“The care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the only legitimate object of good government.” — Thomas Jefferson, 1809
Another cycle of gang-related shootings and homicide re-traumatized the Pico Neighborhood at the same time the city staff recommends that the City Council cut one-third (close to $100,000) of the budget for the Pico Youth & Family Center (PYFC), our community’s most effective response to gangs and youth violence. City staff has recommended that the council divert PYFC funds to the Cradle to Career (C2C) initiative, a promising effort born from PYFC’s advocacy and white paper on youth violence in 2010. A blatant disconnect between City Manager Rod Gould and Pico Neighborhood families is at the center of the city staff’s ongoing scheme to destroy PYFC, this time by cutting its already bare bones budget.
The PYFC, like the Cradle to Career initiative it launched, was born from the community’s response to multiple homicides in 1998 and persistent gang violence and suicide in 2009. No other social issue exposes the racial and economic divide in Santa Monica more than the fact that since 1986 more than 62 youth and young adults have been murdered, the majority of these homicides occurring within 10 city blocks of the Pico Neighborhood. The impact of this historic pattern of violence on families has been catastrophic and residents’ overall quality of life has been permanently distressed. The neglect of violence in one part of our community only serves to fuel a culture of gun violence that eventually spills over throughout our city with dire consequences, affecting the families of Santa Monica. Framed as “problematic” by city staff, PYFC only exists because of the city’s painful neglect and inability to address public safety issues affecting Pico Neighborhood residents and as long as gangs and homicides continue we should seek to strengthen PYFC, not reduce its funding.
Gangs and the violence that they produce are a symptom of a much larger problem that has its roots in the hopelessness that poverty and marginalization produce. Gang members are not born — they are made. Poverty, family instability, early school failure, early incarceration and substance abuse are common traits most gang members share. Gangs are a product of our community’s failure to direct public policy and resources to our most marginalized youth and their respective families. It is a societal challenge that affects us all, but certain neighborhoods because of racial segregation, lack of political representation and historic neglect have been disproportionately impacted. While C2C membership organizations are promising to work differently, the PYFC has been on the front line providing direct services to youth and transforming the city’s approach to youth development.
So how can we as a community accept City Manager Rod Gould’s proposal to defund an organization that has succeeded in decreasing gang membership and violence? The city’s own budget document acknowledges that, “youth and gang violence has decreased in recent years.” PYFC is the most effective community based response to the problem of youth violence because for the first time in our history residents most impacted by the violence have articulated the root cause of gangs and youth violence. A complex problem such as youth violence cannot be addressed with collaborative services alone as the C2C proposes. PYFC’s effectiveness in reducing gang violence and gang membership is found in our dual approach of direct services and advocacy that gives marginalized youth and Pico Neighborhood residents an opportunity to change the social conditions that lead to hopelessness and gang membership. PYFC provides a culturally relevant, social justice-based community approach to youth engagement, education and belonging. As a leading initiator and founding co-chair of C2C I urge the City Council to ask questions about C2C’s direct service plan and its organizational capacity to hold itself accountable for meeting clear outputs and outcomes.
The city manager’s proposal to reduce PYFC’s funding contradicts its support for a smooth transition at PYFC. A decrease in funding at the start of a violent summer when critical services are needed for our community’s most vulnerable youth is a threat to public safety. The C2C initiative must be supported, but not at the expense of direct services for youth. The staff recommendation starts the promising work of the C2C initiative with a “take back” from the organization most responsible for its creation. Why allow the city manager to continue a biased campaign against PYFC that will only serve to perpetuate the division and marginalization of our residents? Furthermore, this is not the way to start a promising effort founded on the principles of equity, collaboration and community partnership. Let us launch the C2C initiative together with all of us united and not by taking direct services away from PYFC and the vulnerable youth it currently serves. Lets unite behind the promise and opportunity of “and” versus the tyranny of “or.” The youth and young adults of our community who are in need of support are worth the investment.
Oscar de la Torre is the founder of PYFC and co-founder of Santa Monica’s Cradle to Career initiative.