The first time Father Gregory Boyle performed a funeral mass for one of the youths from the Pico Gardens and Aliso Village public housing projects in East Los Angeles was two decades ago. The young man was a casualty in a war among eight gangs in the economically depressed, mostly Latino neighborhood. After the funeral, Father Boyle, a Jesuit priest, determined that there would be more to his ministry than burying the young people in his parish. So in 1988, he organized Jobs For A Future, an employment referral program, as an avenue out of gang life. The program quickly evolved into Homeboy Industries, which is now celebrating its 20th anniversary. Homeboy Industries is the largest gang intervention program in the United States and is in the front ranks among best practices for diverting young people from the "Pipeline to Prison" -- a trajectory that leads to marginalized lives, imprisonment and premature death.
Now located in the heart of Los Angeles, Homeboy Industries has expanded the original mission of Jobs For A Future to provide a comprehensive set of services to at-risk teens and young adults. But with more than 1,100 gangs in the Los Angeles area, the challenges before the innovative organization have been formidable. Homeboy Industries offers assistance to about 1,000 people each month with intensive hands-on counseling, job training and viable work skills, as well as placement in useful employment. About 40 percent are young women and girls.
One of the organization's guiding principles is encapsulated in the slogan, "Nothing stops a bullet like a job." So job placement is a major priority of the organization -- and it starts at home. Homeboy Industries owns and operates several enterprises including Homeboy Bakery, the original business founded in 1994 that sells a selection of fresh baked goods. Homegirl Café is a full-service restaurant and catering service offering a variety of Latino dishes. Homeboy Maintenance employs former gang members and parolees in landscaping, installation and maintenance services for residential and commercial clients as well as the City of Los Angeles.
Homeboy Silkscreen & Embroidery is the organization's largest enterprise with nearly 500 employees over the course of its history using state-of-the-art silkscreen and embroidery techniques to create designs for clothing and promotional items for over 2,000 clients including schools, churches and businesses. And Homeboy/Homegirl Merchandise sells casual wear, backpacks, mugs and tote bags featuring the Homeboy logo.
Each of these ventures is designed to help young people learn business management, inventory and promotional skills, as well as develop a sense of mutual respect, responsibility, teamwork and cooperation in a work environment. Sometimes that can mean working alongside a former rival gang member.
But Homeboy Industries enterprises can't provide enough jobs for all who need them. Four full-time job developers and a part-time volunteer also form relationships with local businesses and identify employers willing to hire former gang members and returning offenders. Homeboy staff work with job applicants on putting together resumes and practicing interviewing and social skills. The organization operates an innovative program called "Work Is Noble" that assigns young people to work in local businesses for a trial period while Homeboy Industries pays their salaries. This gives participating employees a valuable apprenticeship, with the support of an on-the-job mentor, working for companies that may hire them after the trial period.
Homeboy Industries provides other services such as assistance enrolling in school and finding housing; legal aid and help with immigration matters; and classes that teach life skills like parenting, managing a household and budgeting. Mental health professionals are available to help those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. Anger management and drug treatment services are also offered.
The decision to step away from a gang where a young person is literally marked for life in the form of gang tattoos is not a casual choice. When a gang member is prepared to say: "Ya estuvo," or "That's enough, I'm done with that," one of the critical services Homeboy Industries offers is free tattoo removal, erasing the stigma of a former gang affiliation. Volunteer doctors and a paid physician's assistant are available to provide around 250 laser treatments a month -- 3,000 a year.
Homeboy Industries is a major success story that not only helps the young people our society has turned its back on, but promotes economic stability in depressed neighborhoods. These are exactly the kinds of programs that CDF seeks to highlight in our Cradle to Prison Pipeline® Campaign -- a national call to action to stop the funneling of tens of thousands of children and teens down life paths that often lead to arrest, conviction, incarceration and even death. The young people who find employment through Homeboy Industries are no longer objects of fear and suspicion, but have become valued assets to their communities. We can build on this model so that the neglect, underachievement and abandonment of our children manifested in the Cradle to Prison Pipeline crisis becomes the agenda for the entire nation.
For more information about the Children's Defense Fund and its Cradle to Prison Pipeline Campaign, visit www.childrensdefense.org.
Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children's Defense Fund and its Action Council whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities.
Mrs. Edelman will release her new book, The Sea Is So Wide and My Boat Is So Small: Charting a Course for the Next Generation, in September 2008. The book will be a look at what's been done and what still needs to be done to make our world safe and fair for all children.