Tag Archives: Gangs

Blue Highways: Reflections of a Grant Writer Retracing His Steps 35 Years Later

One of my favorite books is William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways, an ode to the spiritual healing powers of exploring America and one’s self by driving the roads literally less traveled. From my first road trip at age 16 with my buddy Tom in his ’53 Chevy from Minneapolis north towards the Iron Range, I’ve always loved the unexpected that’s just over the next hill, around the next bend and in that sleepy town that waits at the end of the day’s drive.

Faithful readers will remember that in my first post, They Say a Fella Never Forgets His First Grant Proposal, I recalled my journey westward to California in January 1974, taking Route 66 on the way to becoming a grant writer. In mid-May, my daughter graduated from the William Allen White School of Journalism & Mass Communications at the University of Kansas and I drove with her to her new public relations job in Los Angeles (this also explains the slowdown in posting over the last two weeks). We took the same route I traveled 35 years ago, picking up the path west of Topeka and traveling southwest through Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas on US 156/54 to reach I-40 and what is left of Route 66. A side trip to the always fascinating Grand Canyon and a couple of days later we arrived in LA, where my daughter faces the same challenges that confronted me all those years ago—where to live in the vastness of LA, learning to put up with indignities of endless traffic and trying to figure out the best place to spot stars.*

This nostalgia has a great deal to do with grant writing: just before I left for KU, we finished a proposal for a newly minted Los Angeles City program, the oddly named Gang Reduction and Youth Development (GRYD) program, which is the brainchild of Mayor Antonio Villarigosa. Apparently, the Mayor was shocked, shocked to discover gangs in LA** and decided to move various existing anti-gang/youth services funding from the Community Development Department (CDD) to the Mayor’s Office.

GRYD is more or less the usual rehash of counseling, mentoring, et al. It is absolutely not a stunning innovation and is extraordinarily unlikely to impact gangs or anything else in LA. The most interesting aspect of writing the proposal was the prehistoric GRYD RFP budget forms (warning: .pdf link). About two weeks after arriving in LA in 1974, I found myself writing a proposal for a nonprofit to some long-forgotten LA City youth service program. I remember staring at the cryptic budget forms and struggling to complete a “budget narrative” using a legal pad, pencil and long division. Flash forward to the GRYD RFP, which still uses the same type of budget forms that presume applicants will be using a typewriter and calculator to complete. As I drove across the West once more, I was struck by how the LA Mayor’s office has apparently not heard of Excel or even fillable Acrobat forms. In other words, not much has changed in 35 years of grant writing, even as computers and the Internet have altered so much of life.

In another example confirming the stasis in the grant world, about six months after I arrived in LA, I managed to get a better job working for then newly elected Mayor Tom Bradley in his Human Services Office, reporting Deputy Mayor Grace Montañez Davis, one of the more interesting people I’ve ever met. At that time, Grace managed a slew of federal and state grants designed to provide various services, and I was working for one of them, the LA Volunteer Corps, which essentially did nothing. But those of us on the staff had a great time pretending to be doing something important. After about a year, the Mayor’s Office came under political pressure get out of the human services business and the Los Angeles CDD was born. I was just talking to a friend who still works at the CDD, who told me transferring youth services money from CDD to the Mayor’s Office is the start of moving a whole bunch of human services back to the Mayor’s Office. Back to the Future once again.

Returning to my road trip, I was struck by how much more empty the land had become since last I travelled this route, especially on the blue highways at the beginning. For the past 15 years, I’ve written endless proposals for dozens of clients in rural areas in which the theme is invariably along the lines of, “the jobs are gone, the family farms are dying, young people are leaving, etc.” I saw the reality of what I thought I had imagined as a typical grant writer’s myth. While the larger cities, like Dodge City, KS, Guymon, OK and Dalhart, TX, have a smattering of new fast food chains and budget hotels, the tiny dots on the blue highways have just about ceased to exist. As we entered each town, a faded and often broken billboard sadly announced an attraction that likely no longer exists. In these almost ghost towns, abandoned gas stations, motels and other empty, forlorn buildings line the road, with almost no signs of life. Vast swatches of rural America reflect the dire conditions I often portray in proposals.

If I had had more time, I would have taken a detour and driven 20 miles or so west of Guymon to see how Keyes, OK is faring. About ten years ago, we wrote a $250,000 funded Department of Education “Goals 2000” grant on behalf of Keyes Public Schools, home of the “Pirates.” With just 102 students, this probably represents the largest grant/target audience member we’ve ever written. The fun part about this proposal was the argument that the school district needed to add bilingual education because a 500,000 hog industrial farm operation was about to open and hundreds of Asian-immigrant workers were expected to follow the hogs to Keyes. Whether true or not, the Department of Education bought the story line “whole hog” and funded the proposal. I was reminded of the Keyes project because at breakfast in Dahlhart, I read the Amarillo newspaper and was startled to read a story about a “wave of killings” (three to be exact—perhaps they need a GRYD program and should call of Mayor Villaregosa for tech support), attributed to a local Asian youth gang.

The problem, according to the police, is that they and the city in general lack any staff who can speak the unnamed Asian language spoken by residents, so they were stumped for clues. Talk about a great grant proposal concept! Who would expect an Asian gang crisis in Friday Night Lights country? Perhaps, like Keyes, Amarillo is home to industrial hog operations, or, perhaps, like other so many other towns I drove through, the glimmer of hope that hogs represented to Keyes was an illusion and Keyes is slipping out of existence, one abandoned building at a time.

So, while we didn’t exactly “get our kicks on Route 66,” it was perhaps a last opportunity to spend three days alone with my daughter, as she begins her adult life, and a special chance for me to remember the 22-year old kid who found his future waiting in Los Angeles—and how short the memories of many grant making agencies are. In case you haven’t guessed, my daughter is also 22, making the trip particularly meaningful.


* Gelson’s Supermarket in Studio City on Sunday morning is still a great place to spot movie/TV stars.

** Yes, this is my movie reference to Claude Rains delightful Captain Renault being shocked to discover gambling at Rick’s in my favorite movie, Casablanca.

Gangs, Again

Hot on the trail of yesterday’s post about L.A. gangs and statistics, the New York Times published “Los Angeles Combating Gangs Gone International.” It begins:

Two gangs that originated on the streets here have grown so large in El Salvador that there are two prisons in that country devoted exclusively to their members, one for each gang, according to officials who traveled there recently to meet with the local authorities.

That is just one measure of the way gangs in this city with the worst gang problem in the United States have bolstered their presence in Mexico and Central America, where they attract new members eager to come here.

Over the course of the article, you won’t notice any numbers regarding how many active gang members operate in L.A., and not until the fourth paragraph do you actually learn that its premise rests on 23 people being convicted of extra immigration crimes. In addition, the only two people quoted are, for lack of a better term, anti-gang professionals; evidently the reporter knows what Isaac said about narratives:

If you’re having difficulty building your argument with data, a good technique is to call local “experts” for quotes. For example, find and call the police unit responsible for gang suppression in your target area, then ask leading questions. Invariably, the officer will tell horror stories about rampant gang activity. Just ask if you can quote her and she will almost always agree. It’s always fun to include the names of some local gangs in your proposal for a dash of reader titillation.

I’ve written about questionable New York Times articles on my personal blog, and there is something vaguely rotten about “Los Angeles Combating Gangs Gone International.”

You also don’t get the names of the gangs, but one is almost certainly “Mara Salva Trucha” or MS-13 (sometimes spell “Salvatrucha”), which is famous enough or has good enough PR to merit a Wikipedia page, although you shouldn’t necessarily trust what you read there. Still, given all the publicity MS-13 has received, you can always cite Bloods, Crips, and MS-13 affiliates as making up your local gang problem.

On Gangs and Proposals

As Isaac wrote, it almost never hurts to claim gang activity in a proposed service area (“[. . . f]ind and call the police unit responsible for gang suppression in your target area, then ask leading questions. Invariably, the officer will tell horror stories about rampant gang activity.”). Now, by way of Freakonomics, I found an L.A. Weekly article on the subject:

Eventually, James started talking. He told me he’d started gangbanging when he was 12. “I got shot when I was 15, and that’s when it got bad,” he said softly. “I got extreme after I got shot.” James started teaching youngsters from Nickerson how to gangbang. Using rival gangbangers for practice, he taught his students how to hunt and kill. “You teach a person how not to take losses, how to be gladiators, run them down, gun them down,” he explained.

James wasn’t remorseful, but he was far from proud. In truth, he seemed numb; his life of crime and death hung about him in a static haze. There is a personal demilitarized zone in the advanced lives of former hardcore gang members, should they survive their 20s, where they live as neither soldier nor citizen. James said he struggles to keep a gun out of his own hands every day, but that in January he was tempted to join the battle with the Grape Street Crips after a young Bounty Hunter he knew was killed.

Steven Levitt of the Freakonomics Blog says he can’t agree with the article’s conclusion about increasing violence:

Landesman argues that the gang problem is worse than it has ever been, and that gang violence hasn’t dropped the way other crimes have. A quick glance at the homicide rates among young black males over the last 15 years shows that this statement just can’t be accurate. The biggest declines in homicide have been among young black males, both in absolute and percentage terms.

What Levitt doesn’t address is the possibility that gangs are getting worse in Los Angeles, which is the area covered by the article, even if the situation is improving nationwide. Judging from articles like “The Story of a Snitch” in The Atlantic, which covers Baltimore, I wouldn’t be surprised if gang problems are changing rather than abating. Or maybe programs like G.R.E.A.T. are having some effect, as The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) argues. This seems improbable but possible, and I don’t know of anyone who has examined the methodology of the NIJ’s study.

The preceding paragraph again goes back to Writing Needs Assessments: How to Make It Seem Like the End of the World by demonstrating how statistics can be attacked and why you shouldn’t necessarily trust conclusions found in the popular press or elsewhere. They can be changed and challenged in an actual proposal. If you’re writing one, you usually have an incentive to make the area or situation appear as bad as possible so you can remedy problems through your project.

Consequently, when writing about a target area, you’re better off claiming gang activity, since most reviewers aren’t going to be aware of gang trends nationwide, and even if they are, you can announce that gang activity in your area is rising, as the L.A. Weekly reviewer did. You could also cite Levitt, as I do, and then attack his reasoning.

As with most things about grant writing, there are some local aspects Levitt doesn’t know about, and in this case it’s something everyone in South Central does: Nickerson Gardens, a public housing development, is among the worst areas around. Here’s one example of its history: “The Nickerson Gardens is considered by many as the most violent, drug infested, crime riddled neighborhood in the country.” It’s a very scary place and, ironically, there’s a street running through called “Success,” which reminds me of Soviet propaganda about worker achievement and happiness.

Success Ave

(Click to here to see the full image.)

When I talked to Isaac about this article, he immediately said that he bet that the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA), which owns Nickerson, hasn’t tried to use the HUD HOPE VI program to revitalize Nickerson. He was right, and HOPE VI also hasn’t been attempted at the other three public housing projects in Watts: Jordan Downs, Imperial Courts, and Avalon Gardens. Nickerson was also right in the middle of the civil disturbances in Watts in 1965 and the Rodney King incident in 1992, and 15 years later it remains a place of hopelessness and gang activity. Despite the street name, there is little success in Nickerson.

This is the kind of revisionist information you could include in a needs assessment about the area. The stories embedded would add flavor and help counteract what Levitt writes, so even if the reviewer happens to know a lot about gang activity, which is improbable, he or she would still award you points for need.


EDIT: This post covers similar territory.