First, folks can relax and realize that they can make a difference, and secondly, it isn't very complex when it comes to what youths need.
Youths need our time, and also to have responsible adults in their lives who model the behaviors we would expect them to exhibit. Probably a good place to start would be for anyone who is fearful of just what it means for our youths to be influenced by gangs to simply talk with them.
I have found that if you get past whatever it is that gives you that first bad impression, whether it be saggy pants, loud talk within groups of youths, etc., under it all is still a kid.
Where do kids gather? If it is in your neighborhood or you see them in other areas, then come out of the comfort zone and make contact with some youths.
I don't imply that you should take unnecessary risks; I mean that whenever you see youths and the opportunity to talk with them exists, then take that opportunity. Just a "How's it going?" will start a conversation. You will be surprised when you get a friendly (or at least not an aggressive) answer.
Don't be surprised to get a one-word answer like "fine" — but you have broken the ice. Then what I've found out works is to then keep it as a series of non-threatening questions, with real concern.
Example: "You know, when I was younger, I worried about a lot of things, but today it seems young people have a lot more to worry about, like guns and violence. What do you think causes all this mess?" If they walk away and do not want to engage you in conversation, fine.
Next time you see them, try again and say that you are only asking questions so you can understand what is going on, and that you would like them to help you figure it out. It is important to resist the urge to argue that what they say makes no sense. You may very well have the opportunity at a later time to counter that belief; however, it is important for you to first hear what they have to say.
More than once, I have started out an exit door at a store with a youngster going out ahead of me who you might think was "thug-like." I am no longer surprised, however, when they hold the door or say "thank you" if I hold it for them. I actually now look for the opportunity to say "hi" or start a conversation. I find it much more often positive than negative.
Obviously this would not work on hardened gang members, but remember that the younger ones are not there yet, and are still deciding what to believe or not. Your kindness and legitimate outreach can open them up to an understanding that there are more people out there who care what happens to them than those who don't.
Talk with folks who deal with youngsters all the time. Perhaps drop in to the Boys & Girls Club; watch the kids play and talk to the staff who work to provide them positive alternatives. You might be invited to help these kids by volunteering at the club.
I often say that kindergarten is a metaphor for life and a reason to wonder. When you see young kids all together in a room with toys, they do what? They play. They are not inhibited by bias, hate or unnecessary anger.
If you show you care, the responses can be quite enlightening. Youngsters need activities to stay engaged and away from negative behavior. And yes, you can make a difference. Sponsor a youth for a sport, sponsor a program or activity at a church, or the Boys & Girls Club, and actively be involved in making it happen. It does not take a lot of funding to get kids busy.
Another thing to remember is that every young person is an individual, and if you get to know them, you will find out what the "hook" is to engage them — so perhaps take them fishing (no pun intended).
Is there a local fisherman or group of fishermen who would be willing to take a few youngsters out on the Delta for a day of fishing or start a fishing club? Is there a golfer who would like to introduce an adolescent to the game?
My outreach team has found that the youths who think they like to fight are often open to getting into organized boxing or karate. The transformation can be amazing. At first the youths think they will get to fight. However, the boxing instructor or sensei will wisely be teaching them so much more: things like responsibility, dependability and ... respect.
Be creative, but be involved.
There are so many youths who lack a positive adult in their life that you might think it is overwhelming. My philosophy is to provide help to one youth at a time.
My last comment is about how a concerned citizen can easily find other concerned citizens with a common desire to keep youths from getting into gangs. Together, that small cadre of caring adults can brainstorm numerous strategies to make a positive impact on youths. Being creative also means getting other ideas that will create synergy and excitement in a group.
Adopt a park or street and perhaps hire a few youths to keep it clean, or have them organize a barbeque. There are no easy or quick answers, and obviously, dealing with the hardcore gang members is more of a challenge. However, all the hardcore members were at one time kids who would be willing to play with others without bias, hate or unnecessary anger, which are all learned responses.
Through the actions and examples set by responsible adults, the younger kids will not doomed to the same.
One individual can make the difference.
Ralph Womack is a Lodi Unified School District trustee, a retired Stockton police captain, and director of the Operation Peacekeeper gang prevention program in Stockton.