I grew up in white, middle class suburbia. I was completely ill equipped to understand the gang culture in the school district I began working in as a school psychologist. The closest I got to experiencing anything gang related growing up was when I saw West Side Story, Breakin’, and Breakin’ Two: Electric Boogaloo. Turns out, there is very little dancing about in perfect random synchronicity involved in the real world of urban education. The Crips and Bloods do not have a dance-off, in which they all learn a little something about how similar they are via passion for dance.
Back my tale of ignorance.
My first day as an intern school psychologist, I had my most respectable-looking outfit on. I wore this responsible red sweater and crisp gray trouser pants with red kitten heels that said, “I am not 23 and have no idea what I’m doing, I am accomplished, professional woman with many many urban education skills.” Turns out, the red sweater and shoes actually said, “I claim the Norteño gang” but how should I have known that? The Norteños could have been that great new boy band for all I knew.
Years later, I have successfully expunged all red and blue outfits from my closet. But what else have I learned? When I first started out in a school with heavy gang activity, I was armed only with idealism and a Master Plan for Saving the Children that I had written in my dissertation on resilience of low-income adolescents.* But as I strode up the steps on my first day to the main entrance of my assigned middle school in my professional gang-banger costume, it was clear that I didn’t get it.
The last 6 years, I have learned some things about gangs. Bit by bit, I listen to the stories of my students and piece together a narrative of the dynamics that are so foreign to me. Each child has a story to tell. I worked with one such middle school girl who explained to me that she was picked on all through elementary school and got fed up and sought out the gang for protection. One boy couldn’t focus on the assessment I was doing with him, and it turned out he was trying to get out of a gang and his life was in danger. Some kids asked me if they could transfer to a school that had more of their gang there because they were at a rival gang’s school and were outnumbered. I have counseled kids who have lost family members to gang violence, lost some students to gang violence, and been at schools during drive-bys.
I have also learned that I don’t know a lot of things about gangs. The problems these students carry are so complex. The kids understand the dynamics though, if you are open to hearing their stories. One of the only things I can do sometimes is empathize with the student about how hard of a situation they are in. It is a very powerless situation to be in as a mental health professional. What I do know is that no matter what the student’s situation, the 3 C’s of Resilience are what guide me in developing interventions. These 3 C’s have been shown to be positive developmental assets for students in the face of adversity:
1) Caring: The student has a positive caring and responsive adult in his/her life
2) Competence: The student feels competent in at least one area (doesn’t have to be academic)
3) Confidence: The student feels that they have some control over their lives and feel confident he/she can achieve their goals
If I can facilitate any of these three Cs for students involved or interested in gangs, I’m doing my job. But honestly, sometimes I wish I could dance away the gang problems, possibly in manner of Kevin Bacon dancing away his fury in a warehouse in the drama that I always thought was a comedy, Footloose.
*Read and thoroughly enjoyed by ones of fives of people.