A new college access program for young people associated with gangs

Long Beach City College and the University of Southern California are launching a new program aimed at increasing access to college for youth who have been associated with gangs.

The goal of the program, which begins this summer, is to help up to 300 prospective students with gang ties enroll and succeed at Long Beach City College, by providing a series of supports over three years. to guide them from registration. to a certificate or diploma or allow them to transfer to a four-year university.

“I hope that if we are able to touch the lives of, say, hypothetically, 200 people, we can help change the lives of a generation of people,” said Adrian Huerta, assistant professor of education at the USC and one of the founders of the program. “It’s 200 fewer people who… [will] hope to be less involved in the adult or juvenile justice system. It can have a cascading effect in a way that will be truly transformative for so many people.

The program will help participants, ages 16-24, through the registration process, provide them with career advice and expert mental health counseling, assign coaches to mentor them, connect them to resources campus and help them secure internship opportunities.

“We focus on the entire educational journey,” said Mike Muñoz, presiding superintendent of Long Beach City College.

The goal is also to build relationships between racial and ethnic groups in the Long Beach area to build bridges between communities sometimes driven apart by gang violence. Long Beach is home to multiple racial and ethnic enclaves, including large black, Latino, Samoan, Cambodian, and Filipino communities.

“We hope that through this work we can really create a community or some type of connection among the different racial and ethnic groups that have historically sometimes been at odds with each other because of their involvement or association in a gang,” Huerta said.

The program will be funded for three years by a $990,000 grant from the United States Department of Education, the first grant of its kind intended for the education of students associated with gangs. The program, called LBCC Phoenix Scholars, is the first and only recipient of the grant.

When Muñoz applied for the funding, he said it felt like a “long shot,” but it was too big an opportunity to miss.

“Society often fails people,” he said. Community colleges, on the other hand, are “a beacon to many” and often help students “get out of very negative situations.”

Long Beach City College also has a Justice Scholars program, launched in 2020 for formerly incarcerated students.

“This is an opportunity to develop our good work,” Muñoz said.

Huerta, who studies the educational paths of young people associated with gangs, noted that only half of those affiliated with gangs graduate from high school and only 5% graduate from college. California has about 51,000 self-reported gang members in grades seven through eleven, and about 10,000 gang-associated youth in the Los Angeles area alone. Research shows gang membership only lasts one or two years on average, “but the ripple effect can last a lifetime” for young people and their families, he added.

Huerta is thrilled to see his research informing tangible supports for students.

“As a researcher, we write things down and it falls into a vacuum,” he said. “We don’t know if anyone reads it; we don’t know if anyone takes inspiration from it and does something about it. To actually be able to do the job with a partner is like, wow. It’s impact.

Huerta emphasized that the program is for all youth associated with gangs, which doesn’t just mean gang members. The category also includes people perceived by law enforcement as associated with gangs or assumed to be gang members by counselors and high school teachers. For example, children who spend time with gang-involved family members can often be treated “same or worse” in their K-12 schools because they are also assumed to be gang-related, a he declared.

High school students associated with gangs are often overlooked as academic material by teachers and college counselors, said Jessica Quintana, executive director of Centro Cha, a local organization focused on youth development and violence prevention. in Long Beach which has partnered with LBCC and USC to develop the Phoenix Scholars Program.

“A lot of them have low self-esteem,” she said. “We told them they were bad. They live in a bad neighborhood. They are considered “disposable children”.

Meanwhile, these young people typically live in “substandard housing” in “high-poverty, high-violence neighborhoods,” attend underfunded K-12 schools, and lack access to parks, after-school activities, and other enrichment opportunities, she added. “Kids don’t wake up one day and say, ‘Hey, I want to be in a gang. »

Brittany Morton, academic program manager at Homeboy Industries – a Los Angeles organization dedicated to gang intervention and rehabilitation – said that to her knowledge, no other college has a program focused solely on young associates. to gangs, although a growing number of colleges and universities are offering programs to formerly incarcerated students. There is an “intersection” between the two student populations, and part of his job is to connect potential eligible students who have gang associations to these programs.

She noted that these students need some specialized supports. For example, some may have felonies on their criminal record and, therefore, may be barred from working in certain jobs, so career counselors should be aware of the professions that are legally open to them in the state. She also finds that a “key” support for students associated with gangs to persist in college is mentorship from “people who share similar experiences.” She said students sometimes struggle with shame and self-doubt and may feel stigmatized by faculty, staff, classmates and campus police — experiences that mentors who have held their position can understand.

Muñoz also pointed to the stigma that people with gang affiliations can experience on and off campus due to “visible markers,” such as gang tattoos that can alienate them from their peers, and markers ” emotional” – experiences of violence and trauma that can affect their well-being. to be.

Omar Perez, a freshman at LBCC, said students formerly involved in gangs, like him, can feel like “outcasts” and can be frightened by their own image of college. He is part of the Justice Scholars Program and Vice President of the Justice Scholars Club.

“Sometimes we are our own worst enemy,” he said. “We don’t think we’re good enough or smart enough. I think some of the barriers for me and others are self-doubt or thinking there’s no support for us academically.

Perez starts college at 42, but based on his own experiences, he thinks interventions like the LBCC Phoenix Scholars program can be especially helpful for young people.

Perez became involved in gang life at an early age, in seventh grade, after his family moved to Fresno from Los Angeles and he started at a new middle school. He was harassed and fought. Tensions existed between Northern and Southern California students; certain colors associated with different gangs were prohibited. He found it all confusing. He befriended other L.A. transplants to protect himself, and eventually got involved in the rivalries around him. He dropped out of high school a month before graduation, despite being a “really good student” and a member of the school track team.

At 19, he was arrested for careless discharge of a firearm and went to jail for a year. From there it was “error after error,” Perez said.

He said that by focusing on students between the ages of 16 and 24, Long Beach City College’s new program will be more useful and will intervene earlier in their lives and potentially change the course of their gang involvement.

“They need to know they have support,” Perez said. “I know for a fact that at that age group, it’s more the age where you want to party and stuff, drink and stuff… You can help them move in a better direction.”

Both Huerta and Muñoz said their work was motivated by personal experiences with family members and friends involved in gangs.

“I saw how their trajectories completely changed after they became gang members or perceived to be such,” Huerta said. He sees his research as an opportunity to better understand why young people join gangs and how to offer them alternative life paths.

“What can we do better or differently to support these really smart people who for one reason or another joined a gang for that sense of community or support?”

Muñoz said gang activity was prevalent while growing up in Anaheim, which is located a short drive from campus. His childhood best friend got involved in gangs when they were teenagers and has since given up on that lifestyle, but he still feels “very limited” in the opportunities he has now.

“I think of my best friend when I think of a program like this,” Muñoz said. “When he was trying to leave this lifestyle, if this program existed for him, would he have a different sense of himself in terms of what he was able to pursue in his life? There’s this stigma, there’s this guilt, there’s this shame, and it affects them in terms of how they see themselves…and what they can achieve and what they deserve to achieve. think programs like this are important.

Ryan H. Bowman