Kaitlynn Keang was 10 when her grandmother was hospitalized after being robbed and assaulted in the 99 cent store their family owned on Saint Louis Avenue and Seventh Street in Alamitos Beach.

“Every single person in my family who worked in the store has been robbed and held up at gunpoint,” said Keang, now 19.

Keang’s parents, Cambodian immigrants who migrated to Long Beach in the ’80s, owned small shops in Long Beach up until 2015 when their grandfather died and the store closed due in part to no longer having a man in the store at all times. The women in the family felt unsafe with the threat of violence looming over them constantly.

The assaults and the robberies were often seen as petty crimes by the Long Beach Police Department, Keang said, and it was rare that investigations would lead to arrests, but “a little means a lot for people who have nothing,” said Keang. Even a robbery of $500 could take weeks for their family to recoup.

Kaitlynn Keang, 19, gives input at a community listening session for the Community-Based Violence Intervention and Prevention Initiative at St. Mary Medical Center on Thursday, Sept. 14. Photo by Laura Anaya-Morga.

On Thursday evening, Keang joined a group of about 100 Long Beach residents at St. Mary Medical Center—including youth, Cambodian elders and Spanish speakers—to talk about the violence they’ve witnessed in their neighborhoods, contributing factors and what should be done to address it.

It’s the first of three community listening sessions related to the Community-Based Violence Intervention and Prevention Initiative being spearheaded by Centro CHA, a nonprofit that serves the Latino community in Long Beach.

Attendees were split up into several groups and for two hours discussed how they’ve seen gang violence, gun violence, assaults, racism, theft, drug and alcohol abuse, and more, affect the diverse communities they come from. Among the common factors contributing to the violence were a lack of education, community division, police negligence and a lack of access to resources.

Finally, groups were given a chance to envision a new concept of safety in the city and what that looks like in their schools, police department, parks and neighborhoods.

It’s the first time in Long Beach that a collaboration of local nonprofits and community organizations is coming together to talk with residents about the violence they’ve witnessed and how to achieve the overall goal of improving public health and safety in the most affected areas of the city.

Those areas include the 90805, 90806, 90810 and 90813 ZIP codes in Central, North and West Long Beach, which the initiative is zeroed in on. These areas contain the highest rates of poverty, crime and health inequity in the city and were disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Laura Mozo, a Washington neighborhood resident, shares her thoughts at a community listening session for the Community-Based Violence Intervention and Prevention Initiative at St. Mary Medical Center on Thursday, Sept. 14. Photo by Laura Anaya-Morga.

To Jessica Quintana, executive director of Centro CHA, community violence is a symptom of the systemic issues and disinvestment that these communities face.

“These are the same communities that we see that have the highest amount of families living in poverty, the lowest education rates, poor performing schools, lack of park equity, lack of, you know, focused cultural youth development and family development centers in those areas,” said Quintana. “It’s rooted in lack of opportunity and oppression.”

Last September, Centro CHA received a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance to gather qualitative and quantitative data on community violence in Long Beach and establish a roadmap for addressing some of the city’s most prominent issues, from shootings to discrimination and public safety.

Since March, they’ve been working with a criminologist and researcher to understand crime rates and trends in Long Beach dating back to the ’80s. Hearing testimonies from the communities that experience that violence firsthand is just as crucial, said Quintana.

“Those stories don’t come out in the numbers,” she said.

Stories like those of Veronica Scott, a Wilmore resident since 1973.

When her husband was killed in a hit-and-run in Los Angeles in 2015, Scott desperately searched for answers from the Los Angeles Police Department to find out what led to the accident and also to find resources to help her and her son navigate their grief. Detectives, however, gave her the runaround and eventually, she was discouraged by their inaction, she said.

“I felt a little powerless and hurt,” said Scott. “Since they didn’t support us as a police department I didn’t go further to see if there was any more help.“

Scott said that community violence not only affects the victims, it has a ripple effect on their families and community that persists long after the original crime occurs.

The next phase of Chentro CHA’s initiative, which will take place in the second year, will be developing a strategic roadmap to address crime and violence in the city. The final part of the initiative will be implementation, and that can take many forms, including programming for youth, developing community centers or facilitating educational workshops.

Quintana looks to the Urban Peace Institute in Los Angeles as an example of collaborative success in communities. Similar to the goals of the initiative in Long Beach, the group develops and implements policy and systems solutions to reduce violence, achieve safety and improve community health.

Attendees pose for a photo at a community listening session for the Community-Based Violence Intervention and Prevention Initiative at St. Mary Medical Center on Thursday, Sept. 14. Photo by Laura Anaya-Morga.

Having a local collaborative approach among community organizations and nonprofits that serve diverse populations is crucial to creating a common vision and thus, ensuring success for the program, Quintana said.

Among those organizations in the collaborative are Puente Latino Association and Success In Challenges in North Long Beach, Latinos in Action in the Washington Neighborhood, and the United Cambodian Community and EM3 in Cambodia Town.

“Everybody has a role in this initiative. Hospitals have a role, schools have a role, the government has a role, community has a role, we all have a role in violence prevention or it’s not going to work,” said Quintana.

The community listening tour will have its next stops on Wednesday, Sept. 20, at Church One in North Long Beach and on Friday, Sept. 29 at Washington Middle School. Times have not yet been set.