by Jeanette M. Neyman
photography by Jason Cooper
As he takes the pulpit, the choir hums behind him. “You need to know the truth,” he says, his voice vibrating with emotion. “We are doing things probation can’t even believe.”
With growing intensity he continues, “But you have to step up. Step up and get involved with the children of our community”
Holding up his 3-year-old son, Taylor, he bellows, “I have commitments too. But you got to quite counting your money and fix your schedule.”
With the magnetism and charisma of a natural orator, Gregory James, a 36-year-old who sports a 6’1″ athletic build, close shaven haircut and trimmed moustache, appears more like an evangelistic television preacher than a deputy for the Los Angeles County Probation Department.
If James seems zealous, it is only because he has been there. Growing up in gritty South Central Los Angeles, he was surrounded by poverty and exposed to crime, drugs and violence that lead many youth astray.
Fortunately, he was taken under the wing of a kind elementary school teacher who saw great promise in him while he recited an essay about Jackie Robinson during an African-American Month assembly. She permitted James to use her home address to attend a more affluent school.
“It allowed me to see another existence,” James says with conviction. “When I was 10 years old a guy pulled up behind me on a mo-ped and put a gun to my head, then stole my radio. These are things that happen everyday in the hood. When these kids walk to school there are drug pushers on the corner, prostitutes, crooks – you name it.”
So at the tender age of 11, James began his three-hour, round trip, zigzagging through urban Los Angeles cities to Hollywood via public transportation. His academic progress increased. He excelled in athletics, serving as team captain and playing middle linebacker for the Hollywood High Sheiks football team. James also became interested in the theater-a passion that would direct him to play a lead role in the University of La Verne production of “Our Town,” and a bachelor’s degree in theater.
“La Verne is an exceptional campus, in that I never felt there was any prejudices toward people of color. I immediately felt like I was home. Like I fit in,” James confesses.
During the church service he descends the stage and lets his “kids” take over.
“Take pride in your life. Stay away from crime, ’cause crime don’t pay,” a young man raps.
“We ain’t showing no weakness,” shouts the rest of the group, comprised of tattoo-clad youths wearing everything from dresses and tuxedo shirts with bow ties to baggy blue jeans and T-shirts.
A nervous 11-year-old takes the microphone and begins reciting his personal essay. “My goal is that when I grow up there will be no drugs, no gangs, no -.” He chokes up and stops. It doesn’t seem as though he may continue, but the Ensemble members pat him on the back and murmur words of encouragement. “No tagging,” he continues. “And people will respect each other.”
At the end of the program, members of the congregation embrace the youths and praise their participation in changing their life. “I am so proud of these young people,” says Reverend Alvin Tunstill Jr., pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Los Angeles. “It takes a lot of courage to pull yourself up when society expects so little of you.”
Begun by James in 1993 , the Community Honors Drama Ensemble, of which the boys and girls are members, was conceived when James worked as a probation officer at Camp Afflerbaugh, a juvenile rehabilitation camp in the La Verne foothills. Thus far, more than 500 young men and women have participated in the program, which has now grown into four separate chapters, spanning the entirety of Los Angeles County. The Ensemble consists of juvenile offenders currently incarcerated or on probation who create, write, direct and choreograph productions with anti-gang, anti-violence, anti-drug messages in skits, songs and speeches presented to the community. Each year, the Ensemble impacts more than 8,000 youths at different schools throughout Los Angeles County.
Aside from personally mentoring and inspiring these young people, James also raises money and lobbies for the program. When he approached the Los Angeles Times for a grant, they did not want to give him money.
“They said we had spiritual overtones and that they didn’t advocate any religious groups,” James confides. “But the bottom line is that our program works and the opposite consequence is devastating.”
James received the grant and is currently the only deputy with a van dedicated to his program. Throughout the week, he picks up incarcerated youth from Camp Afflerbaugh and other locations and drives them all over Los Angeles County to speak out against gangs, drugs and violence.
Kenneth, a 16-year-old incarcerated member of the Ensemble praises James for his leadership and love. “He’s real. He’s my role model. I had to get locked up to find myself. I was arrested for bringing a firearm to school. There is no telling what I would have done. But I learned from Deputy James that you got to lead your own way,” he says.
“I didn’t like gang banging,” Kenneth says a little more quietly. “I was a follower. Now I follow a good example and try to be a leader by setting a positive example to keep the younger generation going, because they are looking up to us. It’s not enough to just know what’s right, you have to do what’s right.”
Although the Ensemble has had a record of success, James is not devoid of his critics. In March his former supervisor, Carl Lewis, ordered James to cease and desist his work with the Ensemble.
“Speaking from a professional level, spiritual overtones are out of place,” Lewis retorts. “When you are talking about building character of boys, spirituality is an important part, but they may be Muslim, Jewish or whatever. Religion is personal and you need to save that for church service.”
Lewis can cite other programs that have also had success and he says the “mentoring” aspect of the programs are what make them successful.
“You don’t need to bring religion into the program to show kids that you care about them and to provide good role models,” he asserts. “The probation officer is an official under the scope of the department and he has to follow the rules of organization, which separates church from state.” He adds, “That’s the gig. If one of our officers wants to make it into something else, let them become social workers. You hear what I’m saying?”
Lewis does admit that the Los Angeles County Probation Department is seeing that there is a need for probation officers to be in the community, not sitting behind a desk. He further concedes that although he doesn’t necessarily agree with James’ approach, he says, “Gregory is a good hearted man, trying to make a difference with these kids. He’s committed, making personal sacrifices and working real hard. He’s the guy on the street working with them.”
Shortly after, James transferred to another program within the probation department to continue his prevention and outreach work. His time spent with the Ensemble is primarily extracurricular, demanding long evenings and forfeited weekends.
Whether one agrees with James’ spiritual approach or not, few can argue the program’s success. “The numbers don’t lie,” James says.
The Honors Drama Ensemble graduates recidivism rate is 10 percent, according to a study done by the Los Angeles Probation Department. The average Los Angeles County recidivism rate is five times higher. For every youth who leaves the system, more than half return within one year.
According to a study conducted by the bureau chief of Residential Treatment, the County of Los Angeles pays $86.77 to incarcerate one youth for one day, resulting in a cost of $31,671.05 a year.
Of the 79 youths who have graduated from the probation division of the Ensemble, only eight re-entered the system, saving taxpayers more than $560,000, when compared with the Los Angeles County average.
“By intervening in the lives of children we shape future role models and prevent future crime,” says Dolores Gulley, executive director of community development for the Fountain of Love Church in Pomona, which houses a chapter of the Honors Ensemble. “I have seen boys from families of gang-bangers and ex-cons change their lives and then bring their younger siblings in to be mentored. That’s how we know that it’s working.”
Gulley, 50, grew up in the heart of Los Angeles and confides that she would not want to be a kid growing up in this society. “The stuff kids face now-a-days was unheard of then. Gangs would fight, but when you heard of somebody being killed, it was a big deal. The first time I knew of people in my generation dying like that was during Vietnam. Now kids wake up going, ‘Am I going to be alive at the end of the day?’ ”
James’ supporters range from principals and politicians to parents and community leaders who have been affected by his dedication. Greg Franklin, former principal of Bonita High School, says, “When the Ensemble came to our school, they were very well rehearsed and did an excellent job of making their presentations. I had several students go out of their way to tell me how much the assembly meant to them. Their stories spoke to them about overcoming hardships, mending relationships and having the strength to make appropriate choices. I was very pleased.”
Timothy Murphy, Los Angeles County court commissioner, praises James for his skill and caring in working with at-risk children. “James is making a huge difference. His program is nothing short of remarkable.”
Such praise can be heady. However, Gulley says that James is one of the most humble men she knows.
“I think he sees a little part of himself in each of those kids,” she relates. “He has faced many obstacles and he definitely has his critics, but you can’t criticize the system if you are not out doing something about it yourself.”
“All the world’s a stage,” runs the quote from Shakespeare’s “As You Like It,” but to Deputy Gregory James, the stage is all the world. Using his God-given talent James puts his money where his mouth is. Proving that one dedicated person can make a difference.