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Taking Conflict Out of the Community

Human Communication Studies Grad Students Aim to Reduce Gang Involvement

Dec. 5, 2012

Prior to 1952, the Maple Street community of Fullerton was the only area where people of color could buy property.

Through the early 1970s, this area consisted primarily of middle-class, two parent families. Residents supported and knew one another and Maple Elementary School served as the heart and soul of the community.

In 1972, Maple School was closed. Students from the community were bused to integrate other schools. The community was weakened and fragmented. Those who could afford it, moved out ... and gangs moved in.

The gangs often mentored newly arrived immigrant youth on how to survive in the Maple Street community. Many of the new families moving in were poor and only spoke Spanish. The dynamic created a void where there had once been community.

Then, in 1996, Maple School reopened and a new sense of community began to emerge. But by then, gangs had proliferated, and remain prevalent today.

However, there are signs of progress. Enter a group of Cal State Fullerton human communication studies graduate students and alumni. 

Since January, these students and alums, under the direction of Robert Emry, emeritus professor of speech communication, have been working with high school students in the area, teaching them how to develop skills in communications, dispute resolution, and assertiveness training, as well as how to develop plans for their further education. The high school students, in turn, work with elementary school pupils in after-school programs, teaching the younger students the same lessons they just learned.

The program, "Taking Conflict Out of the Community," is a joint venture between CSUF, the Fullerton Cooperative (a group of administrators, educators, activists, community service leaders and volunteers) and Solidarity Church. Bolstered by a $10,000 grant from the Judicial Arbitration and Mediation Services (JAMS) Foundation, the goal is to reduce gang involvement and help generate a sense of safety and engagement.

"This program brings a voice to this community," said Emry. "By offering a series of positive experiences, we provide an alternative to gangs. The program involves dimensions of peer mediation, strengthens the community and provides education to both learners and trainers.

"Equally important is that these relationships create a seamless process of support and information flow from elementary school through to college."

Teens discuss changes they wish to see and they learn the difference between aggression and assertion. They brainstorm ideas on how to deal with conflict. At the same time, they are encouraged to start planning for college.

According to one high school student, "It's not just the money (to pay for college).... You don't have all the information that students who have parents that (went to college) have. I look at all the people that ended up in jail, shot, in a gang doing drugs, and I look at their lives and I start comparing. I was just like them with nobody to invest in me, motivate me and inspire me. If I were on my own (not in the program), I would probably have ended up like them. So I think a lot of it is investing time in students and actually inspiring them to continue moving forward."

Efforts Recognized

Recently, Emry and his students were honored at a Fullerton City Council meeting and invited to describe their program at the recent Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU) 26th Annual Conference in Washington, D.C. 

Among the participants were graduate students Rebecca Avalos, Isaac Ramirez and Luis Ortiz, and alumni Yvette Ramirez and Jennifer Acosta-Licea.

"This has been an incredibly rewarding experience," said Ortiz. "It's challenging for us because of the age range of the students. We just have to keep recalling what we were like when we were teenagers and preteens."

Acosta-Licea credits the program with helping her learn to think on her feet.

"In classes, we would discuss certain activities and then we'd get to the schools and discover that the kids weren't interested or engaged," she said. "We had to learn to adapt and adjust to their interests and ages. We developed workshops focused on specific communication skills — each workshop would run from between three to five hours. Then the high school students would help us carry out these activities with the elementary students."

"These students are proud and smart," said Ramirez. "Our job was to harness that energy and pride and direct it in ways that not only benefit the students, but the community as well."

Emry recalled watching some of the early training sessions and seeing how much the elementary students responded not only to the high school students but to his graduate students.

"They'd see them and sort of acknowledge them," he said. "But then they'd start speaking Spanish and the little ones would just light up. They would explain that they were university students and teachers and professionals, and you could almost see a light bulb going off in these children's heads. In many ways, it was validating for the students."

Program Expansion

Emry credits the program's success to the immediacy and closeness of the students to one another. In fact, based on the positive outcomes of the Maple School program, in which 40 students are currently participating, the program is being expanded to include 250 students in the after-school program at Richmond Elementary School. 

"This was such a positive project in multiple ways," said Ortiz. "With this style of teaching, we'd get immediate feedback and that made us more open. That kind of environment engenders trust."

So how has the community benefited? Prior to the launch of this project, interviews were conducted with representatives from the Fullerton Police Department, as well as with community residents. Following the first semester, follow-up interviews were conducted.

Police officials indicated that they believed the program helped make gang involvement seem less attractive, and reduced overt gang activities and drug trafficking. It also was noted that collaboration between the various community groups helped community members feel safer.

Many community members believed their children were more confident and less combative because of the program. Residents with children in the public school system also perceived a drop in gang activity.

"Our goal was to provide young people with the tools through our win/win model, to resolve conflict effectively and increase self-concept clarity, while raising consciousness of higher education," said Emry. "And starting Nov. 30, we began working with Richman Elementary, tailoring and enhancing the initial pilot mentoring program. We look forward to the continuation of university efforts within the Fullerton community."

By: Valerie Orleans, 657-278-4540

Tags:  CommunityTitan Pride