The national conversation on how to combat gun violence doesn’t often focus on young children.
But hundreds of Los Angeles-area parents are trying to turn attention to how families can foster safer neighborhoods by focusing on reducing domestic violence and school bullying and promoting healthy living.
Roughly 800 parents gathered last weekend at the California Science Center near downtown L.A. to cap nearly a year of a parent-led campaign from Best Start Metro L.A. and over 30 partner organizations. Smaller neighborhood groups have been meeting weekly.
"If someone brings violence into the home, the children are going to continue that same chain of violence," said Leticia Ortiz, 38, in Spanish, a mother of two daughters and one of the parent leaders from the neighborhood group that meets Thursdays in Richardson Park in South L.A. "That’s why we, as parents, should confront and cut that chain so that our children don’t perpetuate it."
The focus of the weekend event was on what organizers called a "Pledge Towards a Culture of Respect," which included positive parenting and recognizing equality.
"We're trying to cut generational violence," said Edith Bedolla, program manager at the Koreatown Youth & Community Center, one of the lead groups in the effort. "It's something that affects many families because it's not addressed."
But addressing such sensitive issues can be tough, said Bedolla. Stigma and cultural stereotypes can hinder some adults from coming forward to discuss violence. By starting at the family level – and by focusing on the welfare of young children – participants hope to spur a change that can then expand to the neighborhood.
"With this program, with these workshops, with these trainings, [families are] starting those conversations that haven't been started in the past," said Bedolla.
Parents as leaders
Maribel Cepeda said she joined after her child's bout with chemotherapy treatments spurred her to find ways to support his recovery and find healthy alternatives for the youth in her neighborhood.
"Sometimes, when children go out from the house, there's so much violence," said Cepeda, 45, in Spanish. "That's what we're dealing with now."
At home, that can be complicated by a reluctance to talk openly about violence.
"A lot of times, we don't say anything, we remain quiet," she said. "Sometimes even in our own families, we endure it and we don't even realize it."
She soon became one of the parent leaders that met weekly at Richardson Park. Like most of the other participants, Cepeda is a Spanish-speaking mother with an immigrant background. Like others, she also lives in neighborhoods that, according to LAPD statistics, chart more violent crime than other areas of the city. She spoke on the sidelines of Saturday's event, which at one point, featured a scripted performance by parents that depicted a peaceful resolution to domestic violence and ended by girls walking into the crowd to hand out roses to the parents.
"This is what we have to transmit to our kids: the respect for others," said Cepeda.
Focus on children
Kids can face a tough and violent world, even when stepping out of the house to make their way to school, said 11-year-old Kimberly Espinosa.
"Not only where I go or where my friends go, but it can be anywhere and at anytime," said Espinosa, whose mother Luz Hernández, 48, is one of the parent leaders in her neighborhood of Pico-Union.
Espinosa said she's looking forward to a new transition to seventh grade this fall at a new school, but she sees how some of her classmates struggle with problems in school or at home.
"They carry along the problem with them and they can spread it with their families," she said. But since her mother joined the program, she's found better ways to talk openly about it with others.
"We really appreciate what they do for us and it matters for the community, also," said Espinosa.
Organizers said the next step for the coming year would be to reach out to more men and boys to participate in what so far has been a movement led mostly by mothers.
"Traditionally, men are seen as the perpetrators, the ones that cause the violence," said Bedolla of the Koreatown Youth & Community Center. "But we know statistically that that's not always the case, it can be both men and women that are affected by it. And so we really want to start these conversations with young boys, with fathers, to be able to create a movement with the whole family."