Many U.S. communities are confronting the problem of youth gangs. Anti-gang activists say curbing youth violence requires a comprehensive strategy that doesn't focus solely on sending those troubled youngsters to jail, but rather on giving them jobs, activities and hope.
Unlike other boys at his Los Angeles elementary school, Luis Rodriguez never fit in. He wasn't interested in sports. At age 11, he says, he joined his first gang. "I was living in a very poor community, feeling limited as a kid, very broken, shy," he says. "There was a lot of feeling that I didn't belong in the school, in the community. For me the gangs represented some kind of power, some cohesive response to whatever was going on in the neighborhood, in the street." Joining a gang, Rodriguez says, seemed like the only way to get any respect.
At that time, he says, it seemed like an exciting life. "I spent a lot of time in the street," he says. "My Mom and Dad were very hard working people, Mexican immigrants. I think they were frustrated. I think by age 13, my Mom was at a point where she threw me out of the house. She just couldn't control me. I really can't blame her."
Alone on the street, he mastered all aspects of the gang life -- participating in gang warfare, witnessing terrible acts of violence, taking drugs. But after about 5 years in the gang, something changed. "At age 18, I was already very tired of this life," Rodriguez says. "I was hooked on heroin. I was facing a 6-year prison sentence. By then, 25 of my friends had been killed." But eventually Rodriguez says he felt a passion for writing that became more important to him than the gang.
That was 30 years ago. Rodriguez left his gang, went back to school, got a job and started a family. He says, for many years, he thought that experience was behind him, but it wasn't. "My own son, when he was 13, got into a lot of trouble," he says. "He joined a gang. As a former gang member, I didn't want my son doing what I was doing. It didn't work. At age 21, he was arrested for three counts of attempted murder, including, I guess, two police officers. He is now serving 28 years in the prison system in Illinois."
It was painful to see his son repeat his mistakes, but Luis Rodriguez says it motivated him to try to save other kids. He wrote a book, Always Running, about his early exposure to gang violence, and set up a program to counter the appeal of the street. "Four years ago, me and my wife decided to create a bookstore-café-art gallery-and-performance space -- a culture center -- where I live now, in the northeastern San Fernando Valley section of Los Angeles," he says. "It's mostly a Latino community. It's really brought the community together. A lot of young people spend time here. They do music. They do poetry. They do art. They dance. They do theater. There is so much that we are trying to teach them."
On America's other coast, near the nation's capital, Luis Cardona is engaged in a similar effort. He's been leading a local effort against gang violence for 12 years. Also an ex-gang member, he says he admires what Luis Rodriguez has accomplished. "I really believe he is an inspiration to Latino kids in general in this country," he says. "Those individuals who are criminals can change. Luis Rodriguez is a true example of that. I am a true example. There are thousands of us out there who got sick of trying to kill one another, of destroying our community. We need to create those spaces in our communities for those individuals."
Cardona says gang members in his community will find such a place when a Youth Opportunity Center opens later this month.
"It's a place where their voices can be heard and where they feel valued," he says. "There will be a number of services available to gang members or high risk youth. It provides services, including mental health counseling, group counseling, recreational activities, job readiness programs as well as job placement, legal services, academic enrichment programs, tutoring and a wide array of family strengthening services."
Cardona says there is no one simple solution for such a complex dilemma as gang violence. It needs a three-pronged approach of suppression, intervention and prevention. And each community, he says, should create its own model. "In certain communities you might have a real good, sound recreational program for all children and youth," he says. "Different communities might have a real sound, strong educational system where they really do the best they can do to engage young people to meet where they are, address their academic needs. Some communities have strong churches. Some communities have stronger families. It all depends. I've seen a lot of successful programs."
Luis Cardona says, beyond working directly with young people, successful programs work behind the scenes, as well, with politicians and local leaders… to make sure they get the resources to sustain their efforts, and to mobilize the whole community to support them.