Lawmakers hear about disparities

SACRAMENTO -- When it comes to young men of color, Francisco Gutiérrez considers himself one of the lucky ones.

He emigrated from México with his family when he was two yeas old, and spent much of his youth in the streets with his cousins and family members, some of whom were involved in gangs, he said. He was in ninth grade when one of his closest friends was killed in a drive-by shooting.

"I was lucky enough to have support to help me get through that loss... to get me back on the right track, help me graduate, and help me get where I am today," said Gutiérrez, a 22-year-old Sacramento City College student. "But not everyone is as lucky as me to have that support, and not everyone knows where to go for help."

Gutiérrez was one of a handful of young men of color who shared his riveting story of struggle and success last Wednesday afternoon during the first hearing of the Assembly Select Committee on the Status of Boys and Men of Color. Their personal accounts were underscored by the testimony of community leaders and experts, who described the gross disparities in health, education, incarceration and violence impacting boys and young men of color statewide.

The hearing was the first in a series to be held throughout the state later this fall. The committee, chaired by Assemblyman Sandré R. Swanson, D-Oakland, intends to develop strategies to end the cycle of poverty, violence and prison that ensnares young men of color, and improve their graduation rates, access to health services, education, and access to meaningful employment.

During the hearing, speakers called for policy changes that would support Latino, African American, Native American and Asian young men in the classroom and in the workforce, and prevent them from going to jail in disproportionate numbers.

In California -- where 70 percent of those under 18 are children of color, and in the United States, where half of all residents are projected to be people of color by 2040 -- these changes are crucial to ensure the health and success of not just young men, but of the state and nation, said Angela Glover Blackwell, founder and chief executive officer of PolicyLink.

"We are not just looking at groups of people who are being left behind," she said. "We are looking at a state that is going to be left behind, and a nation that is going to be left behind, if we don't invest in those who are the future."

Fong Tran, who grew up in a refugee family in South Sacramento, as one of five children raised by a single mother, also stressed the importance of investing in young men of color at an early age.

In his testimony, Tran, a graduate of the UC Berkeley, talked about his older brother, who was once an alienated teenager who spoke little English and dropped out of school during the 10th grade. Tran said his older brother joined a gang and was arrested three times before he received vocational training, which eventually allowed him to become a successful contractor.

"The sole reason that our paths differentiated was that I had opportunities and resources that he did not have growing up," said Tran, a youth specialist at Asian Resources Community Service in Sacramento. "We can't make that same mistake as a state. We have to make that investment now and not later, otherwise we'll pay for it."

One important way to alter the future outcomes for young men of color is be to transform school disciplinary policies, said Dr. Robert Ross, president and chief executive officer for The California Endowment. These well-meaning policies, which were strengthened due to concerns about increased bullying and school violence, have unintentionally stigmatized and marginalized young men of color, he said.

"Young people have said to us that 'the on ramp to the incarceration superhighway in this country are these ineffective and wrong-headed school policies,'" Ross said.

According to a 2009 study prepared by the RAND Corporation and funded by The California Endowment, black Californians over age 25 are twice as likely to be without a high school diploma as whites, and Latinos in the state are seven times more likely to be without a high school degree. Black men are 5.5 times more likely than white men to go to prison in their lifetime, and Latino men are 2.9 times more likely to go to prison.

Irvis Orozco, a student leader who has worked in the fields in order to study at UC Davis, witnessed that trend among his own friends, he said. Some of them, he said, had problems at home, and were being pushed out of school and into the prison system.

"I know most of these kids needed some type of mentoring instead of prison," Orozco said.

Experts also testified about specific education, juvenile justice, employment, and health challenges facing young men of color, and innovative local programs that have targeted these issues.

These types of programs are crucial to improving the situation, which Assemblyman V. Manuel Pérez, D-Coachella, described as a matter of social and economic justice, but also a very personal one.

"I grew up in the barrios of Coachella... and unfortunately, many of my friends are no longer here as a result of youth violence, as a result of the drug war, as a result of perhaps a lack of infrastructure, a lack of jobs, a lack of parks, a lack of better schools, a lack of perhaps mentoring and guidance," Pérez said.

"I'm fortunate to be here and blessed, and I see it as our responsibility to do what we can to make sure we create conditions that are conducive for all people to flourish and be successful no mater what color they are of where the come from."

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