THE BLOG

Nation Watches Tonight: Will Santa Monica Close Down the Only Youth Center Committed to Social Justice Issues?

01/08/2013 04:55 pm ET | Updated Mar 10, 2013

In an age when city officials from Chicago to Los Angeles scramble for workable youth programs to deal with violence and community conflict, is it possible that the city council of Santa Monica is actually planning to vote on defunding one of the most successful, dynamic and singular youth centers in the nation?

Operating on a shoe-lace of the city's budget, the Pico Youth and Family Center -- founded by Oscar de la Torre over a decade ago, after a rash of homicides shook its westside neighborhood -- has dramatically affected the lives of hundreds if not thousands of ethnically diverse youth and their families, and gifted the celebrated city of Santa Monica with one of its most valuable community treasures.

In a line: The Pico Youth and Family Center should have its budget doubled, and its programs and leadership models replicated across the state of California and the country.

And yet, thanks to all sorts of bureaucratic machinations and personal conflicts over the center's mission for social justice, the PYFC is fighting for its survival at tonight's city council meeting, despite the fact that it has met 27 out of the 28 benchmarks set by the city officials in an agreement last summer.

"The PYFC is the only non-profit in the city that has a person of color serving as the executive director," program director Selina Barajas said. "We are also the sole organization that has majority of women, minority staff. The PYFC also holds a unique identity. We celebrate several cultural events and we discuss issues that are not discussed in the city, such as poverty, racism, police brutality, and push-out/drop-out rates."

I know this for a fact: Like many other hosted authors and artists, during my visit to PYFC last fall, I was joined on stage by an incredibly welcoming, diverse and informed group of youth performers and panelists, who led a community discussion on issues of culture, history and citizenship to the kind of large, multi-generational and multi-ethnic crowd rarely seen in California--or anywhere.

The dynamic leadership at PYFC, in their myriad programs for Life Skills/Vocational Job Training, Women and Mens Support Groups, Leadership Development and Leadership Councils for Peace, Academic Support: Tutoring & College Readiness, among many other services, has brought acclaim from across the community and state. The Center has one of the most sought-after music recording and spoken word programs in the area.

A petition directed to Santa Monica City Manager Rod Gould and the City Council spells out the youth center's effective history and its recent efforts to reach certain benchmarks for improvement:

The PYFC is the only non-profit agency in Santa Monica that targets at-risk 16-24 year olds. Through months of planning and focus groups, PYFC has developed innovative and one of a kind programs for this target population including the first-ever public recording studio. Throughout the ten years of service more than 1,300 registered youth from our community have benefitted from the services, support and leadership development offered at PYFC. As evidenced in 10 years of program reports to the City, hundreds of marginalized youth have attained acceptance into college, attained a GED, learned life skills necessary for success in the workforce, attained employment and most importantly experienced positive transformation leaving destructive life styles to become productive members of our community. PYFC's service model has benefited many individual youth but also through its leadership and advocacy the PYFC has played a major role in bringing positive social change and public resources to the Pico Neighborhood.

Since July 1, 2012 PYFC has transitioned to Social Environmental Entrepreneurs (SEE) with noticeable success and improvements in administration and fiscal management. For example, SEE/PYFC has met 27 of the 28 benchmarks the City established as part of the six-month last chance agreement. In addition, we have met a great majority of the City's funding conditions for the 6 month period. Most professionals would agree that it is challenging to turn an organization around in six months but we are proud of our work and believe that with time, support and partnership we can strengthen the organizational capacity of the SEE/PYFC partnership. Although we are not without our faults, it should be noted that the administrative problems that led to the "last chance" agreement have not been repeated and the SEE/PYFC partnership has brought forward greater transparency and accountability.

PYFC released this short video on examples of the impact of their work over the last decade: