A Murder Mystery

When Changing the Narrative Isn't

The Angry Kittens, (a placeholder name I gave them until they came up with their own), were having a hard time working as a team. Cesar decided his assigned leadership role was about being the king. He, Sergio, and Ashley G were aggressively arguing ALL THE TIME, and Leticia had checked out, sitting silently in the group. These kids weren't changing the narrative, they were being the existing Pacoima narrative of aggression and apathy that was threatening to devolve any moment into actual physical violence that no amount of cajoling and goodwill seemed to dent.

But. Who really wasn't listening? Us.

Leaning in

All Sergio wanted to talk about was murder.

We teach three steps to change a narrative:

1.Question the status quo

2. Reimagine new possibilities.

3. Rediscover our past and present connections.

This 13-year-old tough kid was sensationalizing murder. That's what Andrea and I saw: an adolescent boy acting out video game attitudes of glorified violence. Isn't that the same present media story? How would that change the narrative of Pacoima? That's what we were attempting, right?

But when we really listened, took away our preconceived notion of what would be fitting for a child to work on, or what we thought the narrative should be - we learned he was trying to process a real murder close to home and that he was trying in a real and honest way to question the status quo. He was disturbed that he could find no news coverage anywhere. Turns out Sergio had a lot of thoughts about this episode idea. He even had the title "A Murder Mystery." The mystery as Sergio stated it- "Why wasn't something as big and terrible as murder not considered important enough for the news?"

Brilliant. Lead on, Sergio!

1.Challenge the Status Quo

Sergio was right. You can't change the narrative if you don't address the existing one. This is exactly what guest artist Daniel P. Castillo taught in his critical media literacy workshop in our first weeks at Vaughn. Part of the existing narrative of Pacoima is violence. It is violent. Over a six-month period in 2019, there were 165 violent crimes compared to 103 in Northridge or 66 in Sherman Oaks. The perception of violence is so normalized for Pacoima that it barely gets reported. How does that apathy weigh on young minds and souls? How does that manifest in attitude and behavior? The Angry Kittens were a microcosm of subconscious coping: none of the toughs in the group were backing down. One was fighting to be heard. One was affirming dominance. One was physically assertive. And one was preserving personal space amidst chaos.

So then, what could the power of affirmation be?

We made a pact with Sergio that if he treated the subject with the level of seriousness it merited and within the guidelines of moving the narrative forward, he was on.

2.Re-imagine New Possibilities

Andrea and I were game to tackle this, but how? This is sensitive ground: dealing with a kid's psyche on something so deep is not to be taken lightly. Were we even qualified? How could we do this in a way that wasn't sensationalist, but healing? As outsiders, how could we connect in a truthful restorative way? Then it dawned on us that one of our collaborating groups, The Gr818ers, does just that. They have re-imagined a difficult and violent Pacoima past into an organization that mentors and celebrates youth facing the same challenges. We'd been in awe of them for years, then Levi Ponce connected us with them. We just had our field trip to their newly opened Unite Cultural Center. We knew Lorenzo and Eric Chapmen would be perfect to collaborate with Sergio. Sergio contacted them, explained his idea for the episode, and asked for their assistance.

3. Re-discover Past and Present Connections

Lorenzo and Eric joined us at Vaughn Next Century Learning to be interviewed by Sergio. Sergio did the normal Connectopod process of preparing his interview. He researched the Gr818ers, and came up with questions to mediate the issue he was interested in- lack of news coverage on a murder that happened on his block. As Connectopod, we did our prep as well. We discussed the issue with Lorenzo and Eric and asked for their help to turn the questioning back to Sergio to help him and the class process the event, and the subject of violence.

Sergio was a total pro! He mediated the discussion allowing Eric and Lorenzo to use the experiences of being around violence in their past to open up discussions about what Sergio and his classmates might be experiencing in the present. They showed a path to turn apathy by the news media into empathy for each other. At this tender age, when many of these kids will soon have to make decisions about the kind of life they want to live in the face of challenge, Lorenzo and Eric shared what spared them from the fate of many of those they loved and how they turned their adversity to their advantage.

Sergio then engaged his classmates in the interview. We were witnessing a new narrative in the making.

The New Narrative

Sergio did not back down. He challenged our intentions, as just another form of media not willing to talk about what was affecting him and his peers the most. He made us question our cowardice in facing an uncomfortable truth. We want it all to be happy joy joy, but there are real troubles here. With 'A Murder Mystery,' he faced his anger, confusion, and fear head-on.

And because of Sergio, we backed up and listened to the rest of the Angry Kittens and reformed the group to great success as you can hear in their episodes, Fight Club, Pacoima Personal, and The Vaughn Experience.

Sergio Gonzalez, Jr. received a Commendation for his work from

US Congressman Tony Cardenas.


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