Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Poetry and Prayer as Antidote to Gangs How One Chicago Resident Uses Years of Writing Experience to Turn Kids Away from Violence

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Poetry and Prayer as Antidote to Gangs How One Chicago Resident Uses Years of Writing Experience to Turn Kids Away from Violence

Article excerpt

By age 18, Luis Rodriguez had firebombed a house, used heroin, shot at and stabbed people, and spent time in jail. Gang warfare, drug overdoses, police killings and suicide had claimed the lives of 25 of his friends, leaving him with a feeling of hopeless despair.

Then Mr. Rodriguez began to write. Over the next 25 years, he published an award-winning memoir of his gang life, three books of poetry, and a children's story. He also started a publishing house, Tia Chucha Press.

Now Rodriguez is using these experiences to steer other youths away from gang life. Four years ago, Rodriguez helped form Youth Struggling for Survival, which offers alternatives to gang and non- gang youths in Chicago and nearby Aurora, Ill. YSS members travel the country to conferences and spiritual retreats, learn about artistic and cultural traditions, and get job training. YSS includes Mexican-Americans, African-Americans, Puerto Ricans, Asians, and whites. Rival gang members meet in the same room, often talking together for the first time. "These were kids a lot of people were writing off," Rodriguez says. "We give them an environment where they can voice their concerns." YSS is one of thousands of programs - from basketball leagues to conflict-resolution sessions - that try to counter the rising tide of gang violence in many American cities. A 1994 federal study estimated that 500,000 gang members are active nationwide. Chicago alone has about 37,000, according to city police. Gang members often lack jobs, do poorly in school, and get little family support. "Every day they face bullets and jail and death and uncertainty," says artist Antonio Sacre, a YSS volunteer. "They're kids society is typically scared of. We crouch our backs and roll up our windows if we see them on the street." Where kids are in charge But in YSS these young men and women have a chance to show the good they can do. They organize their own meetings, set their own budgets, and write their own grant proposals. "When they come out of YSS we want them to have their own means to control their lives," Rodriguez says. At a recent YSS meeting, Rodriguez sat back on an old couch in a church basement on Chicago's near West Side, chin in hand, doing something he does quite well - listening. …

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