By SAY staff Jacinda Abcarian
It’s not every day that you walk into a convention center and see former gang members greeting police officers with hugs, and teens on probation networking with prosecutors. Welcome to the Community Mentor Summit, where people from all walks of life come together to show their commitment to a new way of tackling juvenile delinquency in San Diego, California.
This annual 2-day event took place October 16 – 17, 2019, and highlighted the legitimacy of the “credible messenger” model which San Diego has recently adopted as a best practice for working with youth who have come to the attention of law enforcement. This model allows those with real life experience in the criminal justice system to serve as inspirational mentors to youth on probation.
SAY San Diego, through a grant from the County of San Diego’s Probation Department, is currently working with credible messengers including Arthur Soriano of Youth Empowerment and Reginald Washington of Project AWARE to bring hope, life skills, and emotional literacy to San Diego youth who are system-involved. Soriano and Washington were featured speakers at the Community Mentor Summit.
A heartfelt Soriano looked into the audience and stated, “I’m here to support the community that I once destroyed.” Raised in City Heights, Soriano fell into the pitfalls of drugs, gangs, juvenile hall, and ultimately 23 years in prison. Since his release just 6 years ago, Soriano has made impressive strides in improving relations between his community and the various systems he was in. He is now recognized by law enforcement, probation, juvenile judges, principals, and non-profit organizations as an advocate for community change and example of life transformation.
Reginald Washington of Project AWARE also spoke to the power of lived experience when mentoring youth who have been in and out of juvenile hall. “What’s incredible is the fact that these mentors have been able to overcome hard times and are still be able to speak and reach these individuals in the streets. It does mean something when you have been there, and you can actually speak about it.” As a young man, Washington was involved in gangs without any awareness of alternative ways to deal with his anger. One night he got in an altercation and shot someone. This resulted in a 15-year prison sentence that would forever change his life. Washington is now a leader in the credible messenger movement and recognized by the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department and Probation Department for his contributions with their Youth Academy and promoting public safety.
According to Washington, youth need to see that success is not all about money and street cred – it is about changing your life and having peace of mind. And who better to deliver that message than someone who has been there? Washington said, “I like to show the youth, ‘this is what it looks like when you are successful. You could be at your lowest point in life, you could be entrenched in gangs, but this is what it looks like when you are really successful.’”
To the mixed audience of teens, social service providers, and youth advocates, San Diego’s elected officials also addressed the trailblazing work happening in in the county. County Supervisor Kristin Gaspar stated: “After decades of punishment and incarceration, our probation department took a long hard look at what it takes to keep kids out of juvenile hall and safely in their communities. This new community-based approach has developed through strong partnerships with our District Attorney Summer Stephan, our Probation Department Chief Gonzales, our Public Defender Randy Mise, our juvenile courts, various law enforcement agencies, and our community partners.”
“This new community-based approach … is a level of collaboration that has never been done before – not here in San Diego, not in the state of California, not anywhere across the country – we have a lot to be proud of.”– County Supervisor, Kristin Gaspar
San Diego has committed to making a difference in the lives of teens and young adults by launching several initiatives to improve criminal justice processes and reduce recidivism.
District Attorney Summer Stephan spoke passionately about her commitment to creating a climate of justice for all San Diegans, including those who have been in the system. “We want to give 2nd and 3rd chances, and we want to do it with accountability to the community we serve. We’ve done this by removing 1,500 marijuana felony convictions, without somebody asking us to. We did
it on our own because that’s what the law provides. We do this by offering expungement clinics. I was one of only two prosecutors in the state to support Assembly-member Ting’s bill that automatically expunges records of people that are entitled to that expungement. But we expect people to be lawyers and apply to get the collateral consequences removed that they are entitled to under the law! Being able to have our system do it automatically is the right way to do it.” These statements drew wide applause as Stephan went on to reiterate that community mentorship is critical to transforming lives. From her years serving women and children in the area of human trafficking, Stephan saw firsthand that victims were more likely to listen to those who had experienced similar struggles. “We know that when someone with lived experience displays the empathy of having walked in that person’s shoes, it makes a tremendous difference. And it makes a difference because they can see a path. They can see ‘this person had my journey and now has arrived to this other side, and they are the leaders.’”
“We need to work with community mentors – they are bringing their talents, their gifts, their energy, their dedication, and their commitment to making our communities as flourishing and as healthy as possible. We came to realize that we don’t need to, nor can we, do this alone.” – Jason Rasch, Supervising Probation Officer
The importance of preserving hope among young people was a strong theme that shaped the summit. Nick Macchione, Director of the County of San Diego Health and Human Services Agency, came to show his support for community mentorship by telling a story from his childhood. “You see, I was one of those youth. By the graces of God, I didn’t end up in my juvenile detention facility in West New York and New Jersey where I grew up. But as an immigrant kid, a latch-key kid living above a liquor store in an urban area, I was probably one stone’s throw away from the juvenile delinquency card that
most of my buddies got – it’s because I had Big John. John was a retired veteran that worked in the liquor store, and he would talk to me every day afterschool, about music, about life, and he’d let me dust the bottles with the feathers…he was always there for me. Although we did not call it community mentoring at the time, Big John was just that. I was fortunate.”
The Community Mentor Summit provided a safe space for a diverse group of stakeholders to delve into San Diego’s complex issues related to juvenile delinquency, the criminal justice system, and new approaches to improving community wellness. It was a platform for young people and police officers alike to share their perspectives on why community mentoring matters.
To learn more about SAY San Diego’s Community Mentoring Program, visit: https://www.saysandiego.org/program/resilience-community-mentoring-program/
To learn more about SAY San Diego’s Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Development Programs, visit: https://www.saysandiego.org/program/delinquency-prevention-youth-development/