Thursday, July 1, 1999
In a city that has spent the last decade rocked by youth gangs and crime, Salinas community leaders are promoting a plan to replace violence with peace. Although there are few new concepts outlined in the plan''s framework, the methodic, comprehensive way in which those concepts are approached is, in itself, almost radical. Rather than attacking the problem of violence in piecemeal fashion, the plan, in essence, calls for a restructuring of the community''s social fabric.
The problem is, this plan has never been fully implemented before, and no one really knows whether it will work--despite the fact that the city spent $33,000 to buy the plan. But, in a city that has tried just about everything else--talking, policing itself, even prohibiting gang members from associating with each other--it seems to some like a good investment with potential for success.
Salinas Mayor Anna Caballero is one of the plan''s supporters. A few weeks ago, the mayor''s advisory group, referred to as the Salinas 100, unveiled "Cultivating Peace in Salinas: A Framework for Violence Prevention," a glossy 36-page booklet concluding with 16 recommendations and 13 "next steps" produced with an outside consultant.
On first reading, there isn''t anything new here. Recommendations include age-old solutions for dealing with the younger generation: increase after-school and recreation opportunities, prioritize economic development and job training for youth, implement measures to reduce truancy, support practitioners who work in violence prevention, develop initiatives that promote positive community values. Others talk about alcohol, guns, role models and mentors.
But Caballero, an attorney who has long worked with the criminal justice system, will tell you the plan is much more.
"We''re talking about social change," says Caballero. "Social change can only come about if you''re committed to it. This is about modeling behavior, so that kids see the behavior from their leaders and want to emulate the behavior they see. We have to convince people that it''s not only important, but that it''s so important that you can point your finger and say you have to do something about it."
But for now, that something is still being defined. No particulars beyond the framework have been laid out yet, says Caballero. The core group of 20 who worked on the plan is continuing to meet. There is no time line yet, says the mayor, but she is hoping to carry out the plan''s first recommendation and take the framework to the voters "to galvanize the community."
There is also no commitment of city funds at this time, although Caballero says there is "a possibility of some city money in conjunction with community groups. The only way our goals can be met is by partnerships," she says, but she also hopes that eventually the commitment will be demonstrated with dollars supporting programs "where kids can go to learn and to have fun."
This approach to violence prevention was not born in Salinas. It is the brainchild of Larry Cohen, now executive director of the Prevention Institute in Berkeley and formerly head of a national demonstration project on violence prevention in the Contra Costa County Health Services Department. At the behest of the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors, Cohen put together an action plan for a ballot initiative on violence. It passed with support of 80 percent of the voters in the 1994 election.
"They voted on a general framework with details and approaches to be spelled out," says Cohen. "We learned a great deal that would be relevant to Salinas. It''s very helpful for communities like Salinas to look at the big picture before zeroing in on one approach. Violence is a complex problem. Complex problems require multifaceted comprehensive solutions."
According to Cohen, there were a number of successful actions in Contra Costa County after the vote, including the formation of community coalitions and coordinated programs addressing the issues of street violence and violence in the home and family. "The bottom line was a reduction of homicides by more than 50 percent and of violence by more than 40 percent, measured by crime reports," claims Cohen. "There''s no way of saying our work was the reason for that. Many communities had a drop in crime but few so successfully."
Others aren''t so sure the Contra Costa plan accomplished its goals.
"It was never really [implemented as] a program," says Amy Hill, violence prevention project coordinator in Contra Costa County. "It was a set of recommendations the county thought were important in terms of violence prevention, but they were impossible [to carry out] unless you had a lot of money, which we didn''t. Making recommendations is well and fine, but unless you back it up with resources, it doesn''t do much good."
Nevertheless, says Cyndi Simpson, director of Contra Costa''s Community Wellness and Prevention Program, the agency has conducted a variety of activities related to violence prevention. "We have all done our bits and pieces," explains Simpson, "but it''s been fragmented. We''re hoping to deal with community violence and family violence in a coherent and consistent way. It''s a gigantic and daunting subject area. We''re getting some energy [now] to revisit the framework. What is needed are coherent approaches guided by consistent values and adequately funded."
Caballero doesn''t entirely agree. "We''re trying not to focus on money as the solution," says Caballero. "This is not a magic program where once we get money, that''s it."
What it does take, she proposes, is commitment among leaders. "The key is partnerships with schools, city, county so that we''re all operating in an environment where we''re prioritizing the same things."
The next step, she says, is to develop the framework into a plan. "We can''t just lay the responsibility on particular people''s backs," says Caballero. "We have to get the City Council to believe it''s important."
"We can''t say there''s only one thing causing youth violence," Caballero continues. "The key is making enough change in key areas. It''s a tremendously exciting process, very time-consuming and intense, but a great opportunity for people to talk on different levels about how to create peace. How do you create children who behave in a peaceful manner and feel safe to do it?"
Even self-described skeptics like Brian Contreras, executive director of Second Chance Youth Services, say this plan is different. "For the last 12 years we''ve had a lot of collaborative efforts. We go through the collaborations and then fall apart. This is way different from anything we''ve done before," says Contreras. "This is the first time we''ve had follow up. I don''t see anything falling apart. I think it''s got a good chance." He says he''s committed to the plan, and his staff is translating the report into Spanish.
But Caballero cautions that results will take time. "Society has spent years developing itself to where we are today. Prepare for the long term. I don''t think you''re going to see incredible changes without waiting a number of years," she stresses. "Within five to 10 years, we will see changes."