Oscar de la Torre will step down as executive director of the Pico Youth & Family Center, which he founded in 2002.

The founder of the Pico Youth & Family Center is stepping down at the end of the year.

Oscar de la Torre founded the nonprofit in 2002 as the Pico neighborhood, which has historically been less white and affluent than the rest of Santa Monica, struggled with gun violence and gang activity. For almost two decades, the center has served as a place for Pico youth to learn leadership, technology and arts skills. It has also become a center of the neighborhood’s social justice efforts.

De la Torre, who also serves as a member of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District board of education, said he has achieved PYFC’s initial goals. The center has helped eliminate gang violence, successfully lobbied for restorative justice and ethnic studies in local schools, and campaigned for new parks and a library in Pico.

“I grew up in poverty in the most dangerous part of the city. Two months after I graduated from college, there was a gang war that killed five people,” de la Torre said. “PYFC has made it so our youth don’t grow up under a constant threat of violence anymore.”

He said he feels now is the time to pass the torch to a younger leader who is just as passionate about the community he grew up in.

Alex Aldana, who currently serves as associate director at PYFC, will succeed de la Torre as executive director. Aldana has been involved with the center since he was a teenager and recently earned a master’s degree in social entrepreneurship from USC’s Marshall School of Business.

De la Torre briefly contemplated resigning as executive director of PYFC in 2013 after the Santa Monica City Council voted to withdraw $300,000 in annual funding after an audit alleged thousands of dollars in financial discrepancies and administrative mismanagement. However, he retained his position and said the City made unfounded accusations over an administrative error that was self reported and correctly shortly after it was found.

This time around, he said he plans to permanently step down and start a consulting firm with his wife Maria Loya that will assist nonprofit and government organizations in developing social justice policy.

He said he may also run for City Council if an appellate court judge rules in favor of Loya’s lawsuit against the city, which alleges that the city’s elections dilute the voting power of the Pico neighborhood’s Latino population. De la Torre previously ran for a seat in 2016.

A superior court judge ruled in favor of Loya earlier this year, saying that Santa Monica residents should vote for councilmembers to represent their neighborhoods, not the city as a whole. The city appealed the ruling on the grounds that an election that uses a district map drawn by Loya’s attorneys would undermine the democratic process.

De la Torre said may run for City Council to represent the Pico neighborhood if the appellate court upholds the superior court’s order that the city should hold a special election. The appellate court must issue a final ruling by July 2020.

“I’ve committed my life to public service, so if there’s an opportunity that makes sense, I’ll definitely consider it,” he said.

Michelle Castillo, who attended PYFC programs throughout high school and is now a social worker with the Los Angeles Department of Mental Health, said de la Torre’s roots in the Pico neighborhood allowed him to connect with youth and keep them coming back to the center.

“He understood the challenges we faced growing up in Pico,” she said. “I had participated in other after-school programs, but this was different because it had a cultural and neighborhood connection.”

Castillo said de la Torre and other PYFC staff members helped her navigate the college application process as a first-generation student and continued to mentor her throughout college.

“I have a lot of gratitude for (de la Torre) and the PYFC staff who helped me apply to college, because working through that process was definitely not easy for me and other youth who have grown up in Pico,” she said. “When I got to college, I knew I could go to him for advice, and he wrote my letter of recommendation when I applied for graduate school at USC.”

Aldana, who will succeed de la Torre in the new year, said he plans to focus on making PYFC financially sustainable through paid camps and classes and by partnering with local companies.

“We want to transition to a social enterprise model, where we offer affordable classes that bring in revenue to maintain our free programs,” he said. “We want to create innovative programs that companies in Silicon Beach would be interested in developing partnerships with.”

De la Torre said he looks forward to seeing Aldana continue to adapt to the changing needs of the neighborhood, where the threat of gang violence has given way to concerns about gentrification and displacement.

“We want to equip youth with the technology and arts skills to connect them with internships and then jobs in Silicon Beach so the next generation can afford the rent,” he said. “To sustain the diversity of this neighborhood, locals have to be able to tap into those well-paying jobs.”

madeleine@smdp.com

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