Community Trumps Gang in Fr. Greg Boyle’s Homeboy Model
Gang prevention-intervention efforts run the gamut. One that’s drawn lots of attention is Homeboy Industries, an East L.A. program founded and directed by Rev. Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest who has serious cred on the mean streets there for helping gangbangers find pathways to employability. I wrote this article in advance of a talk Boyle gave in Omaha a couple years ago. His experiences working with gang members and getting many to give up that life are told in his book, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion.
Community Trumps Gang in Fr. Greg Boyle‘s Homeboy Model
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in El Perico
The gang intervention efforts of a Jesuit priest in East Los Angeles have grown into Homeboy Industries, which provides mostly Latino participants work and life skills training, counseling and, most importantly, opportunity for hope.
The much profiled program has many communities, including Omaha, looking to its founder, Rev. Greg Boyle, for guidance in dealing with their own gang issues. Boyle, an acknowledged expert in the field, will be in Omaha Feb. 24 to discuss the successful therapeutic and employability approach his nonprofit takes and how it may be a model for Omaha.
From 1 to 4 p.m. at Creighton University‘s Harper Center Boyle will consult with community leaders engaged in gang intervention, prevention and workforce development efforts. At 5 p.m. he meets with Mayor Jim Suttle and Omaha City Council members. At 7 Boyle will deliver a public lecture and sign copies of his book, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, at Metropolitan Community College‘s South Omaha campus, in Room 120 of the Industrial Training Center, 27th and Q Streets.
Rev. Howard Dotson, pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Omaha, invited Boyle after hearing him speak last year in L.A., where Dotson also did gang intervention work. One thing Boyle says he’s learned from 20-plus years dealing with gang bangers is that “just like recovery in alcohol and drugs,” where “it takes what it takes to finally stop getting high,” it’s the same for gang members leaving The Life. “It can be the death of a friend, the birth of a son, a long stretch in prison. Like in recovery you don’t have to hit bottom, but maybe it will take that.”
He says gangs are not a crime issue but a community health issue like other social dilemmas (homelessness, addictions, prostitution).To address the complex problems gang members present he says Homeboy offers mental health services, along with employment opportunities, life coaching, “plus every imaginable curricular thing, from anger management to parenting — you name it, we have it.”
The program operates businesses that employ gang members, including a bakery, a cafe, a silkscreen shop, a merchandise store and a maintenance service. More than a job Boyle says Homeboy provides an avenue for “healing to take place.” Enemy gang members work side by side to break down barriers.
“Once they have a real palpable experience of community then it will shine light on the dark corners of gang life,” he says. “They realize how empty and hollow all that had been in the past. The community trumps gang.”
He says suspicion and animosity dwindle amid shared goals and cooperation.
“Their common interest is that they want to work. Before too long they become fast, wonderful friends. It’s one of those things you can actually take to the bank — it’s going to happen. They’re going to bond in a way they’ve never known in their family and they’ve never known in their gang certainly.”
Boyle says the comprehensiveness and effectiveness of Homeboy is why cities like Seattle and Wichita adopt some of its methods. Some observers credit Homeboy and community policing with helping dramatically reduce L.A.’s homicide rate.
“No nonprofit in L.A. County has a greater impact on the public safety than this place because we engage so many gang members,” says Boyle, who estimates “all 1,100 known gangs in the county have had somebody walk in here at some time or another.”
“I would say what makes us unique is this therapeutic model — attachment repair and a secure base is what we call it. We try to help people engage in their own healing so they can re-identify who they are in the world. Then they can go out in the world and the world will throw at them what it will but it won’t topple them because they’ve had this palpable experience of community and the chance to figure out who they are. It works.”
Dotson’s convinced Boyle and Homeboy have something to offer Omaha.
“To get jobs and to get rehabilitation for kids coming out of correction is the best way to stop the bullet.,” says Dotson. “You need to invest in these kids. If you give them a sense of hope and a sense of agency and some of that unconditional love many of them never got, then you reduce the gang problem.
“As church and community we have to meet people where they’re at and Fr. Greg and the people who support Homeboy understand that.”
South Omaha Boys and Girls Clubs gang prevention specialist Alberto Gonzales says the need for a Homeboy model here is greater than ever in light of recent cuts. Funding for anti-gang work he did in local schools has been eliminated. The Latino Center of the Midlands has disbanded its substance abuse counseling program.
“Where’s the Latino community going to turn to?” says Gonzales. “People need a place they can go to where they can cry out, ‘This is who I am, this is what I’ve done, I need help.’ These programs are definitely a must.”
- Turning Kids Away from Gangs and Toward Teams in South Omaha (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Ex-gang members work to stop gang violence in L.A. (cbsnews.com)
- Tomas Mournian: HOMEBOYS: Cholos, BiLatinMen, & Gay Gang Bangers @ OUTFest 2012 (huffingtonpost.com)
- Boundless Compassion (ehflaw.typepad.com)
- Gang members give warning signs, solutions to keep kids out (wcnc.com)
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Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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