I was relieved that the June 13 issue’s article on Palabra made a reasonable attempt to side-step the naive ethnocentrism that steers the basically well-meaning course of Santa Barbara’s “community of authority.” Notwithstanding its irresistible addiction to the sensational that ties the tale of criminal charges brought against an individual to a story about Palabra’s basic mission, the article managed to leave at least a few inches of room for questions about what a realistic strategy of intervention for youth at gang risk would actually entail.
Gang culture is yet another expression of a growing list of “fundamentalisms” that define societies today – an an extreme response to real or perceived inequities that disconnect factions, and to clashing values that mutually demonize. Whether religious, economic, political, racial, or cultural at root, the transformation of a fundamentalist way of thinking will not come from the “outside-in” approach, except to pray that the “outside” at-large does its part in listening, learning, and making flexible, responsible decisions. In all fundamentalisms — including gang culture — changes away from extremism toward moderation and adaptability will come from the trusted progressive voices “inside” the culture, itself; these feisty few stand a chance to bridge the divide between the institutional and the aberrant by speaking the language and sharing the pathos of the dispossessed through genuine life experience. Then, and only then, will potential for dialogue ensue.
I don’t know all that much about Palabra except that, as a white, privileged Santa Barbara resident, I participated recently with quite a few of its youth members in a Quaker-based training called the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP). J.P. Herrada hand-delivered these young men and women and kept them coming to the training for a period of many months. I had always prided myself on being a liberal, alternative, progressive thinker and activist, better versed than most in matters of diversity and intercultural land mines. But interacting as a peer with these teens during AVP’s brilliantly designed exercises (that originated and continue to address nonviolent nuances of motivation, thought, behavior, and community-building among hardened inmates in U.S. prisons) humbled me.
I witnessed these kids’ initial sullen, angry resistance, then felt my own fear, aversion, and swift retreat into frustration and stereotyping. As the training went on, I watched as we eventually found ourselves in the same boat, on the same side, even if only for a structured moment. I resisted, they opened up. They helped one another by modeling safe experimentation in an alien situation. They helped me get unstuck. They humorously indulged us as the “other,” and we came clearly to respect that their challenges to our so-called prevailing system represented less their damaged identity as a class and culture than their unique perspectives as persons with their own narrative style, experiences, preferences, and creative imagination. It was then that I realized that what Palabra (yes, with J.P. Herrada at the helm) was doing was enlisting and evolving these kids from the “inside-out, which is the only direction through which intra- and inter-cultural extremes will begin to be reconciled.
So – duh! – let’s maybe not make Palabra’s job a lot harder by setting up the gun-shy Santa Barbara public to retreat into this “reverse whistle-blowing” implied distrust of a necessarily imperfect attempt by gang-savvy influential role-models to reach their own kids and bring them to the table of our shared concerns.
Cut the two stories apart, Independent journalists! Gang criminality, for all its horrors, is not actually on the same page with gang lifestyle reconstruction, so please don’t confuse them on yours.
Dr. Barbara E. Fields is the executive director of the Association for Global New Thought.