I have often said that I hate gangs but love the kids. Keep in mind that street gangs are products of society, made up of kids with fewer alternatives than others. Poverty and a lack of opportunity spawn street gangs, and public hostility and isolation complete the process.
Being Mexican or black has little to do with why gangs form. As a kid I was obsessed by Charles Dickens’ descriptions of 19th century London gangs, and their similarity to modern street gangs. Dickens’ kids were not the sweet Oliver we see depicted in the movies.
Because society does not address the problem and isolates gang members – often in prisons — they develop their own culture that is difficult to change. This is not true only of street gangs but also other close knit groups. For instance, at the college level fraternities are gangs, and I feel much the same about fraternities as I do about street gangs. I love the kids but feel ambivalent about fraternity culture.
Universities spend a hefty portion of their student service budget on catering to the Greeks. The members are middle and upper class kids who are generally not progressive in regards to homophobia, sexism, and racism and drinking. Their behavior would be labeled as anti-social if we were talking about street gangs.
In order to change the culture of any group, there has to be a plan, something that takes a lot of time to implement. In the case of the Greeks, the institution tries to deal with this gang culture. However, their values are constantly reinforced by alumni, tradition and a Lord of the Flies environment.
Many university staff members proactively try to make changes. However, even with their healthy budgets, they are overwhelmed, and they cannot successfully deal with individual groups (AKA college gangs). I realized this during the ZBT incident during the early 1990s when the fraternity was insistent on singing a fraternity drink song that reveled in the rape of a 13-year old Mexican girl named Lupe.
Thomas Piernik then Director of Campus Activities played a very positive role in the episode and attempted to rein in the fraternity who in the end intimidated the California State University Northridge president by filing a suit against the university for the violation of free speech. Faculty and student resolutions censuring the ZBT were withdraw, and CSUN ended up paying for the ZBT’s legal expenses.
One can imagine what the reaction would have been if this had been a street gang or MEChA or the Black Student Union. In actuality, you can talk until you are blue in the face but you don’t change people by lecturing them or participating in encounter groups. You can teach skills in the classroom but it is very difficult to change students – and it is even more difficult to change a group.
When I taught in a high school and in college history departments I realized how pointless it was to think that I was changing things. After all I was one of many influences on a student’s life. I started to write op-ed columns because of the vastness of the audience. And when I wrote books, I realized that it took years to write a book and in the end you changed very little. Of the twenty plus books I have written, most people have not heard of Community Under Siege, Sometimes There is no other Side, or Corridors of Migration. Occupied America has had an impact because of its longevity and Chicana/o Studies.
In recent years, I have followed the work of Fr. Greg Boyle and his Homeboy Industries with interest. He is changing individuals by changing gang culture by giving them alternatives.
The saying goes that if you want your child to eat healthy foods, eat healthy yourself, don’t lecture, scold or theorize.