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New Voices: A Younger Generation’s Urgent Quest For Change In Southeast San Diego

Protesters rally after an El Cajon police officer killed Alfred Olango, an un...

Photo by Matthew Bowler

Above: Protesters rally after an El Cajon police officer killed Alfred Olango, an unarmed black man, Sept. 28, 2016.

Last summer, City Councilwoman Myrtle Cole ignited a blaze when she made the unfounded comment, "there is more black-on-black shootings than ever before," during a council meeting.

Cole represents District 4, which includes Southeast San Diego and has the largest percentage of African-Americans in the city.

Immediately, young people in her district organized a campaign calling on her to resign. They drafted a petition and filled council meetings to confront her with their disappointment.

Community organizer Aaron Harvey said the mobilization showed those young leaders' power. Cole did not resign, but she did apologize.

"We're just going to take charge and you're going to hear us," he said. "So we took over a couple of meetings. We've pressed some people to let them know that this isn't a photo op or a circus or a game."

Harvey became an organizer after being arrested for allegedly associating with gang members accused in a shooting. A judge dismissed the charges against him, but not before he spent seven months in jail.

The 28-year-old said his work is personal and urgent because he is scared for himself and perceives the police as a threat.

"I am one police stop away from being murdered and that's not even — it's crazy that I'm not exaggerating when I say that," he said.

Harvey is part of a chorus of new voices coming from Southeast San Diego.

New Voices in Southeast San Diego

There are many emerging leaders in Southeast San Diego. Here are stories about six of them.

  • Wilnisha Sutton
    Community Organizer

  • Armand King
    Founder of Paving Great Futures

  • Mathew Gordon
    City Council District 4 Representative

  • Aaron Harvey
    Community Organizer

  • Chida Warren
    Managing Editor of Voice & Viewpoint

  • Khalid Alexander
    Founder of Pillars of the Community

These are leaders from a younger generation working on issues like gang violence, unemployment and racial injustice. And they said they are doing things their own way, not like the way generations before them did.

One big difference stems from the fact that these young people said they have not seen enough change in their community from the time of their parents or their grandparents. So they are less willing to work for incremental change within the system, because that is what their elders did, and things have not improved enough. That makes their work urgent and their patience low.

'People are dying systematically'

The area known as Southeast San Diego falls south of state Route 94 and east of Downtown San Diego. Last year, it had an unemployment rate of 14.3 percent, compared to 4.6 percent in the rest of San Diego, according to census data. More than 12 percent of its households received food stamps, compared to 6.4 percent in the rest of the city.

And those are just a few issues, Harvey said.

"When you become aware that you are slowly dying in all aspects, whether it be nutrition with food deserts, unclean water, over-policing, poor education, the misallocation of funds, mass incarceration, it's more than just one bullet," he said. "People are dying systematically. Once you become aware of that you can't — there's something in you that just won't allow you to be quiet."

Armand King, 35, shares that frustration. He grew up in Southeast San Diego, got involved with gangs and spent time in jail.

"What was lacking from my life? What could have deterred me into a better direction? What could have made me not start over at 30 years old?" he asked. "It was the lack of a quality mentor."

So he started Paving Great Futures, a nonprofit that teaches culinary and business skills. One night in January, a group of young men met in a small industrial kitchen King rents as a classroom to talk about how to start a food truck business.

"You got lost out there?" he razzed one student who showed up late, then turned his attention back to the class's business plan. "This is just equipment raw, this isn't banners, it's not menus, it's not any of that stuff. That's a whole other two or three grand right there."

King said he feels older generations did not do enough to help him as a kid, and that his generation aims to fill voids in their community by becoming activists and establishing programs that help boost employment, teach civics, mentor youth, feed the homeless and many other things.

"I've seen in recent days older pastors that have been around forever, they get corrected by this generation," he said. "Because it's not about going along with the norm. It's not about fighting over grants. It's not about that. It's about the people, and the people have been suffering. The help has not been there.

"There's a church on every corner in Southeast San Diego. If the work was being done we'd see a difference."

Photo caption:

Photo by Matthew Bowler

Armand King teaches culinary and business skills at a Paving Great Futures class, Jan. 31, 2017.

'Change takes time'

But Chida Warren sees things differently. The 35-year-old is the managing editor and co-publisher of The San Diego Voice & Viewpoint, a newspaper that has been covering African-American issues in the city for more than 55 years. She runs the paper with her father. She said her generation should not ignore the work their elders have done.

"You don't always have to reinvent the wheel," she said. "If you know your history in terms of how organization took place, how groups got together and organized their thoughts and their causes, I think that might be one key thing that's missing consistently. I believe it's happening, but then I think you have those groups that surfaced that have such an urgency and such a desire to see change immediately that it may lack the planning necessary to create a long-term impact."

She said her parents' generation has improved the community and pointed to the civil rights movement as a time of big change. Today's activists could consider taking a page from the past, she said.

"I think right now there's so much energy involved in issues that are taking place that people really want to all kind of rush to the front and tackle it, they want to see change immediately," she said. "But you know, change takes time."

But Harvey, the community organizer, said time is something he does not have.

"It's easier for somebody who's not catching hell to say 'incremental change' or 'be patient' or 'play the game,'" he said. "Well, people have been playing the game for a very long time. And it's getting worse."

He and other young leaders said they see a lull after the civil rights movement, when tough on crime laws devastated their community. And now, Harvey said, they will not be patient as they work to agitate the establishment and demand improvement.

"I think there's a new awakening happening in San Diego," he said. "Our power is growing. But for every one thing you've considered a victory, they've created four more (obstacles). So you're always going to feel like you're behind the curve."

Photo caption:

Photo by Claire Trageser

Wilnisha Sutton sings at a concert in Horton Plaza, Nov. 5, 2016.

'We're an in-your-face type of generation'

That is a feeling Wilnisha Sutton knows well.

Last fall, she and other local artists put on a concert in Horton Plaza to speak out against the criminalization of communities of color. For Sutton, one event was fresh in her mind.

"Me and a lot of my friends have been out there on the front line making sure they know that we're not giving up, you can't just keep killing our people and think it's OK," she told the crowd.

Sutton, 30, organized protests after an El Cajon police officer shot and killed Alfred Olango, an unarmed black man. But her path to community leader was a winding one.

"My mom was addicted to drugs when I was younger so I was in the court system," she said. "I got into prostitution, selling drugs and all kinds of things."

When she had a son, she began to change herself. Then she saw low-income housing in her neighborhood needed improvement, so she started to get involved in activism.

"So that right there was my motivation to just strive for better equality or equity for everyone," she said.

A lot of leaders from her generation have backgrounds like hers and have "probably fell a few times and scraped their knees, as far as even going to jail or getting into lifestyles that are not so good," she said.

But those checkered pasts are what make these leaders so impatient for change, because they've experienced firsthand how the system let them down, she said.

"We're an in-your-face type of generation, and we're going to put you on blast," she said. "Everything that you said you're going to do, we want to hold you accountable. It's tiresome to grow up and see people suffering and to still think that you're going to get out of it, but it's only getting worse."

Photo caption:

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

Khalid Alexander talks to Aaron Harvey at the Pillars of the Community office, Feb. 23, 2017.

'Hey, this is our community too'

Today's young leaders are not always as polished, do not always dress and speak like politicians, and may have criminal records, said Khalid Alexander, 39, who established the nonprofit Pillars of the Community to work for criminal justice reform. But, he said, unlike in times past, the younger generation does not discount leaders for imperfect backgrounds.

"They're not falling into the trap of separating one another based on good, successful, model citizens and the other bad criminals, gang bangers," he said. "And those people who have been dismissed, whether it was for drug dealing or for being incarcerated or for being poor, those people now are really standing up and saying, 'hey, this is our community too, we're a part of a bigger picture, and we need to work together to solve all of those systemic issues that really come up and put us in the position that we are in today.'"

Young leaders are using social media to get organized, which makes mobilization happen quickly, he said. And they are not worried about making waves.

"They're not going to allow elected officials to say things that discredit our experiences on a daily basis and just sit there and be quiet," he said. "So if we hear somebody being disrespectful about our community or being dishonest about their dealings with us, you're going to have people who push back."

But there are young leaders within the government, too. One of them, Mathew Gordon, is a community representative working for Council President Myrtle Cole, whose district includes Southeast San Diego. While his boss is sometimes on the receiving end of protests, he said, he appreciates the in-your-face nature of his peers.

"Steel sharpens steel," he said. "It keeps me on my toes. It makes me want to elevate my game and go even harder."

Gordon, 27, grew up homeless and said he was often racially profiled by police. But he chose to work for change from within the system, first joining the Citizens Review Board on Police Practices and then, working for elected officials.

"We all have our different roles, some protest and march, some like myself are policy wonks and say, 'hey show me the fine print,'" he said. "We all have our roles and stages, and as long as we come together for a common purpose, it'll work."

He said all of the young leaders have the same simple goal of improving the community. Each leader does that in his or her own way, by providing food and clothing, mentoring youth, working to change laws or organizing protests, he said.

Alexander, the Pillars of the Community founder, said it is all combining to create something big.

"Seeing the new leadership and seeing this new voice in Southeast San Diego and being a part of that movement is really exciting for me, and it's encouraging," he said. "I've never been so proud to be from Southeast San Diego."

New Voices: A Younger Generation's Urgent Quest For Change In Southeast San Diego


Claire Trageser, reporter, KPBS



We're sorry. This audio clip is no longer available. A transcript has been made available.

Part 1. These young leaders said they have not seen enough change in their community from the time of their parents or their grandparents. That makes their work urgent and their patience low.

Part II. These young leaders said they have not seen enough change in their community from the time of their parents or their grandparents. That makes their work urgent and their patience low.


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Claire Trageser
Investigative Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksAs a member of the KPBS investigative team, my job is to hold the powerful in San Diego County accountable. I've done in-depth investigations on political campaigns, police officer misconduct and neighborhood quality of life issues.

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