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Long Beach City College and the University of Southern California are launching a new program focused on increasing college access for young people who have been associated with gangs.

The goal of the program, which will start this summer, is to help up to 300 prospective college students with gang connections enroll and succeed at Long Beach City College, offering them a series of supports over the course of three years to guide them from enrollment to a certificate or degree or enable them to transfer to a four-year university.

“I’m hoping if we’re able to touch the lives of, let’s say, hypothetically, 200 people, we can help change the lives of a generation of people,” said Adrian Huerta, an assistant professor of education at USC and one of the founders of the program. “That’s 200 less people who … [will] hopefully be less involved in the adult or juvenile justice system. It can have a cascading effect in a way that it will be really transformative for so many people.”

The program will help participants, ages 16 through 24, through the enrollment process, provide them with career advising and specialized mental health counseling, assign coaches to mentor them, connect them to campus resources, and help them secure internship opportunities.

“We’re focused on the whole educational journey,” said Mike Muñoz, superintendent-president at Long Beach City College.

The goal is also to create relationships across racial and ethnic groups in the Long Beach area to build bridges between communities sometimes alienated from each other by gang violence. Long Beach is home to multiple racial and ethnic enclaves, including sizable Black, Latino, Samoan, Cambodian and Filipino communities.

“We’re hoping that through this work we can really create community or some type of bonds within the various racial and ethnic groups that have historically been sometimes at odds with each other because of their gang involvement or association,” Huerta said.

The program will be funded for three years by a $990,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education, the first such grant designated for educating gang-associated students. The program, called LBCC Phoenix Scholars, is the first and only recipient of the grant.

When Muñoz applied for the funding, he said it felt like a “long shot” but too important an opportunity to miss.

“Society oftentimes gives up on people,” he said. Community colleges, in contrast, are “a beacon of light for so many” and often help students “lift themselves out of very negative situations.”

Long Beach City College also has a Justice Scholars Program, started in 2020 and targeted at formerly incarcerated students.

“This is an opportunity to expand on our good work,” Muñoz said.

Huerta, who studies educational pathways for young people associated with gangs, noted that only half of people with gang affiliations graduate high school, and only 5 percent earn a college degree. California has about 51,000 self-reported gang members between seventh and 11th grade and about 10,000 gang-associated youth in the Los Angeles region alone. Research shows gang involvement on average only lasts one or two years, “but the ripple effect can last a lifetime” for young people and their families, he added.

Huerta is excited to see his research inform tangible supports for students.

“As a researcher, we write things and it goes into a void,” he said. “We don’t know if someone reads it; we don’t know if someone is inspired by it and does something with it. To actually be able to do the work with a partner is like, wow. This is impact.”

Huerta stressed that the program is for all gang-associated youth, which doesn’t only mean gang members. The category also includes people who are perceived by law enforcement as associated with gangs or assumed to be in a gang by high school counselors and teachers. For example, kids who spend time with family members who are involved in gangs can often be treated “the same or worse” in their K-12 schools because they’re assumed to be connected to gangs, too, he said.

Gang-associated high school students are often overlooked as college material by teachers and college counselors, said Jessica Quintana, executive director of Centro Cha, a local organization focused on youth development and violence prevention in Long Beach that partnered with LBCC and USC to develop the Phoenix Scholars program.

“A lot of them have low esteem,” she said. “They’ve been told they’re bad. They live in a bad neighborhood.” They’re seen as “throwaway kids.”

Meanwhile, these young people are usually living in “substandard housing” in “high-poverty, high-violence neighborhoods,” attend underresourced K-12 schools and lack access to parks, extracurricular activities and other enrichment opportunities, she added. “Youth don’t just wake up one day and say, ‘Hey, I want to be a gang member.’”

Brittany Morton, academic program manager at Homeboy Industries—an organization in Los Angeles dedicated to gang intervention and rehabilitation—said as far as she knows, no other college has a program solely focused on gang-associated youth, though a growing number of colleges and universities offer programming for formerly incarcerated students. There’s an “intersection” between the two student populations, and part of her job is connecting eligible prospective students who have gang associations to these programs.

She noted that these students require some specialized supports. For example, some may have felonies on their criminal records and, as a result, may be prohibited from working in certain jobs, so career advisers have to be knowledgeable about the professions legally open to them in the state. She also finds that a “key” support for gang-associated students to persist in college is mentorship from “folks who share similar experiences.” She said students are sometimes wrestling with shame and self-doubt and can feel stigmatized by professors, staff members, classmates and campus police officers—experiences mentors who have been in their position can understand.

Muñoz also highlighted the stigma people with gang affiliations can experience on and off campus due to “visible markers,” such as gang tattoos that can alienate them from peers, and “emotional” markers—experiences of violence and trauma that can affect their well-being.

Omar Perez, a first-year student at LBCC, said students formerly involved in gangs, like himself, can feel like “outcasts” and can be scared off from college by their own self-image. He’s a part of the Justice Scholars program and vice president of the Justice Scholars club.

“Sometimes we’re our own worst enemy,” he said. “We don’t think we’re good enough or smart enough. I think some of the barriers for myself and for other people are self-doubt or thinking there’s no support for us academically.”

Perez is starting college at age 42, but based on his own experiences, he believes interventions like the LBCC Phoenix Scholars program can be especially helpful for young people.

Perez got involved in gang life at an early age, in seventh grade, after his family moved to Fresno from Los Angeles and he started at a new middle school. He was picked on and got into fights. Tensions existed between students from Northern and Southern California; certain colors associated with different gangs were off-limits. He found all of it confusing. He befriended other Los Angeles transplants for protection and eventually got involved in the rivalries around him. He dropped out of high school a month before graduation, despite being a “really good student” and a member of the school track team.

At age 19, he was arrested for negligent discharge of a firearm and went to prison for a year. From there it was “mistake after mistake,” Perez said.

He said by focusing on students ages 16 though 24, the new program at Long Beach City College will be more helpful and intervene earlier in their lives and potentially change the course of their gang involvement.

“They need to know that they’re supported,” Perez said. “I know for a fact that at that age group, it’s more the age where you want to be partying and all of that, drinking and all of that … You can help lead them in a better direction.”

Huerta and Muñoz both said their work is motivated by personal experiences with family members and friends who were involved in gangs.

“I saw how their trajectories just totally changed after they became gang involved or perceived to be gang involved,” Huerta said. He views his research as an opportunity to better understand why young people join gangs and to determine how to offer them alternative life paths.

“What can we do better or differently to support these really smart people who for one reason or another joined a gang for that sense of community or support?”

Muñoz said gang activity was prevalent as he grew up in Anaheim, which is located just a short drive from campus. His childhood best friend got involved with gangs when they were teenagers and has since left that lifestyle, but he still feels “very limited” in the opportunities he now has.

“I think of my best friend when I think about a program like this,” Muñoz said. “When he was trying to exit that lifestyle, if this program existed for him, would he have a different sense of self in terms of what he was able to pursue with his life? There is that stigma, there is that guilt, there is that shame, and it impacts them in terms of how they view themselves … and what they can achieve and what they’re worthy to achieve. That’s why I think programs like this matter.”

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