Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
KPBS Midday Edition

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 unarmed black man, Sept. 28, 2016.
Matthew Bowler
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

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."

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

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

Khalid Alexander talks to Aaron Harvey at the Pillars of the Community office, Feb. 23, 2017.
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
New Voices: A Younger Generation's Urgent Quest For Change In Southeast San Diego GUEST: Claire Trageser, reporter, KPBS

This is KPBS Midday Edition. I am Maureen Cavanaugh. There is a course of new voices. These are leaders from a younger generation working on issues like racial injustice and unemployment. They are doing things their own way unlike generations before them. The first of the series, Claire Trageser says these leaders were galvanized to action after the city Councilwoman made these comments at the meeting last year. There is more black on black shootings in our nation than ever before. Those unfounded comments from city Councilwoman "Deep Crimson" ignited a blaze was summer . She represents Dick Strick 4 and they have a larger percentage of African-Americans in the city. Young people in her district organized a campaign, calling on her to resign. We want to take charge and you are going to here's. Aaron Harvey says the mobilization shows young leaders power. Coal did not resign but she did apologize. We at take meetings and we pressed some people. We let them know that this is not a circus or game. Harvey became an organizer after being arrested for allegedly associating with gang members accused initiating. A judge dismissed the charges against him but not before he spent seven months in jail. He says his work is personal and urgent. He is scared for himself and perceives the purse -- police as a threat. I am one step away from being murdered. It is crazy and I am not exaggerating. The leaders are working to change the area known as southeast San Diego. Last year, the employment rate was over 14% compared to under 5% with the rest of the city. More than 12% of households receive the stamps compared to 6% in the rest of the city. Is a slow death. You are aware whether it is nutrition with the food deserts and milk and water and the over policing the poor allocation and the misallocation of us. He says he and others watch parents and grandparents working for incremental changes within the system but things have not improved enough. That is what makes their work urgent and patients is so low. People are dying systematically. Once you become aware that, you can't. Something will not allow you to be quiet. Armand King 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 detoured me into a better direction? What? It was the lack of quality. He started a nonprofit that teaches business skills. He says his generation aims to build the void in the community by becoming activists and establishing programs. I have seen in recent days, older pastors that have been around forever, they get corrected by this young generation. It is not about that. It is not about fighting over grants. Is about the people. The people are suffering. The help has not been there. There is a church on every corner. If the work was being done, we would see a difference. Welcome. This is the managing editor and co-publisher of voice and viewpoint, the African-American newspaper. She runs the paper with her father and says her parents generation has improved the community and points to the civil rights movement as a time of change. She said today's activist to consider taking a page from the past. Right now, there is so much energy involved that people want to go to the front and tackle it and see change immediately. Change takes time It is easy to say incremental change. Or be patient or play the game. People have been playing the game for a long time. It is getting worse. Organizers say they will not be patient. They work to agitate the establishment and demand improvement. We will hear from other young leaders about how they are overcoming obstacles. For more on this story, including profiles of six leaders, go to www.kpbs.org .

DEEP DIVE: A Younger Generation's Urgent Quest For Change
There's a chorus of new voices coming from Southeast San Diego. They say they haven't seen enough change in their community from the time of their parents or grandparents. That makes their work urgent and their patience low. In a new series, "Deep Dive," host Andrew Bowen and KPBS reporter Claire Trageser explore how these young leaders are making change happen their way. Subscribe to San Diego Stories through iTunes or RSS.

The report is one of those stories worth taking a deep dive into. We're launching a new podcast series posted by San Diego stories comedy die. Were the first episode, we are asked for no more details about the new voices story. Here is part of the podcast. We just heard from three people in your story. We have Armand King and we're going to hear from three more people who are Matthew Gordon and Alexander. You do not leader -- live in San Diego. Talk about how you chose these people as the ones we featured. I wanted to be careful to not go in and say I have decided as an outsider that these are the leaders of your community. First of all, I featured six people but I am not saying those are the six leaders. They are six leaders who represent different areas. I tried for a variety. I spent a long time talking to people who live in the area and say, who are some of the younger leaders that you see who are making the most change or have the most impact and have the most respect. I picked people whose names came up the most. Yes. Back Aaron Harvey is one of the people that we hear from. He is an activist and is working towards a law degree. Is that right? Yes. What did he have to say about the tactics that he and the other organizers are using? He said that he does not like the term activist. He said it is too trendy so he calls them an organizer. He was not involved until he was arrested on the small that was a test case and it had not been used before. People who were associated with gang members were charged,, they were in connection with a shooting that they had nothing to do with. That case was dismissed but he spent seven months in jail. Going to the core case showed me that once a law is on the books, it is too late. If I am working on a policy, I can say -- save more lives before the law becomes a law than defending it in court. Aaron sees himself in the future as lobbying for legal changes and he is organizing protest is. These are not new tactics or strategies. What about him and some of his peers that is different? I touched on this in the story. Obviously, there is the civil rights movies and the Black Panther party and big social change. Everyone recognizes that. They are not saying that to do anything that I think the feeling is that after that, a lot of changes were made and there was a lull and in the 80s and 90s came. There was tough on crime walls that led to some the things that are causing problems for the community now. That is what they are working against. One of the incidents that you mentioned was the racial profiling. They represent southeast San Diego. There is another incident that has galvanized people in CD ago and the region which was the shooting of Alfred by a police officer. I can recall waiting outside the police department for a press conference where they were going to release the video footage. There was a group of activists and they were calling out members of the media. You got the perception that they did not trust us in the media to tell the story failing -- fairly. Talk about what you heard about the media's coverage. I mean, one of the people that will be is one he to stopped in. She organized protest after the shooting. It took a wild for me to establish trust with her. At the time I was trying to reach out to her, a lot of the organizers were done with media coverage. They felt like there were a couple of incidences and people throwing water bottles or things like that at the protest, the media focused on that and try to make it violence in the streets when really, the protest were peaceful. You know, by the second night, they were saying, the media cannot come in here and we will not talk to the media. TV cameras were on the other side of the street telling people marching down the street. I reached out to her. She did cite or recognize that K PBS was balancing the coverage. I think she was willing to talk to me because I work at K PBS. In the interview, she ended up sharing the background that I did not know she had. My mom was addicted to drugs. I was in the court systems. When I became a teenager, I was very negative. I had a bad attitude and a negative outlook on life. I got into prostitution and selling drugs. That I was in my younger 20s. Being a single mom, that was my moderately -- motivation to strive for better with the quality. The second day work, my cousin called me and he was there. He said there is a black guy who had been killed. MC. It was my brother. I just knew it was something that I needed to be a part of. Are we going to hear more from Alicia with your peace? What are we going to hear different? She is going to talk about her background and you know, she talks about that there are a lot of people who are young leaders from her generation who might have a similar background. She calls it falling down and scraping your knees or having something in your past that they have had to overcome. There is the idea that because people have first-hand experience with the way the system lets them down, that makes the work even more urgent because they are seeing what needs to be done from their own personal experience.

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