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Listening to — and Learning From — Urban Youth of Color New research by UCLA Luskin faculty finds young people who are actively engaged in civic improvement and eager to be heard about solutions

By Les Dunseith

In places where exposure to violence is prevalent, those seeking to advance causes on behalf of urban youth of color should start by listening to the young people themselves, according to a new publication from two UCLA faculty members.

What do such youth say about violence in their neighborhoods?

“You see it everywhere. You could ride down the street, you would see somebody arguing. You go down another street, see somebody fighting,” said Justin, a 17-year-old black and Asian youth.

“I don’t like it. It’s too many killings. … I can’t choose, I can’t do nothing about it. I’m still young,” said Salome, a 16-year-old Latina.

So, what can be done — and by whom?

“We all have to communicate and cooperate. …  I just feel like if everybody just came together and put their minds together about what the community should be and how it should be, I think the community would probably be much better place for kids to grow up,” said Jamal, a 17-year-old black youth.

“Why we got a mouth?” asked Kendra, a 15-year-old black youth. “Our opinions do matter. It can even change the world.”

These four interviewees were among 87 youth living in high-poverty neighborhoods in Rochester, New York, who spoke with Associate Professor Laura Wray-Lake for a qualitative study of youth engagement. She was joined in analyzing the information by co-author Laura S. Abrams, professor and chair of UCLA Luskin Social Welfare. Their monograph — essentially an eight-chapter book on one topic — was made available online May 12 by Monographs for the Society of Research on Child Development, a respected quarterly journal.

“The purpose of the study was to understand how civic engagement is defined and experienced by these youth of color in their own words and from their own perspectives. We also wanted to know what assets and adversities young people experienced that shaped their civic engagement,” Wray-Lake said of the publication, “Pathways to Civic Engagement Among Urban Youth of Color.”

The monograph, which is accompanied online by teaching and outreach materials, is based on data collected by Wray-Lake in 2015-16 when she was on the faculty at University of Rochester. The interviewees ranged in age from 12 to 19, and were mostly black (61%) or multiracial black (27%). A majority (60%) were male. About one-quarter had parents who had completed high school, and 36% had a parent who attended at least some college.

The study participants did more than just express strong opinions. Many took action to benefit others. The most common type of civic engagement was helping out in the community — mentoring younger children at the recreation center, for example, or participating in an annual community cleanup. Some youth helped their neighbors by mowing lawns or shoveling snow.

“Some youth were civically engaged by intervening to protect others from harm, and this was a form of civic engagement not often recognized in the literature,” Wray-Lake said. “A number of youth described helping to stop or break up fights to protect a friend, or talking a friend out of joining a gang.”

Although political engagement was much less common among the youth she interviewed, Wray-Lake said a few talked about sharing posts on social media to speak out against injustice or joining marches or protests against gun violence.

The monograph is based upon work funded by the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS). Wray-Lake sees value in publishing it during a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has radically changed the ways that youth can connect with others, navigate community spaces and participate in civic life.

“In this time when people are confined to their homes, we hope this work contributes to conversations about reimaging community spaces for youth that are safe, supportive and prioritize their voices,” Wray-Lake said.

She and Abrams believe the findings can lead to more-informed policies related to investing in safe spaces and community-led anti-violence initiatives for urban youth of color.

Civic empowerment was one of two key factors that influenced the level of engagement among study participants.

The other?

Feeling heard and supported by adults.

 

Astor Weighs In on Violence Against Teachers

Social Welfare Professor Ron Avi Astor co-authored an article in the Conversation discussing the findings of an American Psychological Association task force investigation of violence against teachers. The task force surveyed about 3,000 teachers across the country in 2010 to gauge the scope of the issue. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that only 9% of U.S. teachers recounted being threatened with injury, 80% of those surveyed by the APA said they had personally experienced some form of violence or abuse in the past year. The article noted that the discrepancy in statistics could be attributed to teachers choosing not to report incidents of violence out of fear of jeopardizing their jobs. The task force is now focusing on whether the way schools are managed and their overall cultures contribute to the conditions that lead to teacher assaults.


Leap Weighs In on CalGang Reform Process

Adjunct Professor of Social Welfare Jorja Leap spoke to the Los Angeles Times about the current debate surrounding the Los Angeles Police Department’s use of CalGang, a secretive statewide database with information about suspected gang members, including their family members, nicknames and tattoos. Since only approved law enforcement has access to the database, it has been nearly impossible for those outside of law enforcement to gauge the integrity of the process or check the accuracy of its records. At least 20 LAPD officers are suspected of falsifying information used to identify gang members, putting additional pressure on the state Department of Justice to reform the system to prevent law enforcement from unfairly targeting people by race and economic status. Leap said the LAPD investigation “is the booster rocket to say this has got to be reformed and it’s got to be reformed not in a superficial way but in a meaningful way.”


We Are More United Than Separate, Leap Says

A new LA Stories episode on Spectrum News 1 highlighted the work of Jorja Leap, adjunct professor of social welfare, who has changed the narrative surrounding gang members by sharing their stories. As a social worker in South Los Angeles, Leap earned the trust of many current and former gang members and forged bonds with people she now considers family. “I think if each person could hear the story of even one gang member, their views would change radically,” she said during the interview. Leap argued that these communities are worthy of investment and that the people in them deserve our help and attention. Leap has published two books sharing the stories of those she has come to know and is the co-founder of the Watts Leadership Institute, which provides community members with the resources to create positive change. “It’s not enough to understand. I had to take action,” she said.

Seeking Freedom in the Streets of Kampala

Global Public Affairs (GPA) at UCLA Luskin hosted an Oct. 31 presentation by Ssembatya Fred, a grassroots activist from Kampala, Uganda, who leads the movement Dembe Ku Kubo (Freedom in the Streets). Fred has been at UCLA this fall working with Amy Ritterbusch, assistant professor of social welfare, on “Violence Against Street-Connected Children in Uganda,” a participatory action research initiative. His fight, he said, is for justice and freedom from violence against youths living under the tyrannical regime of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. Fred told of having a nail driven through his foot in his own home when he was in his early teens, an experience that sent him into the life of a freedom fighter. He said he took to the streets for his own safety, as thousands of other young people in Kampala have done, despite the availability of other housing options. Fred returned to Kampala on Nov. 1 to continue the work of keeping young activists safe, primarily from police violence. “Sometimes the most important thing they need is for a safe place to take a long sleep,” he told the GPA gathering. Dembe Ku Kubo was established to provide these necessities and also promote youth involvement in the ongoing political opposition movement. — John Danly

 Watch Fred’s new music video Against Violence (in collaboration with Colombian artist Siere).


 

Astor on Unreported Violence in Canadian Schools

Ron Avi Astor, professor of social welfare, spoke to CBC News and its radio component The Current about unreported school violence in Canadian schools. Only half of the provinces and territories in Canada clearly define school violence and require schools to report violent behavior, and only four report those numbers to government ministries. “That’s not a real system for the country,” Astor argued. In countries where the media and politicians shame schools for high violence rates, underreporting or no reporting occurs, he said. Astor found that in the last 20 to 30 years of research, child reports of violence in school are what keeps the schools’ reporting honest. “If you can’t trust the data and you have zeroes on there, you really can’t allocate resources — not just money, but social workers, psychologists and counselors,” he said.


 

Segura Responds to Trump’s Decision to Cut Foreign Aid

Gary Segura, dean of the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs and an expert in polling and public opinion, was quoted in a Pacific Standard article dissecting President Trump’s announcement to cancel foreign aid to El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Trump has made multiple threats in the past to cut off the three Central American countries due to his dissatisfaction with their respective governments’ failures to stop people from leaving. After his recent announcement that funds would be withheld from the three nations, experts objected, explaining that the funds help combat crime and violence, ultimately serving U.S. interests. Segura maintained that ulterior motives were behind the policy decision, which would fuel the asylum crisis. He tweeted, “Pay attention folks. This is an INTENTIONAL act to drive MORE asylum seekers to the U.S. border to help [Trump] maintain his crisis. It’s ugly, devastating in impact, and bad policy.”


Leap on Reality of Gang Violence in South L.A.

Adjunct Professor of Social Welfare Jorja Leap, who has conducted extensive research on gangs, contributed to a KPCC discussion about the reality and evolution of gang violence in South Los Angeles. Concerns about heightened gang violence were prompted by the shooting of rapper Nipsey Hussle, which remains under investigation. Looking at the data from current efforts to reduce gang violence through prevention, intervention and reentry, Leap confirmed that “what we’re doing is working” but there is still a long way to go. “The relationship between the communities of L.A. and law enforcement has changed radically in a very positive direction,” Leap said. Looking forward, she stressed the importance of prioritizing funding and trauma-informed reentry, arguing that “we must not become complacent.”


Shah on Decriminalization of Sex Work

Public Policy Professor Manisha Shah stressed the importance of data-backed claims in a GQ article describing the controversial New York movement to decriminalize sex work in order to make workers safer. “Many people see sex work as morally repugnant, so public policy around it is very rarely based on the actual evidence,” explained Shah, whose 2014 research findings supported decriminalization of the sex work industry. According to Shah, “A lot of people make very big assertions about this topic, but most of the time there just isn’t any data to back them up, or the methodological constraints mean they’re not able to make causal claims.” Shah’s research linked decriminalization to reductions in both rape offenses and female gonorrhea cases. Shah concluded, “Except for the growth of the market, everything else that we worry about from a policy perspective — like public health and violence against women — gets better when sex work is decriminalized.”


High Stakes for L.A. Sheriff, Yaroslavsky Writes

Zev Yaroslavsky, director of the Los Angeles Initiative at UCLA Luskin, published an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times detailing the ongoing conflict between newly elected Sheriff Alex Villanueva and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Years ago, in response to scandals surrounding the county jails, the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence created a 600-page report with recommendations for reform in order to “establish a culture of constitutional policing, and consequences for those who wouldn’t acculturate,” Yaroslavsky wrote. Many of the reforms were implemented under former Sheriff Jim McDonnell, but Villanueva “has vowed to eviscerate these reforms,” he stated. Villanueva has prompted further criticism as a result of his reinstatement of a deputy who was discharged for domestic abuse allegations. Yaroslavsky wrote, “Alex Villanueva can either get on board with the U.S. Constitution or get out of the way.”


 

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