<< Saying no to gang life

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L.A. Youth talked to Dawn L. Brown, the executive director of Girls & Gangs, an organization dedicated to serving girls involved in the juvenile justice system and in gangs.

L.A. Youth: How long have girls been a part of gangs?
Girls & Gangs: Girls have been a part of gangs since the beginning. In the past 20 years however, the roles of women have become more violent. The past 10 years in particular have been extremely disturbing. The number of violent crimes committed by females under the age of 22 in the United States has risen 300 percent in the past 10 years.

Are there different reasons that girls join gangs compared to boys?
The reasons are pretty much the same. They are looking for some place to belong, to be accepted and supported by a “family.” They are looking for the love that is often missing in their households. Also, family legacy plays a big role. This generation of gang members has parents and even grandparents who were involved in gangs.
1234There is one huge difference however. A study showed that girls in the juvenile justice system and in gangs are seven times more likely to have a history of being victimized, usually sexual or physical abuse, than boys in gangs. Girls run to gangs for protection, often from the abuse they have suffered from their own families.

Are there differences between girls’ gangs and boys’ gangs?
The majority of girls are involved in co-ed gangs, meaning they involve girls and boys together. There are a small number of female-only gangs. Female-only gangs are usually driven by economics. The girls are focused on making big money illegally. They don’t engage in unnecessary violence as much as the male-only gangs do.
1234Most girls who are members of male gangs play a support role (girlfriend, drug carrier, alibi, etc). However, there are some girls who do hold a power-position in male gangs. Just like in the business world, the female leaders of gangs often have to work twice as hard as the guys in order to prove their worth. The girls often change their appearance to be more masculine in order to get respect and they suffer significant physical abuse to prove they are “hard” enough to be in a leadership role.

How many girls are in gangs in Los Angeles County?
No one knows how many females are involved in gangs in L.A. County, but the county has the largest gang problem in the country. Based on what we know about the national statistics, we can estimate that about 30 percent of L.A. County gang members are female. Most girls who are members of male gangs play a support role (girlfriend, drug carrier, alibi, etc.). Girls have joined gangs at a much faster rate in the past 10 years.

What can a girl do when many of her family members and friends are in a gang?
There are many girls who don’t self-identify as gang members, but have extremely close relationships with gang members. Just two weeks ago a young woman who we work with told a story about having a gun pulled on her by a rival gang when she was going home from school. Her uncles are all involved in a gang and although she is not, the gang members wanted to hurt her in order to teach her uncles a lesson.
1234Another girl told us a story last week about having just completed a six-month sentence in Probation Camp because her boyfriend, who was a gang member, asked her to drive him and some friends to another friend’s home. She was told to wait in the car while they went inside. When they came running outside they yelled at her to drive. She didn’t realize that they’d robbed the house and someone had been shot inside. The young woman ended up serving time because she was an accessory.
1234It’s not OK to say that you are not a gang member, but you “hang out” with gang members, even if they are family or friends. You are still putting your safety and often your life at risk. You must separate yourself from that situation. Identify things that you like to do, like playing sports or painting, and find a program that offers these activities for free or at low costs. You will make new friends who are supportive and making positive decisions.
1234If you have a parent involved in a gang that can be a little more tricky. Talk with that parent about your dreams and goals for the future. Tell him/her that you need their help to reach your goals and to stay safe. That may mean them allowing you to live with another family member where you can be safe and concentrate on school and outside hobbies. If your parents refuse to help, then talk to an adult who you trust and can help you got out of the situation and to a safe place to live.

What do you teach to help girls get out of gangs?
Leaving a gang is not easy. Gang life is for life if you don’t go about it the right way. First, you need to understand why you want out and have a very clear plan. This is what we teach in our workshops. We help the girls develop a plan so that when they do become “inactive” in their gang they know how to resist temptation to become active again. The plan also helps them concentrate on constructive things to do like attend school, get a job, and/or focus on raising their child.
1234Depending on how deep you are in, you might have to tell your leaders that you need to “lay low” because you’re on probation. Many times a gang leader will support that.
The best thing to do if you want out is to tell an adult you trust and let them help. There are organizations that are experienced in helping you get out. If you call Girls & Gangs we will get you to the right local agency that can help you separate safely.
1234Lastly, the girls need skills. We teach them job readiness, financial literacy, anger management, creative expression, health education, access to higher education and parenting. These skills help them get jobs and care for themselves and their children. The more a young woman can become independent and earn money legally and safely, the less interested she will be in gang activity such as drinking, using drugs and getting into fights.

What are the police, government and schools doing to specifically work with girls to prevent them from joining gangs or help them get out? What more could they be doing?
With the federal recession and the state, county, and city debt funding for quality services are at a minimum. It costs Los Angeles County $45,000 to incarcerate one child. It costs Girls& Gangs $1,200 to serve one child. About 70 percent of the youth who are incarcerated in California’s juvenile justice system return to jail less than a year after being release. Yet, fewer than 15 percent of girls who participate in Girls & Gangs’ return to jail within the same time period. It is obvious from these numbers that arrests and incarceration is not the answer to helping young people! Arrests and incarceration lead to community disconnection and abandonment, which only exacerbates our girls’ feelings of disenfranchisement.
1234I believe that the answers to helping youth can be found in meaningful community collaborations. Collaborations that result in (1) eliminating gender bias within the juvenile justice system, and (2) funneling resources to high-quality, community-driven, gender-responsive reentry programs. This approach will also prove to be cost-effective and establish a model in Los Angeles that will inspire duplication throughout the country.  National statistics show that community based programs are more effective than the government in dealing with the issue of gangs. I believe once the government, parents, community-based organizations, schools, churches, and other community stakeholders begin working together in a meaningful manner we can successfully address the issue of gangs and youth violence once and for all.

To contact Girls & Gangs, call (213) 346-3270 or go to girlsandgangs.org.