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Alliant University Course Aims To Professionalize Street Outreach Workers

Nora Angulo talks to a high school senior about staying in school and avoidin...

Photo by Matthew Bowler

Above: Nora Angulo talks to a high school senior about staying in school and avoiding a life of crime, Sept. 11, 2017.

Nora Angulo's first time in handcuffs was at age 14 for a curfew violation. It was the first chapter in a story that would repeat itself throughout her youth — only curfew became car theft and cuffs became bars.

“I had the mentality like it's your job to catch me and it's my job to get away,” Angulo said. “So as soon as I hit the gates, I ran. Every time, I ran.”

The 34-year-old's last stint was in federal prison for intent to distribute methamphetamines.

“I was caught up in the system for about 20 years. I broke my recidivism rate by registering for school. It took me 20 years to figure that out,” Angulo said. She is now enrolled at San Diego City College.

“My first semester I got straight A's. Receiving a letter from the dean's list, it gives you that feeling inside that you could do something, you are somebody,” Angulo said. “Now I'm 77 units in. I have a 3.88 GPA. I'm applying to UCSD to study cognitive behavioral neuroscience.”

Individuals like Angulo — who have lived the cycles of violence and incarceration in urban communities and come out on the other side — are some of the best to break those cycles. But often their work is informal and unpaid because of their criminal backgrounds. Agencies are hesitant to put them on payroll, or they may lack resources to market and fund their outreach.

An eight-week course at Alliant University called the Community Mentors Program is trying to help. Its fourth cohort just graduated, including Angulo.

Video by Matthew Bowler

“We knew that if this work was ever going to be respected, ever going to be valued to the degree that it should have been valued at, we were going to have to create a professional standard,” said Aquil Basheer, one of the course instructors. “We were going to have to create professional protocols.”

RELATED: San Diego Police Helping End Gang Retaliation With Text Messages

Basheer began helping street outreach workers professionalize their work some 20 years ago when he founded the Professional Community Intervention Training Institute International. He has trained community members and agencies working to reduce street violence in dozens of U.S. cities. Basheer’s trainees play a vital role in gang intervention in Los Angeles and Orange County, where elected officials have more formally incorporated street outreach into their efforts.

One goal of the course at Alliant is to get that ball rolling in San Diego.

That means “getting people to speak the same language,” said Basheer. The Community Mentors Program brings together people interested in outreach work, future and current service providers, academic researchers and law enforcement to find common ground and build competencies together.

Regular participants include county health and human services and probation, the National Conflict Resolution Center, Union of Pan Asian Communities, San Diego Compassion Project, SAY San Diego, Project AWARE and members of the faith community.

The course covers concepts mental health practitioners and social workers use, such as restorative practices and trauma-informed care, and professional standards and practices for street outreach.

“You have people who have a history of being incarcerated and then you have students who are going to be psychologists or lawyers and they get to have the conversation with each other and work together,” said Lynn Sharpe-Underwood, an adjunct professor at Alliant and former director of San Diego’s Commission on Gang Prevention and Intervention. “All of a sudden you're breaking down barriers and changing the way work gets done.”

The way intervention work gets done in San Diego County could already be changing on a large scale. Through the course, community members were able to sit down with the county’s Chief Probation Officer Adolfo Gonzales to talk about folding them into county efforts. In March, Supervisors Bill Horn and Kristin Gaspar initiated work on a “credible messenger” program that would hire formerly-incarcerated individuals through a subcontractor to work with North County youth at risk of getting tangled up in the criminal justice system.

The county put out a request for proposals in July but did not receive any. Joey Estrada, a counseling and school psychology professor at San Diego State University and one of the course organizers, said that’s because the community mentors certified through the Alliant class are not from North County and would not be accepted on the streets there.

“I think (San Diego is) turning a leaf in terms of starting to respect the work of community mentors and the systems are starting to be open to the idea,” said Estrada, who is also working to align gang and crime intervention work in Southern California through the Tri-County Reentry Collaborative.

A spokeswoman said the county is re-evaluating its RFP and will put out another.

Photo by Megan Burks

Nora Angulo fastens a key that reads "Angulo PhD" to a faux jail cell at San Diego City College, Sept. 11, 2017.

Meanwhile, Angulo and her peers are making similar strides at City College. Her and her colleagues in the Urban Scholars Union for formerly-incarcerated students recently spoke with administrators about hiring their members despite their criminal records. Angulo said her friend was just put on the payroll to recruit students. A City College spokesperson did not respond to a request for more information.

And Angulo said her Community Mentors Program certificate helped to show a federal judge she was committed to change. The judge took her off parole, she said, and she can now get an internship to finish her drug and alcohol counseling certification.

Angulo has also begun informally mentoring youth from her neighborhood. On a recent evening, she brought a few of them to an Urban Scholars Union event. The group had erected a faux jail cell in front of the math and science building and written their goals on paper keys fastened to the bars.

Angulo's was simple but impactful. "Angulo Ph.D."

The next Community Mentors course is scheduled to start in the spring.

Agencies in Los Angeles know former gang members and the formerly incarcerated are some of the best equipped to help break the cycles of violence and incarceration in urban communities. Now a class at Alliant University is aiming to professionalize the craft here in San Diego.

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