Healing Work and Public Art with Gangs and in Prisons

I returned to Chicago last week to do a workshop and a keynote speech at the "Stronger Roots, Stronger Branches" conference (September 27-28) of violence prevention/intervention professionals at the Wyndham O'Hare Hotel in Rosemont, Illinois. Leading practitioners involved with troubled youth, gang peace, and prevention/intervention programs from all over the state took part. Friends of mine from Chicago--including Freddy Calixto of BUILD, Myrna Torres of Gad's Hill, and Frank and Lou Blazquez of Youth Struggling for Survival, among others--attended and also helped shape the conference. I also saw my old friend, Steven Guerra, who was once director of Illinois's Prevention First and Jane Addams Hull House (among other jobs); he's now Deputy Chief of Staff for Social Services in the office of Illinois Governor Rod R. Blagojevich.

The conference addressed the holistic, comprehensive, and spiritual-based practices that must now be addressed in truly stopping gang and other violence in our mostly poor and working class urban core and rural communities. Workshops included indigenous practices, mentoring, and restorative justice. I feel that the work I helped shaped many years ago when I lived in Chicago, including helping found Youth Struggling for Survival and the Increase the Peace Collaborative, is now reaching new heights and audiences. Some of what was said at the conference would have been unheard of a few years ago--it's clear to me that the time has come for a new paradigm, new visions, and new root-based strategies in helping curb violence in our economically and socially neglected communities.

The power is in our hands--this is the same message we must give to young people, regardless of their mistakes, crimes and traumas. We must stop the enshrining of the worse aspects in our communities, with prisons but also deficit-based programming, and replace them with projects, programs and organizations that draw on the very gifts, talents, intelligences, and capacities that young people and the rest of the community already possess.

The Friday night of the last day of the conference, a sweat lodge ceremony (Inipi in the Lakota language) was held in Dekalb, IL, about an hour's drive from Chicago, at the home of Frank Tekpalzin Blazquez and his wife Lou Xochimeh Blazquez. Led by Lakota teacher/elder Ed Young Man Afraid of His Horses, from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, several members of YSS, other organizations, and conference participants took part--a few for the first time. It was an amazing ceremony. Ed surprised everyone, including Frank, by offering a brother-adoption ceremony. Frank is now a spiritual brother to Ed. The sweat lodge, as most people who read my blog know, is also used in the Northeast San Fernnado Valley with gang youth, people on recovery, and battered women. My wife Trini, myself, and our brother-in-law Hector Herrera pour water for this lodge, which has become well known throughout the LA area, but also among Native peoples in the US, Mexico and Central America (where the sweat lodge is known as temescal).

On Saturday, September 29, I also spoke at Northern Illinois University's Latino Resource Center to an engaged group of young people, parents, professors, and others about gangs, mentoring, street peace, and relationships. Frank, Lou and Ed also showed up, which helped some of the audience members link up with YSS and the sweat lodge. One of the youth mentors that helped pull this dinner and talk together is a YSS member.

On Sunday, I visited with my 12-year-old grand-daughter, Amanda May Rodriguez, who lives in Sterling, IL, a couple of hours outside of Chicago. She's grown into a smart and beautiful young lady. It was great to see her--I had not seen her in a couple of years; my hope is that we can do this every time I come into the area. I went with my former wife Camila and her husband, Alvin. We have grown together as friends and always try to unite our energies for the benefit of my two grown children (Ramiro and Andrea, who are 32 and 30 respectively) and our four grand-children.

That evening, I had dinner with my friend James Lilly, his wife Nora, and their two young sons. James is a former Chicago gang member who was shot and paralyzed when he was 15 years old. He's now in his mid-30s and is known as one of the leading wheelchair racers in the world. He participants in marathons and other races all over the country--and has taken part and even won the grueling Alaska wheelchair race that covers more than 240 miles.

Film maker Izumi Tanaka of Los Angeles has made an amazing film of Jame's life called "Pushin' Forward" that I recommend for anyone needing an inspiring story to share with troubled youth, including gang members. James has overcome extremely difficult odds to become an athlete, a popular speaker to kids in schools, and a wonderful father.

To get a copy of this film, please go to:

On Monday, I traveled to Pontiac, Illinois to again visit with my son Ramiro, who's incarcerated there. He is doing very well--trying to stay out of trouble, working (he's a janitor in the prison's psych ward), and preparing for a parole release in three-and-a-half more years (he's already done ten-and-a-half years of his 28-year prison sentence; he can get out in half the time with good time).

He's also doing a mechanic's correspondence course and trying to stay in touch with his children. That evening, I had a nice dinner and visit with another grand-daughter, Anastasia Horkay, who lives in Morton Grove, IL--she's one of two teenage grand-children I have, if you can imagine that.

I also hooked up with my friend Zorayda Ortiz, a rugby player and revolutionary activist in Chicago's Pilsen barrio. Tuesday morning, I spoke at Telpochcalli School, a specialized school in the Little Village neighborhood (the largest Mexican community in the Midwest). I spoke to eight graders who had intelligent questions and comments.

I left for Philadelphia on Tuesday, October 2 to attend the Arts in Criminal Justice National Conference sponsored by the city's uniquely potent Mural Arts Program, led by Jane Golden and a wonderful staff of organizers and artists.

I took part in a panel with an old friend, Judith Tannenbaum, who has been doing arts/writing workhshops in various institutions, including San Quentin's Death Row. I was also the keynote speaker for dinner on Wednesday night, where I received a wonderful response from the audience. It was great to see a number of old friends in the arts in prisons movement from the Bay Area, San Diego, Hartford, CT, Chicago, and other areas (I've done workshops and talks in prisons and juvenile facilities for more than 25 years). I also met other fantastic teachers and activists in this field, which is growing.

The next day, we were all invited to Graterford Maximum Security Prison more than an hour away. I met a number of prisoners and community people who took part in the Healing Walls project that brought victims of crime and offenders together in dialogue and in art. A documentary about this process called Healing Walls is also currently in production--we saw a version of it at the conference. This is another film that people should look out for and get. It's quite inspirational. At the prison a panel with prisoners and community members was held, and another talk with Restorative Justice pioneer and advocate Howard Zehr was held in the gym (along with lunch). I was given respectable recognition by the organizers and the prisoners during my visit there--a TV crew even came in and interviewed me and others during our visit. A number of the prisoners had read my book and came up to talk.

I returned back to LA a little jet-lagged, but also energized by the great visits I had in Chicago and Philadelphia.

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