To some, Pasadena represents wealth, mansions, galas, financial and educational opportunity, annual parades and nationally televised football games. In this world of “old money,” fine dining is a nightly affair and trips to a local live theater of choice in the family Jaguar are regular events.
To a growing number of others, however, Pasadena, especially Northwest Pasadena, is a lattice of mean, often deadly streets where a person has to think long and hard before calling the police because they don’t know if they’ll get shot, get help or end up in prison.
This is the same neighborhood where people open up convenience stores that sell malt liquor and individual cigarettes to minors and keep loaded guns behind the counter. The same neighborhood that the more affluent part of the community seems to have forgotten about or have turned their backs on when it comes to allocating resources that will benefit the inhabitants of that area.
Is it any wonder that kids raised in a society that makes them feel as if they do not matter would gravitate toward an environment that makes them feel as if they do — whether or not that welcoming place is one that is positive.
Steven Sneed, 39, has worked with local youth since he was 19. As a child growing up in Pasadena, his own life was impacted greatly by gang violence — he’s lost friends and family to the justice system and witnessed the murder of a man. After surviving many close encounters with gang culture, he made a conscious decision to dedicate his life to intervention work with youth.
In 2017, Sneed was a districtwide intervention specialist with the Pasadena Unified School District, participating in a Positive Connections Mentoring Program at Jackson, Franklin and Madison Elementary schools, and at Washington Middle School. Sneed also created a gang prevention presentation for Washington and Elliott Middle schools, Rose City High School and four classes during the Skills Summer Program.
“A lot of the students were excited and came to me afterward and spoke about some of the things that they had gone through,” Sneed says, “It made me feel that what I was doing was actually needed.”
So when his position ended abruptly, due to budget cuts, he decided to take an inventory of friends with skills and resources to help determine what his next move might be. As he explains, “I didn’t want my efforts to die with the position. I felt that the passion was bigger than the job, and I wanted to continue my efforts.”
In that journey, Sneed realized that he had many intelligent friends who are educators, producers, engineers and songwriters. “I started to think about how to bring all those together to create one thing.” Sneed recalls, “I woke up and thought, I’m going to make a movie.”
And that’s exactly what he did.
As executive producer and director, Sneed recruited Jason Hardin of Hardway Enterprise and Michael Towns to join the team as co-producers; Frank Gibbs, Thomas Bunn and Brian Biery as associate producers; music supervisors Paco Swartz and James Broadway; and drone operators DeAndre Weir and Dale Harrell to join in the no-budget project. All were intent not on making money but creating awareness, bringing people together through open dialogue and hearing different perspectives about the impact of gang violence in Pasadena.
“The reality is that a large portion of the residents of Pasadena have no idea that we have had a serious gang problem over decades, so it is very important to share that story. In addition, the stark reality of the challenging social and economic conditions that contribute to gang activity are generally overlooked or brushed over,” states Biery, co-founder of Pasadena Neighborhood Leadership Institute. “With this backdrop in mind, when Steven Sneed approached me to participate in the project I immediately thought it was a fantastic idea. Documentary films can have great power to shape societal consciousness through story-telling and Steven had a clear vision of what story he wanted to follow and ultimately tell.”
“Pasadena: Exploring Solutions to Reduce Gang Violence,” a true labor of love which took 10 months to complete, has screened at the Laemmle Playhouse 7 Theatre, the Jackie Robinson Center, the Pasadena Civic Auditorium and most recently at Pasadena City College. Principal photography was by Steven Sneed, Jason Hardin and Michael Towns. The film was edited by Sneed, Towns and Thomas Bunn.
This is not just another documentary filled with studies and statistics, utilizing overdone effects and graphics to hold your attention. This film goes into the streets and talks to people who are actively involved in every capacity, on all sides of the issue. The stories make you sad, they make you angry, but the film also makes you hopeful. In fact, the Pasadena Police Department might do well to consider using this film as a training tool to aid in overcoming the excessive use of violence on people of color.
One thought expressed in the film was that when we look at a “gang” problem, we tend to dehumanize those involved, as if they are no longer people. We need to look at them as people first and to make sure that they have opportunities to aspire well beyond a gang lifestyle.
“Our youngsters are crying for help. I feel that they want the help but don’t know how to ask,” says Jonni Sykes-Flemings, a community member in the medical field who was in attendance at the PCC screening, “I think people just don’t know how to help. So if we come together as a group, I feel that things can change.”
Most importantly, this film does offer solutions. Frankly, it boils down to opportunity and caring. These kids need people to listen and talk to them; they need positive things to do; they need accessible resources that will prepare them for a successful and productive life; and they need positive role models. We cannot continue along the same path and expect different results.
True to his words: “I didn’t get into filmmaking to get the accolades for being a filmmaker. I really made this film to make a difference,” Sneed says, closing the film by providing a list of resources for anyone wishing to become a mentor, and a final assertion that “We can make a difference.”
Hopefully, this film will screen many more times in Pasadena and I urge everyone to make an effort to see it. Hopefully, it will make viewers want to get involved and really make a difference in young people’s lives.