Students enrolled in “Adolescent Gang Intervention,” one of the USC School of Social Work’s undergraduate courses, have been instrumental to Los Angeles city officials working on gang prevention and intervention strategies.
The year-old class focuses on providing foundational knowledge on gang life and culture, theories of gang involvement, historical context of gangs in Los Angeles, and current intervention and policies in areas addressing the proliferation of gangs.
More than 400 gangs with more than 39,000 identified members exist in the Los Angeles area. In the past five years, gang violence has resulted in thousands of homicides, felony assaults, rape and robberies.
During that time, the city has increased its focus on youth gangs and emphasized the need for successful prevention programs. The course, which is offered through the school’s Children and Families in Urban America minor program, examines the current evidenced-based programs, as well as the policies developed to address the growing problem.
As a final project, students create their own prevention or intervention program and present them to co-instructors – Robert Hernandez, Steven Kim and Joey Nu�ez Estrada – and Michael De La Rocha, legislative deputy for Los Angeles Councilman Tony C�rdenas. C�rdenas is chair of the city’s ad hoc committee on gang violence and youth development.
De La Rocha takes notes on the most innovative aspects of the programs and takes them back to C�rdenas and his staff with the goal of incorporating the ideas into policy and plans for future programs.
“The work that these students are doing is not in vain,” he said. “We are looking at it critically to figure out different ways to deal with gang violence.”
Since the class started last fall, De La Rocha has been so impressed with the students’ ideas that he offered one of them an internship in his office. That led to the creation of “Children and Families in Urban American Integrative Seminar,” a course facilitated by clinical associate professor Annalisa Enrile.
The students in Enrile’s class who completed the gang course are placed as interns at a social service agency. In addition to C�rdenas’ office, other partners include the Los Angeles Public Defender’s Office, Communities in Schools, the Pat Brown Institute and the Civitas Girls Program/Civitas Learning Center.
C�rdenas, who has been pleased with the students’ work, said that the collaboration has been beneficial for all involved. Because the students are responsible and capable, particularly with research, he said, it has freed up time for his staff to work on other projects. The collaboration also brings different perspectives to the issue, which is always welcome, C�rdenas added.
“These students are part of policy discussion,” he said. “They bring a fresh perspective. They are not trying to be safe or all-knowing. Their perspective is very inquisitive and fresh; having that open mind is a tremendous help when it comes to trying to put out policy.”
After taking the gang course, Diedra Smith was ready to apply what she had learned. She enrolled in Enrile’s course after securing an internship in the Los Angeles Public Defender’s Office.
Her experiences have changed her career goals.
“The class totally changed my path,” she said. “I was going to pursue psychology in graduate school, now I’m going for my MSW.”
The class teaches students about more than drug deals and other illegal gang activity. They learn about the history of gangs, language and symbolism, economic considerations and factors that contribute to gang activity, risk factors and the impact of migration and immigration on gangs.
When students start the class, they usually have a stereotypical image of a gang member, said Hernandez, a 2007 graduate of the MSW program. But by the end of the semester, their views are different.
In the final class of the spring semester, students were asked to shout out words that describe gang members.
“Loyal,” one student said.
“Demonized,” said another.
“Marginalized” and “driven” were other words.
“Wow,” Hernandez said. “I remember the first time we did that, and it was ‘killer,’ ‘drug dealer’ and uneducated.’ ”
This transformation took place over the course of the semester after speakers such as Angel shared their story.
During his visit in February, 18-year-old Angel told students how he joined the gang five years earlier out of loyalty to his friends who were always there for him even when his parents were not. It was those friends who gave him money to feed his five younger siblings when the refrigerator was empty, he said.
He also told students of his decision to leave gang life after his daughter was born just days earlier. He knows that it won’t be easy, but he said he must do it for his family.
Hernandez also attributed his students’ change of attitude to the firsthand knowledge they learned through class discussions, interviews with current and former gang members, research and site visits to places such as the Orange County Juvenile Hall and Homeboy Industries, which assists at-risk and formerly gang-involved youth to become positive and contributing members of society.
Hernandez said the class is unique.
“Usually when you’re talking about gangs, it’s in sociology, criminology, psychology but not social work,” he said. “It’s interesting because the other schools do a great job giving the history of gangs, the context of gangs and looking at the problems of gangs. However, this is more of an experiential base. Social workers not only look at the problem from a practitioner’s perspective, they look at how to address the root causes.”