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October 4, 2005

Conference on Youth Gangs Defines Problems, Looks for Answers

Urban specialists. Street intellectuals. Youth advisors. Call ex-gang members whatever you like, but they are the crucial ingredient in any plan to dismantle a city’s network of youth gangs, according to a panel of juvenile-violence experts who met September 28 at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“To cure this disorder, you don’t start with a transplant; you start by boosting the immune system,” said Robert L. Woodson Sr., MSW, founder and president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise (NCNE), a nonprofit research and demonstration organization. “Too often, we bring in outside experts, but that’s like starting with an organ transplant. Ex-gang members who have had a change of heart are like antibodies; they’re heroes, the real experts whom these kids respect and will follow.”

The experts were unanimous: no education, no advanced degree, can prepare a person from outside the gang culture for the “nonsense” that’s going on in our streets.

Rev. William H. Stanfield, founder and executive director of New Vision Youth Services, Inc., said, “Unless you’ve seen your friend’s brains on the sidewalk, or no food in the house and you’re the one who has to feed your siblings, you won’t be able to relate to these youths.” Stanfield, a self-described former drug kingpin who served five years in federal prison, said, “You must look at life from a child’s reality.”

Gangs are especially difficult to disrupt and splinter because they are more sophisticated than their members’ parents, or the school system or the police, boasting complex hierarchies with their own philosophies, terminology, systems of reward and punishment. As LaMarr D. Shields, president and cofounder of the Urban Leadership Institute, said, “This is the only country where the youngsters are running the homes and neighborhoods. You think the principal is running the school? You must be crazy.”

In housing projects in Chicago, for instance, elderly persons must sometimes pay gang members 50 cents to ride their building’s elevator, and teenage girls must have sex with the youths before being allowed to go to school.

Despite all this, many gang members are lost and frightened. “Our young people are crying for help,” said Shields. “The message is [literally] on the wall: ‘Rest in Peace, Keisha,’ ‘Rest in Peace, Antoine.’ A pair of Timberlake boots thrown over the telephone wires?—that’s saying, ‘We’re hurting.’ ”

Woodson said, “Kids are in a moral and spiritual freefall, abandoned by adults. The gangs step in to fill the vacuum,” and Joe P. Mayo, a former leader of the Chicago Police Department’s Youth Division and now a consultant, added, “What will replace what the gang represents?”

Finally, the experts stressed that only a solid amalgam of researchers, police, school personnel and ex-gang members can break the gangs’ hold on the youth. Philip J. Leaf, PhD, professor of Mental Health and director of the School's Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence, and one of the conference's organizers, is collaborating with a number of state and local agencies to prevent the further spread of gangs in Baltimore. "We recognize that alternatives need to be provided to the gang members and associates if they are going to forgo both the income and social networks associated with gang membership," he said.

LaMarr Shields summed up: “We need you, but you also need people like me because we’re able to attain a greater credibility. [Ex-gang members are] not the answer, but we’re one of the solutions and we’re excited to partner with others interested in reclaiming these youngsters.” —Rod Graham