Using Creativity and Culture to Keep Youth Gang-Free

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A young woman speaks into a microphone.

Yvonne,* a current intern at Street Poets Inc., first came to the organization at age 16. She grew up in an area saturated with gang violence, where sex traffickers and pimps would approach her and try to lure her into prostitution. Using a range of creative programs and mentorship opportunities, Street Poets offered Yvonne a therapeutic space to talk about the emotional challenges she faced at home and to find healthy outlets for her energy and interests.

Located in Los Angeles, Street Poets seeks to turn young people away from local gangs by building a creative, violence-free community of support that harnesses the healing power of poetry, music, and cultural traditions. According to Program Director Mayda Del Valle, these activities are selected to help foster a sense of “belonging,” a desire that may draw some youth to gang life in the first place. Teens have a developmental need to be seen and express themselves, she says, and cultural rites of passage can help them meet those needs without turning to violence or illegal activities.

“Using these indigenous ways and engaging youth in ceremonies awakens awareness in themselves of something bigger, something larger, cultural, and spiritual, and they gain an awareness of activities that are not self-harming,” Del Valle says.

[Discover research on what motivates homeless youth in Los Angeles to become involved in gangs.]

Confronting Challenges

Before Street Poets could effectively serve local youth, they had to think through some of the group’s biggest challenges. Transportation was a big one because youth might not have access to a car, and they might need to cross gang territory lines to get to a program. The organization responded by offering a “Poetry-in-Motion” van that brings programs directly to young people in their own neighborhoods. When an event or activity can’t be made mobile, Street Poets uses the van to pick up and drop off participants safely.

In addition, some youth struggle with addiction and a lack of support after they have been through treatment programs through Street Poets' partner agencies. Street Poets staff members try to provide the safe space youth may not have in their own homes and neighborhoods to prevent falling back into drug use and gang life, Del Valle says, and to acknowledge the physical and emotional impact of past trauma. Continued challenges like poverty and a lack of jobs also play a role. According to Del Valle, hearing the language used to describe concepts like systemic violence and institutionalized racism can help some youth view their lives in a broader context and to decide that they deserve a better future.

“The people we’ve had success with are people who experience a shift in how they see themselves, in how they carry themselves. A choice has to be made at some time that they deserve to be supported,” Del Valle says.

[Read more about the therapeutic power of poetry for youth.]

Strategies that Work

What should other organizations working to reduce youth gang involvement know about the work? Be patient, Del Valle says. It may take time for participants to establish relationships and keep in touch. She also recommends surrounding an organization’s staff with community members such as teachers, healers, artists, and therapists to pool resources that can help young people thrive.

For example, Street Poets forms partnerships with mentorship and rites-of-passage programs to connect youth with unique opportunities like a monthly sweat lodge and annual initiation retreat. These activities often include a self-initiation component, similar to what some youth seek out in gangs.

Trauma and violence are also more common in neighborhoods plagued by gang violence, Del Valle says, and these experiences impact the way young people live. Street Poets staff members seek to find the good that can come from negative experiences, encouraging youth to express themselves creatively and to invite healing by channeling their artistic gifts.

“Trauma can be seen as a journey of initiation, one that teaches youth what they need to learn, to let go of, and to release in order to allow something else to emerge,” Del Valle says. “What is trying to emerge through us is usually a gift that we have to deliver to the world.”

*Name has been changed.

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