:44 pm

Mary Cornejo said...

I speak not only for myself but for the many families of the Pico neighborhood that have come to know the existence of the reason behind PYFC. The center has helped change many lives. The facility is not only life changing , but a way of life for many who need redirection. We are fortunate to have the PYFC right in our very own neighborhood.Hat's off to Oscar de le Torre founder of the PYFC and to his well educated and attentive staff.

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