Twenty-year-old Claudia Gomez films FREE L.A. students demonstrating in front of the county supervisor's office.
South Los Angeles has a long history of feeding California's overflowing prisons. And for a school that accepts previously incarcerated youth, the goal is to prevent young people from flowing back in. This is the story of a young woman who wants to make change through intimate conversations widely broadcast. Reporter: Jake de Grazia
SCOTT SHAFER, HOST: South Los Angeles has a long history of feeding California's overflowing prisons. And for a school that accepts previously incarcerated youth, the goal is to prevent young people from flowing back in. This is the story of a young woman who wants to make change through intimate conversations widely broadcast.
CLAUDIA GÓMEZ: When you think about your life, what's the one thing that you fear the most?
CRIS: Probably to lose my peoples.
GÓMEZ: Lose 'em how?
CRIS: Get shot, uh, anything to have them stop living.
JAKE DE GRAZIA, REPORTER: Claudia Gómez sits next to a video camera. She wears tight jeans, Air Jordan high tops, hoop earrings, and long, pink fingernails. She's 20 years old, and she's talking to a student named Cris. He's 19, and he finished a seven-month stay in a juvenile detention facility two weeks before this interview.
GÓMEZ: What's like the number one thing you think nobody knows about you ... that now we're gonna know?
CRIS: Uh, that, uh, I'm not really, like, I'm not a disrespectful type of dude, like, my insides are like, I ain't disrespectful none.
GÓMEZ: That's cool. I knew that.
CRIS: Thank you.
DE GRAZIA: Claudia's studio is a classroom at FREE L.A. High, a charter school that accepts students who've spent time in the correctional system. FREE L.A. instructors help them earn their degrees, while teaching them about social justice and training them in community organizing. Claudia's first jobs at the school were running the front desk and mentoring students. When documentary filmmaker Jennifer Maytorena Taylor arrived in 2010, Claudia's responsibilities grew.
JENNIFER MAYTORENA TAYLOR: I had approached some of her colleagues about working collaboratively on a project about mass incarceration's effects on youth.
DE GRAZIA: And, after Jennifer had been around for a few months, laying the groundwork for her project by teaching video production to some of the FREE L.A. students, Claudia approached her with an idea and some interview footage. Together, and often late at night on the floor in Claudia's half-furnished apartment, they turned that idea into a short documentary.
TAYLOR: And that really convinced me that if I could continue building this project out and get some support for it, that she'd be just an excellent collaborator.
DE GRAZIA: In January, Jennifer got that support from Latino Public Broadcasting and hired Claudia to co-produce a series of short web documentaries about the FREE L.A. community for PBS.org. The series is scheduled to launch this summer, and Claudia has been working on all aspects of the project: she books interviews, films and helps edit.
GÓMEZ: Like after the interviews, like, I had some of them come up to me and be like man I hadn't thought about that question or I hadn't thought about my life in that way.
DE GRAZIA: Claudia grew up about three miles from FREE L.A. High. When she was 12, her sister was shot and killed by an ex-boyfriend. Claudia's grief turned into anger, and from the anger grew violence.
GÓMEZ: I thought that was the way to act. I thought backing other people up that I thought cared about me was like the thing to do. Like people would like want to be my friend because they knew that I would like do something to somebody. I've, I've hurt people. Sometimes not with my bare hands.
DE GRAZIA: When Claudia was 17, she got pregnant and pulled it together. Her daughter, Ruby, is now two. And Claudia supports her by working with kids like the one she used to be.
GÓMEZ: Have you ever had a family member get killed?
STUDENT: No, well, my friend. Just a friend but...
GÓMEZ: I mean a friend is something.
STUDENT: Yeah, well two of my friends died in a fire, and then one of my friends got shot.
GÓMEZ: And do you feel like the person who shot your friend deserves another chance?
GÓMEZ: I love it. I love doing like this documentary stuff because when you see these people that we are interviewing...you'll never know how deep their story is by just looking at them. Like you'll never know how...beautiful they are.
DE GRAZIA: Beautiful and fragile. Cris, the young man Claudia was talking to at the beginning of this story was murdered about a month after that interview. The circumstances surrounding his death remain unclear. He was the second FREE L.A. student shot and killed this semester.
GÓMEZ: Part of this job is to see people come and go, you know, whether they come and go because they want to or they come and go because they die.
DE GRAZIA: Tears are flowing. But Claudio's face and voice don't change. She reaches for a roll of scratchy grey paper towels and tears off a piece.
GÓMEZ: His family, like you know, they have to see that interview. Like he was just so pure and like so honest and so humble and so "I'm not rude I'm very polite," and "People always think that because I have tattoos on my face I'm this certain way." Like, I'm really glad that we got to interview him and for him to reflect on himself, because after that day he's like, man, you know, I feel good.
GÓMEZ: Are you happy?
CRIS: Yup. Stay happy.
GÓMEZ: Yeah. That's cool.
GÓMEZ: You look really serious.
CRIS: I do? I am serious.
CRIS: I dream about living the American Dream. As in ain't gotta worry about watching over your back and stuff, waking up in the morning, stuff like that.
DE GRAZIA: That dream, modest as it was, never came true. Claudia's dreams are still a work in progress. She's focused, at the moment, on supporting her daughter. Ruby set Claudia's life on a peaceful path. Claudia says she wants to return the favor.