"Newsmaker of the Week" is presented by the SCV Press Club and Time Warner Cable, and hosted by Signal Senior Editor Leon Worden. The program premieres every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, repeating Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
This week's newsmaker is Cynthia Llerenas, community services supervisor for the city of Santa Clarita.
Questions are paraphrased and answers may be abbreviated for length.
Signal: It looks like you're in charge of all the city programs that are designed to cure Santa Clarita of all its societal ills: graffiti removal, and Anti-Gang Task Force and Human Relations Forum. Why did you gravitate toward those things?
Llerenas: I'm a support staff, and I make sure the human relations programs are administered. I have a passion for working with at-risk teens. I have over eight years been doing this line of work, working with troubled teens and gang-affiliated youth. My job is to not judge them, (but) to provide them resources so they're successful. I love my job.
Signal: There may not be a lot of people who think of Santa Clarita as being particularly culturally diverse. Aren't we a white suburban yuppie enclave anymore?
Llerenas: No, we are not. Actually, according to the demographics, we still continue to be high-end in terms of Caucasian, but we're also seeing an increase in Hispanics, the Korean culture, Asian and blacks and other ethnicities. Santa Clarita is changing, and we want to educate the community so they can embrace cultural diversity in a city that is known to be a safe place to be and live.
Signal: What do you want people to know?
Llerenas: We want them to know that we have several programs in my Human Relations Forum that educate their children and themselves on how to understand and appreciate cultural diversity.
Signal: Is tolerance something you can teach? How do people become intolerant is it something they learn in school?
Llerenas: We need to begin with the elementary-aged children. It's something that is learned from the home, and it's something that is learned in school. We have to start educating children at the elementary age on how to deal with difficult situations when they are racially discriminated against.
Signal: How are elementary kids racially discriminated against?
Llerenas: There is name-calling at school that takes place, and they have to know how to deal with that. (Should) they fight back? No. Fighting back is not the answer. It's learning tools on how to handle those types of situations.
Signal: How do you teach that to an elementary kid?
Llerenas: We have an Operation: Us program right now, where we train high school students to go into the elementary schools and teach sixth-grade students how to deal with prejudice, discrimination and stereotypes. We have high school students who teach that, but we also started last year a junior high program that goes into the elementary schools, as well, to teach that. We have three teachers from the William S. Hart (Union High) School District who teach this program: Mike Ballard from Canyon High School, Maria Fulkerson from Saugus High and Sharon Ballard from Rio Norte.
Signal: If a kid is called a name, what should that little sixth grader do?
Llerenas: The idea is to teach them tools on how to handle that, and what they do, if they're being called a name, they are taught not to fight back. The way not to fight back is not to argue with them, not to snicker at them, not to say something nasty to them; it's to just kill them with kindness, so to speak, and use nicer words rather than hurtful words.
Signal: Let's move up to junior high school. What do you do at the junior high level?
Llerenas: At the junior high level, we train them to go to the sixth-grade classes, so they're getting the training, as well. They actually have to work out their own prejudices when they're being trained to be facilitators.
Signal: It has been a rough time lately at the high school level, with allegations of racism at Valencia High and then the fights at Golden Valley and Hart along racial lines. What is the city's role in fixing the problem? Is it the school district's responsibility to deal with it?
Llerenas: The city should offer support to the William S. Hart School District, and the school district has implemented a strategic plan on how to deal with high school students when they have racial altercations at school. We offer support to them if they need assistance. If we have to bring in a guest speaker to talk about racial issues, then the Human Relations Forum can sponsor a guest speaker at the schools.
Signal: How long have you been in charge of the Human Relations Forum?
Llerenas: Eight years.
Signal: How do you see either the school district or the city handling things differently since these problems arose? Has the city refocused its priorities?
Llerenas: What we're trying to do is target the elementary school kids
Signal: To nip it in the bud.
Llerenas: Yes. Start at the elementary school age level and teach them at a younger age on how to deal with cultural diversity in Santa Clarita. That way, by the time they get to the junior high or high school level, they're prepared. We hope they would be equipped and they've learned from the trainings or assemblies that the Human Relations Forum has had.
Signal: Outside of the schools, what is the Human Relations Forum doing in the community to teach about diversity?
Llerenas: We (Human Relations Forum) host monthly meetings, which are held the second Tuesday of every month at 4 o'clock at City Hall, and they are open to the public. We always welcome new faces and new ideas so they can help us with our programs. We have the meetings, and then we conduct our programs, and the volunteers the members of the Human Relations Forum assist us with those programs throughout the community when we host an event.
Signal: Is tolerance really the goal? Or is there a way to move beyond just "tolerating" someone and actually see different people as equals?
Llerenas: I think that with my understanding in learning about other cultures, you get a better understanding of how to be sensitive toward the race and ethnic origins, genders and other classes. It's more of an acceptance rather than tolerance. We have to learn how to accept each other, because we are going to be living in the same community, shopping at the same stores, buying groceries at the same stores; we have to learn how to get along.
Signal: We often hear people say they want to be respected for what they are, and there are many events to celebrate different cultures. Wouldn't it be better to focus on our commonalities as Americans, and ignore the differences?
Llerenas: Well, we are all Americans, but we come from different origins or different ethnicities; we all have something to offer this community. All of us have made a significant contribution to history, socially or economically, and we all can learn from one another, whether it's through culture, religion; we can all learn from one another if we take the time to do that. Often times we are scared of what we do not know, and it's typically the other culture.
Signal: So should be celebrate the things that make us the same or the things that make us different?
Llerenas: I think we should be celebrating both, because we have things that are common and things that are not in common. When we find out what is not in common, we can celebrate that, because you can appreciate what that other person has to offer.
Signal: Tell us about the things you're doing for Cultural Diversity Month.
Llerenas: The Human Relations Forum has partnered with College of the Canyons, the Interfaith Council, the County Public Libraries and the Friends of Santa Clarita Library, in addition with the William S. Hart School District, to host a Season of Diversity, which is to promote cultural understanding in the community. It will be held (from) September through January. (We are) hosting a series of about 16 events on cultural diversity.
(We will) have a Cuban art exhibition; we have dance performances from Asia and the Philippines; we have arts and crafts and story hour, an Interfaith Thanksgiving Dinner, cultural night held at the Community Center, and Interfaith Martin Luther King celebration. In addition, we have several speakers from the Tuskeegee Airmen, the 442nd Combat Team and the Negro Baseball League who will be sharing their history with members of the community.
Signal: The 442nd weren't those the Japanese-Americans who got all the decorations in World War II?
Llerenas: Yes. Actually, they were the Japanese-Americans who were held in the detention camps and ended up being one of the most highly-decorated U.S. military units in history.
Signal: Who do you have coming from the Negro Baseball League?
Llerenas: We are actually working right now on trying to confirm the person who will be speaking for the Negro Baseball League. That should be an interesting presentation.
Signal: Who will they be talking to?
Llerenas: It is open to the public, so we are encouraging teens from Santa Clarita, because it is going to be held at Valencia High School, and it is being offered as extra credit through the school district. Administrators have been advised to let the teens know that if they want to attend, (they will) possibly offer school credit. Teens, adults and members of the community can attend any event.
Signal: Who or what is the Human Relations Forum?
Llerenas: Well, we live in a very proactive community, and the Human Relations Forum started in May of 1994 because members of the community addressed the City Council requesting this task force to promote cultural understanding and diversity in Santa Clarita.
Signal: Why was it needed?
Llerenas: Our mission is to encourage, assist and empower the community to eliminate all forms of discrimination and promote the benefits of human differences. It's to start educating, and it was needed then to start educating the community, or preparing them for the change in demographics.
Signal: Who serves on it?
Llerenas: We have 15 current volunteers. They come to the monthly meetings, and they also assist with the implementation of some of the (activities). We have volunteers, we have law enforcement, we have school administrators and some nonprofit agencies that participate.
Signal: The county has an equivalent
Llerenas: It's called the Los Angeles County Commission on Human Relations.
Signal: Do you work together?
Llerenas: Yes, we do. We notify them of the meetings we have. They also work with us if there's an incident that occurs here in Santa Clarita, for example the Valencia incident. They would send out one of their specialists to come out and speak with me and find out all the details. We work together, and then I refer them to the William S. Hart School District, the appropriate people, so they can obtain the information.
Signal: Is there some sort of legal requirement for the county or the city to deal with matters of racism when they crop up? Or is it just something the city wants to do?
Llerenas: It's not something the city has to do, because the students that we're dealing with are students from the school district, so it is a school district issue; the liability is with the school district. The city is here to offer support with any services they may need.
Signal: There's a schedule of these "Season of Diversity" events on the city's Web site?
Llerenas: The schedule is on the city Web site. It's www.santa-clarita.com, and then you can click on "What's Happening."
Signal: About some of the other things you do for the city the Anti-Gang Task Force and graffiti removal. Are those two things related? Is it mostly gang members who are doing the tagging?
Llerenas: Let me give you a brief background on the Anti-Gang Task Force. It started in 1991 through the Sheriff's Department, and it consists of community members, law enforcement and school personnel. We develop programs to help youth build self-esteem and develop skills so they do not engage in criminal activity or in gangs. The graffiti removal program is under the umbrella of the Anti-Gang Task Force.
Gang members right now, according to our statistics in a report that was given (Monday) at an Anti-Gang Task Force community meeting the majority of the gangs are not doing the tagging. The tagging that is taking place in Santa Clarita is by tagging crews.
Signal: Which is not
Llerenas: Which is not gang.
Signal: Just a bunch of hoodlums?
Signal: What defines a gang member?
Llerenas: Criminal activity. Criminal activity defines a gang member.
Signal: Non-graffiti, non-vandalism-type of criminal activity? How is a tagging crew not a gang?
Llerenas: Well they do engage in criminal activity, because what they're doing is they're vandalizing and anything over $400 is considered a felony. So that's something that these taggers are not realizing: that the damage they're doing is going to be costing their parents, and it's not going to cost them anything, because they're probably not working. It's their parents who are going to be paying for the damages.
A gang member has to you have to engage in criminal activity, whether it's selling narcotics on the street, robbing stores, assaults and things like that. That is considered a gang member. And not only that; they congregate in two or more and they intimidate people.
Taggers typically don't do that. They just leave their moniker on the wall and they leave.
Signal: People often praise the Sheriff's Department for keeping the gang problem down, but then the sheriff's deputies often turn around and, quite magnanimously, credit the city's programs for helping. What is the city's role, apart from what the sheriffs do? Do you go into the schools with programs on that, just like you do with cultural diversity?
Llerenas: Yes, we do. We have several programs that were developed under the Anti-Gang Task Force and again, it's to educate these kids or give them another direction besides gang activity, and having them develop skills so they're productive members of society.
We have Youth Employment Services, where we offer kids employment at the age of 14 through 18 because when you're allowed to be employed, it's 16. The Youth Employment Services, one is year-round, one is during the fall and the other one is during the spring-
Signal: You help them find a job?
Llerenas: Yes, we give kids an opportunity to be employed. We work with about 40 employers in Santa Clarita, and we place a kid with them during the spring, fall and summertime.
Signal: The Youth Employment Center is a city project?
Llerenas: Yes, it's a city program under the Anti-Gang Task Force. And then we have tattoo removal programs; we have a lot of programs that are assisting at-risk teens in Santa Clarita.
Signal: The tagging problem seems to come in waves. It was bad for awhile, then we didn't hear too much about it, and now it's a problem again. What is the city doing differently now to go after this increased tagging activity?
Llerenas: The city has taken a multi-faceted approach to handle graffiti. We want to calm that graffiti, and we've hired one full-time graffiti removal coordinator, three part-time staff and one graffiti tracker who checks the hotline, checks the e-Service requests, and tracks the information to apprehend the vandals.
We're also working closely with the COBRA (Sheriff's Career Offender Burglary Robbery Apprehension) unit, which is a gang- and juvenile-crime unit, the Community Interaction Team, and the district attorney and judges. We've established a database where we obtain all the information and put it in the database system and we are able to give that information to the sheriffs in the event that they apprehend a vandal.
They call us and they say, "How many times did Smoky hit up?" "Hit up" means how many times did he put his name up in Santa Clarita? And then we go through our database system and it says 15 times, and they generate a report from that. So we work hand-in-hand with the Sheriff's Department to apprehend the vandals.
This year we have arrested 67 people for graffiti vandalism. But graffiti typically increases during the summertime, because the students are out of school and they (are) looking for something to do. Then when school starts, at the beginning of the school year, that's when they do their tagging, as well.
Signal: Let's bring this back around to cultural diversity. The gang members, the taggers are they all races? Or are they predominantly white? Black? Latino?
Llerenas: The gang members in Santa Clarita are predominantly Hispanic gangs. However, the taggers in Santa Clarita, it's a 60-40 split. We have 60 (percent) Hispanic and 40 (percent) Caucasian.
Signal: Do you run into people in the community who automatically assume that all Hispanics must be illegal or gang members? How do you get past that?
Llerenas: Well, it goes back to, again, what we do not know. We are afraid of what we do not know, and it's the other culture. We typically tend to formulate these thoughts, these beliefs, these attitudes about other people, and typically we're wrong about that person once we get to know them.
It's really hard. It's really hard to try to convince or share with that person that you should always give someone the benefit of the doubt to prove themselves. Get past the color of their skin, judge them, like the great Martin Luther King said, "Judge them by the content of their character, not by the color of their skin." That's what we want to do with the Human Relations Forum, too.
Signal: It seems like a difficult thing to teach.
Llerenas: It is hard, but it can be taught. Just like hatred can be learned, hatred can be unlearned. We can teach people not to hate, and not to discriminate, not to have these stereotypes about people. Everything can be learned and taught if the person is willing to be taught.
Signal: And you've got some events planned to do just that.
Llerenas: Yes, we do. We have a lot of things going on. Again I encourage people the one thing that is coming up that I would encourage students from the William S. Hart School District, or all the school districts, for that matter, is to participate in the essay and poster contest. We have that every fall. Students from first through 12th grade participate in a contest (where) they creatively express their views on human relations. We do recognize the students who are the winners and in a recognition ceremony, we give them an award, a monetary award, and they get recognized by City Council.
Signal: They'll find out the details in school?
Llerenas: Yes. The contest's kick-off is the second week in October, and all the teachers will have a copy of the contest flyer, so they can obtain the flyer from their teachers.
Signal: So parents should look for those flyers when they're raiding their kids' stuff.
See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m., and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.