Minister is taking on L.A. gangs

Times Staff Writer

If Los Angeles leaders take the advice of Controller Laura Chick, a minister from Idaho who has studied philosophy would soon be responsible for reforming a dysfunctional bureaucracy that spends millions of dollars on unproven anti-gang programs.

Jeff Carr was chosen by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa last year to bring a fresh eye to gang problems in a city seen nationally as a launching pad for bands of violent youth. But the new director of gang reduction and youth development programs does not control more than a dozen city departments that award contracts for anti-gang services.

Chick, who last week assailed the city for taking such a decentralized approach, said that placing all programs under one entity in the mayor's office would make it easier to judge their effectiveness.

Carr, who supported Chick's conclusions, developed youth programs for the Bresee Foundation, a nonprofit organization in Los Angeles, for 17 years. He holds a degree in religion and philosophy from Northwest Nazarene University.

Last week, Carr, 44, talked about what he has seen and done on the job thus far. His comments were edited and condensed:

What have been the surprises of this job?

I didn't really realize just how big the city of Los Angeles is and how very unique it is. Every community is different.

People live probably in two extremes. . . . The vast majority are anesthetized to the violence. They have no clue it happens. I mean, a week ago Friday you all had a brief little [news] story about the recent spate of violence in South L.A., in Watts. But on the day we had a press conference with the mayor and the chief [of police], we talked about the fact that there had been 10 shootings, four homicides and 17 people wounded in the span of about 72 hours that week.

I went home that night and looked at the headlines online at The two big headlines that stuck out to me were Britney Spears' mental health situation and . . . then right underneath that was that the City Council had voted to make sure every 4-month-old cat and dog was neutered. Way, way down was a story about some recent violence and arrests in South L.A.

Well, so the vast majority of citizens in Los Angeles don't have any idea that that even occurred.

Meanwhile, there was an entire community that was traumatized by that situation and in some ways, paralyzed . . . .

The truth of the matter is, I don't care if you live in West L.A., the San Fernando Valley, the South Side, in East L.A., everybody has to have skin in the game, or we're just not going to make progress.

Do you think gang members look at you differently because you're a minister?

I don't know. Maybe some of them do. I mean it's interesting. In my past, the thing that was most abrupt to people is that I'm a white guy. Someone said to me the other day, it's interesting being Caucasian, it sort of galvanizes people's focus and attention on you. But then when they see that I'm very comfortable and at ease in those situations [with gang members in a diverse community], it sort of takes people off guard so it probably gives me a little bit of an advantage, that people, you know, see me different. And then after they find out I'm a minister to boot, then that really throws them off guard.

What are you doing to bring the religious community into this conversation?

Well, I talk to any of them that I can. I actually preached at Bryant Temple [A.M.E.] Church. I've been invited to preach a couple of services, to try to talk [about], in my mind, what the faith community ought to do. . . .

The problem is, if you look at some of the toughest neighborhoods that have some of the biggest challenges, unfortunately there is a church on every corner.

But those churches are largely shuttered except for brief times on Sunday and maybe once or twice during the week. And frankly, the church ought to be right in the thick of things, right in the middle of trying to transform these neighborhoods.

If they're not engaged in the relevant issues of these communities . . . I don't think they're living out their mission.

The church was never meant to be contained within the four walls of the building. Faith was meant to be lived out in the streets, in the lives of real people facing real challenges.

Have religious leaders been receptive?

I think some are. I mean, everyone's against youth violence and gangs. It's not like anyone's actually saying, 'I think that's a good thing.' But I think the question is some people don't know how to get involved, don't get the resources to get involved. Some are, frankly, afraid to get involved. They're not sure what that would mean for the church, could that potentially put them at risk?

What are you doing about Watts' uptick in gang homicides?

Our office was involved right from the start. I actually [got] the BlackBerry notification when I woke up at 6:45 in the morning [about the shooting that night at Florence and Main]. [I] immediately started calling folks to find out what was being done and spoke to someone who was involved with some hardcore-gang intervention workers. . . . I then found out Sunday morning at church that not only had we had a subsequent shooting, but we also had some other ones. So I immediately went to South L.A.

Unfortunately, for eight or nine hours, I was following shootings. There were all kinds of rumors going around, and I tried to serve as a link between police, who had facts on what had happened, and get the information to people who were talking to gang members and people on the street. The rumor was that five people were killed, but the truth is one was killed, which is bad enough.

I was in communication with the gang intervention workers, with the deputy chief in the [LAPD] South Bureau. During that week we had some meetings in Watts, at various housing developments. I was at the Watts Gang Task Force on Monday morning. We started talking about what we can do in the community to get people to get together and push back against this violence. It was sort of the first time since I've been in this position that we've had this spate of violence.

How much time do you spend in the community and how much at City Hall?

I bet you I spend as much or more outside City Hall than I do inside. I really believe that the solutions to many of the challenges we face are actually rooted in communities.

If you sit on the stoops of apartment buildings and hear the moms and dads tell of their aspirations for their children. Or listening to kids who maybe go to some of the lousiest schools and live in the toughest neighborhoods, in slum apartment living conditions.

They still have the same aspirations that I and my parents had for me. They just don't have the resources to achieve those dreams. My job is mostly connecting resources with needs.

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