A panel of former gang members and drug addicts led a community forum devoted to ways of prevent youth violence on Saturday, December 17 at John Adams Middle School. The forum was organized by the Pico Youth and Family Center and the Pico Neighborhood Association. In a press release for the event, Maria Loya, co-chair of the Pico Neighborhood Association, (PNA) explained, “We are building on the issues raised during the gang violence awareness workshops that were organized by the City of Santa Monica and State Senator Sheila Kuehl last April. The difference this time is that we are focusing on tangible solutions for the Pico Neighborhood and the youth and families that reside here.” After introductions, each panel member told his personal story of his struggle with gang violence and/or drug addiction and what caused him to turn his life around. Steven Luciano, who grew up in a single parent home in Santa Monica, began using drugs when he was 13 years old and soon was in trouble. As his mother worked, there “was no one around after school or the early evening hours and that’s when a lot of stuff transpired in my life. I started running in the streets, tried drugs and engaged in increasingly serious crimes. I ended up doing most of the 1990s in prison. There wasn’t a facility they were going to lock me up in that was going to make me change my ways. Nothing being offered to me in prison was really helping me change anything about myself. Crime and gang life escalates and gets deeper and deeper. When I got locked up, I got more intrigued with crime. Juvenile Hall and jail taught me to be a better criminal. Even in jail I wanted to go through the ranks in there and get more status.” Luciano went on to say that his gang lifestyle caused him to “lose a lot. I lost my education” and as a father of two “missed out on a large part of [his] children’s lives when locked up.” When he realized how destructive his way of life was to himself and others, Luciano said he began working with “close friends” that were in recovery to “change my life.” Turning his attention to other youths at risk, he said, “Being locked up didn’t deter me, but if someone could have found a hidden talent in me and could of supported me that would have been a deterrent from committing a crime.” Programs for children at risk are vital, he said, “There weren’t a lot of programs available to me and my peers when I was growing up.” Luciano ended his story by stating, “ If we don’t take a moment to invest in our future, which I believe is our kids … we’re not going to get anywhere … and this problem is going to keep recycling itself.” Mando Garcia, who grew up in East Los Angeles, said he began his life of crime by stealing gum, which “led to car stereos and bicycles.” He stole to be accepted by his peers, he said. “The more I did the more I was accepted.” Garcia’s need for acceptance continued in jail where he “learned to hate other races. I didn’t even know why, but I knew that was what everyone was doing. To fit in I hated other races.” The lesson Garcia wants young people to learn “is that your gang buddies won’t be there for you when you are in prison but your family will. They were the only ones that ever stood by me.” Santa Monica native and former gang member Arturo Arce said he came from a good family but started using drugs at 10 and joined a gang at 13 because he “wanted to be part of something.” He was the victim of a drive-by shootings at 14 and 16 but that “still didn’t help change my life.” Arce said, “It takes people like us to help people like me. We need more programs for youth to teach them they can change and become productive citizens.” Rickey McCaster was born and raised in Compton, played varsity baseball in middle school and high school but “started smoking weed” and ended up in prison. “Death and prison are no choice, they are consequences,” he said, and called for people “to listen to each other and give each other another chance.” The last speaker was Santa Monica native Lisa Diaz who was released from prison a short time ago. She said she had “looked forward to being locked up” because “after so many years of being locked up it became my home. I didn’t feel I belonged out here. I felt comfortable there. You work in prison and they can’t fire you.” She also described how she worried about going to job interviews. Diaz finally realized that what she really wanted to do was to help others and she hopes to develop a Youth Center that will assist young women who are “runaways” and victims of abuse. After the forum speakers had all recounted their own experiences, the forum participants divided up into four workshop groups to discuss solutions to the problems cited by the speakers as a means of preventing youth violence and drug abuse. Suggestions made to improve community/police relations included “more communication between the police department and youth and the police department and parents, letting youth be youth, using Hip-Hop as an expression/outlet and changing the culture of law enforcement (i.e. rehab or punishment).” To prevent drug abuse, community members suggested that community people “who can directly relate to youth speak about drug abuse, field trips to jails/skid row be organized so that drug users can ‘see the results,’ parents be educated about drug abuse, ‘peer-to-peer’ support groups be set up and events ‘in a drug free environment’ be organized for young people. Another group focused on ways to prevent violence in schools and suggested “using schools as centers to meet with students and families, having culturally relevant parenting classes, more in-school programs on violence prevention and drug abuse prevention, single parent support groups and an in-house suspension policy.” Community members also suggested improving family support through “parenting classes on ‘structure’ at home, making parents better role models, and parents collaborating with others in the community.” Executive Director of the Pico Youth and Family Center (PY&FC) Oscar de la Torre told the Mirror “The PY&FC organized this forum to show that a paradigm shift is needed if we are truly going to save our youth from violence and drug addiction. We cannot continue to criminalize poverty. Every panelist who spoke agreed that incarceration is not the solution. We need to invest in prevention and intervention programs that are culturally relevant and community-based.”
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