"I'd love to tell you I'm some brilliant mastermind that chartered this treaty, but the reality is that week by week, we're still working the streets," William "Blinky" Rodriguez said about the gang treaty he helped broker to bring rival groups together to talk. "We'd be out until 2, 3, 4 in the morning."
Rodriguez is executive director of Communities in Schools, a group that works against violence and provides after-school and employment services. He builds coalitions of nonprofit groups, law enforcement agencies and legislators that help youth avoid joining gangs.
Throughout his life, Rodriguez said, the intervention of several caring Jewish men helped him along the right path. Today, he is asking the Jewish community to be at the forefront of his plans to help return communication and hope to neighborhoods ravaged by violence.
"As an individual, I got into this work with high-risk youth in the '70s," Rodriguez recalled. "The hook that I had was the martial arts."
Rodriguez, 50, was a hall of fame pioneer in kickboxing. Students from around the country would flock to his gym in Van Nuys.
"But in 1990 a tragedy happened," he said. "One of my sons was killed in a drive-by shooting in Sylmar. So it was really at that time in my life that I had to make some real decisions."
One decision was pivotal: to devote his life to ending violence in his community.
"In 1993, I was able, along with a few other people, to pull off a peace treaty with 76 gangs in the San Fernando Valley," Rodriguez said.
Homicides in the year following what became known as the Valley Unity Peace Treaty plummeted from 56 to two. But peace treaties are not self-enforcing. Rodriguez and his allies walked the streets in the East Valley in the dead of night, trying to keep violence from erupting.
"The bottom line is that before the treaty, there was a lot of killing going on, mothers getting killed, kids getting killed," Rodriguez said. "Within the prison system there were guys doing life sentences [in the meantime] losing kids and grandkids in the barrios, in the ghettos."
"They basically said, 'Ya basta, that's enough,' so we just seized the moment and pulled a meeting off," he explained. "Every Sunday, when there were issues, we met [with the gangs]."
Communication, it turned out, was the key, Rodriguez explained, adding, "Instead of guys picking up guns, they'd pick up the phone."
"He [still] meets every Wednesday night with gang members from around the Valley, and he's been trying to broker another peace treaty," said LAPD Deputy Chief Ron Berman, in charge of the San Fernando Valley.
The 1993 treaty is no longer in effect. The Valley's population has grown substantially since 1993, and the number of gang-related homicides in the LAPD's Valley Bureau in 2003 was 24.
For any peace to last, open communication has to begin with the youth early. For this, at least, Rodriguez could draw on his personal experiences.
"It seems like at pivotal times in my life, a Jewish man would appear." At the age of 12, Rodriguez met middle school teacher Jack Jacobson. "He took the time to ask me [about] my problems. He could have just swatted me away, but he ended up taking me deep-sea fishing with him. That's communication and exposure."
"Ultimately, it's all tied to a quality of life," Rodriguez said.
His longtime friend, Robert Arias, introduced him to Communities in Schools, a national organization. Together they built the local chapter, which now runs a gamut of social, educational and conflict-mediation services.
"We have 35 people who facilitate prevention and intervention programs for middle school youth, providing case managers for the 250 most disruptive or at-risk kids in the school," said Arias, president of the greater Los Angeles chapter of Communities in Schools.
The organization also works with the County Probation Department, helping 30 youngsters who are on probation on each of 40 middle school campuses, in addition to last-ditch, hard-core gang intervention efforts.
With more early intervention in youngsters' lives (in the tradition of Jack Jacobson), perhaps it wouldn't have been necessary to patrol the streets at 3 a.m., as Rodriguez did, maintaining peace treaties between gangs.
It's especially with early intervention that Rodriguez seeks help from the Jewish community.
"I think it's important that people recognize that there's a role for everyone to play," he said. "When Rabbi Alan Freehling was appointed to the Commission on Human Relations for the city of Los Angeles, he reached out to me."
After becoming the executive director of the commission, Freehling said, "One of the first people I met with was Rodriguez. I found him to be highly dedicated to ridding the city of gang violence."
"I believe the ties between [Communities in Schools] and the Jewish community would be most important because it would show another aspect of tikkun olam [heal the world]" Freehling said. "There needs to be an educational or economic alternative [to gangs], and that can only be offered by people in the business community who are ready to employ these young people."
Insofar as education, Rodriguez said, "some of my discussions in the Jewish community have been about bringing in mentor-tutors [for the youngsters]. Illiteracy is a huge problem."
"Most people live in a community where they don't experience gang violence," Deputy Chief Berman said. "They don't have a gun stuffed in their face and somebody saying, 'Give me your wallet.' They don't have loved ones who are cut down in the street."
"We're trying to raise the awareness of people who live in communities where they don't have gang members hanging out, that this is partially their problem, too, and they need to help," Berman continued.
County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky recently helped Communities in Schools acquire a new facility in Pacoima that will help connect young people with employment and academic assistance, to push them off the road to violence.
"We're already lining up the mentor-tutors to tie to it," Rodriguez said.
Both Rodriguez and Arias explained that mentors receive 10 hours of training through either UCLA or California State University Northridge.
"We're not going to put you in a situation where you're not prepared," Arias said. "And secondly, we truly believe this, I've been at this for 30 years: Love transcends all. When kids see that there are adults who are emotionally invested in their welfare, there's a bonding that takes place that transcends ethnicity, religion, any of that."
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