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Location, Location, Location: Contested Public Space Means Moving Watts School Could Deny Some Education

10:00 AM PDT on May 14, 2014

Carlos Penate speaks to the crowd of INSPIRE students about what the school means to him. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog
Carlos Penate speaks to the crowd of INSPIRE students about what the school means to him at a rally yesterday. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

"They say they care about our safety, but they're putting us in harm's way!"

It is a refrain I've heard several times over the last month from students of INSPIRE Research Academy, a state-subsidized continuation school based at YO! Watts that offers 17-24-year-olds a free education and a rare second chance to get their high school diplomas.

The students are referring to Councilmember Joe Buscaino's bid to take over the city-owned YO! Watts building (housing the offices and staff of YO! Watts and INSPIRE), and possibly the old library on the same lot (currently utilized as a rec center, classroom, all-purpose community room, and storage area for the bike program's bicycles) and Firehouse 65 (a building attached to YO! Watts that is structurally sound but which has been boarded up for the last several years).*

His offices are currently located next door, in the Chase Bank Building, where the city pays $126,000 in rent.** The potential sale of that building and the desire of the councilmember to lay the foundation for the re-creation of the Watts Civic Center, find a home for Operation Progress, and offer the community more services from a city-owned building where rent would be minimal are all behind the decision to relocate.

The rec center (old library) is at left. The YO! Watts building is at center, left (the right portion of the building is a boarded up firehouse). At right is the Chase Bank Bldg., where the councilman's current office is located. (Google maps)
The rec center (old library) is at top, left. The YO! Watts building is at center, left (the right portion of the building is a boarded up firehouse). At right, is the Chase Bank Bldg., where the councilmember's office is currently located. (Google maps)

However, a move into the YO! Watts complex would necessitate the displacement of all or part of INSPIRE, and possibly that of the Youth Opportunities program that has offered at-risk teens and young adults a vocational, educational, career, and social support system in the form of job readiness training, GED/college/SAT preparation, paid internships, occupational skills training, tutoring, life-skills training, and mentoring at that site for over a decade.

Perhaps cognizant of what a blow this might be in an area with tremendous need but precious few resources for older teens, both Buscaino and his Deputy Chief of Staff, Jacob Haik, suggested to Fox 11 in April that a move would offer the school the much-needed opportunity to grow and flourish.

Citing “keep[ing] student safety as a primary concern” and “provid[ing] them with a solid, safe learning environment” as being among their priorities, they claimed that the school had outgrown its facilities when enrollment jumped from 25 to 200 in just two years.

And, despite efforts by INSPIRE staff to set the record straight about enrollment – it has never exceeded 150 and currently stands at 121 – Buscaino’s office has continued to make the case that the buildings are overcrowded, that students packed into the basement set of offices and computer center in YO! Watts constitute a fire hazard, that the YO! Watts building may not even be up to code, and that the current set-up in the rec center – where heavy draperies are all that mark the partitions between class “rooms” – constitute a less-than-ideal learning environment.

While it is true that the school’s facilities are far from ideal on paper, current students, INSPIRE staff, and those speaking off the record from YO! Watts (who have been told not to speak on the matter by the city) question the extent to which youth welfare is a genuine concern of the the councilmember’s office and whether any solutions they offer will be truly attuned to the youths’ needs.

This is due, in part, to the condescension with which they believe they have been treated.

Signs protest the potential displacement of the INSPIRE Research Academy outside YO! Watts. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog
Signs protest the potential displacement of the INSPIRE Research Academy outside the April community forum held at YO! Watts. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

At a community forum on the issue called by INSPIRE last month, for example, Buscaino’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Jacob Haik, voiced his displeasure at the school’s administrators for having made the matter public. Likening it to a family discussion about financial matters, he admonished the gathering of staff and students (almost all of whom present were legal adults), saying that it was inappropriate for kids to be brought into the parents’ conversation about what was best for them.

More recently, that point was reiterated to the LA Weekly by a spokesperson for the councilmember who complained derisively, "The guy who runs [INSPIRE], instead of engaging us, he engaged the students to protest - way too early in the process…We gave them the space. They grew way too big. They don't want to have a real dialogue about it. They want to protest."

That “guy who runs [INSPIRE],” Executive Director Alejandro Covarrubias, argues that not only are those claims categorically untrue, but that it is precisely the lack of transparency and disinterest in dialogue on the part of the councilman’s office that forced them to make their fight public.

Although he and other staff of both the school and YO! Watts had known for some time that the councilmember was eyeing up their building(s), he said, dialogue with the councilmember’s office had been difficult of late.

In January, Buscaino’s staff rescinded an offer to explore an agreement that could have moved INSPIRE into Firehouse 65 and then continued to deflect multiple requests for a meeting with the councilmember to discuss other options (until finally agreeing to sit down with them just last week).

Then, on March 25th, Buscaino caught everyone off guard by declaring to the crowd gathered at YO! Watts for the mayoral press conference announcing 10,000 summer jobs that his offices would be moving into the rec center later this year.

The unexpected announcement and his departure before any questions could be asked sent the students present into a panic. A tearful Kimberly Calzadilla made a beeline for the podium where Mayor Eric Garcetti stood and nervously choked out a request that he not allow the school to be taken away from her and other students (below).

"You have to give us a place to get a job, right?" she asked. "[And] you need a high school diploma [to get a job]; you need to learn from somewhere...If this building, this place [Buscaino] named, will be taken away from us, how will we get [one of the 10,000] summer jobs if you don't have your high school diploma?

"That's not happening," the mayor said, turning to the crowd. "I can assure you that's not happening here. We're not going to let that happen...We love you, we love the program. They're not things that are going to be kicked out of here. And, it's just as important that, when summer ends, that you have a place to land. And, clearly, you have a place of love and progress, and you'll stay right here."

But, the fact that the councilmember is looking to move into at least one of the buildings in the next few months (thereby forcing the displacement of a sizable number of students) makes students and administrators afraid that the “process” which Haik and other spokespeople accuse them of disrespecting has almost completely passed them by.

Taking their case to the public sphere by hosting the forum last month and another rally last week, they believed, was their last hope for being heard.

Students sign in for the April community forum. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog
Students sign in for the April community forum. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Beyond their issues with being treated with condescension is the very real fear that the councilmember and his staff lack an understanding of what constitutes safety in a community where practically every square inch of public space is claimed or contested territory.

"There are spaces our young people can't go because they are affiliated with another part of Watts," Covarrubias explained at the April forum.

The "clear and divisive lines" marking the more than 20 gang territories that carve up the community mean that just getting to campus can be a tremendous challenge for many of their students.

It's not just a problem for INSPIRE's youth.

In 2010, when the community debated whether to put a skate park at Ted Watkins Park or the Watts Towers, LAPD Capt. Tingirides told the L.A. Times that the location would be a key factor in determining access.

Students from Markham Middle School (at 104th and Compton), for example, might be able to get to a facility at the Watts Towers, as the bridge over the Blue Line tracks is within reach of their campus and not claimed by a gang. Those same students might be less likely to feel they could either make it through the four or so blocks to Ted Watkins Park unmolested (at 103rd and Central) or, depending on where they lived, get safely home from there once they did.

Five blocks in Watts can be a long way in terms of where people will actually travel," Tingirides explained at the time. "There are so many invisible lines that people won’t cross.”

And, although he stated one of his top priorities was dissolving those lines, he made clear he understood that the fact that they had been in place for generations made the task that much more challenging. The divisions are as deeply ingrained in culture and perception as they are in anything tangible, he acknowledged, and are therefore not easily overcome.

Both the students of INSPIRE and the younger teens that utilize YO! Watts' services are at the age where they feel these divisions most acutely.

Many who have lost classmates, friends, and family to gang violence or who are still working to avoid or transition themselves out of that life know the very real consequences of being caught in the wrong place at the wrong time by the wrong person. So, they choose their transportation modes, routes, and destinations accordingly.

For Nicole Harrison, the student who accompanied Covarrubias to the meeting with Buscaino and his staff last Wednesday, it was frustrating to find that the very people tasked with protecting her interests seemed to have so little grasp of the dynamics that affected the mobility of their most vulnerable constituents.

Ticking off the list of potential new homes for INSPIRE the councilman's office had suggested, she described how youth that grew up near or were affiliated with Grape St. (Crips) would not be able to travel to the Watts Labor Community Action Committee (WLCAC), located at 108th and Central, in Blood territory. The Bradley-Milken Youth and Family Center, although only a handful of blocks east of YO! Watts on 103rd St., is nestled within reach of Grape St., and therefore off limits to those coming from Bounty Hunter (Blood) territory. A space within Locke High School would present similar, if not more, obstacles.

Moving the school, she concluded, would effectively deny many current and future students access to the very education that could help them transcend the constraints the community had put upon them.

But, she and Covarrubias complained, instead of seeing her feedback as valuable, Buscaino’s staff minimized her concerns and told Covarrubias not to bring kids to the next meeting.

Students from INSPIRE rally at the Watts Towers to save their school. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog
Students from INSPIRE rally at the Watts Towers last week to save their school. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

None of this means that YO! Watts’ location is perfect, either – it sits across from a housing development with a very active gang presence and youth may have to cross through multiple gang territories to get there from their homes. But, it does happen to be in a neutral enough pocket that they say they have grown accustomed to – if not completely comfortable with – traveling to.

Knowing that they will be in a safe and welcoming environment when they arrive has also helped convince the youth that the trek is worth the risk.

The staff and security guard on site are diligent in banishing any signs of or claims to gang/neighborhood affiliation youth still caught up in that mentality might make. While that can be a real adjustment for those who have been defined by where they were "from" for most of their lives, many credit the policy with allowing them to relax in school for the first time, be successful at internships, and make friends with kids that, under normal circumstances, might have been their mortal enemies.

The Los Ryderz bike program, first launched by Javier "JP" Partida two years ago, helps make some of that harmony possible by drawing much of its pool of riders from students at INSPIRE. Partida has structured his club so that riders learn discipline, responsibility, how to look out for each other, how to positively engage people in their community, and how to defuse confrontations. Former gang members who were once afraid to be seen in public or cross through certain areas now ride all over the city with the club and take pride in being seen as a force for good in the community. Some even escorted Buscaino on his bike ride to the inauguration ceremony at the Watts Towers.

A number of the youth cite participation in the club as motivating them to stay in school, to be better people, and to begin dreaming about their futures. And, crucially for many, the club has given them a surrogate family unit they can rely on, break bread with, or enjoy a kickball game with on the weekends.

YO! Watts' staff are also key to making the place successful in ways that are hard to quantify. While they are unable to comment on the current situation, I can attest to observing them consistently going above and beyond aiding with job placement, counseling, or college enrollment to make sure youth can sustain their successes once they are out in the world. I’ve even seen caseworker Malik Manani use his own financial resources to help kids who lack access to credit cards purchase college textbooks so they don’t get behind in school.

Hyper-aware they may be the only stable resource a youth has in their life, Manani and other staff are always willing to act as sounding boards or provide shoulders to cry on. Their work has had lasting impacts – older adults I've met around the community still credit those caseworkers for putting them on a positive path years prior.

The comprehensive combination of the school, bike club, mentors, and gateway to a better future in one trusted and accessible place is what has helped INSPIRE students like William, profiled here, make the transformation from a sullen and aggressive gang-banger who was kicked out of several schools to universally-beloved college-bound community leader in just two years’ time.

It's not a gift he takes for granted.

"This was my last chance," he said at a rally held by students at the Watts Towers last Wednesday. "If it wasn't for INSPIRE, I don't know where I would be right now. I'd probably be on the street, not doing nothing productive with my life."

The slogan on students t-shirts is in response to their belief that some in Buscaino's office see them as more trouble than they are worth. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog
The slogan on students' t-shirts is in response to their belief that some in Buscaino's office see them as more trouble than they are worth. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

As an observer who has spent a lot of time at YO! Watts over the last couple of years, I can tell you that watching the students rally for their school has been fascinating.

Most of these young people have spent the greater part of their lives believing that no one cared about their fate and that their own voices had no value.

And, the fact that these youth -- some of whom are far more accustomed to using fisticuffs (or worse) to settle their battles -- have chosen to take on the most powerful office in the community by lobbying for dialogue speaks volumes both about how much they have gained from being at INSPIRE and about how much having a safe refuge means to them.

Their fight has also underscored how tenuous their situation is. Move the school and risk losing a significant portion of the student body. De-link the bike program or the caseworkers from the school, and the intensive support system required to keep the youth on track begins to crumble.

Even with all this complexity, it would seem that there is a tremendous opportunity here for collaboration between the city and the youth.

If Buscaino wants to remake the Watts Civic Center and inject new dynamism into the community, why not plan for a way to do so that allows the school to remain in place and intact, and incorporates the very youth of the area that have come to believe in the need for greater civic engagement?

Such an approach would already be in line with INSPIRE's larger mission, which seeks to help students, in collaboration with local scholars, inform local policy by identifying and investigating important issues of interest to the community as part of their educational coursework. [Some of INSPIRE's students were even involved in helping to gather data for the Watts Community Studio project (a survey effort similarly aimed at informing local policy priorities) supported by Buscaino's office last summer (see data results here).]

It would also fit with the efforts of the Los Ryderz bike program, which may be the single-most effective effort at transforming youths' lives and relationships with the public space that I've seen in a very long time.

And, perhaps most importantly, it might even fit with the kinds of contributions that students are looking to make in their community.

"We're cleaning up the streets by coming to school," student Calzadilla told Jacob Haik at the April community forum, in reference to her and other students' checkered pasts.

"We're not here [just] to be heard. We're here to be somebody."

Students sign their name to an "I Was Inspired in Watts" board after an April rally held in the wake of Buscaino's announcement to move his office. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog
Students sign their names to a board that reads "I Was Inspired in Watts" after an April rally held in the wake of Buscaino's announcement to move his office. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

*"Possibly" is used both because the councilmember looked first at the rec center before turning his attention to the municipal building and, it is important to note, because no move is as yet set in stone.

**Much has been said about the fact that the school does not pay rent. While it is true that the school does not pay "rent" per se, says Alejandro Covarrubias, Exec. Dir. of INSPIRE, they do have a Memorandum of Understanding with the Economic and Workforce Development Department (EWDD), to whom they pay a monthly fee of $1500 for access to the entire space and support services with their partner, YO! Watts (who occupies the majority of the municipal building). Clearly, that is only a fraction of the $126,000 the councilmember pays in rent next door, but the renovations that might be necessary to fix up the municipal building (should it be out of code, as Buscaino's office suggested) and upkeep of the building can be costly. YO! Watts -- accused of operating on an improper lease -- currently pays an amount comparable to the councilmember's rent for a security guard and maintenance.

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