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USC establishes first-of-its-kind community partnership to address public safety for neighborhood youth

  • Practice

In 2013, Robert Hernandez, assistant teaching professor at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, hosted a youth extravaganza working with community-based organizations to bring 125 youth to the USC campus, all of whom were on probation within the criminal justice system. While talking with them, he learned that most had grown up within a block or two of the campus but had never stepped foot on it. For Hernandez, that was a sad, sobering reality of community disconnect.

Hernandez engages in practice-driven research to address critical issues in Los Angeles primarily focused on violence reduction and vulnerable youth populations. His vision for changing the life trajectories of local youth and increasing social cohesion in the neighborhoods surrounding USC has come to fruition. A first-of-its-kind agreement is now established between USC and a community organization that specializes in methods of nonviolent intervention. 

The UPC Neighborhood Youth Diversion Pilot Program at University Gardens, a low-income housing development near the University Park Campus, is part of the USC Community-Based Youth Violence Prevention Project which represents an innovative approach to addressing the challenges faced by at-risk youths. The pilot program, which began in May 2023, aims to ease tensions between USC and University Gardens residents through relationship building and resource services provided by a collaboration between Inner City Visions (ICV) and the USC Department of Public Safety (DPS). The program is led by Hernandez and colleagues at USC Social Work. It is the next chapter in a long line of initiatives developed by USC to engage with the communities in closest proximity to its campus, including its Good Neighbors Campaign, Leslie and William McMorrow Neighborhood Academic Initiative and TRiO Programs.

“This is a major step forward to improve public safety for youth in Los Angeles through the utilization of community interventionists that will lessen the ‘us versus them' stigma that exists for a lot of campuses nationwide," Hernandez said. “This groundbreaking initiative carries the potential to reshape the landscape of public safety across the entire nation through its continued implementation.”

The result of a years-long effort

In the wake of protests following the murder of George Floyd in 2020, President Carol Folt formed the USC Department of Public Safety Community Advisory Board (CAB) — an action-oriented group comprised of an equal number of faculty, staff, students and neighborhood residents — committed to strengthening trust between the university, DPS and the broader community. The goal is to create an environment within campus and the surrounding area where everyone feels safe, respected and protected from crime. The CAB spent 10 months formulating the ONE USC Safety Vision, a set of recommendations based on their findings.

Erroll Southers, CAB co-chair and associate senior vice president of safety and risk assurance for USC, explained that feedback from more than 200 community members taking part in public safety listening sessions stressed a desire to see an alternative to armed Los Angeles Police Department officers responding to issues in the neighborhoods around USC. Alternatives to Armed Response became one of the four pillars of the CAB’s recommendations.

“We thought this was a great opportunity to take advantage of the knowledge of the people we knew in the community and the programs that we might be able to build in this area,” Southers said.

Hernandez, also a CAB member, was tasked with leading the community-led violence interdiction and developing a youth diversion pilot program. Based on his vast experience, Hernandez knew that the pilot needed to be a partnership within the community to reach the fragmented, isolated and disconnected youth.

Years earlier in 2008, Hernandez co-authored the II-Prong Approach: Community Based Gang Intervention model for the city of Los Angeles. The II-Prong model defined and standardized methods used by gang intervention workers to help stem violence in some of Los Angeles' most underserved and neglected communities. Hernandez collaborated on the development of the model with several interventionists granted a license to operate (LTO) in these communities. An LTO is community validation and street credibility that allows the interventionist to build a rapport with residents, and provides authority to interrupt, disrupt, reduce, prevent and redirect community violence. Interventionists granted an LTO come from the communities they now serve, with lived experiences and relationships that make them uniquely equipped to intervene. Most have turned their lives around from a history of gang-involvement, gang-affiliation or the carceral system.

“Through relationships that are so key, these community interventionists are able to dramatically reduce the violence,” Hernandez said. “They are probably one of the most critical components of any public safety strategy.”

Putting the community voice at the forefront

The main objective of the pilot program is to build social cohesion with the most vulnerable and marginalized youth around the University Park campus. Hernandez knows that this works best when led by the voices of the community.

“In academia, sometimes we parachute things into the community, and it's from an ivory tower positioning that is often disconnected,” Hernandez said. “In theory it sounds good, but in applied practice it may be a different story. What I tell my students all the time is if you want anything to be successfully implemented within a community, it has to have voices of the community at the forefront of the change, or it will fail.”

To accomplish this, Hernandez brought in ICV, a local nonprofit, to lead the community outreach of the pilot program at University Gardens, under founder and Executive Director Alfred Lomas. ICV transforms marginalized neighborhoods that have a high prevalence of violence in Los Angeles into places where children and families live and thrive without fear. A former gang leader who grew up in South L.A., Lomas met Hernandez when the II-Prong model for violence reduction was in development, and ICV incorporates the model into its efforts to break the cycle of poverty, addiction and gang violence within communities, and to promote peaceful resolutions.

“What I'm excited about is being able to connect USC and their resources to the community,” Lomas said. “Studies show that if children are connected then there are less negative outcomes for mental health, suicide, joining gangs and being involved in criminality.”

Along with USC Social Work and ICV, DPS plays a role in the program by notifying the social work team when nonviolent community-related issues occur. USC Social Work then consults with ICV, and if an interventionist can enter the space and address the issue safely, the people involved will never see a uniform or a firearm.

“DPS serves as a point of contact for the community, and will continue to prioritize the safety of those involved and the people responding,” Southers said.

Hernandez describes the work as collaborative and inside-out — a more holistic and proactive approach that addresses critical needs while also promoting community wellness. It aligns with the nationally shifting paradigm to invest in community-based approaches that improve safety, build trust and provide communities with access to resources.

“What we’re attempting to do is become better neighbors,” Hernandez said. “We want to really ensure we’re being inclusionary.”

Social work students fill the gap

Hernandez brought his social work colleagues on board to establish student involvement in the pilot program. Rosemary Alamo and Rick Ornelas, associate teaching professors and co-leads of the Social Work and Public Safety Collaborative at USC, have been instrumental in developing the collaboration between students and ICV. Based on their development of internships for Master of Social Work (MSW) students with law enforcement agencies to improve public safety, Alamo and Ornelas bring valuable insight and knowledge of best practices to this novel approach.

“We know that there is a gap and a need within the legal system for a more holistic approach to serving underrepresented or underserved communities,” Ornelas said. “Our students provide support to fill that gap.”

The community violence intervention specialists from ICV are the frontrunners in establishing relationships within the community, and USC Social Work students are paired with the specialists to ensure community members can access treatment and resources. The program focuses on direct youth engagement, peer mentoring, youth support services and access to educational programs and job opportunities.

Luis Salazar and Leticia Resendez were placed with ICV as interns during their first year as MSW students, each receiving a stipend. Three days a week, Salazar and Resendez worked with ICV staff in the community or received specialized training to work with youth who have been exposed to severe trauma and violence. One example of community outreach that Salazar and Resendez participated in is an after-school program at a local park, where ICV is able to move away gang activity without conflict or involving the police and shutting down the park for the day.

“There’s really good trust, and parents feel comfortable that if something were to happen, ICV is there,” Resendez said.

Salazar, who grew up in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, says this kind of alternative approach to the usual punitive response is particularly near to his heart. As a formerly incarcerated individual, he is acutely aware of how important alternative methods to armed response can be to a community.

“The student interns have really embedded themselves and have become a critical part of the team,” Alamo said. “Lomas has been exceptional, allowing the interns to contribute to its development and implementation.”

Salazar and Resendez were also involved in weekly strategic planning meetings, where the group discussed what is working and what is not. In this way, Ornelas says, the students learn how to collaborate across teams, work within different systems and think outside of social work. Most importantly, they adopt skills in reflection and continuous learning as part of their best practices.

It takes a village

During the first phase of planning, from July 2022 to February 2023, the pilot program was developed in coordination with project partners by collecting community input, teasing out the framework for the delivery of services and identifying additional necessary program components. In the second phase, from March 2023 to August 2023, implementation of the pilot began at University Gardens, with social work interns going door-to-door promoting this new resource to the community. This led to the development of informational workshops, identification and assessment of youth participants, and a youth advisory council that meets directly with Hernandez to provide updates on the community from their perspective and personal experiences.

ICV staff led weekly workshops with University Garden youth during the summer of 2023 on subjects including tutoring, mentoring, life skills, critical decision making and creative arts. Every workshop concluded with lunch and personalized backpacks for the participants. Additionally, resources were offered to the parents of participants, including employment agency information, essential baby items and food pantry boxes. This initial implementation of the pilot program made groundbreaking progress within the University Gardens community, making connections overall with 75 youth and 150 parents.

Representatives from USC Social Work, DPS and ICV continue to attend monthly public safety meetings with the housing developers of University Gardens, Community Builders Group, to demonstrate unity and support for the residents. 

“This pilot is the start to building a stronger connection between University Gardens and USC to address issues around community mistrust by being consistent,” Lomas said. 

Additional USC faculty, staff and community partners are contributing to ensure the success of developing a sustainable model for UPC Neighborhood Youth Diversion Program. Annalisa Enrile, teaching professor at USC Social Work, is collaborating with Jessie Redd, managing director, and Lauren Brown, research scientist, in the Safe Communities Institute (SCI) at USC Price, to build an evaluation framework for tracking results. Aquil Basheer, executive director of the Professional Community Intervention Training Institute, and a global expert on using alternative approaches to community violence, serves as a key advisor for program development.

The need to continue this program cannot be overstated, Hernandez added. It is essential to emphasize the labor-intensive nature of relationship development and intensive case management required for this initiative. Support and funding are critical to sustain and grow this pioneering alternative for reducing community violence and connecting with youth considered to be highest at risk. 

“Essentially, we are scaling up the two-pronged approach that was established in 2008,” Hernandez said. “Just to get this going, at any school, but especially in the heart of Los Angeles, is powerful in itself.”

To reference the work of our faculty online, we ask that you directly quote their work where possible and attribute it to "FACULTY NAME, a professor in the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work” (LINK: https://dworakpeck.usc.edu)