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Jobs Not Jails: What Will it Really Take?

Jobs Not Jails: What Will it Really Take?

Picture of Kari Lydersen

A lack of jobs, after school activities and other opportunities and resources are often blamed for the epidemic of gang activity and youth violence plaguing our country. Listening to numerous experts describe academic and first-hand experience with gangs and urban violence – including the permanent neurological and chemical impacts of this violence – during the National Health Journalism Fellowship last week, I wondered if jobs and activities for youth could really do much to quell this enormous problem with so many inter-related roots.

Socioeconomic inequity, segregation and other systematic injustices are obviously the major root causes of epidemic youth violence in communities of color. But given how deeply entrenched these injustices are, and the weight of peer pressure and often generational family problems that figure into youth violence, I was feeling cynical that jobs and youth programs alone could make any dent in the lure of gangs and substance abuse.

But over at Homeboy Industries, domestic violence counselor and former gang member Ray Moreno assured me that jobs would make a huge difference in helping and motivating people to leave gangs. Likewise artist and former gang member Fabian "Spade" Debora's story indicates that great after school art programs perhaps could have helped save him from two decades of drug addiction and gang activity.

Art was always his refuge, and Debora describes the moment that a teacher disrespected his art and ripped his drawing in half as the turning point that sent him on a years-long downward spiral. Both men described a longing for acceptance and camaraderie as major reasons for their gang involvement and criminal activity. Though it's hard to imagine run-of-the-mill after school programs or jobs of the type available to teens could have competed with the streets in that respect, perhaps truly vibrant economic and artistic opportunities available to enough youth could have made a difference.

In this blog for In These Times Working, a site devoted to labor reporting, I explore this issue in the context of Homeboy Industries.

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