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The story varies on how Oceanside’s Eastside neighborhood got its nickname.

They call it “Posole,” after a pork and hominy stew that’s a staple of Mexican cuisine. One account, according to some who live here, is that Eastside earned the moniker because in earlier days, an elderly woman sold the soup out of a cart that she pushed through its streets.

For many residents of this city, though, the name carries a less appetizing connotation. Separated from the city’s coastal strip by Interstate 5, Eastside is one of Oceanside’s poorest communities. It is also home to the Posole Locos, a gang that Eastside residents have watched recruit local youth for decades.

The story its residents tell rings proverbial. It is one of the city’s three Latino neighborhoods, and the “Posoles” have garnered it a local reputation for violence, drugs, and prostitution — a part of the city to avoid. Many who live there distrust law enforcement, and that distrust has diminished the police’s ability to respond to or investigate crimes. Fear of gang retaliation and language barriers have compounded those issues.

In late 2002, Carmela Muñoz set out to tackle just one of them. High levels of drug and alcohol abuse have long plagued Eastside, and as an employee of the Vista Community Clinic, a nonprofit health center that received grant funds to target Eastside, Muñoz arrived there to see what could be done. She called a public meeting to introduce herself and gauge community concerns on the topic.

“Only five people came,” Muñoz said. Residents were skeptical of another organizing effort — in previous years several had failed in their infant stages.

From that initial meeting, though, has sprung a community group that Eastside residents have built to address far more than alcohol and drugs. They have worked to get at the root of a bevy of problems residents say have historically left them feeling isolated within their own city.

The Eastside Neighborhood Association has been an evolving experiment for a community unaccustomed to local organization. With Muñoz’s guidance, ENA’s members — mostly Spanish-speaking women — have learned to take up the tools of civic engagement to take charge of the changes they want in their neighborhood.

They have petitioned City Hall to secure money for street lighting. They have increased vigilance over the neighborhood park, which families couldn’t use because gang members had claimed it as their own. They have improved the community’s relationship with law enforcement by educating residents about their responsibilities in reporting crime, and tried to clear away stigmas that residents and police associated with each other.

A Virtual Convening

In August 2008, we began a year-long series and special partnership between voiceofsandiego.org and the San Diego Foundation.

Every day we read and write stories about things that are going wrong in the San Diego region. We read about problems in the housing market. We find out about unaffordable transportation, problems with parks and the environment. We learn about fraud, malfeasance or apathy.

This is important. But it’s not all that is happening in San Diego. In communities all across the county, people are joining together to improve their corner of San Diego. They’re creating housing solutions. They are repairing public spaces. They’re figuring out how to make their communities more livable, more accessible and more prosperous.

The San Diego Foundation is sponsoring the year-long effort by voiceofsandiego.org reporters to find and tell the stories of these people. The writers will learn what particular problems the residents faced and how they decided to confront those challenges. What tools did they use? How did they work with governments, businesses and their neighbors to find solutions? And how did they succeed?

This is the essence of the stories: Residents facing a challenge in their neighborhood and overcoming it to create a better place for them and their fellow citizens.

In addition, we will invite the people we encounter not only to submit to interviews for our stories, but to discuss with our readers what they have done and how they did it. The package — the stories, videos, audio and forums — is meant to share optimism and assumptions. In other words, we want to create more of a collective understanding not only of what is wrong with some of our neighborhoods, but what can be done about it and what has worked for people right next door.

As we started to prepare, we asked you to tell us your stories. We were flooded with excellent ideas. But we can’t do this for the whole year without more of your suggestions.

Please look at your own community and see if any of what we’ve just talked about sounds familiar. Have you or some of your neighbors tackled problems (and solved them) in a way that could provide a model and hope for others in the region?

If so, please, send your stories to andrew.donohue@voiceofsandiego.org and we’ll consider them for the ongoing series.

But most importantly, keep your eye out for these stories over the coming year and perhaps we can all learn not only about our problems but ways to solve them too.

voiceofsandiego.org staff

“Before, we were scared to do those things,” said Carmen Zambrano, who has lived in Eastside for 35 years. She speaks eagerly about the problems she’s seen and how they’re being resolved. “Not anymore.”

The primary barriers, Muñoz said, were the roles that language and mistrust played in keeping residents unaware of what they could do. When she arrived on the scene, she found a community of residents concerned about gangs, drugs, and their children’s safety, but unaware of the basic resources available to help them, and insecure about communicating with city officials.

The Eastside United Community Action group, the only other local community group, is made up of longtime Eastside residents, most born and raised in the city. Its meetings are in English so inaccessible to the neighborhood’s large Spanish-only population, many of whose children are the most vulnerable to gang recruitment, Muñoz said.

With Muñoz’s help, the five residents who showed up to her first meeting in 2002 recruited friends and canvassed the neighborhood with surveys, amassing a list of local concerns and an understanding of impediments to local engagement.

“My first job was to establish relationships between the community and city officials,” Muñoz said. “City officials told me it was going to be very hard, because when they invite them to come to meetings, they don’t come.”

At an early meeting, one resident, Maria Russell, who today is ENA’s president, suggested the neighborhood’s outer peripheries might benefit from lighting. Her street ran adjacent to a canyon, and drug dealers lingered there, under cover of dark.

“We got data together, and Carmela went with us to the City Council, because she said they might be able to help,” Russell said. “They happened to have some money, and within three months, we had street lights.” It was a lesson in the power of asking. “We were hooked.”

In October 2003, the group organized a community forum with the city’s new police chief, who has placed a stronger emphasis on community policing. More than 90 people attended the meeting.

Since then, Muñoz and its core members have tried to clear away the mystique surrounding civic functions. They conduct regular surveys, and have invited monthly speakers to discuss topics like code enforcement, anonymous crime reporting, and emergency response. Leadership and police academy trainings have taught its members to conduct meetings and interact with police officers.

“I never would have called the police before,” Zambrano said. “They wouldn’t have come.”

“They didn’t feel empowered,” said Esther Sanchez, who grew up in Eastside and has been on the Oceanside City Council for nine years. The Police Department’s practice under the previous chief of raiding the local park and questioning teens without cause only further distanced residents from city officials, she said.

Today, residents, even some who don’t speak English, more regularly attend council meetings, she said. Several years ago, that was unheard of.

Laura Flinn, the police officer who attends ENA’s monthly meetings, said she gets regular reports about crime from residents. Knowing that they can remain anonymous has helped, but that basic understanding didn’t exist before.

“It’s been an ongoing statement telling them that if you want to reduce crime, you need to tell us what’s going on,” Flinn said.

But the community still has a lot to learn, Sanchez said. Feeling more comfortable speaking out against gangs and cooperating with police is one thing, but knowing how to demand more resources for longer term improvements is another, she said.

Federal funds that stream into the city for infrastructural development don’t end up in Eastside, Sanchez said.

“These neighborhoods are challenged. They are the reason we get the funds in the first place,” she said. “But Eastside has never applied for them. … There’s still not an understanding that they have a right to these funds.”

She wants the group to become an even larger presence in Eastside and in the city.

“What happens here affects the whole city,” Sanchez said. “It’s important for people to know we’re turning the corner, and that we’re a safe city.”

On the surface, the group’s progress might not appear the work of a health clinic.

“You can’t separate gangs and drugs,” Muñoz said. “They go together, and to address health you have to address where the drugs come from.”

Muñoz, who ENA’s members said has provided a crutch for the group’s activities, is priming them for when she has to pull it away.

The grant funding that has supported her work in Eastside is set to expire in a year, and the clinic is uncertain if it will be renewed.

ENA’s members are uneasy about what her absence might mean for the future of the group. Russell said many of ENA’s members are still on the umbilical chord, but “like birds out of a nest, you have to fly,” she said. “We’re just trying to continue the education so that people don’t freak out like the sky is falling. It’ll be the next step in our evolution.”

Russell said she, too, is worried about taking the reins if Muñoz leaves. “But it’s a solid group,” she said.

That time will come sooner or later, Muñoz said.

“I tell them that they are the only ones who can change their neighborhood,” Muñoz said. “They are nervous.”

Please contact Adrian Florido directly at adrian.florido@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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