Leap Honors Dads in ‘Project Fatherhood’ In her new book, Social Welfare professor Jorja Leap tells stories of former gang members who have decided to commit to their roles as fathers

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By Adeney Zo
UCLA Luskin Student Writer

In her first book, Jumped In, Social Welfare professor Jorja Leap told the story of her life as a “ganster anthropologist,” and an observer and advocate for the young men and women caught up in the life of gangs. Her new book, Project Fatherhood, is about the life that some of these men have chosen to live after leaving the streets—as fathers to their sons. In an environment where involved fathers were hard to find, these men are committed to changing the dynamic for their children.

Leap sat down for this Q&A in advance of the book’s release party on Thursday, June 4.

How did you first become involved with Project Fatherhood?

I’ve known Mike Cummings [co-facilitator of Project Fatherhood] for 15 years. I wrote about him in my first book, and he called me about this group he was starting  with the Children’s Institute. They needed a social worker to co-lead the group, so I literally jumped at the chance. I have been actively involved as a social worker and researcher, trying to help people all of my life.

What made you interested specifically in the Watts community and this project?

I got my MSW at UCLA in 1978 and started working in Watts. I see it as the community I belong to—my parents are from South LA and I was born and raised there for part of  my life. I’m committed to it.

How does Project Fatherhood work differently from other gang intervention programs? What makes it effective?

It’s completely different, especially in its development. Without any organization or guidance, these are former gang members who wanted to reach out [to their children] and be fathers. We all know that the absence of fathers is a huge youth risk factor that leads to a lot of problems in school and community-based activities. It’s a terrible burden for young people that affects them throughout their lives. Project Fatherhood is more like a gang prevention program. Youth with incarcerated fathers find father mentors [through Project Fatherhood], which softens the cycle of life for the next generation. This is also a way for men who were former gang members to father one another. They all grew up without fathers, and now they are helping each other learn to be fathers. It’s so incredible to witness and be part of this for 4 years.

One of the key research findings is the kind of strong leadership that already existed in community. If we are looking at how to rebuild communities in the future, we need leadership that comes from within the community.

How does this book differ from Jumped In?

Jumped In is about what studying gangs taught me. It was very personal. I discussed raising my own child, so it was a memoir as well as a humanizing story of gang members. This book [Project Fatherhood] is about the project—there’s a little about me but mostly it’s about them and the issue of poverty.

Working in the field, teaching at UCLA, and publishing a book each have a different scope of impact. What sort of impact do you hope to make with Project Fatherhood, and what do you hope readers will ultimately take away from the book?

My goal is that the program will be funded and supported. All the proceeds from the book go to Project Fatherhood, the men who really deserve this kind of funding.  I want the stories of these men to be out in the world. We also need to build leadership in the community, and we have to be the support for what exists in that community. UCLA Luskin plays an important role in this—the role of wanting to support and conduct research within these communities. It’s wonderful to be here and be part of a program working to build that kind of community strength.

I want readers to understand what the experience of these men is truly like, who these men are as human beings. I want to show the “new Jim Crow,” this issue of men of color being incarcerated for long periods of time, and what it cost them, their family and community. I also want people to have hope as they read and see how devoted these men are—this is not a problem story, but a hope story. I want to show that strength and dedication is out there.

How did the fathers react to your decision to write a book about them?

I was a little bit worried when I brought it up, but they were very positive, very proud and excited. In the past when I did Jumped In, I worked carefully to disguise the interviewee’s identities. As I interviewed the fathers [from Project Fatherhood] and asked how they felt about being named, they all said, “Don’t worry, you can use our names. Tell the truth.” They were so honest and so open in wanting to share. It was an overwhelming experience, seeing how meaningful their commitment was to the program.

The truth is, I always felt like I belonged in Watts, and this project strengthened my attachment, belief and commitment. People who read the book will understand that we [the fathers and I] had big fights—it was not all sunshine and roses. We really struggled, but we were very open about how we made each other angry. I could have never imagined that through the past four years, this closeness and understanding would develop.

How can the public contribute to a solution for gang violence and poverty in communities like Watts? Do you recommend any programs or resources that offer the chance for people to take action?

I am hoping to bring support for the programs that already exist, that are there and are working. I hope this book will help leadership development and economic development. These are good fathers, good providers who want jobs. They don’t want to raise kids on the county and public support—they want to make a living. It’s quite striking; many people think they want to live on welfare, but that is the farthest thing from the truth.

As part of the UCLA Luskin faculty, I will be sponsoring a book party on June 4. This is an all-day event, and we’re even bringing youth from Watts to tour UCLA and work out with the football team. Copies of the book will be available before the release date on June 9, or Father’s Day. [The event] is really not about me, but the fathers who will be there to speak about their experiences. I really urge the UCLA community to come out and hear their voices.

Jorja Leap

Jorja Leap has been a member of the UCLA faculty since 1992.

As a trained anthropologist and recognized expert in crisis intervention and trauma response, she has worked nationally and internationally in violent and post-war settings. Dr. Leap has been involved with training and research for the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe as part of post-war development and conflict resolution in Bosnia and Kosovo.

Closer to home, she worked with the families of victims of the 9/11 WTC disaster. Since that time, Dr. Leap has focused on gangs, youth development, juvenile and criminal justice, and reentry at the local, national and international level.  In 2011, Los Angeles Magazine named her one of five “Action Heroes” and in 2012 she was listed as one of the “50 Most Influential Women in Los Angeles.”  At UCLA in 2012, she was the recipient of the Joseph A. Nunn Alumnus of the Year Award.

Research and Community-based Initiatives

Dr. Leap’s research examines gangs, high-risk and system-involved youth, prison culture and the dilemmas faced by the formerly incarcerated working to reenter mainstream society. Her current work is ethnographically driven and community based — designed to inform policymakers and practitioners through rigorous research and evaluation-based knowledge and evidence. As part of these efforts, Dr. Leap is currently the Clinical Director of the Watts Regional Strategy and a member of the California Board of State And Community Corrections (BSCC) Gang Standing Committee.  She also serves as an advisor to the Los Angeles Unified School District Safety and Violence Prevention Executive Advisory Committee. As part of the Advancement Project, Dr. Leap helped to organize and establish the Violence Reduction Applied Research Group and now serves on the AP-Los Angeles County Probation Data Project Research Roundtable. Additionally, Dr. Leap is affiliated with The California Endowment, working as an Evaluation and Learning Specialist for its Building Healthy Communities Initiative.  Along with her efforts in Los Angeles, Dr. Leap serves as an expert reviewer on gangs for the National Institute of Justice. She has testified at local, state and federal legislative committee hearings and at numerous Congressional briefings. Additionally, Dr. Leap has spoken nationally and internationally on gang violence and youth development. She has also been appointed as an expert in death penalty sentencing hearings and has offered expert testimony in criminal cases involving youth and emerging adults.

Current Projects and Writing

Drawing on her expertise in qualitative research and ethnographic methodology, Dr. Leap has conducted numerous evaluations of anti-gang programs including Youth Uprising in Oakland, California and the Los Angeles Unity Collaborative Gang Intervention Program. In 2008, Dr. Leap and Dr. Todd Franke received funding from the John Randolph and Dora Haynes Foundation to initiate a two-year longitudinal evaluation of Homeboy Industries, the largest gang intervention and re-entry program in the United States, which was augmented by funding from The California Wellness Foundation and The California Endowment.  In 2010, they subsequently received funding through Los Angeles Countyto evaluate the HBI-Los Angeles County Gang Intervention and Re-entry Project. Together, these efforts will be expanded to ultimately follow the Homeboy program for five years, and will be the first longitudinal research study of anti-gang efforts ever completed.  Aligned with these efforts, in 2013 Dr. Leap traveled to Scotland to participate in the planning and evaluation of the “Braveheart Violence Intervention Program,” based on the Homeboy model, creating a learning partnership with St. Andrews University. She also is now serving as a qualitative research coordinator for the Los Angeles Mayor’s Office Gang Reduction and Youth Development (GRYD) Department.

In 2011, Dr. Leap began work on a two-year initiative funded by The California Wellness Foundation to inventory community-based efforts, conduct focused evaluation and build capacity in youth development programs throughout California. As an outgrowth of this initiative, she is now is the lead researcher on the Children’s Defense Fund Juvenile Justice Reform Policy Project.  She is also involved in research and community building efforts in South Los Angeles and is currently a lead member of the multi-disciplinary team implementing the parenting program, “Project Fatherhood,” in the Jordan Downs housing project of Watts, South Los Angeles. In addition, she serves as a member of the Jordan Downs Community Advisory Committee.  She is the also part of the UCLA research team funded by the California Community Foundation to evaluate its five year “Building a Lifetime of Options and Opportunities for Men” (BLOOM) Initiative.  As a result of this work, Dr. Leap now serves as the Director of the UCLA Health and Social Justice Partnership.

Dr. Leap is the author of numerous evaluation reports, articles, book chapters as well as the book, No One Knows Their Names. She has recently completed a chapter on gang membership prevention for a book to be published jointly by the National Institute ofJustice and the Center for Disease Control as well as a chapter on Gangs, Violence and Drugs for the volume, Violence: A Global Health Priority to be published by Oxford University Press.   Her newest book, Jumped In:  What Gangs Taught Me about Violence, Drugs, Love and Redemption was published by Beacon Press in March 2012.  All proceeds from this book will go to Homeboy Industries.  Dr. Leap is currently writing her next book, focusing on Project Fatherhood and the Watts community.

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Jorja Leap’s Gang Expertise Tapped by Media The Social Welfare professor has been quoted extensively about gang related trends and behavior.

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By Alejandra Reyes-Velarde
UCLA Luskin student writer 

Social Welfare professor, Jorja Leap has recently gained national media attention for her expertise in gangs and criminal justice. Her research is based on observation of gangs and communities affected by gang activity with the purpose of informing policymakers.

Leap’s work and findings have been cited in articles about different criminal trends in Los Angeles and on a national level, such as the decline in homicides in LA, homicides of Latino men, and their relationship to gang activity.

recent article in the Los Angeles Daily News reported that homicides in Los Angeles have declined from 1,231 in 2002 to below 700 in 2010. According to the article several sociologists and police workers attribute the decline to gang intervention programs and more effective policing and legislature, but Leap said the problem has not necessarily been solved.

Instead, a police crackdown in Los Angeles has moved gang activity from LA to economically depressed areas such as the Inland Empire and Las Vegas, where they are less impeded, she said in the article.

Another article by the LA Daily News titled “ Homicides of young Latino men twice as likely to go unsolved in LA county, analysis shows,” focused on the reasons why homicides of Black and Latino populations are not only higher but less likely to be solved.

Leap attributed that discrepancy to Black and Latino men living in areas that are more high in crime and gang activity, where illegal weapons are more accessible. She also said that witnesses’ fear of retaliation if they speak may contribute the the cases remaining unsolved.

Professor Leap was also quoted in a Detroit News article about a former motorcycle gang member currently on trial for a series of crimes and murders across the country. She offered insight into the lifestyle of motorcycle gang members and the criminal justice process.

 

Intervening in Violence: “People Join Gangs Because of a Lethal Absence of Hope” Associate professor Jorja Leap discusses factors that lead to young people joining gangs on radio show

Jorja Leap, adjunct associate professor of social welfare, appeared as a guest on the Howard Gluss radio show to discuss the factors that lead to young people joining gangs.

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Jorja Leap is an expert in crisis intervention and trauma response. Her research examines gangs, prison culture and high-risk and system-involved youth

“So many of the young men and young women I have worked with over the years come from families where there has been abuse,” says Leap. “They come from families where other family members have been gang members themselves. They come from families where there has been substance abuse and multiple problems and they also come from communities that are impoverished, but also more importantly communities that are affected by violence.”

The following is an excerpt from the interview:

GLUSS: We need the facts and then we need an emotional connection to the facts. So give us some of the facts.

LEAP: Well, the facts are, and I’m going to quote Father Greg Boyle here, gangs do not arise and people do not join gangs because of violence, people join gangs because of a lethal absence of hope.

GLUSS: Which is depression.

LEAP: It’s depression, you’re absolutely right. It’s a sense of powerlessness. It’s feeling there are no opportunities, no options, no one who cares. And that’s what it comes from. It comes from depression, and it also comes from, this will come as no surprise to you and I’m sure to other listeners, it also comes from families and communities.

So many of the young men and young women I have worked with over the years come from families where there has been abuse. They come from families where other family members have been gang members themselves. They come from families where there has been substance abuse and multiple problems and they also come from communities that are impoverished, but also more importantly communities that are affected by violence.

And you’ve mentioned that I’ve worked all over the world and one of the commonalities is that when young people and children are raised in violent communities they often have post traumatic stress disorder even as they are growing up and they will join gangs and engage in violent behavior strangely enough in order to feel empowered.

GLUSS: There’s a sense of respect and self esteem with that.

LEAP: Exactly…now you know, for example, I witnessed one very powerful transformation. There are young men and young women who are now being trained, former gang members that are being trained in solar panel installation, a job that with which they can earn a tremendous amount of money. The transformation in them and the sense of control they begin to feel is just astonishing in terms of themselves and their identity.

Listen to the entire interview here.

Dr. Jorja Leap is a professor at UCLA, a recognized expert in crisis intervention and trauma response and has been involved with training and research for the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe as part of post-war development and conflict resolution in Bosnia and Kosovo and has conducted work with the families of victims of the 9/11 WTC disaster. She is the author of the book, “No One Knows Their Names.”