Concept of the Month -- February 2008

More on the Role of the Social Environment

I spent two days in January with former gang members from East Los Angeles. The occasion was taping for my new videotape (DVD) series to be titled "Accepting Responsibility in a Finger-pointing World." In the group was a man missing an arm due to a shooting. Another was blind, also from a shooting. A third experienced his brother being shot through the heart at a party. The former gang members in this group, male and female, described a part of the United States totally foreign to most people. They grew up in an environment in which drugs, prostitution, violence, out of wedlock pregnancy, and divorce were commonplace. Some had a parent who provided anything but a "positive role model." Pressure to join gangs was a fact of life. And temptation of every sort was at the doorstep. Sociologists would term this a "criminogenic" environment, one that would spawn criminal behavior.

There is no question that growing up as these young men and women did was fraught with all sorts of threats to survival. I have often said and written that what has impressed me over the years is not so much the environment from which people come, but how they choose to deal with life. After my experience with these former gang members, that view was only reinforced. I had the opportunity to interview two brothers. The elder was a gang member from early adolescence and he cycled in and out of juvenile detention centers and prisons. The gang member spoke of "no father figure" (his was a heroin user), pressure to join the gang "so I could survive", and then the "rush" he experienced "when you hurt somebody." Asked if he knew youngsters from the neighborhood who didn't join gangs, he replied, "There was a lot of those" including his own brother who did not succumb to pressures and the allure of joining a gang. That brother told me the following:

* "I saw how my mother suffered. I'd never put my mother through that"
* "I'd say it's not me. I'm not the gang type. They'd see I wasn't giving in"
* "My brother lived it; I watched it."
* "It's a big world; there's a lot of things to see and do and experience. [In a gang], you'll cut life short."

Had this youth joined a gang, after the fact professionals in my field (psychology) as well as in psychiatry, social work, and education would have explained it away as determined by an environment of bad role models, peer pressure, and so forth. But that is not what happened. He made a set of choices as to who he wanted to be and who he did not want to be.Today he employed, owns a home, still helps his mother, and assists in caring for the children of his brother!

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