Three days after one of Palabra’s former leaders was sentenced to life in prison on gang-related kidnapping, extortion, and drug convictions, the head of the youth support group, JP Herrada, addressed about 70 people last Saturday at Trinity Episcopal Church. Raymond Macias’s name was conspicuously absent from the discussion, and the focus was instead on reiterating the message of the nonprofit, which works to reduce violence among Santa Barbara’s warring street gangs. The event was hosted by the Pro-Youth Movement.
Herrada told the crowd that his organization continues to make great strides on the street level, intervening and mediating conflicts before they escalate to violence. His group has established deep trust throughout the county, Herrada said, all in the name of keeping kids out of the justice system and reorienting often negative perceptions of Latino teens. Herrada talked about a Palabra-led paintball trip that mixed rival gang members on the same team and a program that introduced participants to Holocaust survivors. Herrada also discussed helping families of kids under arrest navigate “court speak” and how it’s naïve to believe that police departments and the “us versus them” system served by law enforcement have a community’s best interests at heart.
Long distrusted by police officials who view the group as little more than a front for continued gang activity, Palabra’s spokesman didn’t shy away from its polemic reputation on Saturday. Herrada admitted, “We’re all gang members,” but he explained that just like there are good cops and bad cops, there are good gang members who may “be in the game” but also serve as community activists to keep the peace and hold neighborhoods accountable. Complaining that competing with other nonprofits for funds is harder than working with gangs, Herrada said Palabra is in the midst of a significant restructure as it also pushes for a data-gathering initiative with the county Probation Department and UCSB to better detail its positive impacts on diversion and recidivism. Speaking in support of the group, which partners with the Alternatives to Violence Project and YStrive, teacher and treatment counselor Martin Leyva offered simply, “Without Palabra, there would be a lot more violence on the streets.”