THE CALIFORNIA WELLNESS FOUNDATION
A Decade of Effort, A World of Difference:
The Policy and Public Education Program of The California Youth Violence Prevention Initiative
Other availability: PDF
Published: October 21, 2003
Author(s): Lawrence Wallack, DrPH, Amy Lee, DrPH, Liana Winett, DrPH
School of Community Health
College of Urban and Public Affairs
Portland State University
Funded by a grant from The California Wellness Foundation
Table of Contents
Recalling the Time
California and the nation were marked by violence at the start of the VPI. The nation was stunned as it watched the Stockton Schoolyard Massacre in 1989, the freeway sniper and drive-by shootings making news at the beginning of the decade, Southern California’s civil unrest following the Rodney King verdict in 1992, and the 1993 workplace shootings at the Petit and Martin Law Firm at 101 California Street, San Francisco.
The latter half of the decade brought a spate of high profile school shootings on suburban campuses throughout America, culminating in the bloodiest of all at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. These shootings not only riveted the nation, but specifically focused attention on the problem of youth violence among suburban kids. This tragedy was followed shortly by another shooting at a suburban Los Angeles-area day care, where providers and nursery school children were targeted by a gunman with a semiautomatic weapon. Footage broadcast across the country showed small children being led hand-in-hand to safety. Taken in sum, these shootings galvanized public grief and anger over the problem of gun-related violence, and helped to focus public and policymaker attention on the search for solutions.
Still, for a variety of reasons, California’s political environment at the time the VPI was being conceived could hardly have been less receptive to launching a large social program:
Nonetheless, official attention toward the prevention of youth violence was sharpening:
In sum, the late 1980s and early 1990s were a particularly difficult time in California, especially if you were a young person of color living in an urban area. Firearms were ubiquitous while opportunity was not, and youth had few friends in powerful places. In addition, mean-spirited statewide initiatives primarily affecting people of color and reflecting a "circle the wagons" attitude among the voting public were just in the offing. However, it was also the case that the pendulum was about to swing, or at least inch back a bit.
The goal of this research is to examine PPEP’s efforts to advance two major policy goals targeted at reducing violence among youth, and to consider the range of factors that have fostered and limited Grantees’ efforts during the past decade. In so doing we used various methods of data collection, including:
Most interviews were audiotaped and subsequently transcribed by a professional service, resulting in approximately 1045 pages of text. For the few interviews that were not audiotaped, careful and detailed notes were taken by the interviewer; such interviews tended to be brief. All of the interviews were conducted by one or more of the three principals on the project.
Interview questions included topics such as:
We begin our analysis with accounts of VPI efforts on the two primary policy goals: reducing injury and death due to firearms (i.e. the “firearms” goal), and increasing resources for youth (i.e. the “youth resources” goal), to recall not only some of the major activities of the Initiative, but also the wealth of accomplishments achieved over the past decade. In selecting these stories, however, we will leave others untold. We have chosen to recount stories that are particularly illustrative of the ways Grantees and others came together to work toward the reduction of youth violence in California. Thus, what we present here are exemplars, not exhaustive accounts of activities involving PPEP Grantees.
As we considered the complexity of the Initiative and the Grantees’ many efforts in pursuit of the larger policy goals, a simple and compelling framework of highly interactive elements emerged from the interview data. This framework evolved the content of our extensive interviews and reviews of archival data, and various academic and professional literatures on social movements , public health , and political communication . It is virtually impossible at times to determine which of these components is predominantly in play; indeed, at any one time Grantees’ efforts may be illustrating all four elements at work. Nonetheless, taken in sum we believe these four factors capture the strengths of the PPEP Grantees in achieving their goals, as well as some of the challenges they faced in doing their work throughout the life of this Initiative.
The components of our framework for understanding the PPEP are:
Policy Goals -- knowing what needs to be done. This means having a clear sense of what needed to change and expressing this necessary change in terms of policy goals that:
Issue Framing– knowing how to talk about it. This means developing strategic framing of the issue that transcends traditional “territorial” differences in the violence prevention arena, redefines an issue so it can be understood in a different way and new approaches can be tried, and allows “non-traditional” partnerships in the solution process. Issue framing:
Political Opportunity -- finding opportunities to implement policy change. This means identifying and, when necessary, creating political opportunities that:
Mobilizing Resources – being able to deliver. This means developing and activating resources that can take advantage of political opportunities and create an infrastructure to support social change:
Reducing Injury and Death Due to Firearms
At the start of the Initiative, PPEP Grantees sought to reduce firearm injury and death by focusing their attention on state policy and the potential of a ban on Saturday Night Specials (SNS). In 1994, however, control of the Assembly went to the Republicans effectively shutting down political opportunity at the state level. With state-level policy change no longer an option, Grantees shifted their attention to changing local policy. They believed that significant changes at the local level would ultimately force Sacramento to act. Public opinion also appeared to support local regulation of firearms. A survey conducted for public education Grantee Martin & Glantz revealed that a majority of Californians favored a number of gun policies, including local regulation of firearms.
Initially, Grantees believed that state law preempted all local firearms regulation. However, a legal memo by Eric Gorovitz suggested that communities did, in fact, have significant latitude to regulate guns. In January 1996, the small, progressive city of West Hollywood tested state law by passing an ordinance to ban the sale of SNS, relying heavily on Gorovitz’s legal argument to do so. In addition, they capitalized on other VPI resources, including VPI-funded research on the safety of SNS. The city was immediately sued by the California Rifle & Pistol Association (CRPA). However, after a two-year legal battle in which Grantees provided significant legal background and support, the courts upheld West Hollywood’s ordinance. The door was now open for other communities to regulate firearms without the threat of costly litigation.
West Hollywood’s actions were bold and they were quickly followed by those of the East Bay Public Safety Corridor Project (EBPSC), a regional collaborative of 16 cities. In July 1996, after consulting and working with Grantees, EBPSC announced that collaborative cities would each pass four ordinances regulating firearms. The effect of EBPSC’s actions was to open the floodgates. With so many cities passing ordinances at once, the legal and financial risk to any one city was greatly diminished. Moreover, Grantee Legal Community Against Violence (LCAV) was offering to help secure pro-bono legal assistance for any city that was sued. By 2000, more than 110 cities and counties had passed 300 ordinances regulating firearms.
Policy victories at the local level were accompanied by significant changes in the make-up of the Legislature. Term limits moved a number of local policymakers who had worked on firearms ordinances. up to the Legislature. They brought with them experience that showed that firearms regulation was a winning political issue. In particular, firearms legislation both enjoyed broad-based support and carried no additional costs for taxpayers. Moreover, it was an issue that made policymakers look good: they were taking meaningful action on the issue of violence and standing up to the National Rifle Association.
Ultimately, the burgeoning grassroots gun control movement, combined with changes in the political composition of the Legislature and the election of a Democratic governor, opened the door to significant changes in state firearms policy. In 1999, Governor Davis signed five major pieces of gun legislation, and he has since signed a number more. Recently, however, Davis has made it clear that he is wary of going too far, signaling that he is no longer interested in firearms regulation. With political opportunity again shut down at the state level, Grantees and other gun control advocates have moved back to the local level. This time, however, their focus is banning .50 caliber sniper rifles rather than SNS.
Increasing the Level of Youth Resources
During the past ten years, PPEP Grantees have sought to increase California’s investment in youth violence prevention by advocating for specific changes in state policy. In particular, they have pursued changes in two broad areas: 1) elevating the status of youth violence prevention as an activity of state government, and 2) increasing the level of state funding for youth violence prevention programs. In pursuing these policy changes, Grantees have confronted and negotiated a number of political, practical, and economic realities, including historically high levels of violent crime at the onset of the VPI, pervasive public sentiment favoring “get tough” policies, successive governors’ convictions that a strong law enforcement approach to the problem was key to their political success, and most recently, the worst budget deficit in California’s history.
Grantees worked to increase the level of state funding for youth violence prevention programs. They mobilized key resources, including their knowledge and skills regarding policy development and the policy process, and their professional connections and networks within the state government. Grantees’ success depended, in part, on changes in California’s political climate, flexibility in their own strategy, and the ultimate decision by Governor Davis to make a substantial investment in violence prevention programs. In the wake of “Three Strikes” and other “get tough” policies, legislators interested in violence prevention as an alternative to the law enforcement approach had greater license to pursue such policies. In addition, Grantees shifted their focus from competing for corrections dollars and trying to shift funding out of corrections and into prevention. Instead, they pursued dollars for violence prevention as a separate issue. In this regard, they used polling data to educate legislators about supportive public opinion regarding increasing violence prevention resources for youth. Finally, broader legal and political pressure on Governor Davis resulted in his decision to reverse his veto of violence prevention funding. In the summer of 2000, the Governor signed the Schiff-Cardenas Violence Prevention Act, representing the single largest allocation of state funds to youth violence prevention programs in California’s history.
Applying the Framework
Understanding the success, and in some cases lack of success, of PPEP Grantees requires understanding the relationships among several variables – political opportunity, policy goals, issue framing, and mobilizing resources.
Barriers to Cooperation
Grantees engaged in collaborative VPI activities to differing extents. While some were very central to group-initiated, planned, and executed efforts, others felt that the barriers to cooperation were (at least sometimes) sufficient to preclude full engagement. Grantees identified a variety of issues when asked about the process of joining into a large, cooperative effort. Some of the issues raised include:
1) Grantees needed skills to facilitate cooperation and to effectively support one another, but some felt that the Foundation could have done more to cultivate those necessary skills.
2) Not everyone was on board with the policy focus. Some felt the policy focus had been imposed upon them and that they had little input.
3) Some Grantees experienced strain regarding who got credit for achievements, as well as in attempting to keep everyone on the same page in terms of message and direction; each of which chipped away at the broader sense of inter-group trust.
4) Some Grantees felt the policy work was overly focused on guns to the exclusion of other risk factors for violence.
5) Some felt that the VPI was too Northern California-focused, not valuing Grantees in the southern part of the state.
6) Some Grantees preferred to do their own work independently, rather than collaboratively.
7) Some Grantees felt the Initiative lacked a “central unifying force,” while others felt the problem was a lack of focus during the first few years.
8) Not all Grantees were completely on board with the directions taken by other Grantees.
9) The size of the state and vast Grantee dispersion proved a barrier to collaborative efforts.
Legacy of PPEP and the VPI
The complete legacy of PPEP will continue to unfold. Indeed, the enduring effects of landmark policies, increased funding for new prevention programs, and a diverse network of legislators, policy professionals, activists, and academics all interested in meaningful social change to decrease violence among youth, will surface incrementally both within California and nationwide. That said, it is possible even today to see how PPEP and the VPI have affected the larger effort to reduce violence.
Most obvious, perhaps, are PPEP’s contributions to gun safety policies and to legislation that would increase prevention funding for youth. But perhaps less obvious are the many other ways that PPEP and its Grantees would leave their “marks” on California and the nation. These impacts can be considered in terms of:
1) Policy Outcomes: The specific policies enacted and ways of approaching the problem of youth violence at the policy level will have specific effects on the issues they are designed to address, as well as provide models for future policy approaches to social problems.
2) Precedent: California offers important policymaking and legal precedent. Legislators around the country, but particularly at the federal level, are said to look closely at how a given piece of policy “played” in the nation’s most populous state.
3) Infrastructure: One of the enduring effects of PPEP’s efforts will be the establishment of a network of violence prevention groups, law enforcement agencies, policy experts, and researchers, who otherwise might not have had the opportunity to become familiar with one another, work together, and support one another’s activities.
4) Penetration of the Power Structure: A cadre of local and state governmental officials working with the VPI who have now assumed other levels of leadership or who continue in their positions of power will seed the power structure with support of PPEP activities and goals.
Conclusion and Lessons Learned
The Public Policy and Education Program, and the VPI overall, sends a significant message for public health and social change movements around the country. This message is that almost anything is possible, but is never easy. Our research offers a number of important lessons as well as cautionary notes.
In sum, PPEP and the VPI have left a legacy of success and struggle. PPEP’s activities have reverberated around the state, and to some extent the country. What evolved from the VPI, in general, was a sophisticated approach to social change that combined research, community organizing, policy development, education of opinion leaders and policymakers, and the ability to overcome traditional obstacles. The research framework we applied provides insight into how the VPI, led by PPEP, was able to identify political opportunities, offer policy approaches that fit with those opportunities, apply the language and approaches of a public health model to bring people together and create change, and finally to create a body of research-based practical knowledge translated for use by an extremely diverse group of advocates and supporters. The ability to blend these components required substantial funds that TCWF supplied. It also required commitment, trust, insight, and a keen sense strategic sense of what was possible (and a little more), combined with some luck to make sure all the pieces came together in just the right way at the right time.
It will continue to be a challenge to maintain and extend the gains of the Initiative both in terms of funding for youth programs and limiting the availability of firearms. Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese monk and prodigious writer nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, has explained:
The problem is whether we are determined to go in the direction of compassion or not . . . If I lose my direction I have to look for the North Star and I will go to the north. That does not mean I expect to arrive at the North Star. I just want to go in that direction.
The VPI has established the vision, set the direction, and marked the path. There is still much to be done, but those who follow should be sustained by what has been accomplished over the past decade.