Los Angeles graduates first class of gang interventionists

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Frank Stoltze/KPCC

Miriam Mendez, a former gang member, was one of 27 in the first graduating class of the Los Angeles Violence Intervention Training Academy. Photo taken June 11, 2010.

The Los Angeles Violence Intervention Training Academy Friday graduated its first class. The class included 27 former gang members now devoted to peacemaking in their neighborhoods.

The class included two dozen men and three women.

Miriam Mendez, 26, spent a lot of years gangbanging in Boyle Heights. Now she works those same streets steering young women away from "the life." The academy, she said, will help her do that better.

“They taught everything from post-traumatic stress disorder, public health, healing within ourselves."

She says professionalism was a big part of the curriculum. Never straddle the line, she said, between gang intervention worker and gang member. "You need to know where your boundaries are."

Critics of using former gang members to fight gangs say they sometimes stray. This academy is designed, in part, to prevent that.

“This is the first city-sanctioned, training academy for hardcore gang street intervention" said civil rights attorney Connie Rice, who helped design the curriculum. "There’s no other city in the country doing it."

Rice credited Mayor Villaraigosa for supporting the academy. The city gave her a $200,000 contract to set it up.

"It involves former hardcore gangsters — they’ve stopped banging and they’ve decided to atone by becoming peacemakers.”

Police Chief Charlie Beck addressed the graduates — many with old tattoos still showing.

“You know, Los Angeles has been famous for exporting gang violence throughout the world," the chief said. "Wouldn’t it be great if we become famous for exporting the solution — and that’s what we’re talking about today."

The former gang members cheered.

Speedy Bueno was shot in the head when he was gangbanging. Now he works the streets of Pacoima urging boys and young men to get out of gangs.

Bueno, 33, said the academy brought together black and Latino ex-gangsters working for peace — and that was valuable.

"Because the way I live at home is totally different from the way these guys live at home and ya know just fellowshipping with the guys here, they’ve showed me how to approach these guys in a way that they can understand it.”

Mayor Villaraigosa also praised the academy’s graduates for their work on the “front lines of the war on gang violence.”

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