There’s no denying that Santa Monica, like many cities in America, has struggled with racism and bigotry. The power structure in the past was dominated by white males. There was the Ink Well Beach where African-Americans were forced to swim, segregated from white residents. Many blacks and Latinos were displaced by the building of the Civic Center and Interstate 10, their homes and businesses destroyed along with traditions.
Over the last few decades, leaders have tried to make amends. Past wrongs have been acknowledged, money invested and progress made, including the hiring of minorities to key positions in City Hall, such as the former city manager and chief of police.
So to say that the current power structure is racist, as was the case last week during the emotionally-charged hearing on the future of the Pico Youth & Family Center, is to ignore the facts in an attempt to intimidate and obfuscate. And it seems to have worked.
The City Council kicked the can down the road at its last meeting when it voted to continue funding the Pico Youth & Family Center for six more months despite a scathing report on the center and its executive director, school board member Oscar de la Torre, a polarizing figure who has done great work to help minority communities while at the same time making enemies where he need not.
The reason the council gave for delaying the difficult and potentially politically-damaging decision was to give time for city staff to hold community meetings so residents can decide the best ways to serve kids and young adults at risk of joining gangs.
Following those meetings, city officials will put together a request for proposals and see which service provider can best meet the goals set by those meetings. Whether or not PYFC will win the contract remains to be seen and is certainly not a given.
The Daily Press believes the council delayed its decision for two reasons. One, it did not want to be labeled racist, as so many speakers attempted to do during that hearing. Two, those on the dais, like many parents, had a difficult time saying “no” to roughly 100 kids who poured their hearts out in support of de la Torre and the youth center. No one wants to be the person considered responsible for holding a group of kids down when they already feel marginalized.
Being labeled a racist is a charge that is hard to believe given the amount of taxpayer money the council has dedicated to PYFC and other agencies that support minorities through affordable housing, counseling, daycare and other services. While racism still exists, Santa Monica as a whole is not a racist community and neither are those on the dais.
The charges of racism are a smokescreen and an intimidation tactic used to draw attention away from the real issue, that the center, which was founded for the right reasons following a time of enhanced gang violence, has been poorly managed.
The fact that few seem to be talking about, and the one thing that could make this discussion irrelevant, is fundraising, or the lack thereof on behalf of PYFC. Because the organization has failed over the last decade to secure more stable sources of funding, it is being forced to comply with City Hall’s requirements, which may dramatically alter the mission of the organization that de la Torre and his supporters are so desperately trying to preserve. And it’s the reason why supporters are trumpeting a false message, that city officials are trying to “close down” PYFC. City Hall has no power to close PYFC, a private non-profit. The City Council only has authority over the money it dishes out. If PYFC had other sources of revenue, the council’s decision could be made irrelevant. It certainly wouldn’t have the potential to be as damaging to the future of PYFC as it does now.
PYFC’s excuse is that it has been so focused on its mission and the day-to-day operations that it hasn’t concentrated enough on grant writing, networking and developing annual events that can attract the donors necessary to stabilize its funding. Everyone understands that helping teens and young adults who are at risk is a challenge; arguably one of the most important missions we as a community can undertake. That being said, other organizations with complex goals, such as those working to end homelessness or drug and alcohol addiction, have found ways to make progress while simultaneously strengthening their organization. Why has PYFC failed to do so, putting itself in the position it is in now, essentially at the mercy of the City Council?
The buck stops with the executive director, de la Torre, and his board of directors, which seems to have shirked its responsibilities. de la Torre’s work on the school board, as well as his activism, should be commended. But it seems that his work in those areas has distracted him, and because of that work, he has become a controversial figure in the community. Some of the backlash PYFC is facing stems from bad blood between de la Torre and some within City Hall.
If this fight for funding is truly about the kids, it would be best if de la Torre exits sooner rather than later. He has already said that he has wanted to step down for some time. There’s no better time than the present. By doing so, he may be able to save the organization that he founded and loves, and in turn continue to serve those youth that need the guidance, love and support the organization provides by serving as a member of the board or as a consultant. He is skilled at reaching those who others cannot. That is a gift we do not want to see wasted.
If he chooses to remain in place he must tone down the racist rhetoric of his supporters and get to work fundraising so he no longer has to listen to the critics. The ball is in his court.