The young people at Legacy LA, a non-profit organization that caters to kids and teens from Ramona Gardens, recently invited Mayor Eric Garcetti to “dream big” with them—an invitation he gladly accepted.
Lea esta nota EN ESPAÑOL: Alcalde Garcetti ‘Sueña en Grande’ con la Juventud de Ramona Gardens 
Garcetti met last week with members of Legacy LA’s Dream Big Leadership Program at the Hazard Park Armory —where they are based. While there, he heard a wish list of things the young people hope the mayor can help them get, including some basic facility upgrades like air conditioning and heating, and larger renovations such as the installation of their own café modeled after Homeboy Industries’ Homegirl Café near downtown Los Angeles.
Several of the young men and women described to the mayor how Legacy LA has helped them personally and academically, allowing them to turn around their lives and to make positive contributions to their community.
As Garcetti listened, the young people, led by Marlene Azo who served as the main presenter, told the mayor that the boys and girls who live at Ramona Gardens face a number of reoccurring barriers and challenges to their success, such as little access to healthy food, air pollution and negative stereotypes about who they are and what they can achieve.
The Ramona Gardens neighborhood is a food desert and there are no grocery stores close by, Azo said. The one so-called “meat market” is really an over-priced liquor store, Azo added to illustrate her point.
Evelyn Castillo told Garcetti that the young people at Legacy LA wanted to understand how the community had become a food desert so they researched the area’s history, collected pictures and oral histories and created a timeline that shows “it wasn’t always like this.” They discovered that at one time there were more food stores, now one store has a monopoly.
Amanda Gutierrez told the mayor her front yard is basically a freeway interchange.
The air pollution in Boyle Heights in combination with the neighborhood being a food dessert is an unhealthy combination leading to diseases like asthma, lung cancer and diabetes, the group told Garcetti, who listened closely.
Their desires go beyond just wanting to understand why things are they way they are, so they informed Garcetti that they’ve started collecting signatures on a petition calling for upgrades to improve the neighborhood, including the installation of more lights, stop signs and crosswalks.
Azo, citing the ongoing video surveillance at Ramona Gardens, said they feel stigmatized as delinquents by police just because they come from a low-income community.
She’s proud, however, that the once strained relationship between police and Ramona Gardens youth has been improving since Legacy LA teens hosted a workshop aimed at giving youth and police the chance to begin to dialogue.
Eddie Licon was in the 8th grade when he first started receiving help at Legacy LA as part of the Gang Reduction Youth Development program. He said his father was murdered that year and he was referred to Legacy LA through the Gang Reduction Youth Development (GRYD) program. “Having a case manager I could talk to on a weekly basis” helped him grieve and cope in a healthy way, Licon explained to the mayor.
Legacy LA, however, has since lost all of its GRYD funding, which forced the group to close down its satellite facility located within Ramona Gardens.
Now 20 years old, Lucy Herrera told the mayor she was part of Legacy LA’s first student leadership program and will graduate from UC Riverside this upcoming year. She now works for the organization during the summer as a program coordinator, and says she is grateful that she can count on Legacy LA’s Executive Director Lou Calanche for a summer job.
“I love my job. I love being able to interact with kids in programs I know will keep them off the streets and feeding into any stereotypes placed upon us for growing up in the projects,” Herrera said, adding Legacy LA has molded her and others into young professionals.
Legacy LA’s Calanche told EGP that the impact the program has had on these young people cannot be overstated, making their presentation to Garcetti that more profound.
“These are kids that everybody discounts because they’re from the projects, but we just make them believe in themselves and see how much potential there is,” Calanche told EGP. “These are kids that say ‘oh they told me that because I’m from Ramona Gardens, I’m a gang member’ and they come here and their whole life transforms and they basically build their capacity to be leaders and to believe in themselves and to have dreams for the future and once they believe they can do it, their whole life transforms.”
To continue and expand on these successes, the group said they need more money for programs to support young people academically, provide worthwhile diversions to gang activity and more job and career training opportunities.
They would like help finishing the building of their community garden and to someday have a youth run café, a movie theatre and recording studio, and to offer more workshops for parents in areas like career training, jobs skills and ESL. More jobs for both parents and the area’s teens are high on their list of priorities.
When it was his turn to speak, Garcetti told the small crowd of students, parents and Legacy LA staff about his family’s Mexican roots in Boyle Heights and how his father was the first in his family to graduate from college. “Your stories are the same as my family,” he said.
“As your mayor now, it’s a great honor to be with you to hear your courage and the way you have dreamt big, but also called on folks like me to dream big with you,” Garcetti said.
“This used to be an armory, where you keep all your ammunition, where you keep all the weapons to fight a war. This was built after WWII and you’ve transformed it to a place with a different sort of ammunition—not to hurt people but to protect and transform this community.”
Garcetti, who was just finishing up his third week as mayor, said the delinquency by some young people in Los Angeles in the name of Trayvon Martin last week was unfortunate. He told them it’s easier to get into trouble than it is to get out.
“Don’t look to me as someone who comes in here, ‘he’s the mayor, he’s the leader.’ Each one of you is powerful … you can change your life and the lives of the people around you more than I can. And each one of us has that power in our community, where we work, our school and a place like Legacy to make that difference,” Garcetti told the young people.
When asked by 13-year-old Jesse Ceja to sign the group’s wish list, Garcetti said he was happy to do so. His signature comes with moral support, funding however, is another matter.
The mayor told EGP all the items on the wish list are achievable goals. Coming back to visit and helping with the community gardens are the easier items on the list. The others may take additional time and resources.
“I’m close to Lou, so I feel we can work on that stuff but we don’t have millions of dollars coming out of our ears,” he said.
As for jobs for young people, he reiterated that the city has already set a goal of 10,000 jobs for teens next summer and fundraising is already underway.
According to Calanche, the organization’s long-term goal is to transform the community so its youth has all the resources and opportunities available to help them succeed in the future.
She said the organization was really impacted when they lost GRYD funding, which she hopes will be restored in the future so they can continue to offer case management and intervention services.
Legacy LA is trying to turn around Ramona Gardens’ 63 percent dropout rate by offering academic support and tutoring through its “Student Success” program, she said, noting that about 200 Ramona Gardens students attend Lincoln High School.
“Ramona Gardens is a community that has been forgotten and neglected for a long time … [but] we really believe that these kids have so much potential and just have to believe in themselves. It’s hard sometimes; the kids get in trouble, they get locked up or whatever, but if they go to jail, they come out, we’re still here,” Calanche explained.
She said Legacy LA has the same priorities as the mayor: academic success, the arts and green job training.
“So we’re hoping that by the end of his first term this [city-owned] building is completely renovated,” Calanche said. “It could be a sort of symbol of his success, of how we can transform other neighborhoods.”