A literary organization tackles California gang violence

by Taylor Wiles

When Colleen Bailey became head of the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, Calif., a few years ago, she asked locals what they wanted from the organization. The response surprised her: "Solve our gang problem, please."

But it also made sense. The Center is highly visible and can muster significant resources. And Salinas, despite its proud reputation as the heart of the "salad bowl of the world" -- a valley which produces 80 percent of the nation's lettuce -- and as the hometown of Nobel Prize-winning author John Steinbeck, is plagued by violence. The number of gang members per capita in Salinas, population 150,000, is several times the national average; in 2009 and 2010, Monterey County, where it is located, had the highest youth homicide rate in the state.

"(Gangs have) caused a division in the community," says Bailey, a petite and energetic brunette who grew up in Salinas. "People who live where I do in south Salinas will not cross into the east side. And people in the east will not cross to the south side." So Bailey is slowly turning the Steinbeck Center -- formerly a purely literary enterprise -- into a healing community resource center.

Since its establishment in 1998, the organization has struggled to find its place in a predominantly Spanish-speaking community, where the fight for survival takes priority over literature. A 19-year-old named Jennifer at Silver Star -- a gang-intervention program within the county probation department -- says she has "never set foot" in the Center. "As far as I know, it's like a museum or something."  And the Center does, in fact, celebrate Steinbeck's life and literature, hosting special exhibits as well as an annual Steinbeck Festival that draws academics from across the world.

Yet Bailey, who oversees a staff of 11, is slowly making it more relevant to people like Jennifer. She spearheaded the re-creation of its mission, with a vision for implementation that explicitly seeks to address gang violence and better engage the community. Salinas' violence correlates directly with its high school dropout rates, according to the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey. To help kids stay engaged and out of trouble, Bailey and her staff have continued to augment and refine a Steinbeck-related curriculum that the Center developed with local schools in 2002, including improvements for kids learning English. This winter, 4,000 students and 23 schools participated.

Steinbeck's fiction is ideal because it's accessible and relevant, with its heroic farmworkers, down-and-out cannery row residents and focus on social injustice. "It's stunning, the parallels between how exploited the Okie farmworkers were and what's happening with Mexican farmworkers," says Natalie Bernasconi, a teacher at La Paz Middle School in East Salinas, who helped develop the middle school curriculum. "Those issues are still so poignant for our students and their parents, many of whom are farmworkers."

And despite all the local criticism he endured for writing about Salinas' seedy underbelly, Steinbeck -- who died in 1968 -- still has insider cred as a local himself, and students identify with the landscapes in his books. The Gabilan Mountains in The Red Pony and Of Mice and Men, for example, are visible from the La Paz campus.

The middle school curriculum culminates in the Center's annual Young Authors essay contest, wherein a few dozen standout students are asked to relate The Red Pony to a personal experience. Sarah Smith, who teaches seventh-graders with some of the lowest English language skills at La Paz -- where close to 90 percent of the students are "English Language Learners" -- says the curriculum and competition excite her students, ultimately helping them do better on state tests.  Among them, she says, are the kids "who are hit up on the street and jumped in" to gangs. Even before that, she says, "Everybody has a color. They're not going to say it to me, but they lean one way or the other." Norteño -- the dominant gang -- is red, and Sureño is blue.

Twelve-year-old Jovany -- one of two students Smith sent to the essay contest this April -- has a good chance at first place in the English Learners' category. She hopes it will help keep him on track; one of his older brothers dropped out of Alisal High in East Salinas -- as 15 percent of its students do -- and now sprays graffiti around town.

Bailey is currently working with the Monterey Bay Aquarium on a high school curriculum that incorporates science as well as literature. Still, as Smith acknowledges, the Center is not a daily presence in most students' lives, and the building itself is a 10-minute drive from East Salinas.

Hoping to reach more young people, the Center supports extracurricular programs, providing gathering space and grants, and holding events for organizations like Silver Star and a new anti-violence group called Juntos Podemos. In 2010, Bailey took on daily management of Sherwood Hall, a beloved but deteriorating community center that the city had threatened to close.

On a recent afternoon, a giddy group of elementary and middle school students filed into the building, which has been renamed the Steinbeck Institute for Arts and Culture, producing a musical cacophony at three pianos and a couple of guitars before starting orchestra, band, recorder and choir practice. This is the Youth Orchestra Salinas, which meets here every weekday. About 100 of the most underserved local kids participate in the program, which is partly funded by a Steinbeck Center grant.

Orchestra instructor Camilo Ortiz says this is a critical age for intercepting future gang members: "If they're engaged with their instruments, then we know that they might go home and practice instead of going outside and finding something they shouldn't find."

The Center is also working hard on outreach. Last fall, Bailey hired former TV anchor Esmeralda Montenegro Owen, who has built a media committee that creates Spanish-language PSAs for local TV and radio to raise awareness of the Center. The committee also invites locals like Silver Star manager Bob Reyes to meet and brainstorm on community issues. "I wouldn't have even dreamed about this six years ago, " Reyes says, "Steinbeck and Silver Star." This summer, Owen hopes to start a Steinbeck Institute for adults -- a Spanish-language informational program on gang prevention, health, education and literacy.

Of course, the Center has critics. "I don't see a lot of would-be gangsters coming around the Steinbeck Center," says a server at a nearby restaurant. "And playing the flute isn't going to stop any gangs." He thinks the organization should offer hip-hop, graffiti art or skateboarding programs.

Actually, the Center already offers such programs. Soon after Bailey became executive director, the Center distributed skateboard decks to anyone who wanted to create a piece of art for an exhibition called "What the Deck?" The organization has also hosted graffiti artists and spoken-word poets. Though it's hard to measure the effects of such efforts, there's no question that they're reaching some kids. Some of Bernasconi's former students saw a slam poetry performance and "their jaws dropped," she says. "It was like they heard their own lives." They've since emerged as local youth leaders and started slam poetry clubs at the local high schools. They use poetry to speak against violence and even held peace rallies this year and last. "I've watched them get standing ovations by adults," Bernasconi says proudly. "That's how powerful their words are."

Bob Reyes hopes this is only the beginning: "Even if it's just one or two kids who see Steinbeck and say I want to read, or I want to write, that's one or two kids we don't have to deal with down the road."

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