Like Flowers in the Wind
“They’re open like a blank palette. If they don’t have a strong sense of family, of history, of belonging anywhere, then anything that comes along can brush strokes on them. Like a flower in the wind, they’ll go in any direction the wind takes them, to be a part of something, to have an opportunity to get involved and vent their anger.”
As gang crime and race related murders continue to torment the streets of L.A., Jameelah Medina brings at risk youth together in a new awareness of their shared heritage.
There are gang ciphers spray painted blue and black on the walls and signposts throughout certain areas of Los Angeles, California. Each word or initial spells out which territory belongs to which group. Historically, there have been gangs in urban areas across North America for years. It is not known exactly what causes the phenomenon, though many postulate the lack of space, the poverty and the unique problems brought about by immigration, may bring about a need for like-minded individuals to come together for a sense of safety and belonging with each other.
Jameelah Medina, a dedicated educator and social justice advocate living and working in Rialto, California, speaks in a quiet gentle voice that belies the passion and fortitude she holds for resolving the interracial violence in her community. “There’s a lot of racial tension,” she says, “a fight will start between two or three and then it escalates.” Last month, the tension culminated in two race-related murders.
The problem of violence between the Blacks and Latinos on the south and east sides of Los Angeles has been supposed to be caused by Gang related affiliations. Rialto, and these particular areas of California, have been a hot spot for gang violence and other related criminal activity for years. It is not the only area with the problem. The 2009 National Gang Threat Assessment reports a growing number of gangs with over 25,000 of them currently active throughout North America. Law enforcement officials also report that gangs are responsible for as much as 80% of all violent crime in some regions.
While it is true that not all gangs are divided along ethnic lines and not all race-related violence is gang related, the causes of these problems appear to be closely intertwined. Jameelah believes the lack of positive role models to aspire to and the small spaces they share to live in make it easy “for them to go up against each other.” She also believes that the lack of connection to their cultural histories and the belief that their ancestral roots are nothing to be proud of may in fact precipitate the violent behavior. “They fight with each other” she says, “because of misguided anger. Because of the clothes they wear and the color of their skin, the expectation is that they will be or already are gang members.”
“When your color and ethnicity is an issue, whether you make it an issue or not, by default it is saying you are not worthy. In school, when they open the textbooks and all they see is the white history of men, they don’t learn about these other heroes. They are invisible.”
Jameelah tells me she could have gone either way herself, and that the only thing stopping her was her fear of her family – they had high expectations of her – and her knowledge of her history. Her father had a big old set of shelves stacked with books about Black history. When she was little, he would tell her to pick a book and write a report on it. There were books filled with the names and achievements of African American heroes, books written by Maya Angelou, poetry by Langston Hughes, the play, A Raisin in the Sun. “From learning about the different African American history at home, I could see for myself that the history books were not telling the whole truth. I did not internalize the name calling, because I knew I could do better.”
“We can’t change the family,” Jameelah tells me, “but we can teach them their history.”
Jameelah first realized she might be able to do something about the interracial violence in her community, while in high school. As a young African-American Muslim woman with a talent and passion for the Spanish language she was in a unique position to be able to traverse the two groups easily. “I could have the same conversations with the Blacks and the Mexicans, but they didn’t talk to teach other.” She believed the fighting would stop, if they only knew their commonalities and their points of solidarity.
Very few people are aware of the shared cultural heritage between Mexico and Africa. That there were African slaves in other countries and that in Mexico the emancipation of slaves occurred much earlier than it did in North America, creating a rich culture of African descendents closely integrated with the Mexican culture and its’ people.
The Breaking Bread Project brings this knowledge to fifty at-risk students during a fourteen-month period, through after school lessons, community engagement, public performance pieces and a group tour to Mexico, which focuses on displaying the African culture in that country.
Due to a funding shortage, the project is yet to begin in Rialto, though teachers, counsellors and volunteers are ready to begin and students say it is needed. The results of this program are certain to prove interesting. Before it has even begun, Jameelah’s unique vision has some looking to start similar projects in other areas of California. By reconnecting disaffected Black and Latino youth with their cultural heritage, a new sense of pride in themselves and of belonging to a community is born. Like flowers in the wind they’ll grow again wherever they may land…
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, which is providing rigorous web 2.0 and new media training for 31 emerging women leaders. We are speaking out for social change from some of the most forgotten corners of the world. Meet Us.