By Donny Gomez, Program Manager, Volunteers of America Los Angeles
Gang violence has plagued South Central Los Angeles for generations, leading to a host of consequences for the city’s youth. These include emotional and physical health problems, a disruption in their development, an increased likelihood they will commit a violent act, and, most tragically, shortened lives.
Volunteers of America Los Angeles began working to curtail violent crime and gang activity in 2014. For the past 2 years, a $230,000 award from OJJDP’s Youth Gang Suppression Implementation Grants program has funded our work with gang-involved youth and those at risk of becoming gang involved. Our project aims to reduce gang activity and youth victimization in South L.A.’s Newton neighborhood, close to where I grew up.
Our program focuses on youth who are 17 and younger, including children as young as 10. We have around 30 participants at any one time; about half are system involved. Reaching out to youth before their teenage years provides us an opportunity to discourage them from joining a gang and promote alternative activities.
Our program relies on a three-pronged approach that follows core strategies of OJJDP’s Comprehensive Gang Model—community engagement (such as responding to incidents of violence), partnering with the Los Angeles Police Department, and providing services to support a youth’s decision to either leave a gang or avoid joining in the first place.
Our work to limit gang involvement by youth benefits from the relationships we have formed with local stakeholders and other community organizations. If a youth is interested in learning how to box, for example, we can set them up at a local gym. Other examples include helping participants obtain groceries from a food pantry, receive counseling from a mental health provider, or navigate the criminal justice system.
We intervened after one participant received a jail sentence for a first offense that did not seem to fit the crime. Ultimately, the youth received a sentence that focused on community service. As a result, the youth got a lesson in how the law works without having to be incarcerated. And the community benefited as well.
One of the most productive ways to diffuse the tension between members of rival gangs is to bring them together for prosocial events, typically an outdoor activity such as a trip to the beach or mountains. These outings place the youth in a new setting and provide an opportunity for participants to get to know each other as fellow human beings. On a recent fishing trip, for example, we brought 35 youth from 12 different gangs, and paired up individuals from rival gangs. The goal was for the youth to let down their defenses and start to recognize that they’re not enemies. They may not end up becoming best friends, but if the impulse to hurt one another dissipates, that’s progress.
By providing gang-involved youth and those at risk of becoming gang involved a network of support and a glimpse of life beyond gangs, I believe we can make great strides toward opening their eyes to better alternatives.
Points of view or opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.