A Light on the Dark Streets of L.A.
Steve Valdivia works to free youths, families, and communities from the scourge of gang violence
LOS ANGELES — SEE those pins on the map?" says Steve Valdivia, pointing to the huge, detailed map of Los Angeles on the wall above the jumble on his desk. "Those are neighborhood offices. We've got 110 people on our staff, and there are about 150,000 gang members." A slight pause. "No problem."
Humor, as an escape valve, goes a long way in the crowded administrative offices of the Community Youth Gang Services (CYGS) in East L.A. On the blackboard on the opposite wall, Valdivia has written, "Do not bring a problem here unless you have two solutions, and one of them had better work."
He sits down at a conference table, a kind of brooding Hamlet of a leader with 17 years of nimble-footed experience on L.A.'s streets dealing with gangs, troubled city schools, and neighborhoods. Through the years, he has also managed to survive the fickle political winds that blow across the phenomenon of gangs and all who seek to find answers or provide funding to deal with gangs.
For 10 of those years, he has been executive director of CYGS, a community-based organization that works to free young people and families from the destructive domination of gangs.
In a recent, definitive report by the Los Angeles County District Attorney on gangs and violence in the city, CYGS was called "the preeminent social intervention/gang prevention agency in L.A., effectively and aggressively run."
What this means is that without Valdivia and CYGS, along with many other social agencies at work across the city, the numbing total of 771 deaths here attributed to gang violence in 1991 might have been even higher.
"No one disputes that the police are the first line of defense against gang violence," says an L.A. police officer, "but without dedicated people in social organizations, schools, and churches, L.A. would have ceased to work at all long ago."
In a city where deep social and racial problems have defied broad solutions - let alone containment - for decades, CYGS has often been the small, persistent light at the end of the tunnel. Despite relatively modest funding ($2.2 million this year) and no pay raises for his staff for several years, Valdivia manages to hold CYGS together and mute his critics.
"The people that I work with, and I don't say `work for me,' " says Valdivia, "believe in their hearts that gangs are not the cause, they are the result. And if we can do certain things, we can defuse tension and redirect people."
On this Thursday morning in his office, less than three weeks after rioting swept across Los Angeles following the "not guilty" verdict for police officers involved in the beating of black motorist Rodney King, Valdivia is still grappling emotionally with the recent drive-by murder of one of his street workers, Ana Lizarraga, in the driveway of her home.
"We've resolved to work harder," he says quietly, head leaning on his hand, "to never forget. We have buried a lot of people. This time it is one of our family. The kind of people that work with me see beyond themselves, and consider this to be a mission." `You've got to have people like this'
Michael Genelin, who heads gang investigations for the Los Angeles County district attorney, says of Valdivia, "This is a guy who bleeds CYGS, and so do his staff. You've got to have people like this, because the gang problem in L.A. is so enormous that it requires truly dedicated people." Two years ago, former L.A. police chief Daryl Gates praised CYGS, saying it had made "a significant contribution to our crime-prevention efforts."
CYGS was started about a decade ago by the county and city to bring law-enforcement and street-level workers together in an alliance against gang activity. CYGS was like a mobile strike force, gathering information on the streets to head off crises. It was loosely modeled on a street-based organization in Philadelphia called the Crisis Intervention Network that developed in the early 1980s.
Under Valdivia's leadership since 1983, CYGS has evolved into a multifaceted organization with programs that reach beyond the streets into schools and families. "It's about ownership and empowerment," he says.
Valdivia says CYGS operates on several premises, all hinged on the understanding that gangs are the result of negative social and economic forces.
"Gang violence is self-hatred," Valdivia says. "The recent upheaval in L.A. was caused by the same condition, basically self-hatred, or hatred of your conditions. You dislike your situation and your life so much that people you see who look, act, and talk like you are subject to homicide. Everything we do is an effort to break down that self-hate and create a socialization process. Once this understanding of the problem is known, it tells us what directions we need to go." A three-pronged approach
Four years ago, CYGS and other community organizations poured all their antigang efforts into the South Bureau police area. At that time, South Bureau was the city's most violent area. In cooperation with the police, this target-area approach cut gang crime by a third. Controversy still exists over what organization should get the lion's share of the credit for that result.
Valdivia says, "CYGS programs have a three-pronged approach: prevention, intervention, and community mobilization in conjunction with various other law-enforcement agencies." All these efforts are made under what is called a Target Area Strategy that has six components:
1. Crisis intervention, with trained workers on the streets. They establish liaisons with gang members 24 hours a day to defuse confrontations, dissuade and redirect members, and share information with law-enforcement agencies.
2. A program known as One Hundred Men Plus, which relies heavily on male community volunteers to encourage residents, churches, and neighborhood groups to be part of recreational and tutorial activities reclaiming streets and parks from gangs.
3. A Career Paths Program, a 15-week course in elementary schools designed to promote positive alternatives to the lure of gangs and discourage joining them. This includes Star Kids, a program where every child is a "star."
4. Parent and teacher education to help them recognize the early warning signs of gang involvement and show them how to counter gang activity.
5. A job-development program that offers preemployment training for youths as well as encouraging employers to hire at-risk workers.
6. Because gangs use graffiti to identify their turf or territory, local youths and youths on probation are hired by CYGS to remove graffiti, using professional equipment and technical know-how. This helps diminish the dominance of gangs.
Equally important, says Valdivia, is how these programs are carried out.
"For instance," he says, "we say we're going to have a `family day' in the park, but first we say, should we remove the graffiti? The little kids say, `Hey, great.' So we start the junior graffiti busters and put them to work. Now, here's the `homeboys' [gang members] watching their little brothers and sisters removing graffiti. Are the homeboys going to go back and put the graffiti on the wall? Who owns the wall now? The community."
Often the schools welcome CYGS workers because principals and teachers have become "burned out" by the overwhelming challenges the schools face each day. "We advise teachers and parents what they can do to turn kids around," Valdivia says, "but we don't call it `training'; we call it the 103rd Street Mothers' Club. And we're not here to tell you how to be parents, but if you want to do something, we'll help you. But it's not `parenting,' it's the 103rd Street Mothers' Club." Fertile soil for gang growth
Asked what he looks for when he hires someone to fill a position, Valdivia doesn't hesitate. "Heart," he says quickly. "I don't want to see a resume or hear what they've done. I want to talk to them for five minutes or so to find out if they are real or not. We're not social workers here; we're realists. If we tell young people anything at all, we have to tell them that they have to make the choices in their lives."
Tony Borbone, a new member of the staff with 16 years in probation work, remembers the first time he met Valdivia. "It was at a meeting in Orange County several years ago," says Mr. Borbone, remembering with a smile, "and here was the legendary Steve Valdivia from L.A. to tell us the problems we didn't have in Orange County - and he had all the answers.
"But he is always willing to learn. He is a good puzzle solver; he can see all the pieces on the table, and with tenacity and perseverance he can put the puzzle together. Part of this is his leadership skills, and part is his willingness to delegate."
What Valdivia knows, too, is that gangs rise out of fallow urban ground made that way by decades of racism and fear. He grew up in two worlds, at one time in a community predominately white and middle-class, and later, after his parents divorced, in a low-income neighborhood.
"Gangs are the result of a design, of policies that have been made," he says. "These are areas here in L.A. that have been red-lined [by banks], where you cannot get loans, or insurance, or buy homes, where the lowest-grade achievers live, where young people graduate and can't read or write.
"And then you get into the vicious circle where businesses won't locate here because it is too dangerous," he continues, "and it's that way because people don't have jobs and can't work because they don't have an education. And they can't get an education because good teachers don't want to be here, and the kids can't learn because they don't eat right or don't know how to begin to learn. Now, you tell me if gangs are smart enough to design that."