A community responds A compendium of comments about MILPA


MAIN STORY: How a criminal organization took control of a nonprofit community group in Salinas
Voices editorial

Watch MILPA’s response to our reporting, Oct. 24, 2019

Statement from MILPA:

We are disappointed, but not surprised, by the recent attacks on our organization. MILPA gives voice to marginalized communities, youth and residents. We stand by our community and leaders because they are the most impacted by a justice system that is racist and oppressive. We will continue to challenge systemic racism, overspending on punishment, and the lack of investment in community-based resources that build safety; our parks, mental health access, services for our youth and seniors, and job development.

We have always been transparent about the fact that we are an organization that is run by formerly incarcerated people who have been previously affiliated with gangs. We believe that it is imperative that those closest to the problems are closest to the solutions, and that we are effective because of our collective experiences.

For more than eight years, MILPA has worked to improve the safety and well being of the Salinas community. Together, we have developed additional park space for youth, expanded resources for youth in schools, and supported more than 500 local system-impacted residents through rites-of-passage, civic engagement, mentorships, and culturally-rooted healing.

We are deeply grateful for the overwhelming support we have received for MILPA and our staff from the Salinas community, along with statewide and national leaders. We stand by the good work we have done in Salinas and reputation that we have worked to secure across the nation. Our organization was recently recognized by the Annie E. Casey Foundation with the Gloria J. Jenkins Award for Outstanding Contributions to Juvenile Justice Reform by A Community Organization.

We do not condone violence, criminal, or gang activity. As we have seen repeatedly, the response of the media and Salinas law enforcement is to rush to judgment and allegations. We believe in approaches that are rooted in restorative justice and respect the inherent dignity and humanity of all people. Our organization and our fiscal sponsor, Action Council of Monterey County, are following an internal personnel review process, which under California law is confidential.

We are dedicated to social change, reparations, racial justice, cultural healing and investment in community health, as a primary means to achieve public well being and safety.  Over the years, hundreds of Salinas’s residents and leaders from across the country have joined us in these efforts, and we look forward to continuing to advance these goals.

We are our community. Salinas is our home and our heart. We have decided to Just Say No more to the chronic criminalization, vilification, and marginalization of the communities we belong to and serve.


Statement by Juan Gomez, MILPA’s co-founder

If there was any confusion, let me make it clear: MILPA, and I, as Executive Director of MILPA, do not condone violence, criminal and/or gang activity of any kind. It is against our belief in how we can heal our community of trauma inflicted by all types of violence. Our mission as an organization is to promote healing, restoration, safety, and well-being in our community. We’ve always been transparent that we work with people who have been affiliated with gangs and are at all phases of their re-entry. When people are ready to change their lives and bring healing to themselves, their families, and their community we will work with them to address the systemic root causes of violence and racial injustice and improve public safety. What we do makes the community safer; we understand there are risks in working with formerly incarcerated and system impacted people. We are a welcoming space for anyone who is ready to take the courageous step to heal and transform. The allegations that MILPA has been taken over by any organization are unfounded and untrue; as Executive Director I would never allow that to happen, ever. I also want to make it clear that MILPA and I strongly support the actions taken by our fiscal sponsor Action Council and its investigation into this incident.


Join Statement by Action Council of Monterey County and Building Healthy Communities

In the past week we have seen a video circulating that calls into question the reputation of one of our fiscally sponsored projects. Action Council and Building Healthy Communities (BHC) stand by the good work that MILPA has been doing for the youth of Salinas and Monterey County.

Action Council and BHC do not condone gang activity, and take allegations that individuals associated with one of our fiscally sponsored projects may be engaging in such conduct very seriously. We are currently looking into this matter and cannot comment further at this time.

Action Council continues to support the mission of MILPA and its important work. For the past 8 years we at Action have witnessed MILPA’s numerous accomplishments in helping to end the school-to-prison pipeline, and in offering services that help people to heal from violence and trauma.

Salinas and Monterey County needs a group like MILPA that can take a strong approach against the criminalization of youth and works to end the systemic racism that continues to push youth of color into the incarceration system.


Salinas Mayor Joe Gunter

“We’ve been a city on the move and we’re trying not only to eliminate gang violence, but any and all violence. It’s tearing our community apart and for this to happen, it was very disheartening,” Gunter says. Since the Villa video was released, “We haven’t heard from MILPA’s leadership, we haven’t heard from BHC and we haven’t heard from the Endowment saying they find the behavior despicable.”

“You think the people writing the checks would have questions,” Gunter adds. “People make mistakes and I understand that, but we can’t afford to have this kind of behavior tolerated even slightly. BHC should have figured out that this wasn’t going in the right direction. I’m waiting to hear from them and from the Endowment. They need to step up and say they don’t condone this.”


Brian Contreras, former executive director, Second Chance Youth Program

MILPA “is a really good idea and they have a good philosophy. When it first came out, I thought it was a great idea. But my question is, do you denounce gang activity? If you’re going to sit there and model that to the community, you can’t straddle that fence.”

Contreras recalls the advice of his own probation officer, Dan Villarreal, who became a mentor to him. Early on at the start of Second Chance, Contreras says he was also trying to straddle that fence—he had left behind his criminal past, he says, but still associated with those in the life.

“Dan told me one day, ‘I heard you were at so and so’s birthday party.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, but how do you know that?” Some kids who Villarreal worked with told him they met Contreras at the party and said he was “cool.” But Villarreal told him, “‘You can’t work in this environment and do those sorts of things. It sets the wrong tone.’”

Contreras still believes MILPA is a good—great, even—idea, but he says they have to change the way they do things.

“It has to change,” he says. “If you want to make a strong, significant difference in the community, if you want to make change for the kids and bring culture and relevance to go forward, you have to make a change. There’s such disruptive behavior that people have by refusing to walk away from that life completely. MILPA needs to understand how to go forward with this. They will lose credibility if they don’t.”


Salinas Police Chief Adele Fresé

Fresé says MILPA’s founding mission seemed noble and good, but it got muddled as people who are not “out of the life” and remain active gang members make their methods known. And they do that, for example, in the video call that captured Israel Villa’s behavior toward a fellow gang member, and by the video of Louis Gutierrez standing by as a MILPA member beat up a 14-year-old boy.

“I think as police chief I would like to see MILPA as an organization, and any and all associates of MILPA and its supporters denounce gang activity outright and say, you have to have a 100 percent clean break out of the gang life before you participate in this organization,” she says.

She would also like to see a lot more civility in how MILPA interacts with government. When she first became chief in Salinas, she saw MILPA’s leaders use tactics she’d seen on the street, behavior she calls “not appropriate and not appropriate decorum” when interacting with elected or other public officials.

In one instance, she was sitting behind a MILPA leader at a City Council meeting when Mayor Joe Gunter was speaking, and heard the MILPA member say, to Gunter, “Chinga tu madre,” or “Fuck your mother.”

“I thought, ‘Nothing good is going to come of this,’ and I tapped him on the shoulder and said, ‘You have been warned one time. You’re not going to get a second warning. If it happens again, you’ll be out of here. I was in uniform and he said nothing else.”


Salinas Councilman and Monterey County Deputy Sheriff Scott Davis 

I’m angry that MILPA as an organization hasn’t taken responsibility for its actions. That starts out with the fight—nobody has apologized or taken responsibility for that from MILPA.

We’re starting to see more and more evidence come forward of infiltration of a criminal street gang that was originally created to do good for our community. It’s sad that nobody from MILPA, BHC or the California Endowment can come out and either apologize or condemn the behavior.

I think a majority of the people in Salinas all have hope in groups that want to better our community. Everyone recognizes that MILPA, as an organization doing what it was created to do, has done some good things. But you can’t be a social justice warrior by day and a gangster by night. It makes me extremely hesitant and cautious when you have these allegations and yet not one member of their leadership can denounce the gang.

To continue to be an active participant in a criminal street gang, when street gangs have done such damage to our community—we just can’t look the other way.


Dan Baldwin, president and CEO of the Community Foundation for Monterey County

“We’ve been getting positive reports from the mentor about progress (MILPA is) making in developing programs, so we’re very caught off guard by the idea that this organization has been conscripted by a major gang,” he says. “But on the other hand, we’re not naive, because it’s a model that probably has more risk exposure. They’re going to utilize people who have been in gang life and who are very qualified to try to act as a deterrent for a new generation of getting involved in gangs. We know that any grant we make has a risk element to it. In this case, there’s that added piece that their model is based on folks that have been historically at risk and engaged in some bad behavior.

“The other thing to remember is that we are talking about one of the most deeply embedded, intractable problems that has just burnished itself onto the identity of Salinas. It’s a tough, tough problem and there’s just not a lot of options on how philanthropic dollars can get to the heart of the matter.”

Baldwin says asking questions at this stage would not entail seeking a return of funds, but could affect grantmaking going forward. “Obviously we’re very concerned right now,” he adds. “We’ve reached out to them. We’re trying to find out the same set of explanations or answers that others are. We’re taking a really close look at this.”


Joint Statement by Robert K. Ross of the California Endowment and Chet P. Hewitt of the Sierra Health Foundation

Today, communities across California are confronting the failed system of mass incarceration and pushing for a new vision that prioritizes care over cages. MILPA and its leaders have been long-time champions of this work, empowering incarcerated youth and formerly incarcerated people from marginalized and criminalized communities to become voices for social change.

We as philanthropic partners value MILPA as a trusted partner in the Salinas Valley. Their healing informed, youth development, community empowerment, and justice advocacy work are critical to the Salinas community. Their impact ripples throughout the State to mobilize the most marginalized communities to address systemic inequities. MILPA’s political and restorative justice education — rooted in teachings from Aztec, Maya, and other indigenous peoples — has helped numerous Salinas residents to heal from violence and trauma, learn about their cultural heritage, and uplift their communities. Their work makes Salinas safer and healthier.

We understand the powerful work MILPA does on a daily basis is part of a regional effort on the Central Coast toward creating a more just and equitable justice system to achieve health and racial equity.

Our support of MILPA’s mission is part of a larger statewide effort that we proudly support.  It is work in communities across California that focuses on breaking down a justice system built on systemic racism and puts those from the most impacted communities at the forefront of transformational systems change.

We, as Philanthropic partners are speaking out in strong support of MILPA because we know firsthand that organizations and advocates working to reduce violence in their community and bring peace to so many, are at times targeted themselves for speaking out and pushing for systems transformation to an oppressive and discriminatory justice system.

We hope Salinas and all communities will embrace community-based alternatives to arrest and incarceration. We need to support organizations, especially those like MILPA that are so deeply rooted in community, as they effectively work to bring a voice and resources to the people they serve.

To make it clear, we together as funders do not condone any violence, criminal or gang activity.  We have witnessed firsthand the long-term trauma it causes on individuals, families and communities throughout our state.

We support the statements made by the Board of Directors of MILPA and The Action Council of Monterey County and trust that they will conduct an appropriate personnel investigation.


Letter of Support from Sue Burrell, Policy and Training Director Pacific Juvenile Defender Center   

This letter is written on behalf of the Pacific Juvenile Defender Center to respond to recent attacks on MILPA, and specifically at Israel Villa — aimed at severing the City’s ties with the organization. We write to inform you of our experiences with MILPA and Israel, and to urge you not to take such action.

The Pacific Juvenile Defender Center is a non-profit, public interest organization offering support to more than 1,600 juvenile trial lawyers, appellate counsel, law school clinical programs and non-profit law centers to ensure quality representation for youth throughout California and around the country. We also participate in many efforts aimed at increasing protections for youth in the juvenile justice system, and assuring that they get the help they need to reach successful adulthood.

We have worked with Israel and members of MILPA in several contexts, over a period of several years. First, in 2017-2018, they played an active role in helping to reform the Title 15 Minimum Standards for Juvenile Facilities that govern the care of young people in county juvenile facilities. MILPA members were always thoughtful, respectful and on point in their analyses of what was wrong and what could make things better in the regulations. We also worked closely with Israel Villa in “10 x 10,” a year-long multi-disciplinary “think tank” that developed a juvenile law reform plan encompassing ten big ideas to be developed and implemented over a ten-year period. He was a core member of those efforts and his opinion was very much valued by the rest of the group.

In addition, we have worked with MILPA members as part of the California Alliance for Youth and Community Justice, which is a statewide group of community-based and advocacy organizations that works to improve funding and services for system involved youth. We also know that MILPA has been invited by major foundations and organizations, including the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Vera Foundation, to be a part of thinking through what is needed to improve things in the justice system. Juan Gomez and Israel are sought after spokespersons on system reform, and as an organization, MILPA is well-respected in the field.

It is not surprising that tensions arise when a relatively young organization challenges longstanding practices — that is to be expected. But to us, the proper response is not to dredge up character attacks designed to discredit the work of the organization. In terms of MILPA specifically, they are exactly the kind of group law enforcement should want to build relationships with. Many of those who work within MILPA have significant life experience with the justice system that makes them experts on the issues that need attention. It is just as much of a stretch for them to work with law enforcement as it is for law enforcement to work with them, but in our view the collaboration provides a critically important way for the system to become more effective and responsive to the needs of people in the community.

If there are particular allegations about behavior of concern, we suggest that MILPA and law enforcement talk them through rather than simply throwing out all of the work in progress. We urge the Council not to sever ties with MILPA or with Israel individually. Thank you for your consideration and please contact us if we may provide further information.

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