Straight Back to Compton

Photo: Underawesternsky / Shutterstock.com

This blog is part of Caffeinated Commentary - a monthly series where the Millennial Fellows create interesting and engaging content around a theme. As we enter the holiday season, the Millennial Fellows have chosen to explore the ideas of community and home.

The city of Compton, California has a secure place in the nation’s imagination. Its esteemed anthems have periodically thrust the “Hub City” into the national spotlight. For a refresh, just listen to N.W.A’s unapologetic 1998 hit Straight Outta Compton and Kendrick Lamar’s 2012 track Compton. These odes to my hometown tell the story of an optimistic city, albeit a city navigating poverty, crime, segregation, police brutality, and corruption. But like many other urban centers, Compton is dynamic and ever-evolving. Its topography, demographics, economic condition, and needs are different today than what they once were.  

It may come as a surprise that nowadays Compton is a quiet city comprised of modest-family homes and tree-lined streets. From street to street, the scenery changes only subtly: often to narrower streets lined with fenced lawns and barred-windows. Other times, to semi-rural roads populated by unlikely neighbors: horses, goats, and roosters. And due to the equestrian zones within the city, it is not unlikely to come across black and Latino urban cowboys galloping along Rosecrans Avenue.

The stereotype of Compton as a city teeming with violence and crime continues to hold wide currency, but the City’s crime rates are much lower today than they were in the turbulent 1980’s and 1990’s. In fact, last year Compton experienced a 4.7 percent decrease in overall violent crime, including a 37.1 percent decrease in the number of homicides. In the same period, the City experienced a demographic shift. By 2010, Latinos made up 65 percent of the City’s 100,000 residents and 79 percent of the students in Compton schools.

In the last decade, the face of the City also underwent major changes. In 2007, the backyard of the City’s infamous Crystal Casino was transformed into the Gateway Town Center, now touting big-box stores and restaurants. Two years ago, the prolific Compton Fashion Center that served as the backdrop for Kendrick Lamar’s Compton music video (and where you could buy anything from one-hour-photos to pet fish) made way for a new Walmart. And soon, the City will see a new movie center and entertainment complex due to efforts by one of Compton’s high-profile alumni, Dr. Dre.

The growth of retail and eateries in the area has spurred job creation and helped to drive the city’s unemployment rate to 6.8 percent in 2017, down from 14.5 percent in 2013. The Gateway Town Center alone employs over 900 locals and brings in $2.6 million in tax revenue every year. Redevelopment investments and coordinated efforts by the City’s leadership have also thrust the City out of a $43 million deficit and into a surplus.

But though the city seems to be on the cusp of an economic upturn, many obstacles remain. Central among these challenges is a dearth of human capital.

Only 8.2 percent of Compton residents held a bachelor’s degree or higher in 2016, and only 34 percent of others held an associates degree or had “some” higher education experience that same year, according to U.S. Census estimates. The City is also notably younger – its median age is only 25 compared to 35 nationwide – but the majority of young people aged 23 to 25 do not hold a degree. Given these figures, it is no surprise that Compton remains one of the poorest cities in L.A. County. In 2016, Compton had a median household income of about $45,000 and 23 percent of Compton families relied on SNAP benefits to help them meet their basic food security needs. And without more degree holders Compton cannot attract well-paying employers or accrue much-needed tax revenue that can help improve the City’s economic condition.

But to anyone who has grown up in Compton, it is also not a surprise that more people with higher levels education do not populate the city. Historically, Compton schools have struggled to graduate students prepared for postsecondary education. Of students who graduated a Compton high school in 2010, only 6.5 percent had completed all the courses required for admission to University of California (UC) and California State University (CSU). In 2015, the latest year the data is available, that figure had only increased to 27.2 percent.

The question is: What happens to that small fraction of Compton students who do graduate high school and choose to attend institutions of higher education outside of the city? Do any of these students, who managed to “defy the odds,” come back to their hometown and put their degrees to work?

It is unlikely. Compton is often seen in the minds of its residents as a city meant to be escaped from. This perception is not unique to Compton. Scholars who study the education and trajectories of economically disadvantaged youth have observed that these youth are commonly pressured to “make it out” by teachers, families, and community members. Urban youth, especially those who demonstrate potential, are often faced with a difficult (and false) binary decision: leaving home and succeeding, or staying and failing. Given this choice, many high achievers decide to leave their city to participate in higher education and improve their job prospects. I did. But a real transformation of an urban community can only happen if we choose to come back and contribute to our community’s prosperity.

Collectively, Compton residents – new, old, and returning – must take action to ensure community members are equipped with the skills they need to achieve upward mobility and economic stability. Equally important is ensuring community members develop an appetite for using their skills to uplift their communities. The investments needed to accomplish this goal are manifold: community leaders must support quality schools (from early education to postsecondary education), expand enrichment opportunities for youth, increase re-entry support for formerly incarcerated residents, and revamp job-training and job-placement services. And, luckily, Compton is already making many of these key investments.

In an ideal world, all residents of urban neighborhoods would see their communities as places to improve and grow within, not escape from. In this ideal world, residents would be active participants in improving their community’s conditions by coming back (or staying) and opening community bookstores, leading local nonprofits, running for city council, or teaching in the schools where they were taught. Such an ideal is possible. After all, we have Kendrick Lamar’s assurance: “We gon' be alright. Do you hear me, do you feel me? We gon' be alright.”

Author:

Jenny Muñiz is a Millennial Public Policy Fellow for New America’s Education Policy program. A native of Compton, Calif., Muñiz has most recently spent time working as a bilingual teacher in San Antonio Public Schools as a Teach For America corps member.