By age 18, Luis Rodriguez had firebombed a house, used heroin, shot at and stabbed people, and spent time in jail. Gang warfare, drug overdoses, police killings and suicide had claimed the lives of 25 of his friends, leaving him with a feeling of hopeless despair.
Then Mr. Rodriguez began to write. Over the next 25 years, he published an award-winning memoir of his gang life, three books of poetry, and a children's story. He also started a publishing house, Tia Chucha Press.
Now Rodriguez is using these experiences to steer other youths away from gang life. Four years ago, Rodriguez helped form Youth Struggling for Survival, which offers alternatives to gang and non-gang youths in Chicago and nearby Aurora, Ill.
YSS members travel the country to conferences and spiritual retreats, learn about artistic and cultural traditions, and get job training. YSS includes Mexican-Americans, African-Americans, Puerto Ricans, Asians, and whites. Rival gang members meet in the same room, often talking together for the first time. "These were kids a lot of people were writing off," Rodriguez says. "We give them an environment where they can voice their concerns."
YSS is one of thousands of programs - from basketball leagues to conflict-resolution sessions - that try to counter the rising tide of gang violence in many American cities. A 1994 federal study estimated that 500,000 gang members are active nationwide. Chicago alone has about 37,000, according to city police.
Gang members often lack jobs, do poorly in school, and get little family support. "Every day they face bullets and jail and death and uncertainty," says artist Antonio Sacre, a YSS volunteer. "They're kids society is typically scared of. We crouch our backs and roll up our windows if we see them on the street."
Where kids are in charge
But in YSS these young men and women have a chance to show the good they can do. They organize their own meetings, set their own budgets, and write their own grant proposals. "When they come out of YSS we want them to have their own means to control their lives," Rodriguez says.
At a recent YSS meeting, Rodriguez sat back on an old couch in a church basement on Chicago's near West Side, chin in hand, doing something he does quite well - listening. All around him YSS members made plans: a trip to a San Francisco youth conference, local speaking engagements, a car-wash fund-raiser.
A dozen or so adult volunteers like Rodriguez work with YSS, but youths run the show. "We see these kids make a lot of mistakes, but we still hang in there with the relationship," Rodriguez says.
YSS stresses prayer, meditation, native American sweat lodges, and African rituals to help youths find peace and strength.
"Gang life has rituals that are destructive and dangerous," Mr. Sacre says. "YSS is trying to create rituals to support these kids."
It also encourages members to use poetry, dance, drama, and music - not violence - to express their despair. Many members have attended writing workshops with Rodriguez and read his memoir, "Always Running."
Results are hard to measure, but about half the original 30 YSS members have gone to college. Others work in community programs. Jay Jay Taifa is one success story. He came to YSS bruised and bloodied by a rival gang just after getting out of jail. Soon he started planning retreats, organizing car washes, and making videos about youth issues. Now he works for Public Allies, a program that helps youths around the city. "In contrast with other organizations, YSS wanted us to do things for ourselves," he says.
Too late to make impact?
But George Knox, director of the Chicago-based National Gang Crime Research Center, doubts the long-term value of groups such as YSS that offer recreation, jobs, and other incentives to gang members. Instead, he argues, the emphasis should be on grade-school prevention programs. "I wouldn't send the message to the good kids out there that all you've got to do is screw up and you'll get all sorts of attention," he says.
Rodriguez acknowledges YSS isn't always successful. "Some members have been in prison, and three of them were killed," he says. "It's not easy, this work." But he thinks his experiences can help others turn away from violence. "Luis is the mentor," says one member. "He gives everyone motivation to keep going."