YOUTH TODAY: The Newspaper on Youth Work, VOL. 12, NO. 9 October 2003
In one of L.A.'s most notorious ganglands, a white-bread east coast suburbanite has cultivated a rose in the cracked concrete. Dawn Smith is a veteran youth worker for high-risk youth, specializing in connecting with youth through the arts. She displays the essence of a hip-hop youth worker: gritty survival skills, unabashed disgust with the treatment of poor urban youth. “We have a completely corrupt justice system,” Smith says. "It's racist, it is all based on economics, it's just a terrifying system.” She worked in several group homes in Los Angeles before starting a theater program for young offenders locked up for murder or attempted murder. “I have never met kids with that kind of vulnerability and wisdom,” Smith says. She asked them what needed to be done for their peers on a community level. “They told me that they knew L.A. has tons of youth programs,” she says. “But they either don’t offer things that kids are into, or they exclude the kids that most need them.”
Smith responded with Justice by Uniting in Creative Energy (J.U.I.C.E.), an after-school program that within two years has become a fixture of the city’s Hispanic and Asian hip-hop scene. Located in the crime- and gang-plagued Rampart sections of Los Angeles, J.U.i.C.E. operates on a simple philosophy: Give youth a safe place to do what they want, and you’ve made a difference. No life lessons or lectures needed. Every Thursday from 4 to 9 p.m., anywhere from 30 to 120 youths greet Smith on their way into a local Unitarian church, where they are free to hone their various hip-hop skills. About 80 percent of the participants are Hispanic or Asian (Rampart is adjacent to Koreatown in Los Angeles).
For hip-hop enthralled youth, J.U.i.C.E. is a veritable wonderland. Art students get tables full of materials and a six-week workshop conducted annually by a professional muralist. Local DJs school teens on the wheels of steel, as break dancers practice moves to the always-blasting beats. A volunteer oversees a cipher – a group of young emcees rapping freestyle. The service is more needed than ever, says Alex Poli (aka “Man One”), a graffiti artist who works with J.U.i.C.E. and has contracted to do workshops with the likes of Boys & Girls Clubs and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. "When I was coming up, there was a clear break between what gangs were and what graf writers were,” says Poli. “You had to choose one or the other, [so] going around town, I wasn’t afraid of gangs. Now, you got cops, with 10 times tougher laws. You have gang members who see [graffiti artists] as a threat because they bring attention to neighborhoods. It’s pretty scary now.”
Smith does not pay herself for her work with J.U.i.C.E., saying she relies on other jobs for her salary. (Smith is the coordinator for the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department, and before that ran the Los Angeles youth division of the nation non-profit Common Cause.) J.U.i.C.E. has four-part time staff members, but mostly counts on local hip-hop veterans to work with kids pro bono. For the most part, though, the expectation is that youth will help each other in this setting. Requiring only respect, Smith says she will take any youth who wants in. “People hear that the only other people mentoring ‘dangerous kids’ are other ‘dangerous kids’ and are like, “What the hell is wrong with you?’ As soon as people walk in the door, though, they are almost always behind the project.” Getting potential funders to walk in the door has not proved to be easy. Smith has landed some small grants from the city’s cultural heritage department. Her most significant score was a $7,500 start-up grant from the Durfee Foundation, which provides funding to Los Angeles County nonprofits under five years old with budgets under $100,000. (Smith says J.U.i.C.E. operates on about one fifth of that.) Smith says applications to about 50 foundations have fallen on deaf ears. “I’m not an experienced grant writer, so that has something to do with it,” she says. “But I really think a lot of traditional funders see the word ‘hip-hop’ and throw [our proposal] in the trash.”