The innocence of childhood is arguably defined by the time spent walking to and from school. Backpacks strapped on their backs and dreams of their future held in their mind’s eye, children attend school to better their lives and empower themselves.
But what about those children who fear for their safety while traversing the path to and from school?
For some Los Angeles students, the possibility of being hurt or even killed as a result of gang violence on their way to and from school is a harsh reality, which oftentimes forces them to avoid attending school altogether.
During the eight seasons he served as the head coach of the University of Southern California Trojans football team, Pete Carroll was arguably one of the most-loved athletic figures in southern California. Fans loved his generally positive demeanor, his ability to recruit star athletes and his leadership skills which translated into his team’s success on the gridiron.
Although Carroll left USC to become the head coach of the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks in 2010, his support of Los Angeles communities continues.
In 2003, Carroll was driving to work as USC’s head football coach when he heard a report that another Los Angeles child had lost his life due to gang violence.
The steps Carroll took after hearing that report demonstrate his natural leadership ability and desire to constantly strive to promote the best interests of others and his community. Rather than sitting idly by waiting for someone else to initiate an effort to rid Los Angeles of gang violence, Carroll took charge.
“People were dying at epidemic levels back then [in 2003] because of gang violence. It touched [Carroll] and he wanted to do something about it,” said Brian Center, A Better LA’s Executive Director.
Carroll called his friend, Lou Tice, who along with his wife Diane, co-founded The Pacific Institute. The Pacific Institute is an organization which educates individuals on how to achieve their full potential.
Carroll and Tice decided to call a meeting in Los Angeles to bring together members of law enforcement and former gang members to begin a conversation as to how they could work together to end gang violence in the city.
“They just had a notion. They didn’t know exactly what to do. But they had a notion, if they could change the mindset of CEOs and leaders in the corporate and educational worlds, that they could do the same thing with leaders in the gang world. They had heard the reports of kids shooting each other and thought that someone must be convincing [the kids] to do that. So they thought to get to the “influencers” in the neighborhood and teach them the same way as CEOs–with self-empowerment. They [Carroll and Tice] said they had an idea, not an answer. They listened to police officers and former gang members. They came away with this idea of empowering others. They found that former gang members were doing a lot of work in the community, so since they were already doing great stuff, they just needed to empower them,” explained Center.
Carroll and Tice’s desire to eradicate gang violence in Los Angeles ultimately culminated in the creation of A Better LA. Building upon their notion that empowering community members could lead to a Los Angeles without gang violence, “. . . A Better LA has evolved into a non-profit that focuses on saving lives and transforming communities.” According to Center, “A Better LA provides financial support, capacity and life skills training, oversight, accountability and resources to take men and women from the streets and teach them to be community outreach workers.”
Carroll’s charismatic personality and position as the beloved head football coach of the USC Trojans made him the perfect candidate to spearhead significant progress in the movement to end gang violence in Los Angeles.
“He’s a charismatic guy and he’s persuasive and energetic. He’s a football coach. He’s not political. There’s no agenda there. He just wanted to help. That made it very appealing and it was very refreshing that there was a new, fresh voice in this area. In the past, it was people who already had a vested interest [trying to eradicate gang violence] and their voice wasn’t as exciting as a new person coming in as an independent person who said he wanted to help. [Carroll] was able to bring people together in a way others couldn’t. If an inner-city advocate calls a meeting about gang violence, it’s heavy; but if a charismatic football coach calls it, it’s fun. He was the perfect guy to get this stuff started,” noted Center.
Carroll was also the perfect person to attract the support of fellow athletes to A Better LA’s cause.
Since its founding, A Better LA has benefited from the support of athletes, teams and apparel brands. Donors include Carson Palmer, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, the Los Angeles Dodgers and Nike. Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp has hosted inner-city students at Dodger Stadium, while both the Dodgers and Angels have provided students with tickets to games. Dodgers pitching coach Ken Howell has even held pitching clinics for students involved with A Better LA, taking them onto the field at Dodgers Stadium to learn pitching fundamentals. A Better LA’s Board of Directors is host to numerous former Trojans football stars, with Pat Haden, Shane Foley and Darrell Rideaux serving on the Board of Directors of which Carroll is the chairman. Carroll’s current team, the Seattle Seahawks, serves as a community partner to the organization and Carroll has founded a similar organization in Seattle–A Better Seattle.
A Better LA is grateful for the extensive support it has received from athletes and teams.
“Athletes make it fun and attractive for kids to get involved in an issue that a lot of people aren’t always willing to get connected to. Not many people who get involved [with A Better LA] have experience with the inner-city and gangs. Athletes serve a great role in connecting people to the cause,” said Center.
Eight years after its co-founder heard a troubling report about the prevalence of gang violence in Los Angeles, A Better LA remains “committed to supporting Los Angeles communities in [its] goal to reduce gang violence by empowering change from within,” according to Center.
The organization works to achieve this goal by providing free empowerment classes to community members which teach participants to change their thinking so they can achieve their dreams. A Better LA also funds inner-city groups which not only work to stop gang violence, but engage inner-city children by providing them with positive alternatives to joining gangs. The organization also engages adults in the communities to work with community children to teach life skills and run sports clinics.
A Better LA also strives to make each Los Angeles child’s path to school safe. The organization engages outreach workers to serve as school crossing guards to help ensure that kids can get to school safely while also addressing disputes, such as gang turf issues, which may arise during the school-day.
“Pete has been our inspiration and motivator, but the way A Better LA was structured, the philosophy has always been to build communities from within. A lot of people feel A Better LA is their organization, whether it’s people from law enforcement, volunteers or people from the community. It’s a strong, broad organization that a lot of people are invested in and that’s why I think it’s such a neat place. It’s not a typical nonprofit that just serves its 50 kids. It’s more of a cause. It’s more of a collaborative effort that keeps it going,” said Center.
“We need as much help as we can get. We need people to volunteer and to create awareness and to spread the word about what we’re doing. This is a very unique cause that a lot of people don’t know about. The more people who learn about it and spread the word, the better. A lot of people feel kind of helpless because they don’t know what to do about these problems. We’ve learned that you can be so powerful as a force, by helping others,” said Center.