U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs

Regina B. Schofield, Assistant Attorney General
Office of Justice Programs

Community Capacity Development Office National Conference
Los Angeles, CA
August 23, 2005

Thank you, Nelson. It's a pleasure to be here at my first national conference of the Community Capacity Development Office.

Deputy Mayor Ovrom I want to thank you for being with us today. It's a delight to be in your beautiful city to talk about community revitalization. We appreciate your serving as our host.

I also want to thank my colleague U.S. Attorney Yang for helping to provide this forum, and for her commitment to community improvement in the Central District of California. Thank you for joining us.

My thanks, also, to Chief Bratton and Sheriff Baca for their presence, and for all they do every day to keep the peace in the neighborhoods of Los Angeles. We're glad you could be here as well.

And thanks to each and every one of you.

It's good to see so many people interested in talking about ways to strengthen communities. Or, rather, it's good to see so many people who are doing the real work of improving the quality of life where they live. It may not be financially profitable work, but I can think of no more rewarding job than creating thriving neighborhoods that are free of crime.

I spent a busy day yesterday visiting some of the areas of L.A. that have been turned around, thanks to the work of many in this room.

I visited the Pico Union neighborhood, one of the poorest in Los Angeles. Pico Union is the home of MacArthur Park, which years ago was a popular urban retreat. Families would go there to picnic and spend time together. But a couple of decades ago, it began an unfortunate decline. And until recently, it's been a notorious haven for drug dealers and criminals.

A few years ago, residents decided that they'd had enough. They began organizing and soon Pico Union became an official Weed and Seed site.

Since that time community organizers and residents law enforcement officers and prosecutors public and private agencies all have worked together to clean up the park. They increased foot and bicycle patrols and installed security cameras. They invited citizens to take an active role in monitoring what goes on there.

The result is that criminals and dealers are being driven out. Families are coming back. Long-time residents are seeing a return to those better days.

Pico Union is a great example of what can happen when community leaders and residents decide that they aren't going to accept failure. But the really good news is that this positive trend is not confined to Pico Union and MacArthur Park. Other areas of Los Angeles are benefiting from community solidarity and initiative.

Take, for example, the Weed and Seed site in South L.A. Residents there saw how youth were displaced and effectively denied important opportunities. They were leaving school and becoming involved in petty crimes. Some were joining gangs and committing more serious crimes.

But, as in Pico Union, leaders and residents got together and attacked the problem. A woman by the name of Gwen Bolden led the charge. Ms. Bolden was one of the first black female officers in the U.S. Navy back in the 1950s and she understood what it meant to step forward and lead a fight.

She worked with a group of retired school-teachers to start a foundation the Gwen Bolden Youth Foundation. Its purpose was and is to corral community resources to help young people.

The foundation established a tutoring program for kids from elementary school through high school.

They started an anti-truancy program that now gets referrals from the Superior Court in South Los Angeles.

And they're building a facility for kids who are emancipated from foster care.

The LAPD has become involved in the efforts. Officers on foot patrol meet with and talk to young people emphasizing the importance of school and responsible behavior and giving them positive exposure to law enforcement.

All this work is bearing fruit. Kids are staying off the street and in school. Their grades are improving. And they're graduating at higher rates than ever.

They're turning away from crime and toward productive citizenship. And they're able to do it because they now have options.

Similarly, in Southeast L.A., community organizers and schools are working together to head off the threat of youth crime and violence.

Southeast Los Angeles, as many of you know, is the home of the Watts neighborhood, which is where, 40 years ago this month, the spectacle of riots, fire, and death captured our national attention.

Things didn't improve much after the riots. In fact judging by the sustained infusion of violence and drugs you might say it got much worse.

Frustrated with the conditions in their community, residents took action by organizing to become a Weed and Seed site. They started an intern program in four housing projects. Interns work for 20 hours a week on beautification projects and spend another 20 hours in school. Teachers who work with the program get credit toward certification, and kids get a chance to contribute to the betterment of their own neighborhoods. So far more than 800 teenagers have participated.

Law enforcement is involved in this Weed and Seed site as well. Officers spend time talking to youth and educating them about the law.

Their work is producing quantifiable results. Crime in the housing projects is down significantly. The site coordinator tells us that homicides have been reduced by 31%. This is another example of how community-wide investment leads to transformation and empowerment.

The turnaround we're seeing in South and Southeast L.A. and in Pico Union is not the lucky consequence of demographic shifts or of a sudden collective epiphany on the part of criminals across the city. It's the product of vision of initiative and of partnership people identifying problems and together taking action to solve them.

We've seen it here, and we're seeing it in 330 Weed and Seed communities across the country.

The Office of Justice Programs is proud to be an integral part of those efforts. Through Nelson's shop the Community Capacity Development Office we're providing daily support to community partners not only through funding, but through training, technical assistance, information resources, and the facilitation of strategic planning and critical partnerships.

One of the ways we're helping is by supporting partnerships with the faith community. Faith community involvement is an area that the President and we in OJP and the Justice Department have worked hard to strengthen.

Faith-based organizations are, in many ways, the gatekeepers of their communities. They have the kind of access to people that other organizations and institutions don't. They have a certain inherent credibility that can't be found elsewhere a credibility born of trust.

We need to take advantage of that credibility and use it to advance our goals of public safety. And that's exactly what we're doing in OJP.

We're working with faith-based organizations to provide mentors to youth.

We're providing greater support to crime victims by improving victim assistance and faith community networks.

And we're looking to faith community leaders, among others, for input on crime prevention and intervention strategies across the board.

I challenge each of you to reach out to faith-based organizations and to faith leaders. Enlist them in your work. You'd be surprised at how effective an ally they can be.

I also strongly encourage you to continue working closely with the U.S. Attorney's Office in your district. The U.S. Attorneys' Offices are actively seeking the input and support of community-based organizations and local agencies to reduce crime and violence.

For example through Project Safe Neighborhoods the U.S. Attorneys are working with state and local law enforcement and community organizations to address the problems of gun violence. The strategies they are developing are tailored to the unique needs of each community. And as we have discovered the effectiveness of those strategies increases in direct proportion to the involvement of community stakeholders.

Likewise with gangs. The Attorney General has directed every U.S. Attorney to collaborate with local authorities to fight gang violence.

Here, again, we need to hear your voice. How are gangs affecting your community? What patterns of behavior have you noticed among them? What can we do to combat the problem? These are questions to which you have the best answers.

I know I speak for U.S. Attorney Yang and the other U.S. Attorneys when I ask your willingness to work with them on these issues. Give them the benefit of your experience and observations.

And get in touch with us in OJP. As you saw, Nelson and his staff have re-designed the CCDO Web site to make it easier for you to navigate. We're excited that this new tool has just become available to you, and we hope you will visit it often. We want you to have the benefit of easy access to the resources that can help you.

But assistance goes both ways. We need to hear from you if we are to put our resources to the best use. We think we're doing a good job of meeting your needs. But if you think differently or if you can suggest ways that we can improve reach out to us.

Rest assured we're working diligently to augment community resources. One way we are doing that is by forming partnerships with others. Earlier this year, CCDO entered into a partnership with the Internal Revenue Service to place Voluntary Income Tax Assistance centers in Weed and Seed sites. These centers provide free tax services to Weed and Seed site residents with an annual income of $36,000 or less. We hope to have these model centers in Weed and Seed sites by the 2006 tax year. We just entered into an agreement with the Corporation for National and Community Service to use AmeriCorps volunteers in prisoner re-entry efforts.

Prisoner re-entry as I'm sure you'll all agree is one of the critical public safety issues of our day. Some 650,000 people are released from prison every year. Two out of three come back to the system within three years because they've committed other crimes. Even more to the point those offenders are responsible for a large share of violent crime in America.

The problem shows no signs of abating. A couple of months ago, our Bureau of Justice Statistics released its latest prison data. It shows that, between mid-year 2003 and mid-year 2004, the nation's prisons and jails took in an average of 900 inmates a week. By the end of that period, they held more than 2.1 million people.

Far too often, offenders spend their time in prison nursing bad habits and bad attitudes. Far too rarely are they given the chance to change those habits and attitudes. Our challenge is to give them that chance so that when they return to our communities as most, by far, do they are better prepared before and after release to be productive citizens rather than destructive criminals.

The Volunteers in Service to America, or VISTA, partnership formalized by our agreement with the Corporation for National and Community Service, is a perfect match because the VISTA members will organize and mobilize community resources to support the neighborhood restoration goals of Weed and Seed sites.

VISTA members supported by CCDO will work with and within faith-based and community organizations at Weed and Seed sites in 12 cities, providing services such as mentoring, housing, and skills-building.

The partnership supports President Bush's Prisoner Re-entry Initiative, in which the Justice Department plays a major role.

In announcing the initiative, the President said, "America is the land of second chances, and when the gates of the prison open, the path ahead should lead to a better life." The VISTA program will go a long way toward giving offenders a second chance not only to rehabilitate themselves, but to help build back up the communities that they through their criminal actions helped to tear down.

OJP has been at the fore in supporting re-entry efforts. Since 2002, it has provided more than $120 million to states and communities under its Serious and Violent Offender Re-entry Initiative - or SVORI, as we call it.

Some of the 69 communities supported by SVORI are Weed and Seed sites. This link is important because SVORI borrows heavily from the Weed and Seed concept.

Like Weed and Seed programs, SVORI activities are tailored to the needs of each jurisdiction because they're designed by community stakeholders.

Our role in OJP has been to help those programs tap resources formula grant programs across the government, training opportunities, and information and it has helped communities organize the resources that they do have.

Los Angeles is a wonderful city and its history offers many lessons on the importance of paying attention to those who reside in communities.

Failure to do so too often results in the problems we see today problems stemming from abandoned hope, surrendered opportunity, and neglected dreams. In short many neighborhoods have simply given up on themselves.

I commend each of you for not giving up—for having faith in your communities, in your colleagues and fellow citizens, and in yourselves. And I applaud you for acting on that faith. You have made a difference in the lives of those around you, and I hope that you will continue to do so.

Thank you.

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