Jason Lee presents youth program to Stockton City Council

Jason Lee of Stockton returned home on September 13 to present to the city council a new youth development program aimed at combating violence and increasing school results through pop culture.

“The I AM READY initiative aims to empower young people to take ownership of their readiness, whether it’s financial literacy, leadership, civic engagement, behavior change, it’s more focused on understanding their home,” Lee said, “he’s here to make a difference.”

Lee, is a media influencer – seen on MTV’s Wild ‘N Out and VH1’s Love & Hip Hop: Hollywood – and founder of the new nonprofit Hollywood Cares Foundation. He is also the head of media and partnerships for Kanye West.

Lee came to the council looking for a partnership with the city to “break the cycle of trauma and violence that has gripped our young people.” He plans to create youth-led after-school clubs leveraging pop culture to provide support and resources for the mental health and wellbeing of Stockton’s youth.

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“When I spoke to Stagg about a young woman who was murdered, the kids were so complacent with the feeling of watching their peers die in front of them — it was really hard to stomach,” Lee said. “That needs to change, it’s the single biggest factor in killing the dreams and hopes of young people, especially those we plan to target: boys and girls of color.”

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Although still in the early stages of development, Lee has a vision for how he can impact Stockton’s youth. The Stagg High School graduate told the board how difficult it can be growing up in Stockton and said he wanted to see young people’s ideas come to life, whether that be to become a nurse, an athlete or a movie star.

“I grew up in a single-family family: my mother was addicted to heroin. My father was away. I ended up getting shot in this community. I saw my brother being murdered in this community. I was assaulted in this community. I was in foster care and abandoned,” Lee said. “I don’t think (Stockton youngsters) dreams should die where their friends die.”

Stockton Mayor Kevin Lincoln’s office brought Lee and the Hollywood Cares Foundation to speak to the council on Sept. 13. With 42 murders to date, Stockton has had no shortage of trauma this year.

Stockton Mayor Kevin Lincoln, center, and San Joaquin County District Attorney Tori Veber Salazar, right, speak to family members of shooting victims during the Squad Community Outreach impact of the SPD neighborhood at the scene of Tuesday's shooting and homicide at the Village East Apartments in Stockton.  The team surveys neighborhoods that have recently experienced traumatic events to inform residents of policing programs and who to call to report a crime.

“What I understand from I AM READY is that we’re talking about real cultural change from within,” Lincoln said. “It breaks my heart…I have been around several victims in the last year. I had this round room at City Hall filled with moms and grandmothers asking, “What are we going to do?” … I know that (Lee’s) story is a story that will inspire a lot of others to be able to leverage pop culture to influence our kids because that’s what’s influencing them right now. It’s a powerful thing.

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The city is also completing the search for community partners for the Youth Workforce Development Pilot Program. Lincoln said he is booked year-round to speak at Stockton schools and mentor students to talk about choice, potential and leadership.

“The school district has our students for 180 days, there are still 185 left to invest in our young people,” Lincoln said. “We work with partners in education to improve quality of life, increase literacy, workforce development and expand youth programs…I feel that initiative here. I see the potential to lead this kind of cultural change to heal our city from within.

Lee’s proposal won the support of Stockton City Council members.

Amos Alonzo Stagg High School alumnus Jason Lee visited his former stomping ground to meet with the current student body following the passing of Alycia Reynaga.  The 15-year-old Stagg freshman was fatally stabbed on campus on April 18.

“I think of the kids at my school, how many of them don’t have anyone saying (I love you) to them and how heartbreaking it is… how lonely they have to be and how they act because ‘They don’t know how to deal with it,’ said council member Christina Fugazi in tears. “We are definitely not a youth-friendly city. Kids don’t feel safe going to community centers, parks, the mall – they don’t feel safe at school…I think we all need to be on deck and c is what we have to do.

Council member Kimberly Warmsley said she lost the father of her children to gun violence in Stockton. She said she witnessed a drive-by homicide this year where she sat with the community and cried.

“A little boy said… ‘How can you help us? We need help. We don’t want to live like this,” Warmsley said. “If we’re not investing in our young people, what are we really doing? … I think we owe it to ourselves, to our youth, to our community, and time is running out.”

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Lee said his foundation was in talks with the White House to boost the program nationwide and he wanted Stockton to be the first.

“There’s no better place to start than in my own backyard where my family, friends and leaders like you care about this community,” Lee said. “It’s not just about opening the door and saying ‘come in if you want to change your life’, it’s about going into the trenches and pulling these people out and putting them in an environment where there’s accountability.

Lee and the Hollywood Cares Foundation hope to launch the program on a tight schedule: a pilot program with 250 Stockton youth by spring 2023 led by leaders from Stockton backgrounds. Council asked City Manager Harry Black to discuss details with the Hollywood Cares Foundation and get back to council with an update in 45 days.

Record reporter Ben Irwin covers Stockton and San Joaquin county government. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @B1rwin. Support local news, subscribe to The Stockton Record at recordnet.com/subscribenow.

Ryan H. Bowman