Redemption: Creating Hope for Gang Members

A Conversation with Father Gregory Boyle, Founder and Director of Homeboy Industries

Father Gregory Boyle founded Homeboy Industries to treat the underlying causes of gang violence. The secret sauce is a community of tenderness focused on fundamental healing. 

Father Boyle with "homies." (via @FrGregBoyle on Twitter)

Thirty years ago, Father Gregory Boyle began Homeboy Industries in downtown Los Angeles. Gang violence was sweeping the nation, and the Los Angeles native was witnessing the destruction first-hand as pastor of Dolores Mission Church. The parish, then the poorest Catholic church in the city, was located between two public housing projects with the highest concentration of gang activity in L.A. Having buried too many gang members, Father Boyle and others began a different approach to gang violence. They concentrated on treating gang members as human beings. Their focus included creating job opportunities through Homeboy Industries.

The author of  Tattoos on the Heart and Barking to the Choir, Father Boyle spoke about this approach with Hannah Abney, vice president of external affairs at the George W. Bush Institute,  and William McKenzie, editor of The Catalyst. He discusses the misconceptions about gang members, and how Homeboy Industries, the world’s largest gang-intervention program, is trying to create hope for young people who might lack hope.

You tell stories in your books of taking “homies” that you worked with into different communities around the country. What are some of the most common misperceptions or stereotypes that you come up against when you’re out there? And what do you see changing since you started taking them with you?

There certainly are misunderstandings in terms of gangs. Homeboy Industries is the largest gang intervention, rehab, and re-entry program on the planet, so people will always presume that somehow stepping away from gang violence and active participation in one will endanger the lives of these people. So you have the misperception of what will happen when somebody walks through our doors. Our program is not for those who need help. It is only for those who want it, so you have to walk through the door freely.

Our program is not for those who need help. It is only for those who want it, so you have to walk through the door freely.

We have been around for 30 years, and in the early days there was demonizing of the population. In our first 10 years, we got death threats, bomb threats, and hate mail. Never from gang members because we represented hope to them. But they would demonize me for helping them. It is hard to even retrieve that now because it’s been 20 years without any of that. When people think nothing will change, I would suggest that they look again. You can change a notion. 

Mother Teresa always talked about the problem in the world was that we’d forgotten that we belong to each other. We are inching closer to kinship, connection, and mutuality. We belong together. There’s nobody outside the circle of compassion. The more you can assert that, the more people start to embrace.

In Tattoos on the Heart, you talk about the connection between mental health and gang membership. But, in talking about life in the inner city, you also discuss the relationship between mental health and poverty. Could you talk more about that? 

Gang violence is always about something else. It’s like 19th-century medical history, where they didn’t know what to do about diseases so medical professionals applied what they already knew. Nothing worked until inadvertently somebody addressed the water supply and the sewer system. Suddenly, all these diseases started to disappear. Gang violence has always been like that. It is about something else — on two levels. 

First, law enforcement will think gang violence is about retaliation and revenge, but it’s really about huge trauma and mental illness. Most cities will try to reduce the number of bullets that are flying. Yet gang violence isn’t a problem. It is a symptom that always indicates something else. The trick is to find the something else.

[L]aw enforcement will think gang violence is about retaliation and revenge, but it’s really about huge trauma and mental illness ... Gang violence isn’t a problem. It is a symptom that always indicates something else.

Second, gang members may self-report in a different way. They may say all they wanted in the world was wine, women, and song, so they joined a gang to see the world. But that’s not the truth. They’re never seeking anything when they join a gang. They are always fleeing something. I’ve never met an exception in all my years. That is an important element to see correctly. Nobody has ever encountered a healthy treatment plan that was born of a bad diagnosis.

Getting the diagnosis right is nearly everything in dealing with gang violence. I travel all over the country giving talks and often see cities going down this bad diagnosis road. Then, they’re scratching their heads because no progress is being made. 

Father Boyle embraces a program member. (via @FrGregBoyle on Twitter)

You write in Barking to the Choir  that one-in-three-youth in LA’s high poverty urban community suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. What do you all do about that?

Along the lines of the good versus bad diagnosis, as a society we always join content over context and we choose information over transformation. We think that the population lacks something and that’s why we invest so much in content. If only they knew more, if only they had a higher quality of character, or if only they knew the difference between right and wrong. You want to supply content. I probably get three emails a day from people all over the country who want to start a program. They always talk about wanting to reach these kids. And I always think that’s kind of the opposite of where we need to be.

The question is, can you be reached by these kids? Suddenly, everything gets turned on its head. It’s not about content: How do we insert this message into these kids’ heads? But it’s context, which is always creating a community of tenderness. The more you can create that place, the more likely you are to be on the path towards health.

It is not about information, but we always think about a menu of things that these kids need to know as opposed to transformation. Because if they don’t transform their pain, then they will continue to transmit it and inflict it.

The secret sauce at Homeboy is this community of tenderness. It’s why gang members go there in such large numbers. They could go to a lot of places with a similar menu of services — anger management, domestic violence help, substance abuse, parenting. But the difference at Homeboy is the context — the place of transformation, the community of tenderness where they’re held in high regard. It is like what people say endlessly about parenting. Your kids may not always listen to you, but they will never forget how you made them feel. That is how Homeboy works. We call it essential fundamental healing.

The secret sauce at Homeboy is this community of tenderness. It’s why gang members go there in such large numbers.

We have an 18-month program and we think that healing will kick in if somebody surrenders to it.  If you can get essential foundational healing, then you’re going to be resilient enough.

When they leave Homeboy, we send them to another job. The world will throw them some castor oil but this time they’re not going to be toppled by it. That is why our program not only works but it helps. Not all programs that work help.

What do people experience in this community of tenderness? You also write about a community of resilience. What that’s like for the people who participate in your program?

The thing about this population, and it’s very similar with the homeless population, the mentally-ill population, and the drug-addicted population, is they need to find rest first, where they can be relieved of chronic toxic stress. You cannot deliver any service to anybody who is in a distressed moment until they can find rest from it. Their chronic toxic stress is like a heavy backpack. It weighs them down until they can find rest, they can breathe, and they feel safe. Then they can begin the hard work of coming to terms with what was done to them in their life, and also with what they’ve done.

They find at Homeboy a sanctuary and then they choose to become the sanctuary that they sought in the first place. They go home and present that same sanctuary to their kids. For the first time, a cycle is broken.

 

Homeboy Industries serves as a sanctuary for its members. (via @FrGregBoyle on Twitter)
They find at Homeboy a sanctuary and then they choose to become the sanctuary that they sought in the first place. They go home and present that same sanctuary to their kids.

I’ll give you an example. A boy named Daniel came in recently on crutches. He had gotten into some altercation with the police. Hanging onto his crutches, he puts his arm around me and says, “I have to be here at Homeboy.” When I asked him why, he goes, “I love how this place makes me feel.”

That is exactly right. Here’s a kid covered in tattoos, big old police record, and he’s tired of being tired. He immediately connects to what this place offers and he found it compelling. And now he works here.

We often talk about people versus another person, like Daniel with the police, or one gang versus another gang. How have you confronted, handled, or dealt with that? Do those barriers sort of go away at Homeboy Industries?

Since the early stages, we have had police officers come into our classrooms and sit through a presentation with homies that is led by somebody at the police academy. There are moments when barriers break down, and moments when they don’t. The truth is you can’t demonize people you know.

It is not a very sophisticated view on crime to think there are good guys and bad guys and it’s our job to get the bad guys. Enlightened chiefs of police will tell their officers that today they will encounter people who are having the worst day of their lives. When you say that, you realize it is all about something.

A hopeful kid has never joined a gang. They are either despondent, traumatized, or mentally ill. All the gang members that walk through our door reflect the same three profiles: despondent, traumatized, or mentally ill.

It is not a very sophisticated view on crime to think there are good guys and bad guys and it’s our job to get the bad guys. Enlightened chiefs of police will tell their officers that today they will encounter people who are having the worst day of their lives. When you say that, you realize it is all about something.

You are not very smart if you think you’re dealing with bad people, whose moral compass is out of whack. A sophisticated way of seeing this is that you’re dealing with despondent, hugely traumatized, and mentally-ill people. You can’t demonize somebody who’s like that.

We will advance as a civilization when we can do that, and things have changed a lot over the last 30 years in L.A., and I suspect in the country.

How have things developed in terms of Homeboy Industries helping people gain access to meaningful employment and things they’re proud of? And what are some of the choices that people have to make?

People wonder how are you going to keep them down on farm after they’ve made money selling drugs. But because they’re human beings, they all want their moms to be proud of them and their kids not to be ashamed of them. They want to have a solid, good, healthy reason to get up in the morning, and a reason not to gang bang the night before. Pretty much every gang member I know who is not profoundly mentally ill wants that experience. I never hear people say they could make more money selling drugs. They don’t want to do that. They don’t want to feel ashamed. It’s the outsiders’ view that thinks they can’t be attracted to a job.

Your second part of the question is difficult because they’re playing by the rules and they’re working hard and they’re still poor. So we always have that balance at Homeboy. They are always caught short and need extra help.

They face unacceptable sets of choices, but that is how it works. Do I feed my kids or pay my rent? Do I put gas in my car or pay the light bill? That is the reality. But these are proud folks. They may be sleeping in their car because they don’t want anyone to know. Similar to the homeless population, they get embarrassed and feel barricaded in their own shame. That is hard. We don’t want people living in their cars. We try to help homies that aren’t able to pay a reasonable rent.

They face unacceptable sets of choices, but that is how it works. Do I feed my kids or pay my rent? Do I put gas in my car or pay the light bill? That is the reality.

What about the pride people have in their jobs and the certification they earn through working at Homeboy?

We always say it’s not a job, it’s a program. They will work in a bakery, a restaurant, or some sort of factory, but their primary work is what we call “do the work.” They work on themselves — healing the wound. They try to explore things in their lives, which is why we constantly test them for drugs. The temptation will be to numb their pain because they look back and see that unspeakable things have happened or been done to them. They come to terms with that, but they never move beyond it.

Program members work in bakeries, restaurants, and warehouses. (via @FrGregBoyle on Twitter)

Work, though, is dignifying. It instills a renewed sense of the truth about who you are.

You have mentioned that things have changed over a 20-year period. To what do you attribute the change?

There are any number of tipping points and I’m not sure you can orchestrate them or even facilitate tipping points. But you can chip away at stuff. Any kind of work that’s anchored in justice or equality is a bi-product of an underpinning belief that we belong to each other. 

All three of us can recall when the argument was that we should be tough on crime versus soft on crime. You don’t really hear that anymore because there was a tipping point and people said they didn’t like that choice. They wanted to be smart on crime. 

If the choice is tough on crime or soft on crime, nobody is going to choose soft. But if the choice is tough on crime or smart on crime, everyone is going to choose smart. It’s one of the reasons why reforming criminal justice is the most bipartisan issue at the moment. 

[I]f the choice is tough on crime or smart on crime, everyone is going to choose smart. It’s one of the reasons why reforming criminal justice is the most bipartisan issue at the moment.

But it took a long time to get to the place where people felt that smart is better. It was clear in my first 10-to-15 years working with gang members that there were a lot of mental health issues and emotional issues. Talk therapy and maybe even meds would help, but you could not get a gang member to agree to that. They would insist that they were not crazy.

But I remember when a gang member first said to me, “Oh, you mean Analyze This?” This was during the time of the Billy Crystal and Robert DeNiro movie, Analyze This, which was about this big Mafia stud who’s seeing a therapist. The gang member got it, and so did others. Suddenly, they all started to reference that.

Now, in 2019, we have five paid therapists and 47 volunteer therapists. We have 22 psychiatrists. And, for the first time, there’s a waiting list to see a therapist. There is zero stigma. I don’t know how you can explain this but that’s a big step. Unless they deal with those issues, this really won’t work.

I don’t know how to explain the tipping points but we’ve moved. Even policing has become way smarter and more compassionate. We can always improve in how we do things, but I don’t think we’re going to return to a limited way of seeing.

You also write about creating a dialogue about “the holiness of second chances.” What gives you hope about creating that dialogue?

That is also part of the evolution in our thinking. If anyone believes in a god, everyone believes in a god of second chances and in redemption. I suspect that even folks who don’t believe in god, their own human experience says everybody’s a lot more than the worst thing that they’ve done. We are inching our way closer to that dialogue. A lot of this is about the essential goodness of human beings.

Mrs. Laura Bush with Homeboy Industries representatives in 2005 at Howard University in Washington, at the White House Conference on Helping America's Youth. (Krisanne Johnson / White House)

The problem isn’t that some people are good and some people are bad. The problem is that not everybody can see their own goodness. They don’t know that they’re unshakably good. Knowing that is the consequential discovery.

Getting people to see their own goodness, and to eliminate the obstacles that impede them from seeing it, is the struggle daily at Homeboy. But that is the struggle in our world. People can’t see the truth of who they are. That they’re exactly how God designed them when God made them. The world looks differently when you discover that.

Getting people to see their own goodness, and to eliminate the obstacles that impede them from seeing it, is the struggle daily at Homeboy. But that is the struggle in our world.

Homeboy wants to be what the world is ultimately invited to become. And that is a place of kinship and connection.

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