Gang prevention Los Angeles: organizations successfully target youth through variety of outreach programs

LOS ANGELES — Thirteen years ago, 1,350 gangs prowled the streets of Los Angeles County, involving roughly 175,000 people including many youths. Driven by the number of youth involvement in gang violence, Pete Carroll, legendary University of Southern California football coach and current Seattle Seahawks head coach, founded the organization A Better LA in 2003.

Since its creation, A Better LA has developed a plethora of gang intervention programs for high schools across the Los Angeles County. Currently, the organization works directly with four different schools throughout the area.

In 2003, it was estimated that Los Angeles County gangs attributed to 43% of all reported homicides. By the end of 2016, A Better LA stated on their website that crime rates are down in Los Angeles and the number of murders is at its lowest since 1966.

Lower crime rates and murder counts could be attributed to fluctuations in the County and national trends over the years, but Los Angeles Police Department Chief Charlie Beck believes the lower numbers are due in large part to outreach programs like A Better LA.

“We are at 40 year lows in Los Angeles in homicides. And a large part of that success is outreach work through groups like A Better LA. We have tried everything else over my career as a police officer- arresting everyone, hard-nosed oppression. It failed. Outreach work has helped transform the way we police,” Beck said in a statement on A Better LA’s website.

A Better LA’s outreach does not only extend to high school students, but also to former gang members. The organization is unique in that former gang members are trained to become Community Intervention Specialists.

These volunteers, with their background on the streets and previous participation in gangs, are able to directly connect with high school students who have joined a gang or are at-risk for gang violence. The specialists work in their own communities, as they have a better understanding of the gangs surrounding their areas.

The specialists often act as mediators for rival gangs and prevent violence in efforts to cross neighborhood borders and reconcile different territories. They also aid in protecting the safety of children traveling between school and home.

For high school outreach, the organization offers many intervention programs including mentorship programs to boost self-esteem, conflict management aimed at rival gangs, sports programs at local parks, holiday programs, and girls’ programs that focus on life skills, cooking, and female empowerment.

A representative for A Better LA, Jeri Edwards, estimates that approximately a few thousand students are aided by the gang intervention programs annually. The goal is to empower these youths and teach them they can take control of their own destiny and create bright futures for their families and themselves.

Another prominent organization empowering youth and communities in Los Angeles is the GRYD Foundation, an acronym for Gang Reduction and Youth Development. Aiding GRYD in their preventative efforts is the University of Southern California’s psychology department, specifically Professor Karen Hennigan and her team of student researchers.

Hennigan described GRYD as a preventative organization rather than A Better LA, which is mainly an intervention program. A Better LA mostly focuses on high school students, while GRYD works with students as young as 10 years old.

By the time students are in high school, many at-risk students have often already aligned themselves with a street gang. Hennigan explained that GRYD aims to prevent gang participation before it even begins.

“The idea is to start that young and engage youth who are at high risk before they join a gang,” Hennigan said.

Instead of working solely with high schools, GRYD offers neighborhood-wide events open to all ages. Their popular event, Summer Night Lights, abbreviated as SNL, keeps parks open from 7 to 11 at night throughout the summer. GRYD partners with 32 different parks in the City of Los Angeles.

SNL provides sports games, art and other recreational activities, health screenings and information, resource and job fairs, as well as a variety of workshops for people in these neighborhoods.

Hennigan believes these types of programs across the City of Los Angeles and Los Angeles County are benefitting Los Angeles youth and their communities.

“We could consider that in Los Angeles right now, all of the efforts that are going on are doing a good job of actually delivering some relief of helping people find other paths,” Hennigan said.

In the pursuit of empowering youth and their communities, A Better LA and the GRYD Foundation both accept volunteers and donations. For more information on programs, volunteer opportunities, and donations, please visit www.abetterla.org or www.grydfoundation.org .

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