West Side Story Project – Speak Up! At The Phoenix Academy of Los Angeles

Thursday, July 30th, 2009

Over the past six months, youth at Phoenix Academy of Los Angeles have participated in the West Side Story Project, a gang-prevention initiative started in Seattle and spreading to other communities throughout the country. This program aims to foster better understanding between those in law enforcement and at-risk youth with the aim of finding peaceful resolutions to conflict and preventing escalation of hostility and violence. In January 2009, Detective Kim Bogucki from the Seattle Police Department, who had originally been involved with initiating the West Side Story Project, came to Phoenix Academy to conduct “ice-breaker” and “role reversal” exercises between police from the Foothill Division of the Los Angeles Police Department and youth under probation and court supervision in treatment at Phoenix Academyof Los Angeles. Detective Bogucki asked each group difficult questions, (“Have you ever been stereotyped or discriminated?” or “Have you ever been a victim of a crime?”). Those who experienced discrimination or were victims of crime would go to the other side – to a new group that soon included both officers and youth. By seeing that they had such shared experiences, both groups came to appreciate the similarities between them. Similarly, in the “role reversal” exercises, the police officers took on the roles of the youth and the youth took on the roles of the police officers, acting out their typical roles and expectations, in such encounters as a traffic stop or a walk through a park.Since January, Phoenix Academy youth have continued the conversation with the same officers, Senior Lead Officers Larry Martinez, Adrianna Mungia and Johnny Walker, in monthly “Speak Up” meetings. The goal is for both sides to learn to treat each other with respect and to understand the difficulties and constraints that each group is facing because of their standard expectations and behaviors. In the coming months, Phoenix Academy residents will move on to other stages of the project, which includes staging the musical, West Side Story.

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