Above, left, San Fernando City Councilman Robert C. Gonzales addresses training on restorative justice practices. At right, Gonzales speaks with Charles Ford, a restorative justice teacher adviser, and restorative justice director Deborah Brandy. (Photos by Paul Gonzales)

Nattily dressed in a vest and tie as he spoke to the crowd at the California Endowment Center, Robert C. Gonzales embodied success – a college graduate and civic leader serving his third term on the San Fernando City Council.

But, his appearance belied the turbulent family life, poverty and community violence he faced as a youth – challenges that Gonzales shared with more than 100 educators and counselors during a restorative justice training session sponsored by the Division of Student Health and Human Services.

“When, I was 14, I lost nine family members in the span of a year-and-a-half,” Gonzales said, adding that his parents abused alcohol when gang violence fractured their family. “As a 14-year-old, it was hard having to take care of your parents, making sure they had food. If my father didn’t get food when he was hungry, he got angry. It was easier to make sure the food was there.”

He struggled academically during his freshman year at North Hollywood High School, and transferred to Sylmar High after his grade-point average plummeted to 1.2. An accomplished baseball player, Gonzales begged a counselor to let him play even though he was academically ineligible. The two made a deal: If Gonzales passed every subject, he could go out for the Sylmar team.

With that motivation, he passed all of his courses and made the junior varsity team as a scorekeeper. Playing in his first game, he scored the winning run. His coach and teammates made sure he attended all of his classes and did his homework. By the time he graduated, he’s made up all the classes he’d failed and his GPA stood at 3.0.

“How many people would – or did – write off someone like me?” he asked the group. “During the hardest time in my life, when my parents were drinking, my coaches and my baseball team changed my life. I still talk to my coach. He had no idea that he saved my life.”

Gonzales attended Los Angeles Mission College and became the first in his family to earn his degree when he graduated from Cal State Los Angeles. He later received a master’s degree in leadership and management from the University of La Verne.

He has served on the San Fernando City Council since 2012, including a year-long term as mayor. He is also on the Los Angeles County Library Commission and has tutored elementary school children, coached the city swim team and set up scholarships.

But, there was never a guarantee of success.

“It was very easy to go one way or another,” he said. “My best friend, my cousin and I were together a lot, because our parents partied. I made the baseball team. My cousin wound up getting shot in high school. He wound up getting shot again. He did time in jail. He’s out, he’s clean and he just bought his first house. He’s doing well now. With the guys on the baseball team, and my coaches, I just got lucky.”

The challenges that Gonzales faced are familiar to many students in L.A. Unified, which has developed the restorative justice program to support them. The cooperative form of discipline emphasizes holding students responsible for the harm they have caused while encouraging reconciliation and rehabilitation. The ultimate goal for the restorative justice counselors and advisers is to help them change negative behavior so they can stay in school and succeed.

“Listening to your story, it sounds like there were a lot of people who helped you,” said Charles Ford, a restorative justice teacher adviser at Irving STEAM Magnet Middle School. “And, you acknowledged them. It’s not ‘me, me, me.’ It’s ‘we, we, we.’”

Other participants spoke about the resiliency of students, and the difficulties outside of school that may impact their opportunities for success.

“These are the kids you see,” said Deborah Brandy, the director of the Restorative Justice Unit. “I wanted Robert to tell his story. He was the student who had a 1.2 GPA – we don’t turn that child away. That child could become the next City Councilman Robert C. Gonzales. Here’s a man who had a heart of a champion for his community. You are the champions for your students.”