Several years ago, on a beautiful night, my sister and I walked together through Downtown Disney; everything was lit up as sections of the bustling crowds broke off into various restaurants and stores. I don’t remember how the topic came up, but we were soon discussing the crime rates in Modesto and Stockton, California, both of which had skyrocketed in previous years. As my sister discussed the use of a greater police presence, my heart sank. The thought of people going to jail and being stripped of their families and communities broke my heart. I knew all about the crimes that the jailed had done, and even though they were horrible, something inside of me knew that there was a better way: that we didn’t have to solve the problem with guns and bars – that there had to be a way to stop the problem before it ever began.
I also knew that a lot of the violence that had happened (and continues to happen) in these areas was gang related, so I began to think about what gangs were and why they existed… If one strips away the layers, gangs, at their core, are just communities of people who look out for one another, providing emotional support and camaraderie. They also provide “jobs” centering around theft, drug dealing, and other crimes. These types of communities appeal to people who live in poverty, people who don’t have a strong support group at home – people who are seeking love, support, and money.
When I realized this, I told my sister that we could help the kids living in low-income families by reaching out to them, which might prevent them from ever getting involved in gangs… but she didn’t agree. She believed that the problem was too big for a few mentors to solve. I knew that gang membership places a terrible burden on our health, and on the law enforcement, corrections, social and education systems, but I held true to my beliefs. I was convinced that this approach was, in fact, one of the best ways to empower at-risk youth and to get kids involved in their communities in a positive way.
As it turns out, I was right, or at least, more or less.
Carl S.Taylor, a professor at Michigan State University, has worked with communities on the issues of youth violence, gangs and youth development for 40 years. In Changing Course: Preventing Gang Membership, Taylor and Pamela R. Smith discuss what circumstances outweigh the potentially life-destroying consequences of joining a gang. Here are their findings:
Economics: Low-level “jobs” in gangs are generally more readily available than a minimum-wage job in many areas of the U.S., and they can give kids the sense that they are at least doing something to make their money. Also, the economic opportunities of gang membership offer an acceptable alternative to low-wage jobs. However, most gang members do not get rich in the gang and, for older gang members, there is no real economic advancement.
Relationships: Youth who feel marginalized, rejected or ignored – in their family, school or church – may join a gang to fill a need for support. Some youth join a gang for a sense of belonging, viewing the gang as a substitute for familial connections. For some, the appeal is that a friend or family member is already in the gang.
Protection: Although there is incontrovertible evidence that kids in a gang are more likely to be exposed to violence than kids who do not belong to a gang, this does not resonate with many young people who believe that joining a gang will protect them from violence in school or the community. Also, girls who experience physical or sexual abuse at home may believe that being in a gang offers protection from similar abuse in the future.
Status: Gangs can be seen as a way to increase status among peers, a way to get respect, freedom and independence – self-empowerment factors that may be lacking in the lives of many children.
Outlaw culture: Many youth – not only those at risk for gang membership – rebel against traditional societal values. During the cognitive-development stage of adolescence, being a part of an “outlaw culture” can, for some kids, be compelling.
Four years after my conversation with my sister, I decided to become a mentor through Big Brothers Big Sisters, an organization that nurtures children, strengthens communities, and helps kids to realize their full potential. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Through the program, I learned that mentoring a child has been shown to:
- Lower high school dropout rates
- Promote healthier relationships and lifestyle choices
- Lead to more positive views about school
- Increase college enrollment rates and promote other educational aspirations
- Enhance self-esteem and self-confidence
- Improve behavior, both at home and at school
- Strengthen relationships with parents, teachers, and peers
- Improve interpersonal skills
- Decrease likelihood of initiating drug and alcohol use
I have now been a mentor for about a year. What I didn’t realize when I became a mentor, was that the mentorship wouldn’t just shape my mentee’s life, it would shape mine as well. My “little,” Fatima, is one of the greatest sources of joy in my life. She is funny, smart, and clever. Every week, I look forward to seeing her and exploring the world with her.
She also keeps me in check… I am currently writing a novel, Finding Joy, and every Thursday when I see her, I tell her my writing goals for the next week, and, without fail, she asks whether or not I met my previous goals. I want to be a good example for my little, so I try very very hard to always meet my goals.
Recently, I asked Fatima what she liked about the Big Brothers Big Sisters program and she said, “I like having someone I can trust other than my parents, and I like having someone to talk to.” I can’t imagine Fatima ever joining a gang. I don’t think it’s in her nature, but I do know that we are positively impacting each other’s lives. Together, we are building and strengthening our community, and that’s a beautiful thing.
I think it’s time that we extend an invitation to policymakers and practitioners to engage in a new way of thinking about the intersection of public health and public safety and leveraging resources. We need to look at the economic realities, and realize that prevention is the best way to halt the cascading impact of gangs on our kids, families, neighborhoods and society at large. We need mentors.
By working together to focus on the prevention of gang membership, rather than solely caring for the victims of gang violence and arresting gang-involved youth, we can change the course of the future for our kids. We can redirect them to a path where their future is full of laughter, love, and a feeling of belonging.
As a community, we need to provide support to those families that have limited time and resources to give their children. In particular, we need to provide the marginalized youth of our nation with emotional support, encouragement to go to college, and activities that enrich their lives and help them to visualize a better world for themselves, and for others. In our culture that focuses so much on the individual, so much on the I, we have lost the tribe, and with it, our sense of community. For the sake of humanity’s future, we need to bring it back.