In the shadow of a teenaged gang member’s prosecution for murder and the launching of a multi-dimensional, long-term city-initiated plan to quell youth violence, a group of Latina mothers and teens have been quietly brainstorming their own solutions to Santa Barbara’s spike in gang activity, solutions they believe they have a shot at success because their answers emanate from the people who live with the problem every day.
Their group is called Esperanza-Spanish for “hope”-and in three months of formal meetings, it’s attracted more than 250 parents and teens from both the Eastside and Westside. Its brainstorming sessions have purposely excluded city and nonprofit personnel, elected representatives, and other kinds of advocates, according to group spokesperson Jacqueline Inda, because many members have felt excluded from gang discussions in the 18 months since the fatal stabbing of Luis Angel Linares in a State Street gang brawl. In Inda’s words, agencies formulating anti-gang strategies have solicited parents’ input, and then conveyed a sense of “Thank you, great, you’ve shared your story. We’ll take it from here.”
“What has been going on in Santa Barbara is that after a lot of these big [city-initiated] forums, parents want to start doing something. And because they don’t get invited to the actual development, they started creating their own groups,” Inda said. “So we went out to those [groups] and we outreached and we said, you know what, let’s make one strong voice.” (Inda noted, however, that Esperanza could possibly team up with city and nonprofit agencies in the future.)
Though the group was already forming last June, the July 4 murder of Emmanuel Roldan accelerated the process. Free advertising on two Spanish-language radio stations helped spread the word about the two brainstorming sessions planned for August 10-one at the Eastside Community Center and the other later that day at the Westside Community Center. The Westside meeting drew 150 people and lasted three hours.
To devise a coordinated response to the problem of youth violence here, the City of Santa Barbara began hosting meetings in January with representatives of youth organizations, government agencies, schools, and probation officials. A long-term Strategy Planning Committee formed to forge the details of a South Coast Task Force on Youth Gangs, but no Latino parents unaffiliated with nonprofit, government, or schools sit on that committee. However, the Leadership Council of the South Coast Task Force will include a family representative and a youth representative, said Marcelo Lopez, city administrative services director.
Babatunde Folayemi, a member of the strategy planning committee, was executive director of the now defunct Pro-Youth Coalition, which is widely credited with an 80 percent reduction in gang violence in mid-1990s Santa Barbara. He agrees with Esperanza’s assessment of the committee, calling it “top-heavy.” The Pro-Youth Coalition was top-heavy in the beginning, too, he said, but he flipped it.
As so many of its members’ concerns relate to schools and kids’ lack of achievement, Esperanza decided they needed a representative on the school board and elected Inda to run. Inda spent her teenage years bouncing between foster care and probation and participated in a gang herself. Today, she’s the mother of three kids, a case manager at the Family Service Agency, and a CPR instructor at the Red Cross.
Given her background, teenagers see Inda as someone on whom they can unburden their hearts, which is how she began learning of a sense of alienation that ultimately extended to the parents, too. “If you’ve created an identity for yourself, [escaping it] is not only going to affect your environment but also the way your own people look at you,” she said. “I think a lot of the kids feel like they want to change or they could change, but that trying to change in the middle of that identity is very hard.”
Esperanza’s next goal is sorting through the results of their brainstorming sessions and preparing presentations to the City Council and the school board.