Growing up near the corner of Los Robles Avenue and Highland Street, Steven Sneed understood the effect that gangs have on people living in some of Pasadena’s toughest neighborhoods. He had seen far too many family members and friends get locked up, or worse, shot to death on the streets. 

The 39-year-old Sneed said his mother, Debbie Sneed, was a major force in guiding him toward the right path, away from the life of crime that surrounded them. 

“My mom was amazing,” said Sneed. “She would always let me know, ‘Whatever you do son you can be great — just stay out of trouble.’”

As an adult, Sneed followed in his mother’s footseps, helping future generations by educating them about the negative impacts of gang life. He became an intervention specialist, giving gang prevention presentations to middle and high school students. Sneed was laid off by the Pasadena Unified School District, but he still felt the need to give back to the community and mentor kids, students he consideded “his kids.” Without funding, but with the help of friends, Sneed made it his mission in life to create a documentary about gangs in his hometown. 

“I just hope the film is looked at as an educational tool and everyone can pull something that resonated with them,” Sneed said of “Pasadena: Exploring Solutions to Reduce Gang Violence,” which was co–produced by Pasadena mayoral candidate Jason Hardin and has been shown at many local venues, recently at the Pasadena Central Library. 

Taking Control

Eric Johnson, a former gang member, was one of the people featured in the film. Johnson connected with Sneed after they worked together on several projects. He recalled how he joined a gang for protection . 

“I didn’t join a gang because I wanted to be a gang member,” he said. “I joined a gang because I got to have somewhere where someone’s not beating me up.” 

During Johnson’s youth, he would hear stories about Altadena Sheriff’’s Department deputies abusing people of color. He avoided that abuse by telling deputies, “I’m Sergeant Johnson’s son.” Unfortunately, the abuse followed him home. His father would beat everyone in the family, including Johnson’s mother. Outside of the home, he had to fend for himself on the way to school.

“I was a small guy in ninth grade. I was 66 pounds,” said Johnson. “I rode a really tough, gang-impacted bus. I was always being put into a position of either fight or flight.”

In 11th grade, Johnson ended up joining a gang. He left it after around six months. After his brief stint, Johnson found a mentor in longtime youth mentor Ed Bryant and was steered toward the right path away from violence. He is now a part of a faith-based nonprofit named “Stars,” helping underprivileged youth. In the 40 years that he has worked with young people, he hopes that every child understands at least one thing: “You can have a better life.” 

“There are things in your life that you have can control over and things in your life that you do have control over,” Johnson said. “Have a team that will help you make the right choices over the things that you do have control of.”