Bakari Project at Cal Poly teaches responsibility and respect


‘I will get out of juvenile hall and not go back,” a local teenager wrote on a paper in his binder during a meeting one night last week at Cal Poly.

The young man participates in a 52-week intervention program at Cal Poly for juvenile criminal offenders, which focuses on improving behavior, gaining personal responsibility and steering clear of crime.

The second-year program, called the Bakari Project, is endorsed by the county’s Anti-Gang Coordinating Commission and overseen by Cal Poly psychology professor Roslyn Caldwell.

The 22 male participants in this year’s Bakari program range in age from 14 to 17 years old.

Each teen has a history of criminal activity, including gang involvement, substance abuse and truancy.

The Tribune isn’t identifying the participants because they’re minors.

Each is on juvenile probation and has been ordered by a judge to participate in Bakari as an alternative to a sentence in a youth jail facility or group home.

Some are allowed into the program if they’re close to getting out of custody, and they’re allowed furlough from facilities such as the county Juvenile Services Center to attend the weekly meetings at Cal Poly.

“I’ve been in the (juvenile) hall for six months,” a teen told The Tribune. “I get out in four days. I need to be respectful.”

Meetings include lessons on topics like anger management, communication skills, ethnic stereotypes, leadership and career development.

“We often use the words responsibility, respect and social awareness,” Caldwell said. “We try to allow the youth to actualize their potential.”

How it works

The Bakari Project was developed by Dr. Thomas Parham at UC Irvine more than 15 years ago and serves youth in Irvine and Los Angeles who aren’t involved in the juvenile justice system but who are considered “at risk.”

The word “bakari” is derived from the Swahili term for “one who will succeed.”

The Cal Poly program is for teenage boys who are on probation and are at a high risk of reoffending.

Of the first group of participants, 12 of the 15 who began the program completed it. Nine teens met a higher standard of participation to earn graduation.

The county Probation Department provided about $63,000 and the Sheriff’s Department gave $47,000 to fund the program this year.

“You see a change in the kids from the time they start until the time they graduate,” said Jim Salio, the county’s chief probation officer. “You definitely see an impact on the kids and their families.”

Parents attend counseling and meet with psychologists, while their children undergo group activities with Caldwell and speakers.

At the start and end of each three-hour meeting conducted by Caldwell and Cal Poly’s student interns, often with probation officers in attendance, the group recites an African poem, “Standing in the River,” that focuses on themes of community and wisdom.

A key is getting teens to recognize irresponsible behavior and how to avoid it.

That includes staying away from friends who are bad influences, and engaging in positive activities such as community service to build their résumés.

The Latino Outreach Council sponsors weekly counseling for teens led by psychologist Silvia Ortiz to deal with substance abuse programs.

And the Sheriff’s Department conducts regular drug testing of the Bakari teens.

Those who don’t comply with program rules, or who repeat crimes, may be terminated.

Among the many criteria to graduate, the participants have to attend at least 85 percent of programming, complete all required community volunteer service and avoid committing new crimes.

“They’re given a lot of chances, and I give them reflection papers to write if they act out,” Caldwell said.

A typical gathering

Teens working with Cal Poly mentors recently wrote out goals that included not using marijuana and getting to school on time.

One student promised not to make his mom cry by “being on the run,” while a male next to him strived to stay away from alcohol.

“How are you going to accomplish those goals and not continue to do what you have been doing?” asked one of the Cal Poly mentors.

“By thinking about the consequences,” the teen responded.

Mentor Danna Tejada-Baquero, a Cal Poly psychology major, said she may use her internship experience toward a career in psychology.

“It has been really great to try to make a difference in their lives,” Tejada-Baquero said.

Cal Poly ethnic studies professor Grace Yeh recently spoke to participants on racial stereotypes as part of the lesson on breaking down ethnic prejudices.

She laid out the history of discrimination against Asian-Americans in California and the hatred immigrants experienced in the 1800s.

“You can see how history repeats itself, and how some people feel this way about Mexican immigrants now,” Yeh said.

Other topics in the program include developing skills for healthy relationships, conflict resolution and career development.

AmeriCorps officials also help place participants in community-service roles toward completing 180 hours in a year with such organizations as the Paso Robles Children’s Museum and Rancho de Los Animales for the Disabled near Arroyo Grande.

For every youth in custody in the Department of Juvenile Justice, the state spends $71,700 per year, and a group home costs about $72,000 per year, according to the Probation Department.

“If we are able to prevent one youth from returning to the juvenile justice system, it not only makes a difference in the life of that youth, it saves our county tens of thousands of dollars and keeps our community safe,” Caldwell said.