On a cold, rainy Presidents Day when they could have been at the movies or playing video games, 14 San Bernardino teens gathered in the auditorium of an old church building to fight city hall over a handful of crumbs.
The kids were members of Inland Congregations United For Change (ICUC), a faith-based organization seeking to “address the needs of youth in the city of San Bernardino” through a student-oriented program called Pathway to Hope. Four days earlier, about 500 ICUC members, residents and city leaders had packed into Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church on 5th Street and called on the seven members of the city council to get off their collective asses and address the needs of San Bernardino’s youth. They were armed with the preliminary results of a recent ICUC survey of 7,613 San Bernardino high school students that revealed, among other things, a vast disconnect between what the youth of the city want and what their city leaders are willing to give them.
As indicated by its budgeting priorities, what city hall is willing to give the kids are more cops armed with more equipment. What the kids want, as indicated by the student survey, are after-school programs, jobs, and real solutions to the real problems they face every day—particularly racial tensions and violence in their schools.
The timing of the Our Lady of Guadalupe gathering—five days before a crucial council vote on youth program funding—was no coincidence. For more than a year, Pathway to Hope’s young members have tracked the progress of Measure Z, a quarter-cent sales tax initiative aimed at raising about $5.6 million for more cops and anti-gang programs, and Measure YY, which calls for all Measure Z revenue to be spent solely on cops, anti-gang and youth programs. San Bernardino voters overwhelmingly passed both measures in November 2005, and by February of this year, the council had earmarked all but eight percent—$114,000—of Measure Z’s initial $1.6 million yield for the police department.
Even then, the notion of turning over the remaining eight percent—mere crumbs of the Measure Z pie—to the city’s youth was more than city hall could bear. Dismissing the language of Measure YY as advisory only, a solid majority of the council indicated that, come Feb. 20, they would vote to spend the $114,000 balance on police equipment such as taser guns and bulletproof vests.
“The council majority has made it clear they want to spend (Measure Z funds) on police officers,” Councilman Neil Derry told the Weekly prior to the Feb. 20 vote. “YY has no legal authority. All it was was a sales pitch for Measure Z, to try to get people comfortable with it. You need to look at the rhetoric on this issue. Mailers were sent out with the mayor standing with uniformed officers, saying that Measure Z was about hiring more cops. The voters voted to put more police on the street. That’s what the voters want.”
Grasping the symbolic importance of the Feb. 20 vote, the ICUC on Feb. 15 organized the event at Our Lady of Guadalupe to demand the council quit cherry-picking the results of a municipal election and spend the Measure Z crumbs on the kids. Listening in the audience was Councilman Tobin Brinker—one of the council’s more vocal cherry pickers. Either hoping to staunch what was clearly becoming a public relations nightmare, or, as he told the Weekly, because he’s a school teacher genuinely concerned about kids, Brinker approached the ICUC leadership and suggested a private sit-down—just the councilman and a few of the young leaders of Pathway to Hope—to try to reach some kind of compromise.
Which brings us to the Presidents Day meeting. The Weekly was the only press invited to the gathering—not because we’re so good, but because Brinker was pissed off at the San Bernardino Sun for allegedly mischaracterizing his Measure Z stance.
“I’ve said at each meeting where we talked about this that I’d support these (youth) programs,” Brinker told the Weekly before the meeting. “I just won’t support them with Measure Z funds. I’m a schoolteacher—I recognize the value of programs. But while campaigning for Measure Z, I promised my constituents that I’d put that money toward law enforcement.”
Brinker used this same line of reasoning—that he couldn’t fund the youth programs through Measure Z because he promised the voters he wouldn’t—several times at the meeting. And each time he did, the teens politely pointed out the problem with that logic.
“It’s good that you want to keep your promises,” said Mireya Olguin, a 15-year-old Cajon High School sophomore. “But we were made promises, too. Our parents voted for Measure Z because it said some of the money would help these programs.”
Brinker tried a different tack. Wouldn’t the teens’ energies be better spent, he asked, by focusing on the next batch of anticipated Measure Z funds? The council will decide in June or July what to do with an additional $5.6 million, he reasoned, and the teens were far more likely to find success then than now. Brinker sweetened the deal by saying close to $1 million would be available later “for a variety of programs, including youth programs.”
The kids weren’t buying it. They knew exactly what they wanted, and they wanted it now.
“If youth will get money in June, and the cops are getting money now, why can’t we just switch that around and give us the money now?” asked 18-year-old Cajon senior Jonathan Garcia.
Brinker answered: “Because that’s not what I promised the voters.”
“I recognize what you’re saying,” he added. “It does seem kind of silly. But, in my mind, it makes sense.”
Of course it did. Pressed by 17-year-old Arroyo Valley High senior Blanca Ortega on why the issue was so important to him, Brinker admitted that his campaigning for Measure Z was a key reason why he was elected to the council in the first place. Now faced with the choice of either giving the kids what they wanted or keeping his campaign promises, Brinker was sticking with the one that brought him to the dance.
The discussion went back and forth like this, with neither side budging, until Brinker grew exasperated.
“I respect you guys for sticking to your guns,” he said. “I am trying to find a compromise.”
Then, in the spirit of compromise, he informed the teens that he planned to vote on spending all the Measure Z funds on law enforcement.
The next day, before an overflow crowd of hundreds of sign-waving students and parents, the council unanimously voted to spend all the initial Measure Z funds on police and police-related equipment. Gazing out at the sea of angry faces, however, the council also voted to spend $114,000 out of the city’s reserves on “crime-prevention and intervention spending,” including $75,000 to start up a Police Activities League.
For the young leaders of Pathway to Hope, it was a tiny, fractional, infuriatingly patronizing concession, but a concession nonetheless. The kids had affected change in their community.
It was in the spirit of that belief—that a handful of underserved, disadvantaged and politically marginalized young men and women could make a difference if they worked hard enough—that prompted ICUC organizer Tom Dolan to close the Presidents Day meeting by asking the teens what they had learned.
“That we have power!” they answered in one voice.
Throughout the first week of February, teen members of Inland Congregations United for Change surveyed 7,613 San Bernardino high school students on what they felt were the key problems facing them in their community. Here are some of their preliminary findings:
●72 percent of the surveyed students said they experienced violence in their schools. 48 percent said they had personally been victims of violence.
●53 percent said they had been verbally harassed at school because of their race. 85 percent said programs were needed to address racism.
●1,707 surveyed students who didn’t have jobs said they wanted one. 2,721 said there weren’t enough after-school activities.
●78 percent felt campus security showed little or no respect for students. 82 percent believed that few if any additional security personnel were needed.