One week in March about three years ago I received the privilege of meeting a little boy named Juan. I met Juan at the Lighthouse Community Center in Watts, California. Watts, for those of you who aren’t familiar with the area, is not your typical all-American town. Located in the Los Angeles area, Watts is the gang capital of the United States, responsible for the origination of the Bloods and the Crips. What brought me to this lovely part of the world was a mission trip I was on with my college, and one of our activities was to spend each afternoon at the Lighthouse Center tutoring the kids involved in their after-school program. Being somewhat of an academic myself, I was quite excited about the prospect of being able to use my talents to help others. Little did I know what I was getting myself into.
On my first day I showed up in a purple t-shirt, thinking I was safe by avoiding blue and red, the traditional colors of the Bloods and Crips, only to find out I was sporting the Latin King’s color. Great, my first day and I was already a target, and all the kids let me know it. Shortly after arriving I was assigned to help Juan, who was new to Lighthouse, with his math. I quickly found out that Juan was at least two or three grades behind where he needed to be not only in his math but reading skills. I had one week to explain the math concepts he should have already been taught in order to understand his work now.
Throughout the week I realized more and more how much of his world was controlled by the influence of the gangs in his community. It was something he saw everyday and something he was fed to believe was inevitable: eventually he too would probably end up in a gang. The catch was, it didn’t seem to bother him. In the same way I was prepped in my upbringing to go to college and get an education, Juan was prepped to enter into this gang-banging lifestyle. He often spoke of gang shootings and drug busts his family witnessed, which often left me speechless, partly because I wasn’t sure if he was telling me the truth and partly because of what that meant for his life if he was. Later I realized his stories were probably accurate because I witnessed a drug bust of my own on the way to the tutoring center at the end of our week. Everything I saw in one week in Watts, Juan lived with on a daily basis.
By the end of the week I could see the difference some one on one attention was making on his comprehension of the subjects. As I left Lighthouse the last day I couldn’t help but wonder: what if I didn’t have to leave? What if I, or someone like myself, kept with this kid everyday, investing the time to make sure he actually understood his math? Or told him that he could actually go to college and explained how? Imagine if someone was there everyday to help him figure it all out and prevent him from seeing the gang as his only life option. What could his life look like?
Everyday in our country more and more kids are growing up believing that the way to survive a broken, unstable neighborhood is to join a gang, and everyday these kids come one step closer to becoming adults who have adopted this lifestyle and must now suffer the consequences: incarceration or death. In Los Angeles alone this year there have been 709 homicides, many of them unsuspecting citizens caught in the cross fire of gang-related wars. This is a serious problem that demands a solution.
Jill Leovy, a crime reporter for the L.A. Times newspaper, has been spent the last year compiling all the homicides in L.A. this last year in her blog: http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/homicidereport/. Ms. Leovy is doing her part to bring awareness of this horrendous problem, and for that I commend and appreciate her and encourage all who read this to check our her amazing site. Still, it leads me to wonder what I as a twenty three year old graduate student who resides in Minnesota can do.
Most importantly, I can continue to care. Caring is one of the most powerful emotions a human can posses and share, and by reading the LA Times blog it forces me to recognize those who lost their life and continually reminds me that this world is not done being perfected, and that humanity has a long way to go before we can end senseless violence by replacing it with love. Second, I can pray that my heart will break for the things that break my Father’s. I can pray that the God who sees and knows all will provide his constant care to not only Los Angeles but all gang infested areas in the United States and around the world. Third, I can choose to dedicate my life to making a difference. Becoming a big brother/big sister or a volunteer tutor for underprivileged are just two ways someone can join in the fight against gang violence and help remedy the problem. Lastly, we can continue to educate ourselves about gang-related issues in Los Angeles as well as in our own communities. We cannot begin to fight a sickness if we aren’t even sure what the diagnosis is.