One of the most important skills for any person to develop is the capacity for self-reflection, to be able look at yourself in the mirror with the kind of cool careful detachment with which you might evaluate a potential associate. What is this brother all about? Is he a leader or a follower? A threat or an ally? Or both? What motivates him? What are his strengths and weaknesses? How well does he know himself? Can he be trusted? These are all good questions to ask yourself about yourself as you begin this life-saving work.
If you are or have been a gang member, the most practical question to ask yourself right now is “What is the current status of my relationship to my gang?” For help with that question, take a moment to figure out where you fall on the gang spectrum spelled out below. You may recognize pieces of your own story under different headings. Pick the one that best captures where you stand today. Remember that this is just for you, not for anybody else (no need to share it with your P.O. or the parole board). Try to be as honest with yourself as you can be.
You’re slicker than most and you know it. You might even have a legit job or business to cover for the cash flow you’ve got coming off the streets. You may have moved out of the ‘hood to a more peaceful area, or you could be calling shots from behind bars. You prefer to have other people do the dirt for you, but sometimes you’ll still take care of shit yourself – just to keep others in line. You’ve organized your mind in such a way that you rarely, if ever, feel remorse for your past. You see life (and gangbanging) as a game ruled by fear, and you’d rather be a player than one of the played. Some might call you a sociopath, but you see yourself more like a cold realist, just playing the hand you were dealt. The only cracks in the walls you’ve built in and around yourself are fleeting suicidal thoughts (these are actually a good sign – the more suicidal you feel, the closer you are to change).
You’ve had a taste of the dark power that comes when people fear you, and you like it. You enjoy manipulating others to meet your own needs. Part of you might even get off on violence and turning the new recruits out. You see yourself as a leader, a tactician or a kind of hood disciplinarian. You’ve probably had some exposure to prison politics, and know a little more than most about the power structure behind your gang. You dream of becoming a drug kingpin or shot-caller in the ‘hood, but your life sometimes feels more like a nightmare to you. You don’t trust people, and you avoid relationships and situations in which you might feel vulnerable emotionally. For you, happiness = control.
You’re down for whatever. You see yourself as a soldier, as somebody who can be counted on to do the dirt. You’re what the homies or cops might call a “shooter.” Your street rep is very important to you. Your general attitude about change is: “Fuck it – it’s too late to turn back now.” You do, however, have occasional fear-driven nightmares and fleeting moments when you catch yourself slippin’ (i.e. feeling too much). Sometimes you worry that you can never be forgiven or forgive yourself for the things you’ve done, that you’ve “sold your soul to the devil.” At times like that, you usually self-medicate hard with alcohol, drugs, sex or adrenaline (i.e. more drama).
An initiated gang member. You may have done (or are doing) juvenile or adult time behind gang-related activities. In lock up, others probably know you more by your gang affiliation than by your name. You feel committed to your gang, but sometimes you still dream about changing your life, and leaving it all behind. You’ve been around long enough to know that gangbanging leads to death or prison for most. You’ve probably buried some of your homies by now. You may still have a few friendships with people outside the gang, which you use as an escape or pressure release from the stress.
A gang associate – affiliated but generally not active. Mentally, you’re on the way out. You avoid being around the ‘hood when it’s hot. You stay away from the dope spots and trap houses, and try not to appear in public with the more reckless members of the gang. You might even tell some people in your life that you “don’t bang.” Some call this process “aging or maturing out” of the gang (basically you’re uncomfortable with the idea of spending your whole life sticking to a decision that you or someone else made for you when you were just a kid). This category also applies to those who may not have been officially initiated, but are socially attached to the ‘hood, or flirting with the idea of membership.
0 On the Fence
The advantage and the disadvantage to being “on the fence” is that you can be seen — from both sides. You may have homies who try to pull you back (because they are afraid to entertain the possibility of change in their own lives). And you may have enemies who try to prey on what they see as weakness. On the other hand, you also become visible here to potential allies on the other side of the fence with resources that can help you. In any case, it is a good idea to minimize the time you spend in this position. The quicker you can hop that fence, the better.
A former gang member. Even though you “don’t bang anymore” and have probably moved, you still define yourself primarily in relationship to your ‘hood. You remain connected socially. You still may be sensitive to the opinions of some of your homies, and may even feel guilty about the prospect of leaving them behind. Some people may accuse you of having a split personality, and sometimes you wonder if they’re right. In recovery-speak, some might call you a “dry drunk.” You’re not out gangbanging anymore but you’re still plagued by violent thoughts. If you have a kid, you’ve probably used him or her as a good excuse to buy some breathing room between yourself and the streets. You may not have left the gang officially, and you could probably get sucked back into the drama under certain circumstances (e.g. a close homie gets shot). A lot of your old habits remain the same as they were when you were banging. You’re working some type of legitimate job, or actively exploring legal ways to make a living.
As an activist, youth worker or gang intervention worker (paid or unpaid), you use what you know to try to make a difference in the world and maybe also to make up for some of the dirt you’ve done about which you still feel bad. “Don’t make the same mistakes I did” is what you tell the youngsters in your life, but you feel less sure about what advice to give them beyond that. You’ve reached the point of no return in your own recovery from gangbanging but you feel stuck on a personal level and don’t consider yourself a legitimate role model. You’ve managed to flip your past gang experience into something positive, but you still have a lot of doubts, negative thoughts and unwelcome feelings that keep you up at night. You may have developed a deeper understanding of systems of oppression and injustice, and now see your real enemy as the corporate, socio-political, prison-industrial or cultural forces that dominate the world. You’ve probably stopped sagging and may have had your gang tattoos removed. You may even have looked into clearing up any old tickets so you can get your driver’s license activated or your criminal record sealed. But part of you may be holding onto some of that old bullying style to get what you think you need in your personal or professional life. You also may be struggling with addictions of one kind or another.
You’re beginning to understand that if you want to create real change in the world, that change must begin within you first. You’ve overcome any discomfort you once had in order to embrace your status as a mentor and role model for others. You may be working a job that has little or nothing to do with your gang past, and you’re beginning to see it as a potential career path. When it comes to mentoring youth, you tend to lead by example (rather than preach). You make a point of never mentioning your former gang specifically, because you don’t want people to think that you’re representing in any way. You have a new wardrobe. You never carry weapons – and try to avoid violence at all costs. You’ve grown your hair out, cut your braids, or otherwise changed up your look to make it clear to everyone — from strangers, to old homies, to police — that you’re out of the ‘hood for good (even though you still may live in the area). You’ve done a lot of self-reflection, maybe some therapy, alternative healing or a 12-step program, and are working consciously on any addiction issues you may have. You have new friends and allies from different racial, cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds than your own. If there are any serious risks to your freedom now, they likely involve relationship issues (i.e. what the homies might call “Baby Mama drama”).
A source of inspiration for youth and adults alike, you are fully committed to your own healing path and actively share your heart and your gifts with others. Perhaps in part because you may have been responsible for hurting or taking the lives of others in the past, you have dedicated yourself to a life of service. You no longer own weapons of any kind and you are comfortable identifying yourself as a peacemaker. You think about your own wellness more than before, and do your best to exercise, eat healthy food, pray/meditate and get out into nature on a regular basis. You are very open emotionally, and sensitive to other people’s pain and needs. Tears may come easily to you now. Sometimes it is hard for you to be around gang-affiliated youth or other people with repressed emotions, because you experience their pain as your own. You can get impatient and frustrated at times, with others and with yourself. Still, you recognize and embrace your own power to help heal the world and provide for others, materially as well as emotionally and spiritually. Your gang history no longer defines you, and is now just a story that you use to reach others when appropriate. The biggest challenge you face now is to maintain the courage to embrace your own boundless potential, and to remind yourself that you really are worthy of all the blessings you receive on a daily basis.
You have a powerful, creative imagination and are actively engaged in dreaming a new world into being, not just for yourself, but for the world. You have the ability to see beyond the surface of things. You recognize potential in people when they can’t even see it in themselves. You have the capacity to reach and inspire troubled souls on which others gave up long ago. You see crises as opportunities. People of all backgrounds come to you for guidance and healing. Many might be surprised to know you were once a gang member. On the flip side, some of your old associates may have written you off as crazy, but that just makes you smile. You can walk through old enemy territory and nobody recognizes or even notices you. Sometimes you look in the mirror and barely recognize yourself. On especially good days, you feel like an open channel through which light pours into the world. Any gang-related shame, guilt or fear you once carried have been replaced by love, forgiveness and compassion. If you’re addicted to anything now, it is to healing and change. Yours is a life of leadership and service. Enjoy the ride!
When locating yourself along this spectrum, it is good to keep in mind that between each of these stages of development, there stands an initiatory gateway – through which traffic flows both ways. Whenever we approach one of these gateways to positive change in our lives, the guardians of those gateways, our fears, our demons and our addictions, often resurface in an effort to prevent us from stepping through to the other side of ourselves and claiming a power that would render them obsolete. Moving in the opposite direction, we sacrifice pieces of our hearts and souls with each plunge through a gateway deeper into the darkness. There, our fears, demons and addictions become inflated to the point that we no longer can see ourselves beyond them.
Feel free to use this self-evaluation tool as a road map for a hero’s journey from the shadowy darkness to the visionary mountaintop, reclaiming what was lost and forgotten along the way so that it can be delivered like medicine for your own healing, and for the healing of others. Even though many of the messages you’ve received so far in your life may imply the opposite, our world needs you – desperately. This time in history requires deep-sea divers who have been to the depths of darkness and despair, who have stared death in the face and still found the strength and courage to return to the surface with pearls of wisdom for the healing and transformation of our culture. No matter where you are in the world, or on this gang spectrum, it is time now to come home.
Chris Henrikson is the Founder and Executive Director of Street Poets Inc., a Los Angeles-based non-profit organization dedicated to the creative process as a force for personal and community transformation. It has been his great privilege to spend much of the past 20+ years mentoring youth and adults in and around California’s juvenile justice and prison systems. For more information on Street Poets and their methodology, visit streetpoetsinc.com.