Why Gang Intervention Doesn't Work

I attended a "gang intervention" workshop a few days back.  Being that I work with young gang members myself I wanted to see how other people were approaching their work.  A Latino male with tattoos addressed the classroom about gangs. It reminded me of when I was 13, when I was the youth listening to the latino male with tattoos give his spiel about why gangs are bad. The program was a repetitive discussion that went around in circles.

The programs both then and now consisted of a Latino male with a beard that lectured why people joined gangs and the results of gang banging. They show pictures of dead gang members, pictures of gang tattoos, they talked about prison life, and then gave a compelling story of how they changed their lives. What I have come to realize is that people don't change by reflecting on the lives of others, they change by reflecting on themselves.

At the age of 18, not to long after I had graduated high school, I was offered a position as a tutor for an organization called Filipino Youth Coalition (FYC). One month into my job, one of my co-workers gave up his position as a Youth Mentor/Gang Intervention Specialist and the position was offered to me. When I first began, I was lost -- a young adult that gave lectures to kids from a curriculum that even I found boring. I realized that if there was anything that was profound, it wasn't in the workbooks, but in the relationship that I was building with the students.

Ever since that first job, I have worked in the middle schools through out the East Side of San Jose. When I returned for my second year of program, one of the students from the prior year came to the after school program and told me that she wanted to come in but that she was now in a foster home and that she would have to ask her social worker to let her stay after school. I walked with the student to the front of the school to talk to her social worker, and she explained to me that it was part of her foster home's policy to be home by a certain time, and that participating in an after school program wouldn't allow her to come home on time. As these words came out of her mouth, tears began flowing down the student's cheeks. I understood my job in a much different form after this point. I realized that peoples testimonies of there lives were much more profound then any lecture I could ever give.  

Many times, people that do gang intervention say that people join gangs because they want belonging or because they want to fill a void. If that's the case, then young people should be given the opportunity to reflect on those voids and lack of belonging as opposed to having a discussion on how "gangs are not the answer." Besides, the only person that would know that is the person who feels empty and like they don't belong to anything.

The FYC gave me the opportunity to develop my own curriculum. The truth of the matter is that although I developed a curriculum, I didn't even follow it usually. Most of the time, the young people were the ones that lead the direction of the program, talking about what they felt and telling me their life stories. I touched the general topics that the program and school required me to touch, such as drug prevention, peers, identity, family and academics. But I would run my program by creating a space where the students had an opportunity to identify themselves before I could identify them.

This was in some ways the opposite of the rest of the spaces they entered. Every other group, or institution that they belonged to identified them first. The school gave them an identity, they were either good or bad students, their teachers identified them as being trouble-makers, disruptive, and as low performing students. I asked them to tell me who they were, and they described themselves as strong young people, loyal to their family and friends, and they had dreams and goals.  

For the past four years, I have devoted a good part of my life to working with youth through out the eastside. Some of the most profound stories that I have ever heard have come from young people close to a decade year younger than I am. During a workshop with about 20 young people in a room and me as the only adult, a 13-year-old female shared the testimony of her life. She told the classroom that her health is dictated by her mother's drug problem, for when her mother was pregnant her mother-abused methamphetamines. Her mother died not to long ago from an overdose.   Her reflecting on this event is much stronger than any lecture I could ever give to her.

Although most of my work took place at the schools, it continued in the streets. I did home visits in hoods such A-town, Poco Way, and Verde to name a few. I hung out with them, met their OG's, congregated as if I was one of their own. The last time I went to A-town, I drove by and parked my car in front of around 20 Cambodian youth most were in between 13- 17 years of age, all in blue, one guy was holding a Beebe gun, a couple of them were smoking cigarettes, I approached my little homie Peter. He shook my hand as his homie was riding his lowrider bike, the one I bought him for keeping his grades up and graduating 8 th grade. Peter's older brother is currently locked up, and both Peter and his little sister recently completed their probation hours. His lips are very dark and he has scars on his face, his knuckles have scars on them as well, and he wears a tank top to display his home made tattoo that spells out his name.

I looked at his community. A-town stands for Avalani Town. Avalani is a street that contains apartments mostly occupied with Cambodian folks. In this particular visit to A-town I observed everything that my eyes captured; the kids running on the streets, all the A-town Crips lined up on the side walk, cars with busted tires, and apartment lawns with no grass, decorated by scattered liquor bottles. No matter how awful anyone thinks A-town is, it belongs to Peter, it is his and he takes pride in it. Peter lives gang culture, he doesn't need anyone to define it for him or tell him the consequences of gang banging, his family is living it. If Peter ever does decide to leave his gang, it would be through a realization that will manifest through analyzing his life and through self-discovery.

I realized that my role as a mentor was to provide a space for self-discovery, there is no setting better than a youth retreat outside of their hoods. Two weeks ago, along with some colleagues, I took 14 youth camping, three of them were females and the rest were males. They were all 8th graders. They came from all gang backgrounds, Norteno, Sureno, Cambodian and Laotian Crips. Half of the kids had criminal records, and most of them had been involved in a gang related fight at their school. Some of them had tattoos and all of them claimed to have a gang affiliation.

During the first day of the three day camp I asked them to introduce themselves by answering, "What is it that you fear?" With the exception of two kids, they all said that they feared their fathers. For the first time, they all shared an intimate moment with their "enemies." Through out the camp we did activities that talked about our own strengths, families, and other discussion that dealt with us taking control of our destinies. For those three days they bonded; they played hide and seek together, ate together, laughed together, and shed tears together. The last night young Crips, Surenos, and Nortenos hugged one another.

Although they returned to their hoods represented by different gang sets, they will embrace the moment when with the help of there rival gang members, they were able to share some of the most symbolic moments of their lives, reflect on them, and heal their wounds.

After hearing the testimonies of so many kids, I know for a fact, that the only way to help anyone transform their life is by creating a space where people can have intimate moments by sharing their lives, reflecting on them, and finding the solution for their problems by themselves and for themselves.

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