2010 California Peace Prize Honorees
Q: What is the role of guns in the communities where you work?
A: Let me start off with a statistic: 92.3 percent of the homicides in these besieged communities are committed with guns. The second weapon used are blunt instruments, which don’t produce anywhere near the damage that guns do. There is this saying: “Guns don't kill; people do.” Well, I've never seen a person say to a gun, "Shoot," and the person dies. It's the gun that causes the death. Guns play such a significant role, because most homicides are committed in a moment of emotion. It takes one to two seconds to pull a trigger, and that moment can cause extreme damage and/or death. When people say that guns don't play a role in the destruction of communities, I wholeheartedly disagree.
There are much better ways to interface, mediate and solve problems in the community. We have to retrain ourselves. If we have to regulate a dispute, if we have to emotionally defuse a situation, we should have the tools to be able to do that without having an instrument like a gun or a knife. When it gets to the point of using weapons, we've already lost. If people don't have the critical thinking skills to resolve the situation, they’re going to use what's available to them. And in many communities, guns are a dime a dozen.
Q: Do you feel that violence is preventable?
A: Violence is preventable if we understand the nature of violence. Unfortunately, from a societal perspective, we have misinterpreted what violence is all about. Violence is a mindset. Violent people don't use violence arbitrarily. Violent people use violence because it works for them. They don't feel a need to alter what they're doing. Until we can understand the psychological reasons for choosing violence, and create acceptable alternatives, we're not going to ever get people to steer away from violence.
Q: Does community intervention work to prevent violence?
A: One of the roadblocks is just getting gang prevention and intervention work accepted as legitimate. We have been able to overcome this hurdle by being professional and developing standard operating protocols and ethical standards. People know that participants in our program are extremely well-trained.
We want the ex-felon on board. We want the people that have done extreme damage in the street. They are the people that are going to continue to do the damage if they're not changed. Their peers are going to do the damage. The interventionists we train have shown us on the street that they have bought into this whole process and are willing to change. One of the most important things is reinforcing a person’s self-respect and self-esteem. If you don't get individuals to change the way they look at themselves and see themselves in a different light, you’re not going to get them to change the way they act.
Q: Where are you focusing your efforts to prevent violence against women?
A: Right now, we're focusing on human trafficking issues a lot. Several years ago, we came across a woman in the South County/San Benito area who was a victim of human trafficking. Her story is very traumatic and horrendous, but it's not unlike the stories of many human trafficking victims. She’s actually from Veracruz, Mexico and she was tricked into immigrating to the U.S. with the promise that she would get a stable job with a good income, and that she would be able to send money back home. She was actually forced into prostitution where she was abused and held against her will for many years. We're now working with her. We were able to find her support and to get her into stable housing. She's working on her immigration status with our attorney. We were able to help her, and others like her, because of education, outreach, and connections that work to put the issue of human trafficking on the table. A lot of people don’t know about it. And most people are surprised to learn that it happens in their own backyard.
Q: Is abuse against women increasing with the recession and economic stress on families?
A: The financial climate has had a negative impact on our ability to help abused women. During the last year, the number of women that we had to turn away because of a lack of space at the shelter increased by about 30 percent from the year prior. Here’s why. Our maximum stay is 45 days. Before the economic downturn, women were staying, on average, 20 days at the shelter, and then moving on. Now, they have to stay the full 45 days and many times they request an extension. When women stay longer at the shelter, we have to turn away other women who need shelter.
Housing is the biggest challenge for the women that we work with. About 90 to 95 percent of the women that we work with are considered extremely low income. That means they make between $0 to $9,000 a year. And many of those are at the zero point. Without money, finding housing is particularly difficult. The job situation is also a huge challenge because many of the women that we work with have not been allowed to work in the past. They are isolated. If they're undocumented, that's an additional set of barriers for them.
Q: What do you think have been the most successful prevention strategies?
A: I think the effective prevention models are the ones that are able to engage men, because obviously women cannot end violence alone. We're not the ones that are perpetrating it. A good example is Cal Casa’s “My Strength” campaign, where young men work with young men to talk about how being abusive towards women is not okay. While most men are not abusive, they can play a huge role in ending violence against women by working with men who do victimize women.
Q: How did you get involved in promoting responsible fatherhood?
A: I was interning with MACSA and Planned Parenthood, and I got really involved in a new program called the Male Involvement Program, which was sponsored by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Family Planning. It unlocked so much new potential. Through this work, I was first introduced to the Circulo de Hombres. It brought together an array of different men that looked like me, talked like me, and had similar experiences. They talked about their family and their wives in such a different, beautiful way.
I remember the first time I went to a meeting. I'm like, "Hey, man, these dudes are weird." I was not used to the way people were talking. He goes, "No, man. That's the way we're supposed to be." Suddenly, I saw it. We're supposed to be good men - compassionate, responsible, loving, and gentle. It was really a wonderful experience for me to be exposed to men like that.
Q: Who has inspired you to make a difference in your life?
A: When I was 18 years old, I was charged with attempted murder and sentenced to Folsom State Prison. There, I ran into my brother-in-law and then a month later, my brother comes back in. The message was very clear: this is a family reunion; this is where our family and people like us in our community belong.
But then I thought of my daughter and family. I decided I was going to make this time worth something. I went to school instead of getting paid 19 cents an hour to work in prison industries. I had a remarkable teacher there, a retired professor named Dr. Kovell. She was tough, you know? From day one, she said, "You have a choice. You've always had a choice. You've got a choice in the way you want to live your life. You've got a choice in this classroom to sit down and learn or to go back to your cell. It's up to you." It was an important lesson for me. She did an excellent job of creating a culture of learning, a culture of tolerance, a culture of understanding, and a culture of justice, even in that prison setting.
Q: What are the challenges of doing community work in Stockton?
A: There’re a lot of prisons in this county. Last year, Forbes magazine did a national study that concluded that Stockton was the number one most miserable city in the United States. That is the reality that we're trying to change. There are a lot of underlying problems. We have one of the highest drop-out rates in the country. We have one of the country’s toxic hot spots here in south Stockton. And, Stockton has one of the highest rates of death due to diabetes.
In so many ways, the fight for equity needs to happen here before things can get better. While we have obstacles in our community, we also have one of the most diverse areas in the nation. There are a lot of assets that can be mobilized and integrated into building a movement. We have a solid group that's committed to re-writing our future. We're not just on the sidelines providing commentary. We're in the trenches. There's a sense of urgency, readiness and opportunity.