A few weeks ago, an intern named Marc and I walked through the doors of the One-Eighty Teen Center gasping for air, grass stains on our knees, our shirts soaked with sweat. We had just come from an impromptu pick-up football game with about 20 teenage boys from the center and had gotten our tails handed to us. We looked exactly as we felt: like two out-of-shape old dudes.
Now as hard as it might be to believe, the fact that I had been run off the field by a bunch of pubescent boys wasn’t even the most humbling thing that happened to me that day.
You see, I had grabbed Marc and my other staff so we could chase those kids to the park that day not because we wanted to play a spirited game of football, but because we were positive that they were up to no good. One or two of them had already been involved in some trouble with gang undertones. As any teacher or school administrator will tell you, whenever certain kinds of kids get riled up and leave together in a pack there’s probably going to be a fight (or worse).
So we followed them, full of suspicion and doubt and ready to pounce on them at the first sign of trouble.
It never dawned on me that they just wanted to run around and play.
Over the past few months, we have been reminded that our wonderful little town is also a community with some serious problems. There have been stories about shootings and stabbings, blogs about drug dealing, and conversations in coffee shops revolving around the increasing number of very young people involved in gangs.
Lots of people have lots of opinions.
The trouble is this: Opinion very seldom becomes action. Especially when the thing we’re murmuring about also happens to be something we are afraid of or something we don’t really understand.
In my years working with teenagers, one of the things I have discovered is that we adults are deathly afraid of them. I cannot tell you how many adults have expressed interest in coming down to volunteer at One-Eighty, only to warily sit in a corner and talk to other adults once they get here.
After all, look at them. They look shady. They act suspicious. They use curse words. They wear an awful lot of red or blue. I think I smell pot in the air.
I mean, be honest with yourself: What thoughts went through your head the last time you saw a group of Latino teenagers all standing together on a corner somewhere?
The thing we so quickly and indefensibly forget is that they are all still kids. They’re 12 or 14 or 17 years old. Their voices are changing and their legs are skinny and more than a few of them are still carrying around Pokemon cards. They are wondering if a girl is going to notice them, or they are freaked out that maybe she did notice them.
They’re flesh and blood, human kids.
They just happen to be at-risk kids whose lives are compounded by a dad in jail, a working mom, an older brother who says the only way to survive is to get some guy’s respect, or all of the above. They have been marginalized, ignored, abused, and shown by the people who matter to them that the best way to work through insecurity and struggle is with violence and retaliation, drugs or money.
Gangs happen. They are “happening” right now in our town, and the tragic results of their activity must be addressed. I understand that there are myriad sociological, economic, and political factors that go into their proliferation. I understand that the problem is complex and, accordingly, so are the potential solutions. I applaud those who are bringing this issue to the fore and that there are high-level community leaders who are working to engage the problem. I hope I can contribute to the discussion.
Just know this: In the context of that discussion, our strategy at One-Eighty is going to seem almost absurdly simple.
From what I have seen with my own eyes over 10 years, the lives of the young people who are at risk for gang involvement all have one thing in common: They haven’t included loving, supportive, engaged people who were willing to give the insane amount of time and copious amount of energy and ridiculous amount of patience it takes to show them a different way.
So at One-Eighty, our strategy is to become those kinds of people — people who have opened our doors to these kids, who have been there when life got out of control, and who offered grace when they’ve made their own mess.
It’s to become the kinds of people who care enough about them to chase them down trying to protect them from making catastrophic mistakes, and who are humble enough to get out there and get grass stains on our knees when we’re wrong.
After all, sometimes we all forget that they are still just kids.
Jake McGregor is the executive director of the One-Eighty Teen Center.