It’s brutal, terrifying, and on the rise. From coast to coast, gang crime ravages inner cities, destroys families, and causes whole neighborhoods to hunker down in fear. According to a federal report released earlier this year, criminal gangs now count roughly one million members—and are responsible for some 80 percent of crimes committed in American communities.
In an age in which government is the go-to for everything from health care to cars, coming up with a solution to the problem of gang violence seems like an obvious government responsibility: the work of the Justice Department at the federal level, policing at the state and municipal levels, and, in the case of young offenders, schools at the district level. Let the threat to public safety be addressed by the public sector.
Fortunately, a growing cohort of social entrepreneurs knows better. To be sure, the criminal justice system takes pride of place. But these community leaders—and the donors who empower them—understand that when it comes to fighting gangs, a caring arm around a shoulder can be just as effective as the long arm of the law.
Containing the Outbreaks
Donor-led initiatives to fight gangs are as diverse as the communities they serve, but some stand out for their innovation—and results. Take, for example, the case of CeaseFire Chicago, established in 1995. To understand CeaseFire is to know a little about its founder, Gary Slutkin, M.D.: a physician and epidemiologist with extensive experience controlling infectious diseases, whether fighting tuberculosis among Vietnamese refugees in San Francisco, combating cholera in Somalia, or supporting the World Health Organization’s campaign against HIV/AIDS in Uganda.
From this experience, Slutkin learned techniques he could apply to another deadly epidemic: gang shootings in the United States. As one would with any outbreak, CeaseFire works to eradicate violence at the community, rather than individual, level—because while treating just one patient helps that person, it doesn’t necessarily contain the epidemic. “There’s no shortage of programs available that help individuals,” Slutkin explains, “but they don’t add up to having change in a neighborhood.”
CeaseFire works from a basic premise: Gang violence proliferates in communities that have become accustomed to it. To reverse its proliferation, communities have to re-set what behaviors are considered normal. And that is exactly what Slutkin and CeaseFire are working to do. Rather than relying on law enforcement alone, CeaseFire enlists everyone who helps establish a community’s norms—teachers, faith leaders, business leaders, teachers, police, coaches—to completely redefine social expectations.
CeaseFire relies on these community leaders to hammer home a single message: “Stop the shooting.” Local companies create billboards and bumper stickers emblazoned with the motto. Sports teams sponsor events around Chicago to show CeaseFire kids what normal urban life looks like. Businesses help take gang members off the streets by giving them meaningful jobs. All of these efforts are oriented toward the goal of making gang violence totally unacceptable in the eyes of the community.
The CeaseFire approach traces its roots to Uganda, where, while fighting the HIV epidemic, Slutkin discovered that getting people to change their behavior was a matter of making them hear the message over and over from as many different sources as possible. “If there’s one thing everybody wants to be doing, it’s what everybody’s doing,” Slutkin says. That insight has helped Slutkin change sexual behavior in eastern Africa—and reduce violence in Chicago.
It also helps to have messengers who speak with credibility—so another core component of CeaseFire is recruiting former gang members to serve as outreach workers and “violence interrupters”: highly trained, street-smart individuals who are familiar with gang life in the communities where CeaseFire is active. Just as health professionals working to contain an outbreak would walk the streets looking for symptoms, the outreach workers doggedly patrol violent neighborhoods. They serve as mentors to kids who have no one else to show them proper behavior. And when tensions mount, the interrupters and outreach workers are already on the scene, engaged in high-risk conflict mediationand able to stop a shooting before it takes place.
CeaseFire’s epidemiological model works. A recent Department of Justice study—conducted over three years by four universities—found that CeaseFire zones saw a reduction in shootings that ranged from 41 to 73 percent. In five of eight CeaseFire neighborhoods surveyed—Auburn-Gresham, Englewood, Logan Square, Southwest, and East Garfield Park—there was a 100 percent reduction in retaliatory murders. CeaseFire has now been implemented in 18 communitiesall inner-city Chicago neighborhoods with above-average violent crime rates. The first wave of CeaseFire zones saw shootings reduced by a range of 41 to 73 percent, versus a 15 percent reduction in comparable communities.
In the most recent new CeaseFire communities for which there is data, shootings dropped nearly 50 percent in the first year of implementation, compared to a 9 percent increase in neighboring communities.
CeaseFire has also been proven to help clients find jobs, education, and essential services like drug rehab. Of the clients interviewed for the Justice Department study, 99 percent said CeaseFire had had a positive effect on them. And when asked about the most important adult in their lives, young clients typical answer—after their parents—was their CeaseFire outreach worker. Upon rigorous examination, it looks like the program has found a reliable way to change, and save, lives.
CeaseFires accomplishments are also drawing some prominent support. From the beginning, Slutkin says, local foundations like the Chicago Community Trust have been essential to the program’s success. One Chicago institution, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, began supporting CeaseFire as a way to bolster the foundation’s New Communities Program—a parallel effort to revitalize the city’s decaying neighborhoods. “Theres probably nothing more disruptive, or that has a greater impact on quality of life, than the extraordinary levels of gang and drug violence in these neighborhoods,” says MacArthur’s director of community and economic development grantmaking, Craig Howard. “And CeaseFire is one of the leading organizations in Chicago working in that area.” Since 1997, the foundation has provided more than $2.5 million to support CeaseFire’s efforts.
While many CeaseFire supporters like to tout the program’s positive empirical assessments, Howard isn’t one of them. “I’m intrigued, but not convinced,” he says. Rather than focusing on the program’s outcomes, Howard’s funding decisions are based on what CeaseFire puts into its efforts: innovation, dedication, and enormous human capital. He’s impressed by CeaseFire’s outreach workers and violence interrupters, by the institutional support the program gets from the University of Illinois—and, of course, by Slutkin and his deep knowledge of how violence prevention works. Howard cites as an example CeaseFire’s neighborhood-specific approach—understanding which gangs commit territorial shootings, and which are more likely to start shooting in retaliation for personal insults, and then tailoring CeaseFire’s interventions accordingly. As a Chicagoan who saw people in his neighborhood succumb to a life of crime and violence, Howard says: “What convinces me is the fact that what CeaseFire does makes sense.”
It would also appear to make sense to Chicago’s Mayor Richard M. Daley. In his recent State of the City address, Daley seemed to take a page from CeaseFire’s play book, pushing back on the notion that shootings are acceptable behavior on Chicago’s streets. “I pledge to you that we will never give in to the gang-bangers and drug dealers who perpetuate violence and don’t give a damn about whether people live or die,” Daley said. “The code of silence in many neighborhoods that protects the gang-bangers and drug dealers is killing our children. It must end.”
One person who understands all too well the pain of losing a child to violence is Joan Feitler, a board member at the Smart Family Foundation and a member of the Smart family. (Joan’s husband, Robert Feitler, is the foundation’s chairman.) In 1989, the Feitler’s 24-year-old daughter, Dana, was on the eve of starting her graduate studies at the University of Chicago’s business school. Walking home one night after an evening out with a friend, she was cornered in the entryway of her apartment building by a group of young men armed with guns. Dana was forced to withdraw $400 from an ATM before her assailants attempted to rape her; when she resisted, she was shot in the head and left for dead in an alley, succumbing after 21 days in a coma.
It was after Dana’s murder, Joan Feitler says, that someone told her about CeaseFire Chicago and suggested that she meet Gary Slutkin. The decision to provide CeaseFire with Smart Foundation support was partly a personal response to her daughter’s murder; it was also a way to support an innovative and impressive program. CeaseFire “is a whole different way of looking at” the problem, Feitler says. “Gary Slutkin is really treating crime as a disease.” The Smart Foundation, generally known for its support of educational causes, has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to support CeaseFire’s efforts. Now Feitler is trying to help as the program expands to other cities, particularly to Baltimore—which is home to the Feitler’s other daughter, Pamela. Throughout the country, Feitler says, concerned citizens should play an active role in supporting efforts to combat violence. “I don’t want this to happen to some other young woman,” she explains. “It’s a major illness in our society—it’s unbelievable—and it certainly must have attention.”
Some of that attention is coming from unexpected sources. Another of CeaseFire’s major donors is the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), which focuses on health care and related issues—not an obvious match for a gang violence initiative. But Slutkin’s epidemiological background, and CeaseFire’s health-based approach, is a big part of what drew RWJF to support the program, according to the foundation’s Ann Christiano. “You always hear [Slutkin] say that violence is a disease—and he’s not using it as a metaphor. He truly sees it as a disease that can be treated, and contained, and cured,” she adds.
The foundation’s support for CeaseFire comes out of its Vulnerable Populations portfolio, which works to address health issues where they begin—in homes, schools, playgrounds, workplaces, and the streets. In this sense, CeaseFire has another clear health tie. “Obviously, people are not getting shot,” Christiano, an officer on the Vulnerable Populations team, explains. “But it also means people live in a safer community where children can walk to school. And if people are comfortable walking, being physically active—just going to the store and being connected—that’s going to be a healthier community than one where people are so isolated by the threat of violence.”
RWJF first came across CeaseFire through its local funding partnership program, in which donors from across the nation identify excellent projects in their communities and apply to RWJF for support on their behalf. Over the past 20 years, the foundation has issued about 300 of the grants, totaling roughly $116 million. “It’s been extremely valuable for us,” says James Marks, M.D., senior vice president and the director of RWJF’s health group, “because we hear about some of the best things going on around the nation—things we would likely not hear about ourselves.” One of those excellent programs was CeaseFire, which RWJF began supporting in partnership with the Chicago Community Trust, MacArthur, Smart, and other Chicago-based foundations.
Slutkin’s program quickly rose to become one of RWJFs top priorities. “Early on, one of the things that attracted us to it was how innovative the program was, how it conceived of violence as a health issue,” Marks explains. The other part, he adds, was CeaseFire’s strong commitment to empirical data. “You knew you were going to make a gamble on the program’s uniqueness,: Marks says, ”but you also knew that at the end of the day, you’d have evidence to say whether it was effective or not. And that was very helpful.“
”You actually saw the number of shootings dropping,“ Christiano adds. When you start thinking of that in terms of fathers, boyfriends, sons, brothers—it really is the kind of work that gets you up in the morning.” Since 1999, the foundation has provided CeaseFire with about $5 million; it is now supplying CeaseFire with a nearly $3 million grant to expand its proven health-based approach to other cities.
Nothing Stops a Bullet Like a Job
Out in California, another social entrepreneur has found his own way to address the scourge of gangs, using an unlikely combination of prophets—and profits.
The seeds for Homeboy Industries were planted two decades ago by a Jesuit priest, Fr. Gregory Boyle. Assigned to Dolores Mission—a parish in the heavily Latino Boyle Heights neighborhood, one of the poorest and most violent communities in Los Angeles—Boyle quickly grew tired of losing young people to senseless gang violence. (He once wrote of burying his 75th and 76th kids “killed in this gang-banging madness”—two brothers, one slain by a bullet that tore through the first.) Boyle also knew that so much of what drove kids to join gangs was the absence of hope—the inability to see any prospect of a different, better future.
As a priest, Boyle is in the hope business—and faith is what undergirds his work. For the ex-gang members he works with, each day begins with a prayer; he also offers spiritual direction and regular retreats. But Boyle also realized early on that the single most important element of getting kids out of gangs—and teaching them to become self-sustaining, productive members of society—was jobs. In 1988, while still pastor of Dolores Mission, Boyle began “Jobs for a Future.” Over time, it grew into Homeboy Industries.
Today, the program is devoted to getting gang-bangers off the streets, training and rehabilitating them to the point where they can get, and keep, meaningful employment. The program is well known throughout Los Angeles. Last year, members from half the city’s 1,300 gangs passed through Homeboy’s doors. Homeboy now serves 12,000 people annually—8,000 former gang members and 4,000 people hurt by gangs, such as spouses and children. Once they arrive, clients can receive counseling, advance their education, or get help finding treatment for substance abuse.
Homeboy works closely with Los Angeles businesses to place former gang members in good jobs—but there are some employers for whom a felony conviction is still a deal-breaker. Plus, many clients need a place to develop very basic workplace habits before they can even seek employment in the “real world.” So Homeboy provides its own jobs—and along the way, has managed to build a large and loyal following for its enterprises, which employ about 350 people.
The first Homeboy business was its bakery, which achieved the unthinkable when it brought former gang rivals together as scratch bakers, baking bread and making muffins. Since then, the program has expanded to include a silk-screening and embroidery business; a maintenance and landscaping operation; a retail store and online sales operation; and Homegirl Café, an eatery and catering service. Recently, Homeboy made headlines by training its clients to help with the “green-collar jobs” provided for under the stimulus act. The program, housed at the East Los Angeles Skills Center, teaches former gang members how to design, construct, and install solar panels and boasts a 95 percent completion rate, according to Mona Hobson, director of development at Homeboy. And despite a struggling economy and the marginal status of its graduates, the program has a job placement rate of 40 percent.
Homeboy’s businesses teach clients how to show up on time, treat a customer with courtesy, and exhibit professionalism. They also provide a way for Homeboy to serve clients unlikely to be hired elsewhere: “We have a man in the bakery who is completely face-tattooed,” Hobson explains. But the businesses have the added benefit of generating real revenue to help cover Homeboys operating costs. Boyle says his annual budget is about $9 million; of that, nearly $2 million comes in from the program’s independent businesses.
The goal is to be self-sustaining, but for now fundraising makes up the rest. Homeboy followers in the community will send checks for $10, but foundation support is the program’s mainstay. Boyle’s work has a robust following in the philanthropic community, and donors from across the country—from the New York-based William E. Simon Foundation and RWJF in New Jersey, to the Bank of America Charitable Foundation in North Carolina and the AT&T Foundation in Texas—have helped make possible Homeboy’s outreach to tens of thousands of gang members.
But the overwhelming majority of Homeboy’s donors are California-based, contributing to Boyle’s dramatic transformation of urban streets in their own backyard. Golden State supporters range from the L.A.-focused Ahmanson Foundation to organizations with Hollywood ties, including the Eisner Foundation, the Streisand Foundation, and the David Geffen Foundation. The Annenberg Foundation is a major donor; to date, the organization has provided Homeboy with more than $1.2 million, including a $1 million capital grant to help the organization build its new 21,000-square-foot headquarters. Boyle’s experience and his emphasis on job training is what attracts another major California-based donor, the Weingart Foundation.
Weingart’s president and CEO, Fred Ali, explains: “No one else focuses on job development and training quite like Fr. Greg. His focus on employment and track record is what has always appealed to our foundation”. As a former executive director of Covenant House California, Ali has spent time working with homeless street youth, including some who’d been involved in gangs. It was from that experience, Ali says, that he first became familiar with Boyle’s work; its also what gives him a special appreciation of its unique impact. “He’s one of the real pioneers in this area,” Ali says of Boyle, “because he’s not only working to reduce gang violence, but he’s also providing opportunities for men and women to exit the gang life with a meaningful job. We have supported that approach through every step in the development of Homeboy.” To date, Weingart has given more than $1.5 million to Homeboys efforts.
A donor with a less obvious tie to Homeboy is The California Wellness Foundation (TCWF), based in Woodland Hills. TCWF began to support violence-prevention efforts in 1993 with a 10-year, $60 million initiative that eventually provided funding to more than 200 organizations. The foundation began supporting Boyle’s work in 1993 with some Violence Prevention Initiative seed money; 16 years later, TCWF has contributed roughly $1 million to Homebo’ys efforts.
The program director who oversees TCWF’s violence-prevention grantmaking program, Julio Marcial, says that the foundation is especially enthusiastic about the incredible range of services Homeboy provides to its clients. “There are not a lot of support services for young people who are gang-affiliated, or formerly incarcerated, or who live in communities where violence is 400 percent higher than in other parts of the country,” Marcial explains. TCWF’s core operating support grants have funded services like tattoo removal and counseling; another big piece of the funding pie goes to Homeboy’s job-referral and -placement services. Marcial cites a favorite Boyle phrase used to sum up the reason for Homeboy’s success: “Nothing stops a bullet like a job.” And how is showing kids the escape route from a life of gang-banging consistent with TCWF’s mission? “In 1992,” Marcial notes, “when the foundation decided to make violence prevention its first major grantmaking effort, both the U.S. Surgeon General and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had declared violence a major health problem. It continues to be a significant cause of injury and death for Californias young people.”
Despite Homeboy’s excellent work and its strong backing from donors like TCWF, the program isn’t immune to the recessionand so, like almost every other community-service organization in America, it has seen donations taper off in recent months. Add in Californias budget crisis—which has caused the state to withhold tens of thousands of dollars owed to Homeboy for contract work—and it means the program has had to rely on its renowned entrepreneurialism to make ends meet. Their latest venture is a virtual car wash: an online effort to get one million donors to give $10 each. The purpose is to “democratize the fundraising,” Boyle says, to help cover the program’s needs while the foundations are weathering the economic downturn.
But the good news for Homeboy is that this very can-do spirit has strong appeal for donors in the business community. One is Carol Biondi, a donor who also serves on Homeboy’s board of directors. Biondi—the wife of media executive and former CEO of Viacom and Universal Studios, Frank Biondi—came to Homeboy after decades working with troubled youth, from rough neighborhoods in New York to the inner city of L.A. From her experience on the Los Angeles County Commission for Children and Families, and with California’s Corrections Standards Authority, Biondi has seen firsthand that state and local government alone can’t solve the problem. In fact, corrections facilities often make it worse—taking kids who weren’t in gangs when they arrived and turning them into hard-core gang-bangers by the time they get out.
But when she met Boyle in the course of her work at a juvenile camp, Biondi was mesmerized by how well he related to the kids. She’s also impressed by Boyle’s sense of humor: “Sometimes someone will come in and complain, ‘I just can’t get a job, even though I’ve been trying,’ and Greg just says, ‘Hmm, maybe it’s that tattoo across your forehead that says ”F—the LAPD.“‘” (Homeboy runs an onsite tattoo-removal service to help young people lose these dangerous markers of gang affiliation.)
Biondi also admires the program’s tough love, which forces substance abusers to get clean before they can participate, and shows kids who don’t know that if you wake up with a headache, you still go to work what’s demanded in the workplace. She admires Homeboy’s strategy of not dealing with gangs—instead circumventing them, stripping them of their legitimacy—and appealing directly to individual members to lead normal lives.
“We have to look at the gang problem smarter,” Biondi explains. “Our prison system is going to bankrupt the state.” TCWF’s Marcial, too, notes that law enforcement alone isn’t the answer: “Even [Los Angeles Police Chief] Bill Bratton will tell you that you can’t arrest your way out of this problem,” he notes. But Biondi thinks that with Homeboy, Boyle has cracked the code: “He knows exactly what these kids need. He’s figured out the formula for success.”
Transforming Inner-City Culture
If jobs are the front lines of L.A.’s anti-gang campaign, in Dallas, the Vision Regeneration program focuses on the culture. Like other gang intervention programs, Vision Regeneration is active in inner-city schools—finding the young people immediately at risk of succumbing to the lure of gang life and pairing them with former gang members who show them the pitfalls of life on the streets.
But the distinguishing feature of Vision Regeneration, according to founder Omar Jahwar, is its “invasion” technique. Recognizing the poisonous strains in music, TV, and the internet, Jahwar’s aim is to create healthy—while still appealing—alternatives for a younger, tech-savvy generation. “If their culture is Facebook, Twitter, we’re inside their world,” he explains.
Vision Regenerations positivexchange.com website offers an alternative to potentially dangerous online territory like Facebook and MySpace. M.Y. Journal magazine provides youth with a creative outlet. And every week the program hosts a Tuesday Night Hype: Five buses fan out across Dallas, bringing young people to a massive party with food and a D.J.and providing safe, positive entertainment. Were trying to show what a positive urban culture looks like, Jahwar says. Were trying to make this experience of civility and peace look just as natural as what they experience now. The approach seems to be working. In the schools that Vision Regeneration serves, there have been no major gang incidents. And the recidivism rate among juvenile offenders the program works with is only 40 percent, compared to the nearly 60 percent average.
Vision Regeneration’s supporters constitute an interesting mix. Some of its high-profile backers aren’t your usual grantmakers; for example, football great Deion Sanders “has been on the front lines with me trying to brand this idea,” Jahwar notes. Top D.J. Skip Cheatham has promoted Vision Regenerations efforts over the radio waves. Dallas entrepreneur and software designer Patrick Brandt has been a major supporter, also offering in-kind help by working on the design for positivexchange.com. The program even partnered with club promoter Corey Cleghorn, whose label, Clout, Jahwar explains, “is exactly what Im battling against. Still, he can get young people to follow him—so I went in and appealed to him and said, ‘Can you use your same energy for me a couple of times a month?’ Now we talk every day—and he’s become a major part of the group.”
That’s not to say Jahwar doesn’t receive generous funding from traditional foundations: the Communities Foundation of Texas, for example, has given more than $76,000 to the program since 2003. Most of the money was provided to improve Vision Regeneration’s ability to attract more funding, covering capacity-building expenses like conducting an audit and hiring development staff. The foundation’s community philanthropy director, Monica Smith, says that helping Vision Regeneration scale up is critical—because Dallas is one of the fastest-growing cities in the nation, and the safety of the its young people depends on Jahwar’s “impressive” anti-gang initiative keeping pace. Smith is confident that Jahwar is up to the challenge: “Omar is a visionary, and a very dynamic personality driving this effort,” she says. “He’s able to bring in kids whove been involved in gangs and turn them into ambassadors for the organization. It seems that the most likely way for any community to achieve long-term solutions is to have them come from within.”
Empowering Community Leaders
Vision Regeneration’s biggest champion (and one of its major funders) may be well-known social entrepreneur Robert Woodson. Small coincidence: it was Jahwar’s work with Vision Regeneration that helped give rise to the nationwide Violence-Free Zones (VFZs), a youth violence reduction program run by Woodson’s Center for Neighborhood Enterprise (CNE).
From his background as a corrections officer in Philadelphia, Woodson came to realize that the traditional remedies for ending violent behavior among young people—trying to coerce kids through threats of incarceration, or trying to bribe them through social programs—didnt work. What was needed, he understood, was to find the few troublemakers in schools and communitiesand to convince them to change their behavior. Once transformed, they become “antibodies” that can heal their own troubled neighborhoods.
What do those “antibodies” look like? According to Woodson, they take two forms. The first are the families who manage, despite toxic environments, to raise children well—children who go to school, graduate, and succeed against the odds. “These leaders do not preach defeatism,: Woodson says. ”They make everyone accountable to one another, part of a community, and really uphold traditional standards of a peaceful society.“ The second type includes those who do succumb to their toxic surroundings—people who have fallen into drugs, gangs, prostitution—”but through God’s grace have been transformed . . . and are an even more powerful witness to people in that environment to show you can change.“
These community leaders are often overlooked by social scientists and major foundations, Woodson says, so he ”goes around the country like a Geiger counter seeking them out.“ Then he supplies them with the funding and support they need to turn their neighborhoods around. In the case of the VFZs, Woodson went to some of the communities most plagued by youth violence—poking into barbershops, beauty parlors, police precincts—asking for the names of people to whom everyone turns when they’re in trouble. ”Ten people will give you the names of two or three people,“ Woodson says—and those are the ones he enlists to his cause.
In the VFZs, these trusted figures become Youth Advisors: often former gang members who have the credibility needed to be taken seriously by tough students. The advisors go into schools and identify the trouble-makers; they offer safe passage for kids to and from schools to reduce the likelihood of gang attacks. They monitor cafeterias at lunch time, and set up a separate space in their schools to conduct mediations. If a kid knows he’s about to get jumped—or if he knows someone has brought a gun to school—he’ll tell a Youth Advisor, who will then bring the warring parties together to talk before violence can erupt.
”They’re like moral mentors and character coaches,“ Woodson says of the Youth Advisors. They also show tremendous initiative. In the Milwaukee VFZ, for example, the advisors from the Latino Community Center, CNE’s community partner organization, realized that the success of their efforts demanded greater involvement from parents. So they got themselves trained as tax preparers, and during tax time encouraged parents to come to the school (including many non-filers who didn’t realize they were eligible for refunds). As the tax returns were prepared, parents also got a dose of information about the VFZ and how they could support their kids. The effort, undertaken by Youth Advisors volunteering their time, returned almost $2 million to the community in refunds—and built trust for the program.
The dedication fostered in VFZs seems to be paying off across the country. In Milwaukee, the number of violent incidents in VFZ schools dropped 32 percent; the number of non-violent incidents dropped by 20 percent; and the number of suspensions declined by 37 percent. And in Richmond’s George Wythe High School, the program helped reduce gang incidents by 22 percent and cut expulsions by 71 percent. The benefits of the program even reached beyond the school. According to Richmond police, car thefts in the surrounding neighborhood dropped from 64 to 17—a decline of 73 percent.
Donors always like to invest in demonstrable success, and backers of the VFZs include major foundations—from Milwaukee’s Betty Brinn Foundation, to the Atlanta-based Marcus Foundation, to the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation in Baltimore.
But beyond empirical proof, Woodson offers his supporters a little something extra. A major part of the VFZ approach is training donors to identify the vital community ”antibodies“ on their own—helping them to build sustainable relationships with community entrepreneurs, and to find worthwhile programs for philanthropic investment without relying on a middleman.
One beneficiary of Woodson’s training is Alicia Manning, director of New Citizenship Programs at the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. ”He didn’t just find places and say, ‘Here are your new grantees,’“ Manning says of Woodson. ”He helped us develop the ability to identify those groups on our own, which is so valuable to a foundation.“ So were the relationships Manning was able to build in the Milwaukee community. ”You learn who to trust, and they learn to trust you,“ she explains. ”And when you’re looking at grants, they help you find out who’s the real deal, and who’s just talking a good game.“
In addition to Woodson’s training, Bradley values the fact that the program is replicable in other cities, as well as the measurable standards of success: reduced suspension rates, boosted GPAs. And then there are the unquantifiable benefits, which Manning has been able to witness firsthand. ”When you walk in the door of the school, you see it in the way the students carry themselves. There’s just a palpable culture of orderliness and respect—one that just didn’t exist before,“ she explains.
While Woodson’s Violence-Free Zones aim to reach young people before they become ensnared by gang life, the Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP) confronts the enormous challenge of turning lives around after they’ve been marred by crime. PEP was established in 2004 by an unlikely social entrepreneur: former venture capitalist and onetime national jiu-jitsu champion Catherine Rohr. While working on Wall Street, Rohr visited a prison on a tour; the experience prompted her to cash out her 401(k), pack up her belongings, and move to Texas to pursue her newfound calling: starting a mentoring program at a prison outside Houston.
Recognizing the natural entrepreneurial abilities of many prisoners—their talents for, say, profit maximization and risk management—PEP helps those whove landed in jail through gangs, drugs, or prostitution find their way back into society through legitimate business. Having recruited a broad network of entrepreneurs, CEOs, and business leaders, PEP pairs mentors with inmates to help them pursue healthy business careers in post-prison society. Ex-offenders are taught essentials like how to lose their gang slang, put on a suit and tie, look people in the eye, and speak and act professionally. PEP’s numbers tell the tale. Within 30 days of release, 92 percent of PEP inmates are employed, earning an average starting wage of $10.60 an hour. The program’s recidivism rate is less than 5 percent.
PEP’s business-focused model isn’t just yielding impressive statistics; it’s also landing the upstart program some serious funding from like-minded donors. Take, for example, the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation—which describes itself as ”the world’s largest foundation devoted to entrepreneurship.“ It was luck that first led Kauffman to support the entrepreneurship of PEPs ex-inmates: The foundation’s vice president for research and policy, Robert Litan, was looking through his daily press clippings when an article in the Houston Chronicle caught his eye. He was so impressed by the write-up of PEP—especially the program’s founder and her business background—that he placed an unsolicited call to Rohr. ”It’s very rare for a foundation,“ Litan explains. ”She didn’t even send us a grant proposal or ask for money,“ yet Kauffman offered her a preliminary grant to support PEP’s work. Since then, the Kauffman Foundation has been, as Litan puts it, ”one of [PEP’s] biggest fans.“
Part of the enthusiasm is driven by Rohr’s insistence on results; despite the enormous pressure every successful program faces to scale up, Litan notes, Rohr has pushed back. ”Some people who get successful might say, ‘I’ve conquered one prison, now let me conquer a hundred,’ but they don’t have the people or resources,“ Litan says. She’ll scale on her own schedule because she doesn’t want to lose quality control.” Litan attributes that good sense to Rohr’s business background.
What most impresses Kauffman, though, is PEP’s core concept. “If you think about it for two seconds, you realize it’s ideal,” Litan says. “A lot of the non-violent prisoners—like the ones in for drug offenses—are very entrepreneurial. They do marketing, they do organization. What she’s doing is helping them use these skills to do something legitimate, and in the process, is turning around their lives,” he says of Rohr. “She’s a genius”.
In addition to its business focus, one of PEP’s most distinguishing features is its emphasis on having alumni give back to their communities. Tithing is strongly encouraged; former inmates are urged to volunteer through community service organizations; and more than 70 percent of PEP graduates are also donors to the program. Yet even more important than their financial contributions are their efforts to help other young people avoid the traps of gang life—by speaking to the Texas Youth Commission and in area churches, or sharing their (often painful) stories in elementary, middle, and high schools.
For some PEP alumni, the call to give back is answered by working for the program, as Gami Jasso now does. As a teenager, Jasso joined a street gang in the East Dallas area—a choice that ultimately led to a first degree felony conviction for murder with a deadly weapon. Sentenced to 30 years, Jasso’s life in jail was little different from his life on the streets. “I wasn’t a changed man,” he explains. On the inside, Jasso joined the fast-growing Tango Blast gang—using the communications channels within the Texas penal system to place hits on rival gang members in other units.
After 10 years, Jasso decided enough was enough. “Twenty guys already had confirmed me as a gang member; I was on a cell block with nothing but gang members on it—guys with life sentences and nothing to lose, he explains. I was tired of that type of lifestyle; I wanted to live a righteous life.”
Jasso’s gang allowed him to leave without incident, and in 2006 he was granted parole. As he was preparing for release, Jasso heard about the Prison Entrepreneurship Program, applied, and was accepted. “It was real comforting to know before my release that there were actually people out there willing to help,” he explains. PEP worked with Jasso to come up with a business plan and teach him basic social skills. “Before that, the only people I’d encountered were my prison friends,” Jasso says. “I was ashamed of my past, but PEP helped me understand that everybody makes mistakes—we’re all offenders in this world.”
He also recalls the program’s intense focus on serving others. Upon his release, Jasso volunteered at Habitat for Humanity, building homes for the poor. He’s now married with a young son and two step-daughters, enjoying the roles of husband and father. Jasso has spoken in juvenile detention centers, and gone back into prisons to encourage other inmates to put gang life behind them. When PEP asked Jasso to be a case manager, he agreed—and calls it “the best thing that ever happened to me.” Now a re-entry coordinator in the Dallas office, Jasso says: “Any chance I get, when I see someone trying to go the wrong way—I just face them with reality. I tell them, ‘You’ve been granted a second opportunity—and no matter how bad you’re doing now, it’s still better than your best day in prison.’”
The focus on turning ex-offenders into contributing members of society is a big part of why the executive director and treasurer of the Houston-based Cullen Foundation, Alan Stewart, supports PEP. “It’s gratifying the way the PEP graduates themselves give back to the program,” he says. “They hold each other accountable, and it shows how important it is to be in community with someone.” Stewart explains that PEP is not the type of program his foundation—dedicated primarily to education and health care—would usually invest in. But Rohr’s passion, and the dire situation facing most of America’s prison population, convinced the decision-makers at Cullen to broaden their horizons.
Another contributing factor is Stewart’s personal involvement. As a PEP mentor, he’s formed close relationships with current and former inmates—observing the incredible work Cullen’s philanthropy is making possible. “What keeps me involved”, he says,“is just witnessing the enormous change in these guys lives.”
The Possibility of Redemption
Donor-led efforts to reduce gang violence are highly local, adapted to the communities they serve. Still, there are a few common themes. To begin with, these programs draw on what may seem like irrelevant experiences—epidemiology, club promotion—to transform what was once thought the exclusive purview of criminal justice. These initiatives also highlight how important it is not to place the entire burden of combating gangs on local government. While police risk their lives each day doing extraordinary law-enforcement work, they can’t, as Gary Slutkin might say, completely recast a young person’s standards and expectations. Communities—groups of caring, invested citizens—do that.
But perhaps the most important common theme is the conviction that the best way to fight gangs is by honoring the enduring dignity, and possibility for redemption, that abide in each individual gang member. “We’ve gone from whole-cloth demonizing of these guys,” says Fr. Boyle, “to a place where people realize that everyone is a whole lot more than the worst thing they ever did.”
It’s a powerful statement—and many philanthropists find that affirming it may be the best thing they ever did.
Meghan Clyne is managing editor of the forthcoming quarterly National Affairs, and a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush.