My determination to reach out to the most at-risk youth led me to Jefferson High School in the mid 1990s in one of Los Angeles' toughest neighborhoods. Jefferson had served a predominantly black community around Central Avenue and 41st Street since the 1920s. Just inside the front entrance, visitors could marvel at the photos of famous alums, including Dr. Ralph Bunche and actress Dorothy Dandridge.
I was there to lead a twice-weekly journalism program and train students to publish El Original, a bi-lingual community newspaper. With ten years of publishing a citywide teen-written newspaper behind me, this promised to be an excellent opportunity to share my expertise with students living on the margins of mainstream L.A. By the time I arrived, the surrounding neighborhood had become 80 percent Latino, mostly immigrants from El Salvador. They had fled their war-torn country for new beginnings in the City of Angels, only to find low-paying jobs, over-crowded housing and warring gangs terrorizing the streets.
Gunshots were common. The first time I heard a shot from across the street, I dropped to my knees, ducked under a desk and screamed. The students laughed. When I yelled that someone should run to the office and ask a clerk to call the police, they looked at me as if I were from another planet.
"The police won't come unless someone is dead," said Herbert.
"But that shot was right outside," I replied. "Someone could be hurt." They ignored me.
"Do you want to buy a gun?" one of the other boys asked me. "I can get you an Uzi for fifty dollars but if you have twenty dollars I can get something smaller."
I told him I hated guns.
Jefferson was an opportunity to work with teens that were absolutely cut off from mainstream life in Los Angeles. The odds against their success were overwhelming. Academic skills were so low that most were functioning below grade school level. Even their Spanish was strictly conversational; few could construct a sentence in their native language.
Enrique, talented at art, produced terrific illustrations if I hounded him. But more often, he sat staring out the window, disengaged from the rest of us.
Herbert was a mediocre student but responded with enthusiasm when I loaned him a camera to shoot pictures in his neighborhood. He and his mother had spent six months on foot making their way from El Salvador to Los Angeles. They invited me to dinner one night, served on a wobbly card table in their tiny one-room apartment. She wanted to thank me for taking an interest in her son.
Frank Young, the only black in the class, filled notebooks with rambling tales of his family's journey from West Texas, selling books door-to-door, hitting the road again when the rent money ran out. His dream was to write a book about his family history, but it took two years to make a single article of his ready for publication in El Original.
The Jefferson program was the most stress-filled and frustrating attempt at outreach that I ever experienced. I had to keep in mind that I was there to teach journalism, not to solve social problems. They live here, I leave at the end of the day, I reminded myself. At the end of each session, I also said a silent prayer: "Please let me find all four tires on my car. Steal the radio or junk in the back seat, but let me leave here."
Three years into the project, just as we were making progress and I felt comfortable in the neighborhood, El Original was cancelled. Funding came from a state agency trying to tackle drug and alcohol problems. Typical bureaucracy, just as something clicks, kill the program and start something new. The teen-written articles carried a strong message about the multitude of liquor stores in the community, billboards close to schools promoting smoking and drug epidemic destroying families.
Flash forward to 2011 as California cuts and dumps community programs again.
In Los Angeles County, there are more than 250,000 young men of color between the ages of 12 and 19, and they are in crisis. They do worse in school and drop out at higher rates than any other group. They attend college at much lower rates than other groups, and they have much higher unemployment and incarceration rates. They are much more likely to be victims (and perpetrators) of violent crimes than people in other groups.
There are many causes for the crisis. Changes in the American (and world) economy have made it much harder for young, poorly-educated men to get a toehold in the economy. Discrimination is still a fact of life. There are far too few positive role models for these young men--especially among their peers, which is the group that is most credible to them. There is tremendous pressure to live up to negative stereotypes--from pop culture, peers, and some community norms. A high percentage lack fathers as role models.
Frank, Herbert and Enrique are now adults. At our last meeting Herbert said he had a job with the airlines; he needed to care for his ailing mother. Frank left school without a diploma wandering the country in search of lost relatives. Every once in a while I get a postcard from him, letting me know that he is still working on his family's history. Enrique -- who knows if he's alive. I've lost track of them. They gave me a glimpse into the lives of impoverished young men of color and left the program feeling as if someone cared about them, their thoughts and ideas. More importantly, knowing that the state funded the program, gave them the feeling that they were a valued member of our society.
Today's generation needs the same opportunity. California, no longer the golden state, will fill the streets, jails and unemployment lines with men without a memory of success. I've learned how structural racism and social inequity works, learning not only from experts but also young people at the frontlines of failing schools and communities. El Original made its early mark with social/emotional learning that highlighted the importance of being sensitive to what others feel and want. The students and I built bridges of trust and understanding.
Donna Myrow conceived and opened L.A. Youth, the newspaper by and about teens, and in 2003 launched the Foster Youth Writing and Education Project.