Most Frequently asked questions about gangs

1.  Why do kids join gangs? Is it true that they are pressured and recruited?

Kids, like adults, like to hang out with people like themselves. A kid who doesn't like the way gang members dress, what they do for fun, or what they like to talk about, isn't going to be attracted to the gang. Likewise, gang members don't want to hang around with someone they have nothing in common with. Kids are not pressured into joining gangs. They join because in the gang they find a group of teenagers that they feel something in common with. What they "have in common" is that they don't like school, generally struggle in it, and have no other activity in their lives to feel good about. This is what makes a gang dangerous: it is a group of kids who have little conventional success, nothing to do with their time, and not much to lose.

A kid who has no positive activities or source for success is at risk for the worst part of gang activity (violence, addictions, etc.) However, a young person with a job, sport, car club, hobby, or some school success has something he doesn't want to lose. He or she will take fewer risks, and avoid incarderation and the loss of freedom.. 

In South Central Los Angeles we put a whole gang in a school, and started offering them a chance to play sports, get jobs, earn good grades, create art, compete in speaking tournaments, etc. The teens in the gang started acting a lot like non-gang teens. They still called themselves gangmembers, but they stopped the drug use, the irrational violence and generally started acting like people who like life and have something to live for. They no longer wanted to risk death or incarceration because they had jobs and activities they looked forward to. The need to act intimidating and provoke violence lessened as they saw they could compete successfully in the normal world.
2.  Do most gang members have parents who are also in gangs?
Occassionally, but its not the rule. Of the hundreds of gang members I've worked with, only one in five had parents with similar affiliations. However, it makes sense that if a parent had a troubled youth that they never overcame, then they won't have tools to help their own children who have trouble in school, show learning or emotional disorders and start to act out. Its not that the parent is telling the child "you better join my gang" but that the parent simply doesn't know what to do so that their child is successful; especially if parent is still struggling with addictions, unemployment, unstable relationships and other legacies of a gang life.
3.  What are the main factors that put a kid at risk? What do gang kids have in common
Poverty, learning disabilities, family stress, school failure or behavior problems in the primary grades, truancy, involvement in petty theft, and a lack of involvement in activities which provide a positive sense of self and identity
6.  How does a person quit a gang?
My experience (and I have alot of it) is that you don't quit by saying you are going to quit. If you do that, and go through whatever ritual or hazing the gang has for this, you really haven't outgrown the gang. You still believe in its logic. All the former gang members I know never actually left the gang. They simply stopped participating in negative and self-destructive activities like violence, drug sales and theft. But they remained friends with other gang members.

Often the above happens for girls when they become pregnant.  Becoming a mother provides an avenue to adulthood and a change in self-worth. When we discuss teenage pregnancy, we have to consider that for many troubled girls, a baby provides the clearest promise of a place in society.

For men and women, gang affiliation becomes less destructive as they find a means for conventional success and self-reliance. This is obviously difficult with the criminal records, poor education and  liabilities they compile over the years. But when gang members experience the possibilities of a real life, one where they can have a job, a home, a future and a sense of security, they tend to drop out of the street life with little fanfare or prodding.

It's important to remember that those who do not outgrow gang activity eventually end up dead, addicted or in long term incarcerations; so as gang members get older, the group thins out and tends to wizen up.
5.  Do gangs cause kids to engage in crime?
Studies of gang youth find that most kids were committing crimes before they became active gang members. A gang is a collection of kids who have trouble with the law, rather than a group of good kids who are forced into criminal activity by joining a gang
7.  Do they make a lot of money in drug sales?
Drug sales tend to be controlled by adults, and there is a world of difference between the world of kids and that of the adults in a gang. A few adults tend to make the big money, with a small group of young adults making a percentage distributing for them. You're average 15 year old gang member might make a few dollars from petty theft or very small drug sales, but is usually as broke as any teenager without a job.
8.  How organized are gangs?
Its very important to distinguish between adults and kids in this matter. The small number of adults (those 18 or 19 and into their 40's) who still engage in gang activity may actually have some level of organization, especially if they are active in drug sales, car theft rings and the like. They may have links to groups in jail, and have access to crime networks.

But teens are another matter: They are as organized and disorganized as any group of teenagers. Most hang out with a small group of friends within the gang. But this is true of all teenagers: They only hang out with a small group of friends on a regular basis, although they may have a much larger group that they see themselves as a part of (Band, football, drama, college prep, goths, gangs, whatever).

Teenagers in gangs don't collect dues, vote, or have regular meetings with all members present and coherent. Most of the time they hang out in small groups at a park, street corner or available home. They look for ways to entertain themselves and get into trouble. Large gatherings tend to be parties, not organizational meetings. Remember, we are discussing teenagers, not terrorists or adult crime syndicates.
9.  Do gangs have leaders?
Not n the conventional sense. Like all groups, there are people who tend to dominate because of personality, looks, money or smarts. But in terms of actually having someone who can tell everyone what to do, there is no such thing. Remember, that there are a wide range of personalities in a gang, and there are also kids with lots of problems and behavioral disorders, as well as very shy kids and scared kids. So I can't imagine how you would ever get such a group to take orders.
10.  Why do they engage in violence?
For the most part, the violence is irrational. Anyone who has worked in a juvenile detention facility will tell you that if you ask a gang kid if they want to die, they usually say yes. Most of them feel they have nothing to live for and nothing to lose by dying. Most of the violence is simply an extension of this. You have a group of kids with nothing positive in their lives, and they build a world where they meet normal teenage needs for success and identity by carving out fictional territories and then engaging in a game of you shoot at me and then I'll shoot at you, and maybe we'll both end up dead. If you try to see this activity as normal in any way, you'll get nowhere. Its a self-destructive tendency by kids who don't feel very good about themselves. Why is this surprising? Aren't there rich girls who starve themselves to death? When kids don't get needs met, they tend to create very warped versions of reality (worlds that make sense only to them), and generally not with good endings. BUT AGAIN, don't confuse this with the violence of adults over drug or crime territories: that is planned violence by people who don't want to die or get caught. They want to make money.. But as for
the drive by shootings and pointless attacks by teenagers upon each other; and the cheap, brain destroying drugs they often use---its just self-destructive, crazy behavior. It is a symptom.

11. Should a person know a lot about gangs to help these kids?
No. Gang culture is interesting, but it is a world built by kids: The job of an adult doesn't require being expert in youth cultures, but it does require investing time, patience, thought and energy into providing the necessary avenues for building skills, self-esteem, and a sense of future. See gang youth as troubled, immature kids, and do not get sucked into their illusions. Consider the particulars when you work with them: Do they have addictions? Are they hyperactive or behaviorally disordered? Do they have an obsessive need to graffiti or vandalize?

Some gang kids are no more trouble to work with than any other kid, while others require effort and planning because of their particular propensities. Use common sense. have ample adult resources, and be aware that troubled kids need supervision and strong support.

12. Do gang truces work?
Not for the reason you would think. When they are effective, it is because community adults are investing time into meeting with, encouraging, and planning with gang youth. As long as this attention persists, kids in gangs get some of the adult attention they need. But as soon as it seems that violence has subsided and the community turns its attention elsewhere, there is a gradual return to destructive activity.
4. What about girls? How are they different from boys in gangs?
There are far fewer girls in gangs than boys, they engage in less violence, and they go to jail less frequently. Four differences are important:

1) About 30% of girls who join gangs have been in special education, so there is a group of girls who have similar troubles to boys and would rather be on the street or in jail than school.
2) Up to 70% of girls who eventually end up in jail report that they were sexually or physically abused as children or teenagers.
3) Up to 65% of girls who end up incarcerated are diagnosed with severe anxiety and similar emotional disorders: Girls who participate in the worst parts of gang life have higher rates of clinical anxiety, depression, and severe family or relationship difficulties.
4) Just to complicate things, there are also girls who associate with gangs simply for social reasons. They like the boys, the parties, have family members in the gang, etc., but don't have any of the issues above. For these girls, it's a social choice that hopefully doesn't also become a foolish one.

The Good: Girls can more easily be motivated out of gang membership by involving them in positive activities, therapy and new friendships. They respond exceedingly well to mentors, good programs and counseling.
The Bad: Gang involved girls often deal with the feelings of loneliness or disengagement by getting pregnant. For girls who feel no other option, motherhood presents an opportunity to have a positive role in the world, and they will purposefully engage in unprotected sex.
And girls often become unwitting victims simply because the gang environment is dangerous in the drugs, crime, violence and the possibilities for sexual exploitation.