Brian Cox is the Senior Director for the South Park Recreation Center in the neighborhood of South Park, an economically challenged, high-density inner city neighborhood on the south central side of Los Angeles. As Director, Brian has brought a community center that was over-run by gangs, and a park that was desolate, dark, and drug-ridden, back to life.
Just a few years ago, people knew not to step foot into South Park’s Rec center or park space because it was gang territory, Brian explained. Although Brian insists that it was a community effort to re-vitalize the park and Rec Center, many would argue that Brian’s steadfast leadership and organizing strength brought people together to change the climate and the culture of the park.
When Brian arrived on the job five years ago, broken glass glittered on the empty baseball field and needles and syringes littered the area. There were no sports or youth programs, and only one child enrolled in the preschool program. Gang violence had made the park a dangerous no-man's-land. Today, the Center boasts some of the largest recreational programs in the city for both youth and adults. A bustling aerobics class happens nightly at the Center and women walk in the dark to and from the site without worry. Youth populate the fields, the gym, and tutoring center. It is a vibrant and thriving space that provides recreation and support to a community in need. Brian believes that the purpose of his job is to organize solid, safe programs for the community, and he does that with earnestness, energy, and commitment. Most of the kids who come to the center are in need of support and someone who cares. Over half are from single-parent households, many from extreme low-income situations. They need a place to go and they need people to believe in them.
Five years ago, he explains, “when you saw LAPD coming, it was to respond to a homicide or a robbery that happened in the park, but it wasn’t preventive. The gangs ruled the place. After all, the parks are the only place that gangs can run rampant, unless there’s a gang injunction. The park is the only place that gangs can gather, get together.” Brian believed that change could happen. New on the job, it didn’t take Brian long to begin organizing for change. He pressed LAPD to put in cameras in the park and to have more of a presence. He rallied community leaders and organizations to gather to address the park situation. He organized neighborhood meetings to hear local input and local needs. Finally, the Rec Center got financial support. They managed to acquire all new equipment. They put up a fence around the baseball diamond and refurbished the field. They financed a new bandshell and new bleachers.
Brian knew that fancy equipment wouldn't do anything unless the people actually came and to use it. So he stepped up efforts and confronted the gang leaders who ruled the park. “It was up to me to reach out to the gangsters,” he says. “I said to them, ‘You gotta be tired of going to jail, You gotta be tired of watching your kids go to jail. You gotta be tired of always running’.” Well, they were, and one influential gang member named Blue agreed to negotiate with Brian. The conversations with Blue and Brian took time, but eventually Brian and Blue found common ground, and Blue agreed to open up the space.
According to Brian, it took about three and a half to four years to really change the culture and the attitude of the community toward the Rec Center and park. He organized meetings and neighborhood gatherings. He reached out to local organizations to get them involved. He cracked down on the drugs, he recruited the police to be more present, and he arranged local events in the space. Slowly changes began to take root. Today, the park is thriving, with teen clubs, adult exercise classes, a tutoring center, summer day camp, a waiting list for the Rec Center’s preschool, a mentorship program, and concerts in the summer. There are even baseball teams bidding to use the space. The area is still struggling and poverty is rampant, but South Park Recreation Center is safe at last and full of life. Brian Cox demonstrates how believing in a cause and committing to organizing around that cause can lead to progress and community change
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