Thursday, August 19, 2010

Programs Don't Change People, Relationships Do

Follow The Gang Money: Part One

In 2008, the city of Los Angeles decided to move all the cities gang money under one roof and this program was called Gang Reduction Youth Development (GRYD). The program targeted youth from areas of Los Angeles that were considered to be more gang intensive. The programs provided by GRYD fall into two categories: prevention and intervention. The intervention programs are geared towards 10-15 year olds who are at high-risk of joining a gang while the prevention programs target teenagers and young adults who are already in gangs, strongly affiliated with one, or part of a tagging crew. The programs provide things such as job training, mentoring , and/or counseling for the youth.

In order to “qualify” for the programs, youth must take the Youth Services Eligibility Tool (YSET). This tool asks the youth extremely personal and incriminating questions regarding their past drug involvement, criminal history, family history, etc. Experts from USC who developed this tool, concluded that a young person must display a combination of four or more risk factors (i.e. home life, past trauma, drug use, and general mental health) in order to qualify for prevention services. The problem with such a tool is that the individual taking the assessment tool must be willing to be open and honest with such sensitive information. How many times have you asked a teenager a question and they have lied? Teens lie; it’s a fact and why wouldn’t they lie about such topics when a stranger or social worker is administering this assessment? Now the question is, how many of the young people who did not qualify for services truly not quality or were too embarrassed, ashamed, or angry to share the correct information?

Not only are there issues with the way the young people are selected but there are also issues with the overall results of the GRYD program. Many worry that millions of dollars are being spent on a program that may not be any significant positive results. According to Mayor Villaraigosa crime in GRYD zones has dropped by 10.7% over the past year but critics say there is no specific evidence that this decrease is due to the programs implemented, more cops, etc. The truth is, the city dropped the ball with a lot of aspects of the GRYD program. There are claims that money is just being handed out to people or organizations that are not providing great results and while that may be true in some cases, I can think of at least one organization that is truly producing great results. Youth Mentoring Connection has four mentoring programs for which they partner with Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles. The funding received for these programs comes from the GRYD program.

The ways in which the lives of these young people have been transformed are extremely difficult to capture in conventional forms of evidence and data. Evaluators of the programs say that after participating in the programs, youth feel better about themselves but their behavior does not improve. Such “observations” are the difficult ones for me to process because the ways in which such conclusions are drawn are unclear. One program is not going to rid a young person of the harsh realities they must face every day which can lead them to embrace certain behaviors for survival purposes. What a program can do is begin to awaken the young people so they can look past the gangs and violent behavior that surrounds them. Evaluators should not only attend the mentoring sessions that YMC has at Rio Park in North East Los Angeles to get the evidence they need but maybe they should also allow the people who actually implement the programs determine what changes they have seen in the young people. The youth will not open up about the ways they’re mind set, attitudes, or feelings have changed with someone they do not feel safe with. In the programs we do, we create a community and a safe space for the youth to feel safe. At our family nights or closure sessions these young people talk about how much their mentors and staff have positively influenced them and how they have changed. Beyond that, staff gets to know these young people and their stories which allows them to know who really is not associating themselves with certain crews or gangs, who is no longer doing drugs or has cut back, etc. Ultimately, the people who really get to see the changes in these young people are the mentors, staff, and families; not the evaluators.

The difficulty in trying to capture these results in a “study” is tremendous. I believe that academics and researchers need to find better ways to connect theory to practice. A simple collaboration between academics (in this case USC) and organizations who actually do the work is not enough. While academia and action are both equally important in the social justice movement, the roll of an academic in action needs to be embraced. It is not enough to have a professor do research and gain information from reliable sources who are the ones on the ground doing the work; academics must embrace the fact that many things can be lost in translation without first hand work experience. People on all sides of the movement like legislatures, educators, organizers, academics, school administrators etc must have experience in working with the target population. How else will we humanize the process and results? We CANNOT expect young people to “change” because of a program; we must build the connections, relationships, and support systems that will foster such results.

My life’s work is to truly be an academic in action: a person who can connect to the people who the change must come for while also consistently tying those connections and realities to her research and innovative methods and ways to continue to improve our communities.


It's time for our annual campaign drive! Partner with us to mentor our youth from the threats of gang violence, drugs, and dropping out of school. Everyone who donates will be entered to win two tickets to our benefit concert with Jackson Browne in October.
YOUR DONATION WILL CHANGE LIVES! Donate here: Youth Mentoring Connection Annual Campaign

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