Organizing a New BU-Style Network

Martha Shirk
July 1, 1997

After attending a Barrios Unidos summit in August 1995, five young people and three adults from northern Virginia returned home convinced that Barrios Unidos could be effective there.

"It was a real turning point for our community," says Andrea Ley. A youth worker who helped organize the chapter in Fairfax, a Washington, D.C. suburb. "Meeting other youth from around the country who were struggling with the same issues they were. And celebrating the richness of their cultures - it was a really incredible experience, and for many of us, life-changing."

Thus was born the Northern Virginia Regional Network of Barrios Unidos.

The evolution of the Northern Virginia chapter provides some insight into how a Barrios Unidos chapter is formed and what affiliation with the national group actually means.

Ley and several other adults had already been working with Latino youth for a few years when they heard about Barrios Unidos. Fairfax County. the focus of their efforts, was just beginning to experience gang-related violence, and Ley and her colleagues were at a loss about how to deal with it.

They liked what they heard from a Barrios Unidos organizer at a conference in Washington in early 1995. They obtained a last-minute grant from the Mobil Foundation to attend a National Peace Summit in August 1995.

When they got home, they convened a community meeting to spread the word about Barrios Unidos. More than 100 people came, which they took as an indication of solid community interest.

In November, O.T. Quintero, the assistant director of Barrios Unidos, came to Virginia to meet with the community and explain BU's approach to violence. Quintero was satisfied that there was sufficient community backing to sustain a chapter. Together, Quintero and the local activists held a press conference to announce the formation of the Fairfax County chapter of Barrios Unidos.

BU charges no dues to chapters, but requires them to share its philosophy of community empowerment and economic development. Affiliation seems to provide local chapters mainly with a national umbrella under which to operate and a shared sense of mission with like-minded activists around the country.

The chapters can call on the national office for technical assistance with staff and program development and financial management. But the big grants identified with the Barrios Unidos name have all gone to the Santa Cruz chapter alone. Each chapter stands on its own financially.

When asked for a list of affiliates, the BU national headquarters provided a handwritten sheet of paper listing contacts in just nine cities — a third of the 27 claimed affiliates. A spokeswoman said that the others didn't have phone numbers that could be publicized.

For some youth-serving agencies that aren't affiliated with BU. The relationship between the national headquarters in Santa Cruz and its far-flung chapters seems a little loose. "They have tremendous autonomy" the skeptical director of an agency that serves Hispanic youth said of the BU chapters.

In Washington, D.C., for instance, Barrios Unidos' presence consists largely of one paid organizer — Luis Cardona, who works the Mount Pleasant and Adams-Morgan neighborhoods every night out of his white Nissan Pathfinder. According to the Washington Post, the D.C. chapter's total budget last year was $30,000 — a tiny fraction of the $2.9 million spent by the long-established Latin American Youth Center, which helps 5,000 youth each year in the same neighborhoods.

Despite the lack of bureaucratic niceties, the Barrios Unidos concept has proved appealing to many youth. The last Youth Leadership Development conference, in Santa Cruz last November, drew 800.

"What our youth really like about Barrios Unidos is the fact that the leaders of the organization have back-grounds like theirs." said Ley, who speaks Spanish fluently but is not Hispanic. "Many of the leaders have pasts that would make them unacceptable to a lot of other organizations that work with youth. And the emphasis on culture and spirituality is really important to the youth."

The Fairfax County chapter helped organize Barrios Unidos National Peace Summit in Washington in April 1996. One Barrios Unidos' youth has dreams of changing a life punctuated by violent crime. His tattoo reads "Perdon Madre": Forgive Me, Mother. Media coverage of the summit sparked interest around the region, so the Fairfax County chapter reorganized as the Northern Virginia Regional Network of Barrios Unidos.

In October 1996,it received its first grant — $25,000 in federal funds from the federal Drug-Free Schools and Communities initiative. The network is using the grant, which runs out in June, to pay eight part-time outreach youth workers who meet with youth.

Most of the other work done by Barrios Unidos in northern Virginia is underwritten by the activists' employers. The Virginia Cooperative Extension Service, where Ley heads a 4-H initiative, has been very supportive, she said, allowing both her and another employee to spend part of their work time on Barrios Unidos activities. Several other adult activists work for social-service agencies that let them do Barrios Unidos work on agency time.

One of the network's other accomplishments has been a 10-week series of dialogues between local youth and police. Students with George Mason University's Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution organized the sessions, which, Ley said, points to the value of collaboration.

"It's probably the single thing we've done that's made the biggest difference in our community." Ley said. "Before it, there had been a tremendous amount of misunderstanding between youth and police. Now we get a lot of help from the police with our programs. Sometimes they even come up with a bus for a field trip!"

Shirk, Martha. "Organizing a New BU-Style Network." Youth Today, July/August 1997, p. 35.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.