Hanging out with other "at-risk youth" in the 1980s and 1990s while growing up on 88th Avenue and D Street in East Oakland and attending Castlemont High School, Victor Rios was working hard to be a statistic: another young male of color filling the school-to-prison pipeline. Running with a gang, theft was his favorite after school activity. He dropped out of school; instead of books, he carried three felony convictions.
Witnessing the death of a best friend and encountering overwhelming compassion from Flora Russ, a teacher he encountered after switching to Berkeley High School, changed everything for Rios.
In 2019, he holds a Ph.D. from UC Berkeley and has authored five books, including Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys, a culmination of his research findings on the hyper-criminalization of young men such as he once was. He founded Project GRIT (Generating Resilience to Inspire Transformation), a program for educators that teaches leadership, civic engagement, and empowerment interventions for young people. His TED Talk, "Help for kids the education system ignores," has more than 1.3 million views. Rios is Associate Dean of Social Science and Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
On September 20, he jumps from educator to film star when Latino Public Broadcasting's arts and culture series, VOCES, premieres the 2018 Imagen Award-Award-Winning documentary, The Pushouts. Available on PBS, the film is directed by Oakland native Katie Galloway with co-director Dawn Valadez.
Pushout chronicles 25 years of Rios' life, from his appearance as a teen gang member in footage from the 1994 FRONTLINE documentary "School Colors," to time spent in 2013 leading 40 youths in a summer program at YO! Watts in South Central L.A. Founded by Rios' high school mentor Martin Flores, Yo! Watts and other programs at the youth center serve 16-24-year-olds working to overcome systemic and structural barriers to academic, employment and life achievement.
"Martin was charismatic," recalled Rios in an interview in early September. "He was our Martin Luther King. To see a person who looked like me who was powerful enough to follow was life-changing."
Comparing the streets of Oakland in the late 80s and early 90s to today, Rios said the level of violence is the biggest difference. "Look at crime charts: violence was extraordinary back then," he said. "It's when violence peaked in America. The crack business was extreme. You sensed hopelessness, you had violence in your face. And there was another big piece: police brutality."
Fast forward to today, when Rios believes gentrification is the greatest adversity impacting youth, although violence, drugs, and police harassment and brutality continue. "Because young millennials see Oakland as a hip place to live, police believe you have to protect it," he said. "So now you see a lot of hyper surveillance of the youth that are in Oakland. It's an extended sentence when they do catch a kid. I got stopped for stealing cars and I got released on probation, but nowadays, you end up doing hard time, especially if it's gang related."
Rios said he has done ride-alongs with police officers who "say they want to be woke." But despite mainstream media coverage and lots of social media chatter about implicit bias training and other counter measures to punitive policing and educating, he says, "It's wonderful, but people aren't doing much but talking. They say we need to be courteous and respectful, but kids are still being arrested and getting the same outcomes."
A "blatantly prejudiced president," along with school policies that instantly expel instead of working to help students involved in gang activities confuse him. "How do we make our liberal talk match our policies to be truly equitable, restorative?" Rios has done his part by helping to convince California legislators earlier this month to replace all legal references to "at-risk youth" with "at promise youth," so as not to compound their stigma.
Answers come by focusing on young people left behind and dealing with structural inequalities. He suggests a "New Deal for the Working Poor," which would provide cash payments for families hit by gentrification, fund after-school programs for at risk youths, and create civic engagement youth initiatives that build a sense of community. Educators must be encouraged, he said, and given programs not to teach to the test, but to teach to the heart. "Students have to feel support from mentors, support from the trauma they've experienced. Educators have to not get caught up in the grind of teaching to the test."
Rios said the film is being screened by teachers and shared between colleagues. "It's sparked a conversation about how they treat kids that get labeled at their schools. It goes well with the equity movement in education right now, so the timing is good."
Although he has not had opportunity to return to Yo! Watts, Rios continues to follow the students' progress. And yes, at the end of the film, his heartwarming reunion with Flora Russ proves a life story headed toward tragedy and victimization has come full circle to resilience, achievement and gratitude.
The film premieres on VOCES, Latino Public Broadcasting's arts and culture series, Friday, September 20, 2019, 10:00 p.m., on KQED and other PBS stations.