Building a Partnership to Save America's Youth
Story By: Criss Swaney
Increasing violence among teenagers and other youth appears to be contributing to a national crime spike. Gangs and gun violence are partly to blame for the rise in crime that is on pace to increase for a second straight year.
Unfortunately, the offenders are younger and the crimes are more violent, according to Robert Renteria, author of the bilingual book series “From the Barrio to the Boardroom”, “Mi Barrio’’ comic version as well as the activity coloring book “Little Barrio.”
The books, “From the Barrio to the Boardroom”, “Mi Barrio’’ and “Little Barrio” are the tools, and Renteria is a resource who provides education and a sense of pride, accomplishment, and self-esteem for community youth nationwide.
Renteria, the only Latino leader in the world to receive two prestigious Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Awards for work as a Civil Rights leader and voice in educational reform seeks to replace violence, delinquency, and gangs with education and pride. And he has quite a job ahead of him.
The government’s national crime statistics reveal that there are more than 3,875 youth gangs with a total of more than 200,000 gang members in 79 of the largest U.S. cities. That gang activity has extended beyond the typical inner city and major population centers to smaller communities and suburbs. A youth’s involvement with a gang or gangs leads to an increased likelihood of economic hardship and family problems. And the longer a youth remains with a gang, the more disruption they face, including the risk of experiencing drug and alcohol abuse and committing petty, violent crimes.
But Renteria and his Barrio Movement challenge these dismal crime statistics by building lasting collaborations with business owners, corporations, school districts, colleges, community centers, the Boy Scouts and other national organizations, including Rotary International and the World Boxing Council to generate a pipeline of future leaders to stem youthful crime sprees.
Renteria reports that “you should never let where you come from dictate who you are, but let that be part of who you become.’’
Growing up in the tough gang-infested, impoverished neighborhood of East Los Angeles and sleeping in a dresser drawer as a baby, Renteria says he can relate to the roots of gang violence and disintegration of the family unit so endemic to the path many stressed-out youth opt to take.
“There are no shortcuts to life. You can’t just put powder in a glass and get a pocket full of dough,’’ said Renteria. “It’s all about finding and achieving success and developing character.’’
For Renteria, character is not doing what’s right when someone is watching, but it’s doing the right thing when nobody is watching.
“I’ve put over $350,000 of my own money into this initiative, but we need more involvement and more partnerships to get kids to move away from gangs and look to education for career success,’’ he said.
Already, his dynamic Barrio Movement has helped develop teaching tools being used with school-based curriculum in institutions nationwide and communities worldwide. His books are being sold to middle schools, high schools, colleges, universities, and a cache of social service centers. Even the visually impaired and folks with reading disabilities have access to Renteria’s books. More than 236,000 visually impaired students have access to his materials.
There is also a faith-based curriculum recently developed to entice more youth to come back to the church, according to Renteria, who was also named Chicago’s 2010 Latino Professional of the Year.
“It’s all about getting youth accustomed to learning about social and emotional learning,’’ said Renteria, a pioneer in producing novel educational platforms. “We need to create programs and learning experiences that are culturally relevant and also to help our kids with their critical thinking skills.’’
Despite the ongoing debates about increased teen crime and gang violence, Renteria points out that there is mounting evidence that poor school performance, truancy, and leaving school at a young age to join a gang are all connected to juvenile delinquency.
For example, reading and verbal deficits are linked to victimization, drug use, aggression and delinquent behavior when school-age kids are left behind. “I know, I’ve been there myself,’’ said Renteria, who escaped the cycle of poverty, drugs and gang violence through sheer determination, his mother’s support, hard work and an honorable stint in the U.S Army for over seven years.
However, Renteria is quick to admit that this innovative movement is not about him. “It’s about keeping kids safe. Gangs recruit in elementary schools for kids to become runners. So, we have to find ways to reach the kids on the streets,’’ he added.
One of his more novel ideas was using theater to reach some of the more at-risk population. “I want this movement not to be just my story, but everyone’s story,’’ said Renteria, a successful entrepreneur. “Anybody’s child can be murdered, raped or bullied,’’ he noted.
Every 7 seconds a child is bullied in America. And it is estimated that 160,000 children miss school every day because they fear being attacked by another student.
“Everyone needs to get involved in our Barrio Movement because gangs and bullying are not going away,’’ said Renteria. In fact, the very nature of the ubiquitous, anonymous nature of today’s growing digital world makes bullying and gang recruitment even more dangerous.
“I’ve observed that many of the youth-centric gang crews are organized by older, and more experienced criminals to create a distraction, making it easier for older gang members to sell drugs,’’ said Renteria.
He admonishes today’s troubled youth to understand that “the only difference between success and failure is the determination to overcome whatever adversity, discouragement or influences that arise in ourselves.’’
With a sense of urgency and purpose, Renteria predicts that his Barrio Movement and books are a blue print and roadmap for the future. “We need to tell our story so all can be healed. We need to unite and recognize the power of the written word.”
When asked about his own legacy, Renteria pounces on the opportunity to suggest that one day America may have a Latino President. “We want to ignite a nation. It’s not about blue or red states, it’s about the United States,’’ he quipped.
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