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Homeboy Industries' Father Greg Boyle speaks at new OCC space for Latino voices, ideas

Daily Pilot - 4/27/2023

Apr. 27—Father Greg Boyle on Tuesday spoke before an appreciative Orange County audience about the importance of embracing those on the margins of society, living in affectionate awe and imagining a circle of compassion from which no one is excluded.

"How do we dismantle the barriers that exclude, so we have greater equity and more people at the table ?" he posed. "What Martin Luther King says about church could well be said of this brief time we have together — it 's not the place you come to, it 's the place you go from.

"And you [must ] go from here to be anchored at the margins, because... the only way they 'll ever get erased is if you stand out at them."

The Jesuit priest and founder of Los Angeles gang member redirection program Homeboy Industries came to Costa Mesa 's Orange Coast College Tuesday to celebrate the opening of a new space for a program intended to guide Latino students as they learn about their shared cultural roots and develop the skills to succeed in college and in life.

School officials recently made room in the campus ' Global Engagement Center for use by the Counseling Latinos for Equity and Engagement (CLEEO ) Project.

Promoting access and equity Since 2016, CLEEO has offered a counseling course — the Chicano /Latino Experience in Higher Education — that deals with issues of identity, sociology, politics and students ' experiences. It encourages participants to explore where they come from, who they are and where they want to go, according to founder and associate professor of counseling Eric Cuellar.

"I wanted the course to serve as a platform for students to be able to experience a cultural sensitivity and a culturally responsive view, " Cuellar said of the curriculum, which clarifies the "Mestizo perspective, " a fusion of backgrounds and beliefs common to Chicano and Latino culture.

"There 's a definite focus on critical thinking, emotional intelligence and cross- cultural competency, " he continued. "For Chicanos and Latinas it incorporates an understanding of our history and our culture, which is one of fusion."

The CLEEO project also includes a lecture and workshop series with guest speakers, like Boyle, ongoing academic presentations, annual scholarships for transfer students and professional development for faculty and staff.

The birth of an industry In his talk Tuesday, Boyle described how an early act to be taken on by people in his East Los Angeles parish was to create a school for youth who 'd been kicked out of the public school system. The next priority was finding a way to create jobs for those seeking to reimagine their lives.

A fortuitous conversation with an L.A. philanthropist led to the 1992 formation of the Homeboy Bakery, which provided former gang members with a means of earning income. A counterpart, Homegirl Cafe, opened in 2005 and is staffed by domestic violence survivors and those whose lives have been complicated by gang involvement and incarceration.

Today, Homeboy Industries is the largest gang intervention rehabilitation and reentry program in the world, serving 10, 000 individuals each year and employing more than 500 people through 13 social enterprises, including gang tattoo removal.

"Every man and woman who walks through our doors comes barricaded behind a wall of shame and disgrace, and the only thing that can scale that wall is tenderness, " he explained. "We tell people the truth, that they 're exactly what God had in mind when God made them.

"Then you watch folks become that truth, you watch them inhabit that truth. And no bullet can pierce that, no four prison walls can keep that out and death can 't touch it."

OCC student Roberto Prado came to hear Boyle speak at the urging of his cultural anthropology teacher Maureen Salsitz, who played a 2012 TED Talk video Boyle made on compassion and kinship in class.

"I thought it would be pretty cool to see him in person, " the 19- year- old said. "Honestly, I thought it was amazing — I can 't believe people like that exist and help our community like that. It was pretty touching to hear."

"There 's this ripple effect, " said Salsitz, of hearing Boyle speak. "It 's trained me to think about the way I speak to students and handle myself. I feel like it comes back, too, in positive ways."

'I found my identity '

Cuellar said regular appearances by noteworthy figures like Boyle are an important part of the CLEEO Project. Others who 've graced the OCC campus include civil rights activist Dolores Huerta, author Victor Villase ñor and actor Pepe Serna.

OCC student Nancy Estrada took Cuellar 's course last fall at the recommendation of a friend and learned more about her culture and heritage in three months than she had in her entire life.

"My parents never liked to share where we came from. They were too afraid and just tried to grow us into American culture, " the 44- year- old Santa Ana resident said. "[Cuellar ] coaches us to believe in ourselves, that we are individuals and we deserve to share in this world with everybody."

Student Nathalie Rios was studying political science and feeling listless before she met Cuellar and enrolled in the CLEEO project. Now, she 's majoring in economics and hopes to help small businesses grow.

"[Mr. Cuellar ] helped me with my journey, " the 19- year- old said. "He helped us learn about our ancestry and our background, and that helped me figure out who I am. I found my identity."

CLEEO was a lifeline for Alexander Mejia, 23, who graduated this winter. Like Rios he changed his major, from animal science to business administration, after doing a lot of soul- searching under Cuellar 's guidance.

"You could really think about who you want to be, as an individual, instead of the generic 'what 's your major ?'" he said of the coursework. "A new perspective is gained, and that 's what we really look for in higher education."


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