By Margaret T. Simpson
Maria “Lou” Calanche believes in dreams. But Calanche, a community activist since her teens, knows that residents of the Ramona Gardens housing project need leadership skills to turn their dreams into reality. As Executive Director of the Boyle Heights non-profit Legacy LA, she works with parents and at-risk teens to find alternatives to the gangs, violence and drug addiction that perpetuate the cycle of incarceration, teen pregnancy and low graduation rates.
Headquartered in the former Hazard Park Armory it leases from the City of Los Angeles, Legacy LA offers programs in youth leadership, tutoring and gang intervention. New projects include a young men’s book club, cooking classes for teen girls and a mentoring program.
Legacy LA is in its third year of operation with funding from the Mayor’s Office of Gang Reduction and Youth Development, L.A. Department of Recreation and Parks and private foundations.
Calanche grew up in the Ramona Gardens neighborhood. She is a professor of political science at East Los Angeles College and has been active in community advocacy in Boyle Heights for many years.
In March, 2010, she was named 45th Assembly District Woman of the Year by Assembly Member Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles). She received the Unsung Hero Award from Madres del Este de Los Angeles (MELASI) and is the former chairperson of the LAPD Hollenbeck Community Police Advisory Board.
In this interview, she talks about the challenges and rewards of leading Legacy LA through its next phase of programs.
You’re the first executive director of Legacy LA, but you’ve been involved in the community for many years.
When I was in elementary school there was a leadership program for 4th-6th grades. The kids were able to do something with their lives. I said one day I’m going to come back to my neighborhood and develop a leadership program. When I was 19, I started a program for local girls — a sports program at Hazard Park. It became very successful.
Before I became Executive Director in late 2007, I volunteered at Ramona Gardens. I wanted to empower women. The moms wanted three things: a youth center with more opportunities for kids, better education to improve the low graduation rate and ways to deal with neighborhood tension from gang issues and police. The moms started visiting youth centers to get ideas about what they wanted, and the Legacy idea came up because the Armory became vacant.
You see a connection between family problems and teen behavior with gangs and substance abuse.
That’s a huge issue in this community. A lot of these kids live in single-parent households. A lot of them have their dads and family members in prison. There’s a direct connection with an unstable home and the kids being in trouble.
Once the kids are out of school, after 3:30, there’s nothing for them to do. So then it becomes really easy to get into a gang: mom’s not home, mom’s working, mom’s on drugs. There’s alcohol abuse, or they’re abused. Even the moms who want to be in the lives of their kids feel guilty because there’s no dad, and they don’t want to punish the kids. The issues in the home are directly connected to being high-risk. The big issue is drug use for the teens. Nobody’s watching — it’s really, really easy. That just starts all the problems. Some kids are super resilient, even with very unstable homes, but that’s not the norm
There’s a tendency to want to just put them away. We need to help the young people in our community who are on drugs and in the gangs.
Talk about some of the specific problems you encounter with teens.
By L.A. city law, if you’re a known gang member, the city puts you on an injunction. Gang members have to be served with injunction papers. It limits what you can do. You can’t hang out, and two gang members can’t be seen together. It’s been very punitive. Most of the guys in the neighborhood are on the injunction.
The gang injunction also creates other issues for cops and politicians. Gang members move to other areas and recruit in new areas.
The girls are really in trouble. They’re engaging in behavior worse than the boys — using drugs and inhalants. They want to hang out and get high, and they’re preyed upon by older gang guys. The first step is hanging out, the next step is pregnancy.
It took a while to get older girls to commit, to build that trust and rapport. We have to have incentives. They were just hanging out in the street, in the projects. The older girls are going to start the cooking class; it’s what they wanted. Little by little, it’s changing. We’re planning a hiking trip next weekend.
One of your new projects is a young men’s book discussion group.
We started with the gangs in Ramona Gardens. It was a way to get them together so they can talk about their issues and struggles. They read The Alchemist by Paul Coelho. It has a lot of symbolism; it’s about a journey and making your way, making choices. It resonated with them. They’d take turns reading and discussing how it connects to their lives. It helped to work on their literacy skills.
We just started another book club with the younger, high-school age guys who were getting into trouble, testing the water. These are very at-risk kids, boys already involved with the gang. For them it’s cool because the older guys liked it. Their only role models are the older guys. We’re making reading cool, and it’s working.
Legacy LA was just awarded its second grant from the California Endowment.
The award was funded in January. It’s a two-year youth leadership program for $150,000 each year. The kids will be working on campaigns to develop a healthy community in Ramona Gardens including access to healthy food, the gang injunction issue, improving air quality and decreasing access to alcohol and drugs. We have a youth council with four youth leading each of the four campaigns.
How will your work with at-risk youth improve health care?
While working in Boyle Heights to develop the plan for the Endowment, we talked to residents. One of the target outcomes was to increase access to health care. But it wasn’t something that was a priority because so many young men were in trouble.
The kids who are doing drugs — there’s something that’s missing in their lives. We have to build them up as individuals and strengthen them internally to make better choices. We’re building them up because nobody else does. They have so many obstacles in their homes and their community. Part of it is showing them that we care about them: so you were arrested, now you’re out, what’s the plan? No judgment. Then they can get health care because they care about themselves. They can think about preventive care.
What are some of the unique challenges of Ramona Gardens residents?
I grew up in this neighborhood as well. When I came back to the neighborhood in 2007, I started to work with moms as agents of change. When I was growing up there was still a sense of hope, but these moms had very little hope. They were just happy if their kids graduated from high school and didn’t get into a gang. People became acclimated to the environment. This is Ramona Gardens; this is how we’re supposed to live our lives. They don’t see past it.
People are very dated, very distrustful of outsiders coming in. It’s even been difficult for us, and all my staff grew up here. It’s an intact neighborhood where people don’t necessarily leave. That’s good and bad. For a lot of them, this is all there is; there’s nothing outside of Ramona Gardens. Even if they get evicted from the projects, there’s a residential area outside the projects, and they move there.
But the world is huge. Our job is to show them. It’s labor intensive work.
You believe in dreams as vehicles of change.
If you dream big, big things will happen. If you have small dreams, small things will happen. The mothers wanted more youth programs. The Armory became available, and we organized to bring programs to the Armory. It’s pretty exciting. Because people don’t leave, I see us doing long-term things like the Harlem Children’s Zone. We’re just at the beginning of this. We can start with 2nd grade kids and work with them until they go to college. So the norm is to go to college, not the exception. You can do a long-term investment and track them into college for 12-13 years. So that’s possible. It’s about changing their whole environment.
You have a new mentoring program in the works.
We’re trying to create opportunities for these kids. As we become the mentors, we see the difference we’re making in their lives. Even the book group wasn’t about the books so much as it was about being with adults who cared about them. But there’s a real need for mentoring.
We’re looking for funding and have submitted some proposals for a two-year grant. It takes a lot of work to manage kids. We’re also looking for adults who have gotten out of the drug culture. The more positive mentors they have, the better.
What is your biggest challenge for the future of Legacy LA?
I have to build the infrastructure and develop the capacity of the people who live here to run it. I’ve been that person people turn to, but I need to think about how in 8-10 years this can still exist without me by building leadership and capacity.
If we can build a successful program, we can build impact. It’s not just for Ramona Gardens, but for the surrounding area. I’m happy to say that we’re going on our third year. It’s incredible to be able to get funding for a start-up organization like this.
My goal is to develop a program to last for a very long time.