New gang czar: history key to improving black-brown relations

Guillermo Cespedes is the new gang czar in Los Angeles.
Guillermo Cespedes is the new gang czar in Los Angeles.
Frank Stoltze/KPCC

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Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa Tuesday named a new director of youth development and gang reduction. KPCC’s Frank Stoltze reports.

Frank Stoltze: The mayor introduced Guillermo Cespedes in the ornate Tom Bradley Room that sits atop City Hall on the 27th floor. The room provides a view of the some of the tough neighborhoods to the south and east where Cespedes will do his work leading the city’s gang prevention and intervention programs.

Guillermo Cespedes: I have a very simplistic view of what we're doing in these neighborhoods, which is basically we are trying to humanize the person with a badge and we're trying to humanize the person with the tattoo. If we can accomplish that, I think violence goes down.

Stoltze: Fifty-nine-year-old Cespedes is no stranger to the work. The mayor credits him as the architect of the highly regarded Summer Night Lights program. It keeps parks open late and hires at risk young people to mentor peers from their surrounding neighborhoods during the summer.

Cespedes: The work that intervention workers do in the community differs radically from African-American neighborhoods and Latino neighborhoods. Ya know, sometimes, I think we get a little bit cautious about looking at ethnic differences.

Stoltze: Cespedes says it’s important to respect those differences, and to recognize the history Latinos and African-Americans share. He’s taught on the subject at Cal State Dominguez Hills.

Cespedes: The collaboration between Latinos and Africa's children throughout Latin America has been historic. Africa's children fought in every war of independence in every Latin American country. There were injunctions against collaboration between indigenous and Africa’s children, there were many of Africa’s children that cross the border into Mexico.

Stoltze: Cespedes says schools should teach that history as a method of reducing gang and youth violence.

Cespedes: Because I think it will do something to lessen this perception that black and brown in L.A. don’t mix.

Stoltze: Cespedes is a native of Cuba. He grew up in New York City and holds a master's degree in social work from Columbia University. He is an accomplished composer and performer of Afro-Cuban music. For three decades, Cespedes has worked with low income families and disadvantaged kids in Connecticut, Berkeley, and Long Beach.

Cespedes: Basically, I think that most helpers are driven by particular messages that they heard early in their lives. In my case, it was that community is larger than the individual – that most of what we do is measured by what we do for others.

Stoltze: Cespedes will lead the mayor’s office of youth development and gang reduction as it seeks to professionalize and grow anti-gang programs, and as it struggles to find government and private money to do it. Law enforcement remains a much more popular budget item.