Training Leaders to Change Communities

Rev. Cecil Murray and Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas

Hoping to increase community participation in reducing violence among young people, ministers, counselors and community activists gathered recently at the USC Cecil Murray Center for Community Engagement to discuss ways they can go into communities and churches and help implement change.

The center has created a leadership transformation program, the Faith Leaders Institute, which inspires community leaders to establish mentoring services, host job training seminars and other community outreach efforts in order to make a difference in Boyle Heights, Long Beach, Santa Ana and South Los Angeles.

As Murray explains its mission: “The challenge continues to be, if I can help somebody as I travel along, then my living has not been in vain.”

In addition to youth violence, the program included a discussion on job creation, health disparities and building healthy communities. For example, with unemployment continuing to disproportionately affect the African-American community, job education outreach efforts are essential. In addition, there is a need to reduce incarceration rates and to address the issues that make black males 5 ½ times more likely than white males to be incarcerated and Latinos are 3 times more likely.

“When we talk about the cycle of violence and incarceration – I don’t know a better solution than to provide someone with a job,” said Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who gave the opening remarks.  The Chairman also spoke of the new Martin Luther King Jr. Hospital and Outpatient Center in Willowbrook, which is nearing completion, as a centerpiece for creating healthy communities. “The new Martin Luther King Jr. Hospital and campus is the common denominator in a community revitalization effort.”

Indeed, some of the speakers highlighted the nexus between being poor and uneducated and incidence of violence. Poverty is acutely felt in a society that has such immense wealth disparity. “Violence is a natural outgrowth when poverty and hopelessness come together,” said Rev. Everett Bell Jr., associate minister at Mt. Olive 2nd Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. “The only answer we have for that problem is to build more prisons.”
Noting the high rate of ADHD diagnosis among African American boys, Dr. Thema Bryant-Davis, a psychologist, said that deep rooted problems cannot be dismissed but rather addressed with mental health counseling.

“We have to provide the services people need to heal,” said Bryant-Davis. “We see such trauma in our community. It is not just immediate trauma but inter-generational trauma. We are dealing with multiple layers of dysfunction.”

Many are stepping up to help. Once a week, a group of men who are members of Men of Color in the Industry go to a local elementary school and mentor 6th grade boys.  Jon Covington, founder of MOCITI, said by teaching these boys social skills, how to get along, set goals for themselves and think about their future, there is more likelihood they will graduate from high school and become productive members of society.

“We like to start when they are young and they are more trainable,” said Covington. “As Fredrick Douglass said, ‘It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.’ ”

Another panelist, Academy Award winning actor Louis Gossett Jr., spoke of the importance of teaching children their value. Gossett, who founded the Eracism Foundation to help combat racism and stereotyping through educational outreach, said many children are not being taught how to respect others or to assume responsibility for their actions.

“These children are not taught to behave by the generation that came before them,” he said. “They have not been taught so they cannot be blamed. We need to show these children hope. It’s our job to restore sanity, physically, mentally and spiritually.”