YAKIMA -- On a recent Saturday morning, a group of prominent Yakima leaders gathered to meet the man they hope will lead the city in what many would call the fight of its life: To end gang violence and its grip on many of the city's youth.
In a classroom-turned-retreat center at Central Washington Comprehensive Mental Health in downtown Yakima, figures like police Chief Sam Granato and assistant mayor Kathy Coffey put their faith in a man dressed in a black polo shirt and slacks. His name is Steven Magallan.
They realize that Magallan, hired as a part-time consultant in October by the city council for $75,000 a year, carries a big responsibility.
The newly formed Gang- Free Initiative, a 27-member committee of longtime city leaders, activists and new volunteers, is looking to Magallan to put them on a path toward eradicating gangs.
Although Magallan has no official title, he will coordinate the GFI's efforts. Chief among his tasks is designing the position of the person who will be his permanent successor.
Of the city of Yakima's 13 nontraffic homicides so far this year, the majority were directly gang-related or had some kind of gang connection, according to Lt. Mike Merryman, who heads the GFI's suppression subcommittee.
The city formed GFI earlier this year after one of Yakima County's bloodiest years. Police estimate that as many as half of the 25 homicides countywide last year were gang-related.
GFI was the brainchild of then-city councilwoman Sonia Rodriguez-True, who has her own gang prevention program, Northeast Block Watch, and is now part of the group.
Headed by Coffey, GFI has three subcommittees: prevention, intervention and suppression. Also active in the group is the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce's Luz Bazan Gutierrez.
A Grandview native, Magallan, 41, is a psychologist in Pasco and a recognized expert in youth and gangs. He was chosen from a field of seven candidates, Coffey said, on the basis of an interview and his rsum.
"His credentials and his success history are impressive," Coffey said. "During the interview I could feel his passion, his knowledge, his education ... I noticed that not only did he have all of those things but that he was very sincere and wanted to give back to the community."
Magallan said he's optimistic about leading the GFI. Its first order of business is to understand the city's gang history and answer the question: Why do gangs exist in Yakima?
"What is it that makes it a welcoming element for gangs? Why do they see Yakima as their home?" he said in an interview. "What is it that they see the gang life and culture as an option?"
Magallan said that he became interested in youth after growing up in a migrant family that moved to the Yakima Valley from Texas. His father's family ties date back to Texas in the 16th century and his mother is from Northern Mexico, he said.
During the 1970s, the Magallans settled in Grandview, where Steven grew up and attended Grandview High School. As a student he was busy with jazz band, track, swimming, drama, student government, wrestling and football.
His father is a friend of Carlos Diaz, the former director of the Migrant Council. Earlier this year, Magallan buried his mother in Grandview.
"I consider Grandview my hometown," he said. "My roots."
Though gangs were not as big as they are now, Magallan recalled a time in the '80s when he was a teenager when some gang members flashed signs at him. He sensed then that the gang culture would morph into something bigger.
"That moment was forever burned in my mind," he recalled. "I knew then that the community was never going to be the same."
So when he went to college and took developmental psychology at Eastern Washington University, his emphasis was child and adolescent development.
After getting his master's degree in developmental psychology from EWU in Cheney, Magallan worked as a consultant, working with gang and youth programs in Seattle and Spokane.
In 2001, he returned to the Valley as executive director of the Yakima County Substance Abuse program, replacing Ester Huey and working out of the Southeast Yakima Community Center.
According to a 2002 story in the Yakima Herald-Republic, Magallan, who managed an $850,000 yearly budget, modernized the program and installed a computer lab. He left in 2003 to become senior director for community development of America's Promise, former Secretary of State Colin Powell's national organization that seeks to empower youths by keeping them in school and encouraging them to attend college.
After a two-year stint as the director of North Pasadena Community Outreach, a nonprofit organization in Texas, Magallan returned to consulting.
Last month, he was hired to organize the GFI.
He met some resistance when council members Bill Lover and Rick Ensey voiced doubts about paying $75,000 for a part-time consultant. Much was made that his pay rate worked out to $90 an hour.
During the recent retreat, Magallan and the GFI members spent the day analyzing how they will gather the forces to combat gang violence.
They created a chart showing Yakima's gang history, which dates to the 1970s. They listed the different programs implemented at one time or another and the evolution of gang violence and drug abuse.
"We have to look at the past," Magallan said.
Merryman called the class a very good start, agreeing with Magallan that the gang problem has to be examined at its roots, but added that it is going to take a full community effort -- and time -- to solve the problem.
"It took us two or three decades to get here. This will not be fixed in two or three months," he said.
"I think that we have to be proud of the fact that we are working on something that long after people forget our names, we will have made an impact in Yakima. That is what it's all about. We just have to make people understand that."
-- Joseph Trevino is the editor of El Sol de Yakima, the Yakima Herald-Republic's Spanish-language newspaper.