Want a Safer City? It’s Time to Invest in Youth

LA City Councilwoman Monica Rodriguez joins a coalition of youth leaders at City Hall and calls for the creation of a Youth Development Department (November 2019)

28 years ago, civil unrest daylighted the inequalities that many communities of color in Los Angeles faced. We find ourselves in a similar moment in time today. As an 18-year-old in 1992, to a role in leadership today, I see the need to reform systems that continue to hold so many back. Statistics show that communities of color are dying at a higher rate to COVID-19. The economy is at a depression-level and now we’re amidst civil unrest. Where we go from here requires us to let go of the status quo and invest in strategies that have proven results. Reform is required, not just in policing strategies but also in our investments in youth.

Over the last decade, some of our greatest gains in public safety have been achieved through our Community Safety Partnership. CSP reformed traditional policing and led to a decrease in homicides and violent crime. Instead of arrests, CSP officers focus on building trust with residents, and engaging in youth activities. The trust that is built through this process gives community members the opportunity to raise their concerns to develop constructive partnerships with law enforcement to problem-solve quality of life issues. The trust and partnership is the guiding principle, not us-vs-them. It underscores our City can’t rely exclusively on policing efforts alone. Making our communities safer requires collective action and constructive investments in our youth.

As we engage in conversations about transformative and systemic change, we must acknowledge the historic role our City has played in labeling well-intentioned work by framing youth programs as gang intervention or juvenile diversion. What message does this send to youth about what their City thinks of them? WORDS MATTER. End the labels and false narratives that serve no purpose than to further divide us. Why do poorer neighborhoods have a Jeopardy Program and others have PALS? Both are mentorship driven, but labeled very differently depending on the community they reside. Suggesting that youth that have made bad choices are now in “Jeopardy” are labels that are no more constructive than saying all cops are bad or the ignorant suggestion our neighborhoods are “battlefields.”

Today’s youth are the future leaders of our City, just as we were in 1992, as a City we missed the opportunity to frame a conversation around the value and potential of the youth voice, now is the time.

This shift begins with transforming the way we deliver services to the youth of Los Angeles. Our City does not have a centralized strategy or plan for youth development. There are countless organizations across Los Angeles that claim to provide services to youth — from early childhood development, “juvenile diversion and intervention” programs, college preparation, and pathways to jobs.

In the City of Los Angeles alone, youth programs are spread across 26 city departments, serving 800,000 youth ages 10–24. The LAUSD, the second largest school district in the nation, also plays a large role in managing and delivering youth programs: afterschool curriculum, mentoring, and athletic activities. The County of Los Angeles is a partner in delivering youth services as well with their oversight of the juvenile justice and foster care systems.

With many organizations playing a role with youth programming, what’s blatantly clear is that no single organization or body has a comprehensive plan for delivering services and holding organizations accountable for the dollars they are receiving with uniform metrics around outcomes.

And, it shows.

The current programs in place to serve our youth are spread out and spread thin. Youth in marginalized communities face barriers to success due to underinvestment. In Los Angeles, nearly 200,000 youth live in poverty, 68,000 are disconnected from school and job opportunities, and over 3,000 are homeless.

That’s why I’ve led the creation of a comprehensive Citywide youth development strategy and a centralized City entity. A Youth Development Department can oversee funding and spending, improve interagency collaboration, ensure service equity, and most importantly define metrics and measurable results with the implementation of a youth-led strategy.

Our greatest gains in public safety will be achieved through reform efforts that build trust. It underscores that investments in youth achieve greater public safety outcomes, not policing efforts alone. Serving youth through a 360-degree lens will produce better outcomes that strengthen communities.

Stop the labeling, the finger pointing and begin the constructive conversation to do the work this moment requires of all of us. Let’s engage in reform and have our budget reflect a paradigm shift in Los Angeles that begins with increasing investments in youth programming and expands on the proven community policing models and reforms that delivers a safer LA for us ALL. We are one LA.

Public Servant. Problem Solver. Councilwoman. Chair of the City of Los Angeles Public Safety Committee @MRodCD7