On the cusp of great change

STOCKTON – Ralph Womack lives a long way from the city’s south side, but he knows well its streets, its people, its problems.

And to those who make excuses that south Stockton is too tough a nut to crack, too dark a place to brighten, too much work to fix, Womack has two words.

“So what?”

Womack means no disrespect. He simply believes it is time to stop whining, time to leave excuses behind, time to get going.

“I mean, so what? If it’s harder, that means there’s more work to do. We have to do what it takes,” the 62-year-old Womack said.

He wears two hats. Womack, who lives near Eight Mile Road, is an elected trustee with the Lodi Unified School District at San Joaquin County’s northern end, and he’s in charge of the Stockton Police Department’s Operation Ceasefire, a partnership-based, violence-reduction strategy. He knows the south side.

Womack is a hard-nosed retired police officer who is convinced that education holds the key to a better future.

“If we can get kids reading by third grade, we have a better chance of them not dropping out of school later,” Womack said. “We’ve got to get kids up to speed by third grade. We have to do whatever it takes to get kids at reading level.”

Dropouts, he says, are more likely to be poor, unemployed and drawn into crime and prison.

Said Womack: “What if all the influences, all the parents and guardians and grandparents, all the teachers, all the pastors all said, ‘I’ll help one child learn to read by third grade.’ ”

He is optimistic. Womack sees a vibrant, focused, new generation of leaders emerging in south Stockton.

City Councilman Michael Tubbs, 23, is one of them.

And Tubbs is trying to organize a voice for the south side while developing future leadership. He said he believes City Hall needs a strategy to improve outcomes in that part of town.

“I think it’s great that so many people see the needs,” he said. “We just need effective coordination. We need to work well within the system. Part of it is balancing all the roles there are to play. The problems are real, but sometimes we see solutions in silos and isolation.”

Like few before him, Tubbs has raised community awareness of life on the south side and the challenges residents face. Last spring, he launched a series of dialogues known as Reinvent South Stockton. Later this month, Tubbs is conducting a one-on-one community assessment survey, and this fall he’s planning a summit to address public policy, programs and community objectives.

“There has to be an organized voice, a vision and a strategy for that part of town,” Tubbs said. “It needs to be a 20- to 50-year project. Stockton has challenges, and there are concentrated problems on the south side. If we can fix it there, maybe we can fix things citywide, statewide, nationwide.”

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