Cover Photo: We Are Not Statistics: Messages of Hope in an Era of 21st Century Gang Violence

by PK McCary

At Alisal High School, a young student asked me, “Don’t you know? We’re the gang violence capital of the world!” The high school is in Salinas, California, situated near the area where much of the gang violence in the city occurs. I was reminded of the saying that in order to teach, one must know whom one is teaching. A trip to this school revealed how violence robs a community of its essence and its ability to believe in itself and its possibilities. How many people had walked through the doors of this school offering a panacea for the ills of the community? More than one would guess.

CoverPhotoMy visit to pitch a nonviolent training workshop to students in Salinas came just days after gang violence took the life of a 6-year old child. Azahel Cruz was another victim of the random violence that plagues the city. Salinas has become known as a place where waste of life is a regular occurrence.

A young Latino male living in Salinas, California is more likely to be a statistic of violence than a statistic of success. At the end of summer 2009, 21 people had been murdered in the city, and every murder was gang related. So, when I was invited to provide nonviolent training to Salinas students aged 13 to 19, I was excited. However, I was warned that training would be an uphill battle, or even a waste of time.

When I say Salinas, you say Gang Violence!

When this student reminded me that his city was the gang violence capital of the world, I challenged the students to tell me anything about Salinas that did not include “gang” or “violence” in the sentence. At first no one could. So I recited all that I knew about Salinas, from the best place for salsa the city’s famous burritos, to the best music and pastries. I told them how Salinas was known as the Salad Bowl of the World, and then some told me about their family members who worked in the fields. By the end of the day, more than a dozen young people had signed up for the workshop.

For more than 18 months, partnerships formed to support the growing participation of young people in their community. Students from LaPaz Middle School created a video entitled I Am Salinas. Students from Alisal partnered with students from Alvarez to create a group called Teen Salinas Speaks. Originally a slam poetry group, it expanded to speak before City Council and at other events about the need for a larger library so that new programs could flourish. At the end of their performances, these young people chant, “We’re Teen Salinas Speaks. Are you listening?” With the help of the library and others, teenagers are defining a healthier community for all. Are you listening?

PK McCary is a writer, storyteller, and peacekeeper in the US. Her training and education is in media and communications. Her work focuses on young people, helping them to see their place and responsibilities in and to the world. She has more than 30 years of experience in anti-violence programming for youth. She believes in a thriving global community, and that by teaching both nonviolent and compassionate communication the ills of the world can be healed. She is the founder of Think Peace International in Walnut Creek, California. Think Peace is a multimedia training and educational organization made up of artists, teachers, and social activists sharing their stories and models of peacemaking. The vision of the organization is to provide a voice to those who are underrepresented in areas of the world affected by conflict and disparities and to those whose stories, which would provide great insight and clarity to others, are missing from media narratives. Through collaboration with others, PK works to create effective tools for peacekeeping in the 21st century and beyond.

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