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Father "G" in the House

Ian S. Thompson,
Senior Legislative Advocate,
ACLU
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March 12, 2009

What a powerful morning it was to be on Capitol Hill last Thursday! Father Greg Boyle, a.k.a. “G,” the founder and Executive Director of Los Angeles-based Homeboy Industries, was here in Washington, D.C., to speak with Members of Congress about what approaches really work in reaching gang-involved and at-risk youth. He spoke at a crowded briefing on the most innovative and successful strategies around gangs and violence prevention.

I was most struck by the level of humanity and compassion Father Greg brought to this issue. In speaking of the standard “get tough” approaches, Father Greg said that far too often the public debate around gangs is merely a matter of going in the wrong direction quickly or in the slow lane. In the end, you still end up in the same bad place of more young people being locked up in prison and away from the promise of a fulfilling life. What he, and congressional leaders like Representative Bobby Scott (D-Va.), propose instead is reevaluating what has been done in the past and pursuing new, more hopeful approaches.

Originally started as a small, local effort by a committed and caring man in 1988, Homeboy Industries has grown to become the largest gang intervention program in the country and a national model. Today, Father Greg employs hundreds of young men and women seeking to leave gang life behind them. In addition to providing job training, placement assistance and other free programs, Homeboy Industries operates a number of small businesses, where the most difficult-to-place individuals are hired in transitional jobs, thus giving them a safe and supportive environment in which to develop their job skills. Perhaps one of the most important things that Homeboy Industries does is bring former gang rivals together to work in a spirit of cooperation and friendship. The transformational impact of such approaches on the lives of young people and the communities in which they live is immeasurable.

If anyone needs reminding of why the efforts of individuals like Father Greg are so important, I recommend reading my Capital Punishment Project colleague Brian Stull’s moving blog post, “Executing Failure.” Brian writes about the gross failure it represents on the part of government to invest extraordinary resources into obtaining and carrying out death sentences, while doing next to nothing to help individuals turn their lives around before becoming occupants of death row. We need to move beyond the notion that there is such a thing as “throwaway people.”

There is legislation at the national level that seeks to work with at-risk young people and engages their communities as an active part of the solution — the Youth PROMISE Act. Passage of the Youth PROMISE Act would help to empower many more Father G’s around the country who work tirelessly each and every day with vulnerable young people and the communities in which they live. Fortunately, just last month, the Los Angeles City Council unanimously approved a resolution in support of the Youth PROMISE Act. The momentum is on our side!

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