For nine years, Leon Gullette has worked to bring peace between gangs around a South-Central housing project and to encourage youngsters to stay out of trouble.
His training has been the lessons taught by life in the Pueblo Del Rio housing projects and watching gangs terrorize an impoverished community. Nothing more formal.
"I would just rely on what I got on the streets," he said.
That is changing with a new program at Cal State Los Angeles to train young men and women as certified gang intervention specialists.
The $200,000 pilot program, unveiled Thursday, is part of a larger effort by Los Angeles city officials and law enforcement to address a spike in gang violence over the last seven months, particularly homicides. The 15-week course, which officials described as the first of its kind in the nation, is free to students.
The goal, program advocates say, is to give gang workers certificates and a sense of professionalism.
Many gang workers are former gang members with no special training in the techniques to keep the peace or to prevent youngsters from joining gangs, program advocates say.
"A lot of guys who do this have a passion for it, but they only know from what they learned in their own universe," said Bill Martinez, program manager for the Youth and Gang Intervention Specialist Certificate Program.
The program's first 33 students, including Gullette, began lessons last week. The program calls for 120 hours of training in a classroom setting with police officials, probation officers, former gang members and academics.
The city of Los Angeles is paying for the first year of the program. Officials said they will monitor it and consider expansion.
Martinez said the students will learn about the history of gangs and gang truces in the United States and Europe. They will also study techniques for resolving disputes and resources available throughout the region to reduce gang violence.
The program's first students are mostly gang workers from the city's L.A. Bridges anti-gang program. Future classes will accept gang workers from other anti-violence programs.
"This program will raise the bar of professionalism for gang workers," said Henry Toscano, chairman of the Assn. of Community Based Gang Intervention Workers, a Los Angeles County-based group.
Duc Pham, a former East Los Angeles gang member who works with L.A. Bridges, said he is attending the program to make himself a wiser peacemaker.
"This will educate us on how to approach different issues like family problems, emotional problems and how to direct people in need to different resources," he said.
The county has for years employed paid gang intervention specialists, but with mixed results. They did not have to meet formal criteria, and critics argued that many were too sympathetic to gang members or too inexperienced to sway all but the very young.
City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who heads the council's gang violence and juvenile justice committee, said he hopes the program and other violence prevention efforts will reduce violence.