Our Troubled Youth Need to be Heard

The young men at Green Hill’s maximum security juvenile detention center waited patiently for the other units to come in and sit down to hear me speak. Earlier I had addressed another group of incarcerated youth at the Maple Lane maximum security youth center. I usually try to visit a prison or a youth facility during the many talks and readings I do around the country.

This time, professors and students, including from Mecha, at Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA had invited me to speak to a class and at a public event; they also arranged for me to address the incarcerated youth through an important intervention program called Gateways.

These facilities were two of the three groups of juvenile detainees (the other was from the Rancho San Antonio juvenile facility in the San Fernando Valley) that I addressed in November.

As usual, the young men were attentive, respectful and full of questions. Many had already read my true-life account of gang life, Always Running, La Vida Loca, Gang Days in LA. Others knew about my poetry. The racial mix of the groups were almost evenly divided between Mexicans/Latinos, African Americans and whites. Regardless of this, they were all interested to hear my story—and to add their stories to the continuing one of this country’s poor youth: broken families, little or no economic life, bad schools, little or no recreation, and wholesale social neglect. All faced deep crisis in spirit and vision. Most did not know what they were going to do with their lives. Yet, as always, they were smart, incisive, and capable of great imagination.

One of the young men I met was the nephew of former Black Panther Geronimo Pratt, who was falsely incarcerated for 27 years in the California Penal System before he was exonerated and then released. Compare that to the Ku Klux Klan and other racists who killed civil rights workers and leaders in the South, mostly getting away with it (even after confessing, as the killers of Emmett Till did 40 years ago) or not facing their comeuppance until they were ripe old men.

These and other realities are not lost on these young men. They know because of race or their social class position they were going to be handed a raw deal. Opportunities were going to be few and highly competitive. They were not going to be adequately prepared for jobs or better schooling. If they couldn’t hold a decent job (in communities where unemployment can reach 50 to 70 percent), they would probably end up in prison.

After telling my story, I also conveyed to them the idea that they, too, have valuable lives. They, too, deserve chances to heal, to overcome their traumas and issues, and to contribute in a positive and meaningful manner to the world around them.

I told them how we don’t need anymore “raggedy” men in our communities—where there are too many men not fathering, not working, not learning, not going anywhere. We didn’t need anymore of their faces in our prisons. We needed them to stay strong, get skills, learn to be healthy and loving to their partners and children, and to give back from their own gifts and passions to enhance the streets they came from.

It’s a hard message to get, let alone agree to. But most of these visits usually end in some insightful communication and shared recognition of what needs to be done.

As a teenager stuck in the same kinds of facilities—I was in several East LA and West San Gabriel jails, Central Juvenile Hall, a continuation high school, and two adult jail facilities before I turned my life around in my late teens, I wish I had people talk to me. The few who did reach out meant so much. I was one of those who needed a lot of help, who had few people willing to help, but who finally made a decision to listen to them and make the most of their assistance.

We all need help. Particularly if you’re caught in the webs of gangs, drug addictions, violence, and the streets. But too many of us end up turning away from this help—we end up letting the few doors that open for us close shut (doors that usually take a long time to open again, if ever).

My talks have to be straight forward, clear-cut, and to the point. There can’t be any BS. Luckily most youth, particularly those behind bars, have a built-in BS meter. Being honest and open, knowledgeable and poetic, truly helps in reaching youngsters often designated as “unreachable.”

In November, I also got to speak in Chicago, including at an elementary school a junior college, and an international conference on “Gangs and Globalization” at downtown’s Northwestern University School of Law. Here we had researchers, former gang members, current gang members, youth organizers, and community advocates speak on how best to deal with the growth in gangs across the country. My friends, the long-time activists Tom Hayden and Bernardine Dorhn, invited me to be a keynote speaker.

Again, the issue is to be clear on the facts. To realize that more police, more prisons and more punishment only makes the situation on our streets more dangerous. We need real and comprehensive rehabilitation, real resources for work and schools, and real creative outlets for all our young people.

We need the social resources designated for the so-called gang problem to heal, help, and turn our youth around—not enshrine them in their pathologies and pains. Not warehouse them. And not forget they are human and capable of vital changes in their lives and the lives of their communities.

They'll be a price to pay no matter what we do. But the price we pay if we don’t change from punishment to redemption, from having youth face a vacant future to one filled with immense possibilities, will be worse than if we do.

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