Empowered & Educated Youth ARE the solution to gangs and other street violence

Youth Struggling for Survival began in 1994 with some 200 young people and adults, including in rival gangs, in the city of Chicago – the second largest “gang” city in the US after LA. With very little money, it grew to incorporate youth from a least 12 communities (Northside, Southside and Westside) and suburban cities like Aurora, which for more than a decade had the greatest rise in gang violence in Illinois. YSS has been a youth empowerment group that utilizes rites of passage, the arts, theater, Hip Hop, dance, intense dialogue, organizational training, and more. It also includes a spiritual component without being religious. Mostly this has come from the Native American and Native Mexican traditions. Over the years the group has been largely Mexican, but it has also included Puerto Ricans, Africans Americans, European Americans, and a large number of Filipino American youth.

The native indigenous traditions—such as the sweat lodge, vision quest, medicine ceremonies, the Sun Dance, Aztec Danza, and more—have been part of this work for some time, guided by elders/teachers such as Tekpaltzin and Xochimeh (the Mama and Papa of YSS for many years). The Filipino Americans, for example, who traveled with YSS to the Pine Ridge and other US reservations to learn and partake in ceremonies, also learned more about their Filipino indigenous roots and customs.

I was one of the YSS founders and until I moved to LA with my family in the year 2000 I was active with mostly Mexican and Puerto Rican gang youth from the barrios of Pilsen and Humboldt Park. We helped create the Increase the Peace Network, among other collaborations, and helped raise $180,000 for the Humboldt Park Teen Reach, a collaborative youth prevention/intervention project that is still in existence. In 1997, YSS was part of the “Making Peace” series for PBS-TV. They are also key to the lessons and strategies outlined in my 2001 book “Hearts & Hands: Creating Community in Violent Times” (Seven Stories Press, NYC).

Chicago, however, is still in the throes of intense gang and other violence. This year so far some 40 young people have been killed, including a dozen in front of schools. YSS continues to do the vital healing work it was created to do. Now they are part of the new Little Village Lawndale High School. The communities of Little Village, mostly Mexican, and Lawndale, mostly African American, have been two of the most gang ridden communities in Chicago. Recent tensions between “black and brown” have made this school a target of extra policing and so-called “take the community back” marches (usually organized with police). However, YSS, without fanfare or adequate media attention, continues to bring young people together across gang lines as well as racial divides.

Below is an email message from YSS leader Sandra Sosa, whose brother Rudy was recently shot while working as a gang intervention worker in Little Village (Rudy survived and is recovering). Here are her words:

A few days ago, students broke out in fights, fueled by that all-to-familiar historic "racial divide" hidden behind the "gang agenda." Yesterday, as we took our groups to march downtown [for immigrant rights on May Day], other students came into the school, guns discovered, and down the street another group of students were stopped by a car of older guys loaded with bats and were threatened. Our Little Village Lawndale High School has been targeted as a "hot spot" under the Mayor's eyes and it seems like everyone is just waiting for things to crumble. Anyway, YSS is very alive and present in that school and doing what we can while we can...whether or not the school administration believes in us, or not. So, I wrote this piece below [to] share with the administration the beauty of our work...

Black and Brown Hold it Down at Little Village Lawndale High School:

Youth. Violence. Non-violence. Peace. Peaceful Protests. Marches. Agendas. Politicians. "Security." Homeland Security. For your security. Police officials. Administrators. School. School Shootings. "Gangs." "Gang bangers." Stop. Stop the “this.” Stop the “that.” Etc, etc, etc.

These words are used today like the new slang, like the "hip" slang of committees and coalitions. These words are used everyday and heard everyday by everybody that wants to say something or at least sound like they are saying something...meaningful, that is. But in the shuffle of all these good ideas and handshakes, we are losing our youth to handcuffs and heartache. We nod our heads in disappointment and disapproval and turn around and go back to our 9-5's and go home to relive the day through the bombardment of reality shows and media misfits misfeeding our intellect and damaging our spirits with image after image of our flesh and blood sacrificed on the streets all over the world. Only the few that have survived these times stay the course and tread on through the mess of their everyday lives.

Little Village Lawndale High School was 'born out of struggle" so that the students would not have to struggle to get their education. So that the students would not have to worry about walking out of their house to school. And now we are witnessing the dire cry of our youth who have learned not to work together, to carry this society's hatred and prejudices onto each other at the risk of losing their very own livelihood, if not their own lives.

But today, LVLHS students have responded and have awakened. Where months ago, some of these most influential young minds and hearts would have been the first to incite, encourage, and react to such incidents like yesterday's, these young individuals have come through a powerful process of rediscovering themselves and digging deep into their souls to challenge their very worst enemy: themselves. Today, Black & Brown held it down as we eliminated barriers and barrios by coming together in the most sacred way that our ancestors from around the world have taught us: by talking and listening with the heart. Today, we laid our weapons down (harsh words and prejudices) and embraced our universal struggle here, alive and present, in our communities.

On this beautiful day, under the warmth of the Sun, our warriors (male and female) came together in spirit and have begun the healing process in this rite of passage through life. Hearts were opened enough to let each other in to lean on, to rest on, to share with, to call out, and to breath in. It was simply powerful. Where adults may have had second thoughts, these young men and women did not hesitate to allow themselves to begin this much needed process.

At the end of the circle, we left understanding one another a little bit more than yesterday and ready to support each other a lot more on tomorrow. We walked away feeling human knowing that we are all struggling to survive; after all, WE ARE ALL RELATED.

A-ho Mitakuye Oyasin
(all my relations)

(live in balance)

Ce Yolotl
(one heart)

Sandra Sosa
YSS-Urban Roots

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