Seven Things to Keep in Mind
If you want to help a gang member
1. Gangs are primarily composed of kids who are not succeeding in school and have no healthy interests or activities outside of school: This creates a group of kids who have nothing to do with their time, nothing to look forward to, don't feel good about themselves and have no sense of future. These are horrible things to have in common and base friendship on, but this is what attracts gang youth to each other.
2. You can't punish someone who has nothing to lose: Jail is nothing to be afraid of when a person has no future and nothing in the present to look forward to. He knows his life will be exactly the same when he gets out.
3. Leaving the gang is not the goal: The goal is developing healthy interests that create the potential for positive peer groups and new friendships: I have worked with scores of gang members who became decent adults. It happened naturally as they gained skills and self-esteem. They never made a big announcement about "leaving the gang," and their true gang friends were glad to see them doing better in life.
4. The violence ends when every troubled kid has one activity that brings a sense of pride, competence and belonging: The best thing you can do for an at-risk or gang involved youth is make sure they are succeeding at something which makes them proud, keeps them busy, and allows them to identify with someone and something besides gang life. This can be a club or church group, sports, horseback riding, classic car restoration, a job, musical instrument, learning to dj, camping, art projects, etc. When a person has something to lose or look forward to, they take fewer risks. When they have a sense of pride and a positive identity, they do not develop a need to prove themselves through violence or numb themselves through addiction.
5. Incarceration is preferable to school as 80% of them have moderate to severe emotional and learning disabilities: An overlooked fact is that the great majority of gang youth have difficulty in school before they become truant, delinquent, and gang involved. Most gang members fear school and feel a sense of shame and futility about it. They only succeed in school with lots of support, mentors, an opportunity for participation in extra-curricular, and classes appropriate for a teenager with disabilities and a scattered education. Without this support, gang involved students tend to fail, act out and purposely move in the direction of getting expelled. Who wants to be in a situation where success feels impossible?
6. Gang kids disappear in the gaps between the adults who are all working solo and in time grow tired: Gang youth usually have a school principal, guidance counselor, probation officer, parents, social worker, school psychologist and teachers who have never met in one room and shared their resources or established a vision for this difficult teenager. If you want to be successful with gang youth, make sure you include the adults who control the teenagers life in your planning, and keep your program connected to potential employers, recreation, clubs, local police, therapists, churches and other people who can provide experiences essential to a teenagers development. As you connect people, you extend your reach, create advocacy, and increase the chances that positive experiences will outnumber the ones that pull towards self-destruction.
7. Expect resistance and self-sabotage, and have a plan in place when they fail: Gang involved teenagers will often resist new activities even though these are rewarding. This is normal. Most of us experience a good dose of shyness or fear when asked to do something unfamiliar, especially if it exposes us to possible failure in front of peers. Success is also an unfamiliar feeling to gang members, and they will often engage in self-sabotage, whether this means fighting with the coach or being late to that great job you got them. Expect this. It is part of the process. Plan what you will do when, not if, failure occurs. Growing up is a long process, and troubled kids do stupid things; Expect it, plan for it, learn from it, and get these kids back into the game, just as if they were your own children. And if they end up in back in jail, be there as well. As "Happy" from Primera Flats told me after he became a good adult with a job, great kids and a good marriage:"They didn't give up on me. They just wouldn't give up on me."