02/09/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Robert Graham and the Homies

The late Robert Graham is justly acclaimed for the monuments he left behind -- from those to Roosevelt in Washington to the doors of the Los Angeles Cathedral -- but I remember him best as lending his sculpturing genius to helping the homeboys in the street gang culture of Venice.

In the early 90s, when the street wars were severe, I went to see Robert Graham for advice about a proposed gang peace process. He never viewed the homeboys on his street as "super-predators", but more like lost boys who needed healing. That healing, he believed, might come from involving them in art and sculpture derived from their heritage, and fostering a self-help business approach.

It happened that Robert had finished a large Mayan monument for a San Jose park. He taught several young men to make miniatures in his Venice studio, in hopes that he would spark some cultural pride, transmit some skills, start a business, and fund some local projects out of the proceeds. As with any rehabilitation, the recovery process required a strong dose of self-help, through micro-enterprises for those too stigmatized to be employable.

Despite some valiant efforts on his part, the project didn't materialize. No one in government, business or the arts establishment showed enough interest. There was no public will and thus no mechanisms for rehabilitation, skills training, or starting community-based enterprises for ex-gang members. Billions were spent on police and prisons to contain them, but nothing for a fresh start.

In many ways, Robert Graham was a visionary ahead of his time. One of his worries unfortunately has come true; Los Angeles leads California, California leads America, and America leads the world, in the population of the incarcerated, most of them young men of color. Since his effort in the early 90s, however, the city has slowly moved in the direction of his desires, with the hiring of scores of homeboys as gang intervention workers. There is also a homeboy graphics collective, a homeboy bakery, a homegirl restaurant, in the heart of downtown, and the Luis Rodriguez' Tia Chucha cultural center in Lakeview Terrace. All building blocks of a different future.

Robert Graham was devoted to sculpturing with the stones the builders left out. More of us need to remember and act on that unfinished work.