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A Richmond activist fights gangs and governors

on January 12, 2010

It’s not hard to imagine how Barbara Becnel charmed her way into spending more than 12 hours a day with Los Angeles gangsters for a year and a half. Or befriended a former gangster on death row for murder. Or ran for governor of California, placing third in the Democratic primaries. From one angle, Becnel’s poise commands the kind of respect reserved for public leaders and thinkers, and from another, she looks to be a wise and comforting mother figure, the first person you’d call for advice. Her varied life and career have proved that she can slip in and out of worlds as gracefully as a chameleon.

After journeys up and down both coasts of the country, Becnel landed almost 12 years ago as the executive director of Neighborhood House of North Richmond, a nonprofit organization that provides a variety of social service programs aimed at helping Richmond residents improve their lives and community.

“I’m privileged, truly privileged to work at Neighborhood House, in Richmond, doing this kind of work every day. It is so fulfilling,” Becnel said.

While Becnel herself wasn’t drawn into gang life growing up, she did spend her childhood in poor West Philadelphia, and moved to LA’s troubled South Central neighborhood when she was 13. She compares those areas to parts of Richmond, and said her background helped her to relate to people in Richmond even though she was initially an outsider.

“I felt like I wasn’t from this community, but I was of this community,” she said of working in Richmond in the early days.

Much of Becnel’s inspiration for her work comes from a close relationship with Stanley Tookie Williams, one of the co-founders of the Los Angeles gang the Crips. Williams was convicted in 1979 of murdering four people, though he maintained his innocence until he was executed in San Quentin prison in 2005. While in prison, Williams renounced violence and with the help of Becnel, produced a book series aimed at keeping children out of gangs. Becnel’s relationship with Neighborhood House began when she started volunteering with the organization and distributing these books to schools in the area. This all came about, however, because she started hanging out with gangsters in LA.

In 1992, Becnel was living in Pasadena, and Los Angeles and the country were attempting to make sense of the April riots in response to the Rodney King trial. Essence Magazine asked Becnel to research and write an article about black youth gangs and violence. Also around this time, the rival Crips and Bloods gangs were attempting to form the first truce in the gangs’ roughly 20 year histories, and Becnel thought that story was a good place for her assignment to start. She managed to befriend members of both gangs and persuaded them to let her be a fly on their wall all day long for about a year and a half. What she saw and heard became too big for an article, and she decided to start working on a book about the gangs.

“I saw it as an important element of contemporary urban American history,” Becnel said of the story. “It was not being even covered as a serious topic — it was being covered as this one little slice.”

Her research for the book led her to Williams, and she began writing to him at San Quentin, requesting an interview. He put her through six months of letter-writing before he allowed her to come visit in person, and then the first few visits consisted of more interrogating of Becnel than vice versa. She finally broke through to him when she let her patience crack a tiny bit and told him to make a decision to talk to her one way or the other.

“We ultimately became friends and I became an advocate and co-author and editor, and so then I saw him as a big teddy bear — big almost-three-hundred-pound teddy bear — but not in the beginning,” Becnel said.

While Williams indirectly inspired a lot of Becnel’s work at Neighborhood House and by association, the children that come in contact with it, on one occasion while he was still alive he directly touched the life of one Richmond kid in particular. Becnel arranged for a boy to visit Williams who she said everyone else had given up on. In the past, Williams had instructed her to bring him the “irredeemables” – kids who no one knew how to save – because that’s what he once was. The boy’s visit with Williams at San Quentin proved to have the desired effect, and he ended up turning his life around.

When Williams was executed in 2005, Becnel attended and called it “the most horrific experience” of her life. She said it appeared that he was being tortured to death due to a botching of the process of lethal injection. Her disappointment with the criminal justice system was one reason she cited that inspired her to run for governor against Schwarzenegger in 2006. She ran as a Democrat and spent an estimated 40 to 50 thousand dollars on the campaign. She was beaten by Steve Westley and Phil Angelides, whose campaigns spent millions, though came out ahead of five other candidates in the Democratic primaries.

For now, Becnel’s focus is entirely on Neighborhood House. Her plan for the future is to launch “social entrepreneur” projects that generate revenue for the organization while continuing to provide a service to the community of some kind. The first will be a cafe at Neighborhood House’s office on San Pablo Avenue, scheduled to open sometime in February. The cafe will be staffed by people from Neighborhood House programs and the Richmond community. The economic downturn has meant a severe cut to Neighborhood House’s funding, and Becnel doesn’t want to see the organization in that position again.

“We see that the work still needs to be done, and so how do I make sure that Neighborhood House is recession-proof in the future?” she said.

She hopes the cafe will be the first of many such projects, tacking entrepreneurship onto her long list of careers.

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