by Robin Heffler
Father Gregory Boyle, founder of the largest gang intervention and re-entry program in Los Angeles County, recalled the reaction of a young man who arrived for work at Homeboy Bakery in East Los Angeles one day in 1999, and discovered that the building had burned to the ground from an electrical fire.
“Danny came off the bus wearing his uniform, saw the smoke and rubble, and began sobbing,” Boyle told Social Welfare students who packed into a two-room lecture hall in the School of Public Affairs Building on Thursday, Feb. 3. “It was because the bond he enjoyed with his co-workers was stronger than anything he knew with his family, and more powerful than anything he knew with his gang.”
Boyle was the third speaker in the 2010-2011 series “Gangs: Intervention Strategies to Break the Cycle of Violence,” presented by the Department of Social Welfare. He serves as executive director of Homeboy Industries, a non-profit organization that offers employment services, mental health services, substance abuse counseling, domestic violence counseling, tattoo removal, and more to gang-involved youth. The bakery, which was rebuilt, is now joined by four more enterprises: Homeboy Silkscreen, Homeboy/Homegirl Merchandise, and Homegirl Café.
In seeking to turn youth away from gangs, Boyle said, “It’s important to remember that human beings are involved,” and that gang members “have a lethal absence of hope.” Gang violence, he said, “is a symptom of complex problems, including entrenched poverty, racism, and above all, an inability of young people to imagine a future for themselves.”
The profile of a gang member, he said, is one who is mentally ill, deeply despondent, or severely traumatized. Boyle said youth turn to gangs because they are fleeing something, and cited the case of a gang member who recalled playing with matches when he was five years-old, and having his mother then hold his hand to a flame as punishment. While telling the story, the youth realized that experience was why he joined a gang.
In addition, Boyle said data show that fear tactics don’t work. “Gang violence is the language of the most despondent,” he said, “so whether they are facing one, two, or three strikes [in the legal system], it doesn’t matter. . . .Every kid knows that it will end in death or imprisonment, but doesn’t care. Joining a gang is not a rational act.”
Boyle said that while law-enforcement leadership is more enlightened today, recognizing that “we cannot arrest our way out of this problem,” many rank-and-file police officers still look at their job as “getting the bad guy,” which demonizes gang members. Law enforcement’s and society’s approach should shift to preventing youth from hurting themselves or anyone else, he said, because “gangs have never been a crime issue, but have always been a community health issue.”
At the same time, he likened the decision to leave the gang life to the decision not to be an alcoholic any longer. “Recovery is what it’s all about,” Boyle said. “It may take a long stint in prison to say I don’t want this anymore.”
During the question-and-answer session, one student asked, “What makes your program so successful?” Boyle said that when he first began working with gang youth he thought the answer was the motto on Homeboy T-shirts: “Nothing stops a bullet like a job,” but now believes it’s about coming to terms with personal issues and healing.
He noted that a condition of employment with Homeboy Industries is that gang members be willing to work with rival gang members. “It’s impossible to demonize someone when you know them,” Boyle said. “They always become friends when they work together. Always. Our deepest longing on this planet is that we be in kinship to each other.”
Read more about the speaker series: “Gangs: Intervention Strategies to Break the Cycle of Violence”