Last week I spent time at Homeboy Headquarters on Alameda Street (north of Terminal Annex) in downtown L.A. I was to be introduced to an Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) mini-session for some of the ex-gang members.
I entered the restaurant where I was greeted by two young participants in the Homeboy program, the goal of which is to guide them along a path towards obtaining a viable job. (This is done by offering a broad spectrum of “classes” in which they learn the necessary skills to accomplish this.)
The participants passing by smiled at me; refreshingly absent was all the eye-averting with which youth sometimes react to seniors. Before our session started, I was given a tour by one of the two people talking to me, a delightful young woman who showed me the second-story services of the facility. Services include psychologists, group counseling, tattoo removal, GED classes, college entrance assistance, job training, and more.
When our session started, it turned out that the two people I’d been talking to were the co-facilitators, very skilled, having already gone through the six days of required training. And of course they had an instant ability to speak the “language,” so to speak, of the participants.
We began the weekly session (about six participants showed up) with a Welcome-and-Introductions go-around, in which we chose a positive adjective for ourselves that began with the same sound as our actual first name. I chose “compassionate” so I became “Compassionate Kitty.” Every time I spoke, I was to precede my comments with “Compassionate Kitty,” and everyone else was to refer to me that way. (This seemed a little hokey when I first learned it in a training, but it was explained to me that people from dysfunctional backgrounds usually don’t see themselves and others in positive ways. “Bagging” on yourself and others is often the norm among certain groups. These adjective names set patterns of awareness that we are indeed inwardly beautiful, and so is everyone else.) Some examples of names might be: Sensational Sara, or Marvelous Miguel. In this beginning exercise, when it’s our turn, we have to repeat everyone’s names who came before us until we reach ourselves, at which point we tell the group our name.
We continued the session with another go-around, an exercise called a Gathering.
Today’s theme was: “What is something good you’ve done even though it was scary?” My answer was that I had been scared to set limits for my son but had pushed through the fear to do it anyway. (The facilitators go through all exercises along with the participants, on a basis of equality.) Some stories moved me to tears. For reasons of confidentiality, though, I can’t get specific.
Next we were directed to a poster of the Transforming Powers, ten principles to help resolve conflict. Two examples of Transforming Powers are: Seek to resolve conflict by reaching for common ground; and: Be ready to revise your position, if it is wrong. The values weren’t memorized but in order to begin to integrate them into our lives, we performed the following activity: the facilitator handed out slips of paper with different scenarios on each one. We paired off and either role-played or discussed how we would resolve the situation. Some of them were quite difficult. For example: Your boyfriend of four years dumps you, saying he’s never loved you. You feel suicidal. Another was: You see a hit and run where a five-year-old is killed. You notice that the driver is one of your homeboys. Do you tell the cops? The two who got this one decided—reluctantly—that yes, since it involved a child, they would“rat” on their buddy to the cop. Then we analyzed which Transforming Power(s) our solutions employed.
During their report-backs, the pairs referred to the Transforming Powers, pointing out which one or ones was useful to arrive at a resolution to the dilemma. Other members of the group also commented.
The hour passed rapidly. We closed with an exercise called a Light and Lively, a game to loosen us up and leave us feeling relaxed and glowing from the depth of sharing and bonding we’d just experienced. In this case, the exercise was a standing circle game with foam balls.
We closed with each of us walking around the circle and saying Namaste to the others.
After the group session, the “outside” adult facilitator and I had a tasty lunch at Homeboy (their food is excellent and the waiters are delightful) with one of the youth facilitators, who related her personal story. Need I say that it moved me?
What she and others there have been through is truly heartbreaking. But then it’s inspiring to see how they turn their lives around despite a steep uphill battle. The hurdles are huge, such as getting a job when you have to check the “felon” box, having tattoos removed, getting your GED or learning English, enrolling in college, not letting your peers in the “hood” suck you back into gang life, breaking addictions, trying to regain custody of your children, dealing with parents who are addicts or in and out of jail or both.
I encourage you to visit Homeboy and perhaps take a tour, sign up for their email newsletter, or volunteer as a tutor, make a contribution, shop in their lovely gift store, have a delicious meal. You can go to their website to learn more: http://www.homeboy-industries.org/.
Father Gregory Boyle, the priest who founded Homeboy and who ministered to the kids in the Boyle Heights community for many years, has written a stirring book, Tattoos on the Heart, which you may wish to run out and purchase as fast as you can. It illustrates the conversations he’s had with the kids who are trying to transform themselves and explains the background to the forming of Homeboy.