Proyecto 360 uses street cred to educate families about gangs.
Thursday, March 26, 2009
Former gang members, juvies and drug addicts have banded together to renew a Salinas youth violence prevention program.
Antonio Avalos, who used to run Barrios Unidos, recently resurrected his anti-gang activism under the name Proyecto 360. The name envisions an individual turning around, full circle, from a gang lifestyle to helping kids escape the dangerous path. The program’s volunteers are living proof that this is possible. “All our facilitators have experienced firsthand the hardships of drugs violence and gangs,” Avalos says.
“IF THE KIDS WANT HELP, THERE ARE PEOPLE LIKE ME TO GUIDE THEM.”
Avalos, a former Sureño gang member, has enlisted ex-gang members such as Frank Fuentes and Shi Cota to give workshops to families about why youth get involved in gangs. Carol Edeza, who was in and out of Juvenile Hall as a teenager, also plans to work with Avalos on a stop-the-violence poster contest for elementary kids.
“I’m just doing this for the kids,” Edeza says. “If they want help, there are people like me here to guide them.” Edeza turned around her life after treatment at the Probation Department’s Youth Center and getting a tattoo removed through Second Chance. “I don’t know where I’d be if it wasn’t for all these programs,” she says.
Avalos stopped running Salinas’ Barrios Unidos chapter in 2005 after he went to jail for not paying child support. Avalos, who maintains his innocence, says the eight-month jail sentence prevented him from providing for his family. “County jail is just like prison,” Avalos says. “It makes you bitter or better. For me it made me bitter.”
But after a record 25 homicides last year, Avalos says it was clear his gang prevention work was needed. Avalos, who talks in laid-back Spanglish, gives a different take on gangs than law enforcement officials do. He says some gang experts stereotype kids as gangsters based on the clothing they wear. “My son is 22 years old,” Avalos says. “His team is 49ers. Is he a gang member? No. But according to the experts he is a gang member because he wears 49ers.”
Avalos drew criticism from conservative bloggers for collaborating with Sara Gracia, who stepped down from the Police Community Advisory Commission last year after public outcry over her relationship with Norteño gang member Robert Patrick Hanrahan.
Gracia worked with Barrios Unidos for several years doing G.A.N.A.S. (Gangs Are Not A Solution) counseling for at-risk girls. Gracia says she was inspired to help youth find alternatives to gangs because her brothers were gang-involved, adding that this insight is critical for gang intervention to work. “The problem with the gang issue in Salinas is you have the powers that be that fight it, and yet they don’t understand it,” she says.
Outgoing Police Chief Dan Ortega say he supports Proyecto 360’s mission. “I wish [Avalos] well and success if, in fact, they are going to be helping kids stay out of gangs and get out of gangs,” Ortega says.
Proyecto 360 has been slow to get off the ground since Avalos has a day job selling furniture and no operating budget. But Avalos is planning a four-direction peace run and youth conference in coming months. He also wants to start a magazine showcasing positive role models. His stated goal: To counter the fear that is sweeping Salinas with hope for peace.