Saving the summer
They grew up around Mack Road. Now they’re keeping the peace on the streets through Summer Night Lights
Just down the street from where he grew up in Sacramento, Chris Cooper is engaged in what he describes as a hyper-local humanitarian effort—one that doesn’t send peacekeepers or aid workers thousands of miles away, but instead puts them to work much closer to home.
The 27-year-old is a program coordinator for the Summer Night Lights program, which returned last month to South Sacramento, a working-class part of the city high in poverty and crime, but also civic engagement.
For the past five years, the three-month-long Summer Night Lights program has transformed the Mack Road Valley Hi Community Center into a buzzy place for area youth and their families to spend weekend nights. Pickup basketball and soccer games, relay races, dance lessons, talent competitions, arts and crafts activities and community resources compete for their attention while also protecting kids from the violence that can flare unexpectedly during the dog days of summer.
Keeping the peace is important to Cooper. And for him it means preventing trouble rather than trying to stop it once it’s already started.
“When you’re on the intervention side you see the blood,” Cooper said. “You see the high level of trauma, you’ve seen crying mothers. You’re in that hospital setting—an environment when you’re seeing that near-death moment.
“You come here and you have an opportunity to change that trajectory before it can even get to that point.”
Started in 2014 by the ReImagine Mack Road Foundation, Summer Night Lights starts each June. The program was modeled after one in Los Angeles, where organizers saw a sharp drop in gang violence after setting up community spaces with “free food, entertainment, recreation, education and artistic activities” during weekend evenings, when they determined youth were most susceptible to involvement in violence and crime.
Following the success in L.A., the ReImagine foundation looked to do something similar for the area encompassing Mack Road, Valley Hi and Center Parkway. During Summer Night Light’s first year, there wasn’t a single homicide in the area, a first in 15 years. It was this statistic that helped the program gain widespread popularity, said ReImagine program coordinator Ian Levin. It branched out to Del Paso Heights in 2015 and Meadowview last year.
According to 2013 U.S. Census figures, 24% of the 4,798 families in the South Sac area lived below the federal poverty level. According to the program’s 2019 overview, police maps over the years have highlighted the 1.2-mile Mack Road area as “a volatile, trouble zone.”
But residents say those snapshots don’t tell the whole story of their vibrant neighborhood.
Alaye Sanders, 22, started with Summer Night Lights as a peacekeeper, defusing disputes before they escalated. The youth squad leader stressed that it’s easy for people to make negative assumptions about neighborhoods they don’t know.
“Everyone in this community that knows the people that are here … don’t have nearly as negative of an outlook as everyone else,” Sanders said. “So I encourage people to just come down to programs like Summer Night Lights and just really get involved before making such a strong opinion about a place that nobody has really been a part of.”
Summer Night Lights doesn’t just provide a safe space—it provides youth like Sanders with jobs and training. Every year, the program hires between 10 and 12 youth from the 95823 zip code to help run the program.
Jakayla Frazier, 19, started as a youth squad member three years ago, when program leaders came to Valley High School and handed out applications. Now, she serves as a squad leader.
“I love working with my community for the simple fact that I live in this community,” Frazier said. “I understand them. I came from the trenches so I know everything that they go through.”
The program also aims to address hunger. According to the Elk Grove Unified School District, around 88% of students who attend schools in the Valley-Mack area are eligible for free or reduced-price meals. In 2018, Summer Night Lights served 5,502 free meals.
In a survey conducted last year by Summer Night Lights, 88% of respondents said they felt an increase in neighborhood pride, 95% reported feeling safe at the events and 97% said they would return the following year.
That could get easier now. In June, Democratic Assemblyman Jim Cooper of Elk Grove spearheaded an effort to provide $750,000 in additional funding for the program through the 2019-20 state budget.
“You come here and young people are enjoying themselves,” said Omar Turner, program director and founder of Crossover America, which organizes the program’s basketball games. “They’re able to express themselves and do whatever they like. You’ve got police officers over here participating. You don’t find that too many places.”