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Youth and gangs -- a complex situation

Posted Nov 12 2009 9:07am
Racine is seeking a three-year stimulus grant to coordinate gang prevention activities.

The funds, if received, would amount to $450,000 and would be used to hire a director and create a database that tracks young adults who have had contacts with gangs. The director would work with local organizations and the database would be made available to non-profit organizations, schools and local agencies. This potential grant is making news because gangs have been a top-headline news controversy for quite some time in Racine. The question about what do to about them has no easy answers.

The fact is that the topic of youth and gangs is complex situation with many causes and effects. The topic is worth educating ourselves about, not only to save the next generation of our young people but also to make our neighborhoods safe and prosperous.

Youth who join gangs invariably have suffered some kind of trauma – abuse, abandonment, emotional and physical neglect, witnessing a crime, to name a few. All experiences of trauma involve loss of physical or psychological power. When people have experienced trauma they want one thing only, and that is to feel powerful again.

Gangs help many youth feel some semblance of power in their lives. They are connected to a powerful group, for instance, or feel the power that comes with being accepted by others, taking daring risks and surviving, being feared by others, using mood-altering substances —again, to name a few.

Effective gang diversion programs for youth should help the traumatized youth to feel powerful again – in positive, rather than destructive, ways. Not every young person is able to respond in exactly the same way to exactly the same kind of program, so the programs need to be flexible and varied. Designers of programs also need to understand and be able to apply the most up-to-date research about trauma and the brain – which affects the ability to learn new information.

Gangs aren't limited to the United States. Here's an interesting video made by young people in London, England. I like the creative aspect of kids using digital storytelling to investigate and share experiences and information.

Here's another video, this one from Los Angeles, showing an innovative program that takes a "whole child" approach to helping youth succeed in school, cope with trauma, and avoid gangs and delinquency. It is a partnership between LAUSD, LAPD, CSU-Los Angeles, Alliance for a Better Community, and Families in Schools; it targets at-risk youth in the Pico-Union district through a four-part intervention, one of which is Ripple Effects.

Finally, discussion of addressing gang activity in Hobbema, once a oil-rich reserve of 12,000 Cree Indians south of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, which is struggling to regain control of its community from the grips of violent street gangs. I like the one community member's mention of the gangs being "spiritually and emotionally hungry."

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