No one will argue that gangs have become one of our nation's fastest growing problems within recent history. There is also no doubt that gang membership is increasing by leaps and bounds. However with as much research that has been done on gangs the research fails to study females and their participation in and the effects of gangs on their lives. Most researchers, government agencies, and police departments do not see females as a major factor on what our nation calls it's "War on Gangs". According to statistics, females are joining gangs or even worse, forming their own gang at alarming rates. Thus it is important that America realize that an alarming number of females are in gangs or closely associated with gang members. In a recent interview with a former Los Angles female gang member an attempt is made to explore some of the factors and consequences for why, not only male but also female gang members and associates, in our attempts to address the issue of gangs in order to provide viable solutions to this societal problem
According to most sources, the first report of gangs in America dates back as far as 1791 in Philadelphia. Although a problem during that time, these types of gangs are considered to be more like cliques that fought "pitched battles among themselves" when compared to today's more violent gangs that not only fight against each other, but more often than not, injure and kill people not involved in the gangs such as children killed in drive-by shootings. However, it is important for anyone interested in studying gangs that not everyone in a gang or associated with a gang is in fact a criminal. Therefore it is important for any researcher to remember that because gang affiliation and activity should be seen as a spectrum and no one definition of a gang and a gang member can exist.
In order to understand what the research on gangs really entails, it is necessary to first consider the various definitions that exist for gang members. According to the City of San Diego, gangs are defined as: groups that have identifiable leadership, a geographic, economic or criminal turf, regular and continuous fellowship, engaging in criminal activity. Another definition of gangs and gang members form the Encyclopedia of Violence is: an organized group of criminals or a group of children or youth from the same neighborhood, who gather together and who may or may not participate in criminal activities. The California Youth Gang Task Force gives a third and more incorrect definition and criteria of a gang and its members. Their criteria for identifying a gang member are: 1) subject admits being a member of a gang 2) subject has tattoos, clothing and gang paraphernalia and 3) subject has close association with known gang members. Upon further inspection of these definitions, one can easily notice how generalized these supposedly 'definitions' really are. However the one characteristic that all three of these definitions share is 'criminal'. With definitions so general as the ones provided above, it should not be surprising that the public have a very negative view of gang members and false notions of what gang activity consists of. In addition many of these definition are very male centered. The definitions usually refer to suspected gang members as being 'male'. Through the usage of such male-orientated language, many in society fail to realize that female membership in gangs is in fact growing at an alarming rate.
Although statistics may vary on the prevalence of gangs and gang members in any given city, it appears that many cities do not keep records of the number of females that are involved in gangs. According to one newspaper reporter, "law-enforcement officials and researchers cannot say exactly how many girls belong to gangs." In Los Angeles, known as the gang capital, law enforcement agencies have identified nearly 1,200 gangs within the four thousand square miles that make up Los Angeles. In addition, of the 100,000 members found among police files, roughly 7,000 are females. 3 If these figures are correct, how is it that other law enforcement agencies do not find it necessary to have female gang members as part of their ever-increasing number of gang members? One can speculate that females are simply not seen as gang members because according to society's definitions, it is difficult for society to view females as "violent criminals". This possible answer for why statistics of female in gangs simply do not exist may be true in theory, but not in practice as statistics from Los Angeles clearly illustrate.
More important than understanding that females do in fact join gangs is the effort to understand why young men and women join gangs as youth and continue to be closely affiliated with gangs well into their young adult years. According many researchers, many young people in gangs live in communities that are ridden with high amounts of violence and unemployment. Many of these communities are classified by the Census Bureau and dismissed by society as "poverty ridden or of lower-socio economic status." When asked to describe the neighborhood she grew up in, Green Eyes responded with this description:
My neighborhood was not the best of neighborhoods. It was overcrowded, poverty-stricken and filthy. You could easily find several homeless people leaving in the park at any given time. The apartments were usually old, over crowded and infested with mice or roaches. It was just depressing.
Unfortunately the picture that Green Eyes describes is too often typical of the neighborhoods that many gang members are born into. According to one researcher, Francine Hallcom, many of the neighborhoods share common characteristics such as, 'unemployment, widespread deterioration, poverty, high crime rate, gang graffiti and violence" (p.4). It is clear to see that many of these children grow up in neighborhoods that help to only paint a picture of violence, hopelessness and despair in the minds of these children. It is not unusual for a person living in these conditions to feel that they will never be able to overcome these conditions and move up the economic ladder. As Green Eyes offers, "it was difficult to imagine that there was a better way of life and that I can be a part of it". Unfortunately Green Eyes shares the view that many youth living in these neighborhoods share today since for most "barrio youth, life chances are severely limited to the point of being virtually non-existent" (Hallcom 1993).
If neighborhoods and families do not provide a child productive resources or help instill in him or her that success is only an education away, then it should not be surprising why children join gangs. Gini Sikes, author of 8 Ball Chicks brilliantly points out that, "each gang possesses a history that reflects the community where its members group up, a city's most marginalized and despised teenagers struggling to adapt to a specific social environment" (xxiv). In addition to reacting to an environment that offers very little to these young people, the family or lack thereof is another major reason, especially for women, that so many young people turn to gangs.
However, society and people like Sydney Harris, a nationally syndicated columnist would have you believe that "gang members tend to be chronic losers". 5 The fact is that gang members are "chronic losers", only when it comes to stable families and unconditional love and encouragement to succeed from supportive parent. This seems to be especially true of young women. It is not uncommon for young female gang members to have been the victims of physical abuse, emotional abandonment, and witnesses to substance abuse in the family. 6 As Green Eyes is quick to point out, "Although I knew my mother loved me, she didn't know how to show it. When we did something bad, she would usually scream at us." Unfortunately for some women, screaming is not the only thing they suffer at the hand of their parents. As Jody Miller, an expert studying females in gangs has learned in her research that almost without exception, the girls who identified themselves as gang members came from homes where domestic violence and substance abuse were common. Many had been sexually abused.7 It is as though these women are fed up with being victims and such for security in the arms of the first person who will show them what they consider to be love and support. Often times this person is a male member of a gang, usually a boyfriend or close friend that introduces her to the gang and the other male members associated with it. This search for love and security are the same reasons why young males also join gangs. By providing what these young kids see as stable network of continuous support (imagine seeing the same people on the street after school each day) these victims of a society that has turned its back on their neighborhood often find support, not necessarily healthy, but at best continuous in these street gangs.
Unfortunately for females the support and 'love' that they so much desire is often only given for a short time by male gang members who not only prove to be a temporary providers of love and support, but often become the problem themselves. Some researchers find that many of the women they talk to admit to having sex with more than one of the members of the gang. In what may appear to be extreme cases, gang rape seems all too common for some of these women. According to interviews by Gini Sikes, "the other shocker was how widespread gang rape or sexual abuse seemed to be and how adults ignored or denied it.. .in San Antonio particularly, girls seemed to accept boys' predatory sexual behavior as a fact of life". However some are able to avoid such a future when associated with gangs. As Green Eyes offers:
Although it may be true that women are looked down upon as whores or even worse, objects to be passed around from one gang member to another, there are some of us who never sleep with anyone of the men in the gang. Not sleeping with the male homies can make you an easy target for ignorant comments. I've been called a dyke or wanna-be for not giving in to some of the men's' sexual advances. You almost have to prove yourself in other ways. It's really sad and unfair.
Unfortunately, those women who do 'give in' to the sexual advances, become rape victims, or attempt to stay with a 'provider' after being repeatedly physically or sexually abused become young mothers with no real means to provide for their children. Sadly, these women who desperately wanted to be loved become part of a cycle of young mothers, usually single who can not afford to stay at home to raise their children because their situations force them be dependents of the state via welfare or forced to work jobs that underpays these women. The reason for is that many of these women are unskilled and many have not completed high school or have since dropped out in exchange for hanging out with the gang.
What solutions can we as a society offer these young female victims? In order to effectively address such a question, we need to fully understand what it is that these young people truly need. First of all, despite popular belief, according to Francine Halllcom, the author of, An Urban Ethnography of Latino Street Gangs, only 4-10% of youth living in inner cities actually join gangs. For women the figures are slightly lower. However, sensational journalism and the media would have us believe differently. Viewers of televised news are inundated with images of young kids committing crimes that are not only violent, but also often deadly. What are the other 90 plus percent of children growing up in these 'gang ridden' communities doing? Where are they in these news reports?
If journalism and reporters are portraying children in these neighborhoods as "monsters" then it is time that we examine closely what message we, as a society, are sending our children about inner cities and the activities of youth. We need to start with the source of the problem, the media. For instance, Gang attire and even the junkie look is seen as "trendy". Shaved heads and baggy pants are stylish in the fashion world, but can prove to make youth in poorer neighborhoods a target for police "sweeps". With videos, rap feuding, song about drug culture, bad boy entertainment, and gang clothing, kids are inundated with the opposite value system of that which the mainstream society would have them learn.
Furthermore, we need to offer youth, gang member or not, solutions that are based in reality and not some idea that aims at 'solving' the gang problem. There is no one solution, only several approaches that if done effectively can largely change the direction our children are moving, into the arms of gangs when a society has turned their backs on them. Several approaches to the prevention and intervention of young people joining gangs is providing early drug and gang policy awareness, community service opportunities for youth, parent education for both fathers and mothers, and after school alternative programs. The last type of approach, after school alternatives can be easily implemented. First of all, most gang members have been a part, are current students, or simply hang out near school playgrounds. Why not allow these kids to stay after school by providing programs that are located in the school itself? Many problems that community members attempting to help provide alternatives for these children is lack of funding and resources. Instead of building a sports complex or boys and girls club, why bring those already interested in helping the youth to the school? As Green Eyes makes clear, "it is not like I didn't go to school. I did. I simply didn't have any place to go after school because my parents were working and being alone at home was too dangerous." If only she would have been given that opportunity and given a place to stay after school in addition to tutors that might have been able to help her with academics.
Another approach to the prevention and intervention of young people joining street gangs is providing these children with the job skills and helping them get connected to employers that are willing to give these kids a chance to earn money and boost their self esteem and confidence in their future. Father Boyle from East Los Angeles and Homeboy Industries is one prime example of how gang members can be taught job skills as well as help instill in them a sense of hope and control over their fate. "Most of these kids do not need help with their heads, but with their hearts" (Boyle).
It is clear that there does not lie a single approach to what society has labeled a war on gangs". The only war being waged is against our youth with tactics such as "Three Strikes Your Out" laws or police sweeps of youth in inner city neighborhoods. These tactics only create more problems in our society, especially in the law enforcement area. It is time that we owe it to our youth, especially the women that there is hope and that we do believe that they are the 'future leaders' of our country. We first need to acknowledge that all youth whether male or female deserve stable family in which love and support are endless, living conditions that allow for dreams to flourish and skills that prepare them for the future. It is only when we realize that these young men and especially women will one day also be parents, trying to provide for their children, will we be able to realistically approach the only future we left for our youth-- gangs and violence.
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