September 23, 2019

Hear Their Voices, Stop the Rage

Editor’s note: Naomi Ackerman, executive director of the Advot Project, was at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills on Aug. 8 for the final dress rehearsal of a teen summer theater program with Homeboy Industries, which works with youths formerly involved in gangs. She and the teens were preparing for a performance the next day that would culminate their 10-week Relationship 101 program that uses theater and the arts to teach communication skills and healthy relationships. However, during the rehearsal Ackerman received a call informing her that one of the performers, 18-year-old Ramon Cardona, had been shot and killed. The show was postponed until further notice. Below are her thoughts, written in the tragedy’s immediate aftermath.

Thursday, August 9:
This morning I got into my car and turned in the opposite direction of where I was supposed to be driving. Today I was supposed to be at the culmination of our summer teen theater project, a collaboration with Homeboy Industries to be held at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.

So many feelings were involved in this culmination. It was not an easy summer, but it was all coming together. It was exciting to see the youth simply being youth, the masks coming off, creativity knocking at the door.

We almost made it to the finish line.

We rehearsed on Monday and Tuesday. The sweet smell of triumph was in the air. The kids danced and sang — not without major pushback, but they too could feel the final presentation creeping up on us. Everyone was getting excited.

My car had been loaded all week with the props, T-shirts, snacks and art of my beloved homies. My own children and their friends had to wiggle around all these things to find a seat whenever I took them here or there.

Nothing, absolutely nothing, could have prepared us for what happened yesterday. As we were unloading all of our things in the theater, I received a phone call notifying me that one of “our” kids had been shot and killed.

What were we to do?

In all the years I have been doing this work, this was the first time I’d lost someone in one of my programs — someone who had been dancing, smiling and ready to take on the world.

Having lived in Israel, I sadly learned the reality of young, innocent people being torn from my side to fight a senseless war. But the gang wars of California take “senseless” to a new level.

I am simply beside myself.

I had a brilliant team this summer: Two amazingly talented acting teachers who steered the ship; a music director who raised the bar beyond the sky; and three magnificent dance teachers. 

We are all shell-shocked.

Tragically, Homeboy Industries knows how to deal with these situations and postponed the show.

Today, we stood together in a healing circle at Homeboy headquarters. We listened. We grieved. We passed around burning sage. We ate. We held the hearts of the youth.

Our work is like pushing a boulder uphill. There are days when our work seems impossible. Today could have been that impossible day. But instead, today reminded me exactly why we do what we do.

The kids talked about our program. A video of Ramon, the young man who was killed, played in a loop. Someone said Ramon had been a “lost” boy and that this summer he was the happiest he had been in a long time.

Our job is to bring the happy. The fun. The hope. We cannot stop the rage, as hard as we try. And believe me, there is nothing I want more than to stop the rage.

But we can hold each other. We can love. We can let be. And we can believe in change — as hard as it is. We must never, ever, ever stop believing in the possibility of change, because that belief is essential for the change to happen.

Nothing, absolutely nothing, could have prepared us for what happened yesterday. As we were unloading all of our things in the theater, I received a phone call notifying me that one of “our” kids had been shot and killed. What were we to do?

A man in the healing circle said, “I pray for Ramon and his family, and I pray for the shooter.”

It stopped me in my tracks.

“I pray for the shooter, because he too is suffering from trauma.”

My goodness. My goodness. We pray for everyone. We pray.

I am so grateful for the individuals in my personal community who have been reaching out all day. I am grateful for the Advot community and my remarkable team, who have been present the past 24 hours. I am grateful to the Wallis staff who simply did everything I asked of them, without question or hesitation, even though I changed my requests every 30 minutes.

I am grateful for the Homeboy community, which taught me a lesson today about the beauty of community, the simplicity of compassion and the power of communal prayer. I am grateful for the absolute privilege of working with these kids, who challenge me and force me to grow as a teacher and a human every day.

Homeboy’s Father Greg said: “Today we feel the presence and the absence.”

Today I feel despair and hope. I feel so many mixed and contradictory emotions. Who knew the heart could break and expand at the same time?

What I do know is that, at some point, we will have our performance. We will make sure the voices we heard will be heard, because they have much to say.

We will not lose faith. We will never — and I mean never — give up on these young people and the possibility of them being everything they hope to be.

So you cannot either.