Congressman Tony Cardenas (D-Calif.) spoke to the School of Social Work’s SOWK 350: “Adolescent Gang Intervention” course about gang intervention legislation Monday morning in the Montgomery Ross Fisher Building.
School of Social Work Vice Dean R. Paul Maiden introduced Cardenas and made him an “honorary Trojan,” with the gift of a USC lapel pin.
Cardenas and his 10 siblings were raised in Pacoima, Calif. after their parents, who had a first and second grade education, emigrated from Mexico. After getting a degree in electrical engineering from University of California, Santa Barbara, he served in the California State Assembly and Los Angeles City Council, before being elected to the United States House of Representatives.
“I was one of those kids who did a few dumb things but thank God not dumb enough to end up in handcuffs. My 10 brothers and sisters were never in the backseat of a police car, nor was I,” Cardenas said. “And we grew up in a neighborhood where it was easy to end up in the backseat of a police car.”
After working in engineering and real estate for a short time, Cardenas said his friend convinced him to run for state assembly.
“All of the sudden, a friend of mine interrupted my life and said, ‘You need to run for state assembly,’” Cardenas said. “And I laughed and said, ‘People like me don’t run for Congress.’ And what I meant in my mind by ‘people like me don’t run for office’ was that people of color don’t run for office.”
Cardenas has since worked in politics for more than 15 years. He said he has made gang intervention his core policy issue during his tenure on the state assembly, city council and now Congress.
“My objective is to make sure that intervention prevention is part of every funding cycle at the local government level, at the state government level and the federal government,” he said.
At the state Assembly level, Cardenas partnered with former state senator and current Congressman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) to create the Schiff-Cardenas Juvenile Justice Crime Prevention Act. Since assuming office as a representative earlier this year, Cardenas has introduced a gang intervention bill in Congress that he said was “lighter” than he’d like to to be.
“I introduced a bill to introduce them to the terminology of gang intervention, to introduce them to the idea that gang prevention and intervention is something we should be focusing on,” Cardenas explained. “So that’s my first bill in Washington. It’s not as big and bad as the Schiff-Cardenas Act.”
Cardenas and Robert Hernandez, an adjunct lecturer and professor of the “Adolescent Gang Intervention” course, have been partners in the intiative to focus on gang intervention.
“We’ve been working on this issue for the past five years together,” Hernandez said of the partnership.
Hernandez teaches the gang intervention course and many of his students who attended said the event reinforced what they have been talking about in class.
“It was really great that what we’re learning is actually going into policymaking,” Beatriz Aguilar, a senior majoring in psychology, said. “It’s actually going into full effect, it’s not just that we’re talking about it, it’s happening at the national, at the House [of Representatives] level.”
Many graduate level students studying social work were also impressed by Cardenas’ message.
“I thought it was inspiring,” said Chris Blankenship, a second-year master’s student. “It was great that he was really pushing the idea that we can make change here at the school just by learning and then informing legislators and helping them to design policy.”
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