Prior to working with the Pico Youth & Family Center I worked for City Hall as a community service program specialist at Virginia Avenue Park’s Teen Center. Although we serviced much of the same youth, we didn’t do what 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. PYFC is held to the same standards, and structurally functions the same way, but it does something else.
When a person walks into PYFC they are greeted by a 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 reads “Ya Basta!” Although it loses some of its essence when translated into English, it means “Enough.” 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 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 a Supreme Court case, Fisher v. University of Texas, Austin, social scientists document just how effective strategies such as inter and intragroup 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 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 University of New York’s Public Science Project and Syracuse University’s 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 token 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 microaggression used to alienate … 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 disenfranchise people of color. The fact that there has never been a Pico Neighborhood resident of color on the City Council is a form of 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 first-hand knowledge of the conditions plaguing the Pico Neighborhood. This sends the message that our needs are not valued by our leaders
Unfortunately 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, Ariz. 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. Arizona school board members and elected officials banned the program without attempting to witness first-hand the transformative effects this program had on its students. Much like Santa Monica’s city manager, Rod Gould, who has never stepped foot inside of 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 to help move and upgrade its facility after he spent a mere two hours inside PYFC some years ago. Need I remind you, Ewell is an African-American and understood that 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 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 PYFC and everything it stands for alive!
Like the old saying goes, where there is no justice there is no peace.
Angel Villasenor 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.