During a class discussion on The Freedom Writers with my students at the Juvenile Detention Home School one afternoon, I asked my students why they thought kids joined gangs. Time and time again, from students who had not met one another, the same answer came.
Students shared in class debate, and in the privacy of their journals, that at the most basic level, gangs are a replacement for family.
Identity needs, such as esteem and relationship, are not negotiable, as we know from John Burton. If our students cannot get their need to belong, to feel safe, and be loved met by family or another group, the appeal of a gang (or similar group) can be overwhelming. Area gang task forces report that MS-13 and other gangs are recruiting not just at middle schools any longer, but increasingly at elementary schools.
Nor is this dynamic limited to the United States. States which have nearly failed have struggled with civil wars and ethnic violence. Sierra Leone is one example; combatants in this war were as young as eight! Ismael Beah, in one particularly harrowing scene from his memoir A Long Way Gone, describes two of his fellow soldiers who had to drag their AK-47s because the weapons were bigger than they were! We can see the same dynamic in the history of Liberia.
As Nick Kristof wrote in a fantastic op-ed today, fundamentalist madrassas are too often the only game in town for young people (let’s say 10-24) to imagine for themselves a meaningful future. Writes Kristof, “I can’t tell you how frustrating it is on visits to rural Pakistan to see fundamentalist Wahabi-funded madrassas as the only game in town. They offer free meals, and the best students are given further scholarships to study abroad at fundamentalist institutions so that they come back as respected ‘scholars.’ We don’t even compete. Medieval misogynist fundamentalists display greater faith in the power of education than Americans do.”
Conflict prevention necessitates that basic human needs are met. This requires the coordination of a number of practitioners who perhaps do not immediately view themselves as partners: those responsible for security and those responsible for education. As many students remind me daily, some feel impelled to join a gang or otherwise engage in violence because they feel they’re not safe otherwise. One young man from Washington, DC, shared his story with me. He told his father one night that he did not feel safe walking to school. His father told him to “man up”, so the boy bought a gun. He was arrested and served his time; months after his release, he shot and killed another young person. My latest understanding is that he will be tried as an adult. Had this young man’s security needs been met, this conflict could almost certainly have been avoided.
This student’s story, Ismael Beah’s and the students of whom Kristof writes, as well as the countless students who have come through my “juvie hall” classroom with tattoos from MS-13 or the Bloods, speak to an urgent need for peace education in every classroom globally. This can’t happen until we act on the clear truth that youth development is security.