At Large in L.A.

Belinda Smith Walker ’71, executive director of Girls and Gangs (G&G), and partners in law and public activism Stephen English ’75 and Molly Munger ’74 are all Harvard alumni residing in L.A.

July 19, Monday afternoon, heading south on the Harbor Freeway.
Belinda Smith Walker ’71, executive director of Girls and Gangs (G&G), and a Bulletin writer are speeding toward South Central Los Angeles. Our destination: the H. Randolph Moore Community Education Center (CEC) for youths on probation, where we will meet with four of Walker’s colleagues.

Walker and her colleagues are in the midst of launching Girls and Gangs, a novel nonprofit that will provide support and services to girls leaving Camp Scott, the only all-girls probation camp in Los Angeles County. The girls wind up at Camp Scott for crimes ranging from armed robbery and assault to drug trafficking. They illustrate a bleak trend: girls are the fastest-growing segment of the juvenile justice population nationwide.

In its pilot year, Girls and Gangs will serve at least 35 girls, ages 14 through 18. Most are minorities, from fragmented families. Many have substance abuse problems, and most, according to recent state statistics, have suffered physical, emotional, and/or sexual abuse. Some are also mothers — often with more than one child. The girls are members of or involved with gangs or live in gang-operated territory, such as where we’re heading.

Monthly G&G workshops have already begun at Camp Scott, some offered by former inmates, on topics such as “breaking the cycle,” job readiness, and child abuse prevention. A pilot group-mentoring project begins in January, linking groups of eight to ten girls with a trio of mentors, at three different locations. A one-on-one mentoring program will begin this summer. Girls and Gangs is also building a resource network and plans education initiatives to counter public stereotyping of young offenders.

As we exit the freeway at South Central Ave., Walker is saying, “We’ve toiled for months to get the mentoring piece right, because it has to be something the girls will trust.”

We pull into the school lot concealed by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire and incongruously entwined with morning glories. The CEC is a nondescript cluster of one-room classrooms. This is where one of the Girls and Gangs mentoring groups will meet.

Joining us inside are G&G board members Annette Gromfin, Maria Gutierrez, Elaine Moore, and Henry Toscano. Like Walker, the four are passionate advocates for girls in the California juvenile justice system. They reflect the diversity of the full board, which comes from the public, private, and nonprofit sectors. In addition to the board, there is a large, equally diverse Girls and Gangs Network that serves as a vehicle for public education and policy changes addressing the needs of at-risk girls.

The group convenes at a folding table. This classroom is a bare-bones space, with chalkboard, metal teacher’s desk, well-worn books, one computer, a globe, a solar system mobile, and posted inspirational quotes.

“I got involved with Girls and Gangs at the very beginning, but I never knew it would get into my blood the way it has,” says Elaine Moore, who has been with the YWCA of Greater L.A. for more than 30 years. “These girls have not had one person in their lives who cared about their well-being without an ulterior motive.”

Board member Maria Gutierrez is a probation officer assigned to Soledad Enrichment Action (SEA) Charter Girls Academy, a new school for girls on probation and hard-to-place girls. She seized the opportunity to get involved with Girls and Gangs “because no one else was addressing the issue of how to bring these girls back into the community. We have to work to keep them from becoming
re-offenders.” She points out how law enforcement efforts generally focus on boys and overlook troubled girls until they’re embroiled in serious crimes.

Annette Gromfin is a veteran educator and administrator who works with the L.A. County office of Education. “Who ends up in Juvie Hall? The data says minority and poor kids,” Gromfin says. “Gangs provide them with an affiliation. With Girls and Gangs, we’re trying to build a new kind of opportunity system.”

“In a lot of places the gangs are winning. Their recruiters break right through to the kids because nobody else takes them seriously,” says Henry Toscano, who was a gang leader in East L.A., where he grew up. Now he is supervisor of gang intervention activities at SEA, with more than 20 years of experience. “I turned around because people tried to reach out: older relatives, coaches, my probation officer. When I was ready to change, they were there for me.”

He adds: “Society is too ready to build more prisons and lock everybody up. The concept of Girls and Gangs is unique and badly needed.”

“Coming out of Camp Scott, it’s hard for the girls to get a job, or education, or to get their record expunged. We [as a society] expect so much of them, and then we never reward them,” says Walker. Like the others, she has years of experience in the nonprofit world. As a fresh HLS grad, she started out in private practice at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher but decided lawyering wasn’t for her. She then taught for seven years at a private high school, and after that went on to join nonprofit causes with social change agendas. In 1983 Walker cofounded the Los Angeles Women’s Foundation, which supports organizations that empower poor women and children. Her husband, Jack Walker ’71, is a partner at Latham & Watkins, which provides pro bono legal services to Girls and Gangs.

The group talked about the rewards of sharing their interdisciplinary skills in developing Girls and Gangs. They emphasized the need for long-term commitments to make any real headway in the long-term problems of juvenile offenders. Says Toscano: “To anyone who asks ‘What can I do this summer to help?’ I want to say, ‘Excuse me, but it’s going to be 15 summers. Just send a check.’”

Asked what lawyers can offer, Moore says, “It’s imperative that they know the system thoroughly, to get around it or barrel right through it. The layers of politics between courts and judges mean unfair hearings for the kids. Law grads may find their time is better spent on changing laws that are impacting the juvenile justice system, to give children a fair shake.”

The camaraderie forged in hundreds of hours of volunteer labor on behalf of Girls and Gangs is obvious in this group. They kid each other, and respect and support each other, as they hope the girls will do when they come together for mentoring.

“We’ve had an extraordinary public response to Girls and Gangs,” Walker says, leading the way back to her car. The rise in crime by girls “is ringing all sorts of alarm bells and setting off flashing red lights, yet this population is still small enough so we can wrap our arms around the problem.” Girls and Gangs plans to expand its mentoring program and public education throughout Los Angeles County. Says Walker: “We’ve got a program that has potential to be a model not just for other girls programs but cross-gender. When it works here, it will give hope that expanding it to boys will work too.”


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 July 20, Tuesday morning, in downtown L.A.
The offices of English, Munger & Rice are eerily quiet. Stephen English ’75 and Molly Munger ’74 will walk in any moment. Their partner, Constance Rice, a civil rights attorney, is over at the U.S. District Court, arguing to uphold a consent decree obligating the local transit authority to buy more buses in order to relieve severe overcrowding. Many riders come from L.A.’s poorer neighborhoods and depend on buses for daily transportation.

Public transportation, education, housing for the homeless, city government, juvenile justice — these are some of the public policy areas that English, Munger, and Rice are addressing through a variety of strategies. Their one-year-old law firm takes care of the legal side, while their nonprofit startup, The Advancement Project, concentrates on alternatives to litigation.

In the first year, the Advancement Project focused on education. “Rising expenditures on prisons have caused school and higher education spending in L.A. County to drop,” says Munger. “Test scores are abysmal, and there’s county-wide consensus that change is needed.”

This spring the partners supported the successful campaigns of education reform candidates and were consultants to the new president of the board of the L.A. Unified School District. Now, as the reform board gears up, the project will provide policy research and propose ways to communicate education proposals across community divisions.

As for the law firm, “the unifying theme is that we’re generally suing the government in one form or another,” says English, who is married to Munger. That includes a couple of police departments for creating hostile work environments for minority officers.

He also represents a group lobbying the federal government to approve reuse of surplus Navy land and a substantial share of 545 vacant military family homes in the L.A. area as housing for the homeless. Homeless families would have use of the homes for several years, and would receive job training, tutoring, child care, and other services to help them become self-sufficient. Local property owners are fighting hard to stop the plan.

English originally got involved with homelessness in the inner city as president of the board of Public Counsel and a board member of the Los Angeles Legal Aid Foundation. “An increasing number of families in this city are one to two paychecks from being homeless,” he says, noting that in parts of L.A., thousands of people live in subdivided garages as well as old cars and trailers.

Of the two HLS graduates, it was Munger who first made the transition from private practice to public interest work. At HLS she had been “imprinted with the idea that becoming a partner in a major firm was the pinnacle of success — especially as a woman from the glass ceiling era. Many of us were eager to prove that barrier need not exist.” And she succeeded, when she became the sole woman partner in the L.A. office of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson.

Having reached that pinnacle, when the L.A. riots took place in 1992 Munger says she was “ready to hear their message, and to look at their causes.” Alarmed by L.A.’s rupturing communities, Munger realized “that people like me, who belonged to the establishment, needed to understand better the concerns of the rest of this big city.”

So she left private practice and joined the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, where she met Rice, one of LDF’s top lawyers. Munger found she and Rice agreed that to achieve solutions that would “bind the city together,” litigators also needed political and organizing know-how, solid policy research, and media skills. The idea of a new partnership emphasizing this complete package emerged.

Meanwhile, Munger’s husband says he grew envious. “Molly was having all the fun.” English was closing in on 20 years as a general business litigator at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius. He’d been a partner for more than a decade. “I was knocking myself out on cases that had no significance I could believe in,” he says. He decided to join Rice and Munger’s dual venture.

The partners’ ultimate goal “is to make this region, with all its wonderful resources, work better,” Munger says. “Right now there’s too much disconnect between the diverse kinds of expertise involved in public policy making, with litigators, policy experts, academics, politicians, law enforcement officials, who are all off in separate camps.” Munger, English, and Rice are working to bridge these gaps.