I looked at the faces in the small room and heard the voices and realized that this is war. This is why people kill each other. It was fear. Enemies could be on their way at any moment. The doors were locked. It was hot.
The rumor had been spread, and confirmed by local authorities, that the enemy -- let's just call them Tribe 1 for now -- had killed our friend and was coming to shoot more people. They were declaring war. Immediately, people in the room started telling stories -- most from many years ago -- about how Tribe 1 do this. They kill people. They kill friends and loved ones and children over nothing. The fear led to anger. People in the room who had influence with Tribe 2 said it would be hard to stop the tribe from protecting itself. If Tribe 2 saw Tribe 1 people anywhere, they may shoot. If the authorities saw anyone from either tribe, guns would be drawn immediately.
Killing people now made sense.
How does this war story end? Actually, very well.
As it turns out, the rumor about Tribe 1 declaring war was false; a very common thing in the streets. We were on the brink of war because of... nothing; a false rumor combined with memories of past violence. If not for the relationships in the room working out the tension, many friends, children, and loved ones would have ended up dead, even more people traumatized. And forget about getting good schools, health care, jobs and quality of life in a war zone.
The room was not in Afghanistan, but Los Angeles. The "Tribes" were gangs. The people in the room were not wearing camouflage, but clean-cut jeans and t-shirts. They are good, hard working leaders who have turned their lives around. They are rational, thoughtful and courageous. They work with and befriend police officers, even though it's not politically correct in their neighborhood. They, too, fell temporarily in the grips of fear, but found a way to convince their tribes -- the neighborhoods and gangs they used to be part of -- to ignore the rumors and maintain calm and peace. For the first time anyone could remember, the leaders created peace, not through a truce, but through respect and friendship.
These leaders came together because of a mutual desire for a strong community, as well as training and funding from A Better LA. Stopping violence is only about 5 percent of what they do. The rest of their time is spent mentoring kids, working to improve kids' education, access to sports and health services. But they know that comprehensive change and community building starts with ending violence. We call them Outreach Workers but haven't really come up with a great title for them yet. Sometimes I say they are the social workers of our forgotten neighborhoods. They don't want to be known as ex-gang members, but as fathers and husbands and community leaders. To me, they are heroes.
I want you to know that this is a unique time in history, when law enforcement, politicians, business leaders and former gang members have come together to change the way we approach the violence and dysfunction that grip our cities. That the work going on in Los Angeles is a model for breaking down barriers of fear, isolation, and ignorance everywhere. That problems that seem intractable are actually solvable. That this is the beginning of a movement that will impact almost all major issues of our time - violence, poverty, terrorism, war, health. That my boss, founder and Board chair and USC football coach Pete Carroll, is an extraordinary person and leader in this movement.
I want you to know that if you get involved, it will matter. You will help save lives through efforts similar to the story above. You will help at-risk children rise from isolation and neglect to attaining their potential in life. To start, sign up to receive our newsletter at www.abetterla.org. This will start the process of breaking down the barrier of fear. The Outreach Workers see that outsiders care enough to engage. They transmit that hope to the kids, who trust them. It is a crucial first step to change that has always been missing in the past, when outsiders have either tried to crush our most isolated kids or win them over without any relationship or trust.
The rest of the story must be saved for future blogs. The first piece has to be the story above. About the violence. About the extraordinary, gritty and courageous work that few know about. So much violence comes not from organized crime orchestrated by monsters, but from real people with really dysfunctional attitudes. The solution to that violence is not crushing people with law enforcement, or throwing money mindlessly at feel-good programs. The solution comes from building healthy relationships with those causing the violence. That is what stops wars. That is what creates hope and the opportunity for real change.
If it is so easy, why doesn't everyone do it? Because everyone in the past has been too afraid to sit in that room. To engage in a healthy, open-minded, fearless manner with former and current gang members. To get involved in situations of life and death. Pete Carroll, a number of law enforcement officers, and other leaders in Los Angeles have engaged. The result is a historic shift.
We need you to engage too. To build on a trend. To demonstrate a simple yet revolutionary point -- that if someone in our community is struggling and causing problems -- whether they are our child or someone else's -- they are still part of our community, and we will not demonize, throw away, fear, crush or coddle them. We will engage with them until we fix the problem.