Photo courtesy of PBS
For Abraham Colunga, being on probation at age 11 was no easy feat. Going to school and eventually trying to get a job was almost unthinkable.
Being familiar with a life of crime from an early age eventually led Colunga to serving 11 years in state prison once he turned 18.
“When you treat [kids] like criminals, they start to believe it,” said Colunga, who is now a community organizer at The Youth Justice Coalition (YJC) in Inglewood. “If your own parents are calling you a dumbass… You might as well act out.”
Once he came out of prison, there weren’t many opportunities. When applying for jobs, he had to check the box, which stated he had been previously convicted of a felony, which made it hard for him to get a job.
“A lot of places that I would go apply for before I landed at [the YJC] would kind of discriminate because of my background,” Colunga said. “They look at my criminal history and right off the top it was denied.”
At 26.5 percent, the 2014 unemployment rate for 16 to 19-year-olds in the Los Angeles- Long Beach – Santa Ana area means that getting a job as a millennial is not easy. Compared to the overall unemployment rate of 7.5 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the numbers paint a picture.
As if being a young person was not tough enough, those youth who have been incarcerated or are on probation face an even bigger problem upon entering the workforce — systematic discrimination.
In the Long Beach area, a few local organizations are working to bring jobs to this struggling population.
Another is Rosie the Riveter Charter High School in Long Beach, which since 2007, has worked to offer an alternative for system-involved youth. The curriculum offers students a path to obtain their GED, job-readiness training, as well as help with expunging records.
“Without guidance or without education, that could lead to [youth] being re-adjudicated or reoffending,” said Veronica Legarreta, program manager of Rosie the Riveter YouthBuild program.
In July of 2015, the U.S. Department of Labor awarded the City of Long Beach $2 million for a pilot program to assist 300 youth, ages 18 to 26, who have been formerly incarcerated or “at-risk” with job training, leadership opportunities, and potential employment.
For individuals who were formerly incarcerated or are on probation, the program is a proactive step in easing discriminatory barriers of getting into the workforce.
The program is part of an effort to empower young adults who have been disconnected from school, connecting them with meaningful work experience, along with Mayor Garcia’s commitment toward workforce development.
“This $2 million grant will provide critically needed career training, industry credentials, support and experience to ensure that youth are prepared to succeed in the workplace and life,” said Mayor Robert Garcia in an issued statement.
The program is set to launch early this month, according to Utilia Guzman, executive assistant at Pacific Gateway, an organization helping to implement the program.
If the pilot program is successful, it will be evaluated for possible implementation in other parts of the United States.
The criminalization of youth can begin as early as grade school, and in Long Beach, the issue disproportionately affects black youth, the data shows.
Black youth aged 13-17 were four times more likely to be arrested than their white counterparts between Jan. 2008 to Oct. 2013, according to Long Beach Police Department data analyzed by the Press Telegram.
In the 2012-2013 academic year, black students made up about 15 percent of the students enrolled in the Long Beach Unified School District, but accounted for about 35 percent of suspensions, according to California Department of Education data.
Compared to nationwide averages, Long Beach also does not fare too well in providing youth employment. The young adult unemployment rate in Long Beach is 20.7 percent, compared to a national rate of 9.9 percent, a Long Beach city statement by Pacific Gateway reads.
Now at the age of 37, after being acquitted of life in prison in 2013, Colunga has focused on making positive changes within his community, working with “at-risk” and formerly incarcerated youth at YJC.
Some of the projects he has worked on at the organization include the War on Youth Program that supports any individual family that has been through police violence or has lost a loved one due to police violence. He has also organized and spoke on gang injunction panels and “Know Your Rights” campaigns at various colleges in southern California.
“You just got to have the will, the want, and the opportunity,” said Colunga.