News & Events
Changing the realities of San Diego's Inner City
By Christopher Yanov
The San Diego Union-Tribune
March 15, 2008
I recently had my own Little Rock moment. But instead of a villainous governor standing at a schoolhouse door in an effort to block racial integration, the central character in my experience was Vanessa, a courageous 26-year-old young woman who successfully blocked villainous gang members from entering the funeral home where her younger brother's body lay.
I attended this somber gathering because of Reality Changers, a program I began to provide inner-city students who are high academic achievers scholarships to attend college while they are still in high school. Reality Changers had just started a new program, the “Education is Bulletproof Award.”
Created as a community response to San Diego's staggering gang-related homicide rate (up 133 percent since 2005), this program will give college scholarships to the school-age youngsters in each San Diego family that loses someone to gang violence in 2008. How? By contributions from individuals, businesses and organizations that contribute to the Award every time it happens.
Vanessa's brother was the year's first victim.
I first noticed her as she steadily guided her distraught mother to the front of the funeral parlor. Then I watched in rapt silence as she wiped the tears off the face of her older brother, a paraplegic who had parked his wheelchair in front of their slain sibling's casket.
And I could be counted among the fainthearted who watched as Vanessa, sensing a commotion outside the parlor, fearlessly approached the teenagers dressed in hooded sweatshirts and baggy blue pants who had suddenly appeared at the funeral home's entrance.
These new arrivals had come to pay their last respects to their fallen friend, but Vanessa took offense at their presence. Their “friendship” was the reason for her brother's death.
Blocking their passage with sheer might, Vanessa made these youths wither inside their oversized clothing. “You're not coming in here,” she said, poking her finger into their chests. “You've already taken my life. Now go do something with yours!”
Vanessa then slammed the door in their faces, hard enough that the foundation of the funeral parlor trembled. The room could barely contain her bravery.
Fifty school years have passed since nine African American teenagers were barred from Little Rock's Central High School, marking the dawn of the civil rights movement in the United States. The coming decade will offer a series of semi-centennial anniversaries of the movement's key events. It will also provide American society the opportunity to ask a series of pointed questions.
Why is it that barriers to mass access to quality education remain for students from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds?
Why is it that most inner-city teenagers today know more people who have been shot or killed in the street than are on the road to college?
Why must someone like Vanessa bury her 18-year-old brother and wipe the tears from another who narrowly escaped a similar fate when she should instead be looking forward to seeing both of them at her college graduation?
The Education is Bulletproof Award will empower the younger siblings and children of gang members to be different. It will offer hope to accompany a mother's grief. And by enriching a rival gang member's family, it will confuse and transcend the code of the streets.
Let 2008 be the year that our collective social Novocain wears off. With the community's support, the students of Reality Changers will put their arms around the shoulders of these grieving souls, present them with a scholarship that represents the doorway to higher education and say, “We've transformed our lives already. Now let us show you how to transform yours.”
Vanessa, I hope, will be proud.
© Copyright 2008 The San Diego Union-Tribune