Would be the ‘Gangster Guru’ Explores the Roots of Gang Culture> News> USC Dornsife
In his summer school, an anthropology professor who was part of the notorious MS-13 gang for 16 years shatters the stereotypes behind urban gangs. [7¾ min read]
Thomas Ward, Associate Professor (Teaching) of Anthropology at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, kicks off his summer course on “Cross-Cultural Urban Gang Research” (ANTH 371mg) with a joke.
“Have you heard of the Beverly Hills Crips?” He quipped, creating an unlikely juxtaposition in the imaginations of his students between one of Los Angeles’ most feared gangs and one of the city’s most exclusive neighborhoods.
Obviously, this is an oxymoron. But why?
“Well,” says Ward, “as soon as you start unraveling that cordon – no poverty, the level of policing in the area – it becomes clear that the environment would not support this kind of subcultural group.”
So where do you find gangs? In poor, immigrant and minority communities, says Ward, where people struggle to survive. The desperate need for some form of social support is one of the main reasons many get involved in gangs. Others join for excitement, to appear cool or to be accepted, to be part of a group. Indeed, the common analogy, Ward notes, is that street gangs are a surrogate family, albeit highly dysfunctional.
“Being a gang member is a fallback. It’s something you do because of the environment you grow up in, usually because there is social dysfunction in your family, school, community, or neighborhood.
Ward knows what he’s talking about. He has spent over 20 years studying street gangs, particularly the famous Salvadoran gang Mara Salvatrucha, commonly known as MS-13. For 16 of those years he followed gang members, recording his research in his book Gangsters Without Borders: An Ethnography of a Salvadoran Street Gang (Oxford University Press, 2012).
“Are you trying to get me killed?” “
Ward became interested in gang culture after volunteering at El Rescate (The Rescue), a social service agency for Central American refugees in downtown LA. After completing his doctoral dissertation on “The Psychological and Social Adjustment of Salvadoran Refugees” at UCLA, Ward started a new research project when his advisor suggested that he check out what was then a little-known gang, the MS- 13.
“I said, ‘Bob, are you trying to get me killed?’ Ward remembers. “At that time, I didn’t know anything about street gangs. “
However, he was intrigued and started asking his Salvadoran contacts.
“I was stunned because not only did they know a lot about the gang, but many of the people I knew had family or friends who were in the gang or were former gang members.”
Two men Ward had known for seven years admitted they were former gang members.
“They said, ‘If you’re serious we’ll take you to the barrio and introduce you to our gang mates.’ Then it was up to me to make the connection. It was much harder. I knew it was going to be difficult, but if I had known how badly, I might not have done the research.
Ward says it took over a year of persistent effort to finally get the gang members to accept it.
“Not only was I twice their age, but I was a gringo, a white, grown man, and they just thought I was an undercover cop.” Even though I knew people in the community who vouched for me, it took a long time for them to trust and accept me.
Now Ward’s research focus has turned to gang prevention and intervention. In 2017, he launched a pilot program to teach meditation to aspiring gang members through the Los Angeles City Mayor’s Office for Gang Reduction and Youth Development.
“If it weren’t for the [COVID-19] 40s, I could be in El Salvador interviewing gang members or studying with Tibetan Buddhist monks at a meditation retreat in Nepal, ”Ward said of his dual passion for street gangs and meditation, adding that he hopes his gang intervention work will one day enable him to become a guru for gangsters, helping them find positive alternatives to street life and peace of mind.
See gang culture through many eyes
Thomas Ward, associate professor (teaching) of anthropology, has spent more than 20 years studying street gangs. (Photo: Eddie North-Hager.)
Ward’s five-week online summer course offered 20 students an intensive version of his spring semester course, which typically has over 100 students.
In the United States, urban gangs are often associated with LA, particularly through movies and television. “So it’s a great place, in a way,” Ward says of the popularity of his course. “Not only do the students learn about the gang subculture, they also discover the city where they live. “
Ward provides historical context on the evolution of gangs in the United States Guest speakers for the class include former gang members, officers from the LA Police Department and LA County Sheriff, prosecutors, workers social workers and Father Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest who is the founder and director of Homeboy Industries, a gang intervention and rehabilitation program. Ward also provides students with contact information for former gang members who wish to be interviewed about their gang experiences.
“The idea is to give them not only the perspective of these former gang members, but also access to them,” says Ward.
“I want students to have not only the point of view of law enforcement or social workers, but several points of view so that they can triangulate the information to get the big picture and form their own opinion. on the gang subculture. ”
Breaking down stereotypes
Ward says the most important aspect of his class is educating students about the reality of gang life and disliking them from the many misconceptions about street gangs they picked up on TV shows, films, reports and documentaries. He says these inaccurate portrayals perpetuate stereotypes by portraying gangs in the most dramatic light possible in order to increase viewership.
In particular, Ward denounces the Hollywood portrayal of gangs.
“All of these movies are terrible because they perpetuate the stereotype that all gang members are the same: they’re all criminals, they’re all violent, they’re all cold-blooded killers.”
The reality is much more nuanced – and much more boring, says Ward.
“Most gang members are not violent. The most common activity is hanging out on a street corner doing nothing, sitting still talking, drinking beer.
Ward also points out that most gang members are not lifelong gangsters. Most only stay active in the gang for a year or two.
“It’s only die-hard gang members who make a career out of it and are actively involved in the gang, spending years participating in crime and violence.” They only represent 5-10% of gang members. Over 90% of gang members actually do little. “
Don’t believe the hype
Ward says if there is one thing he wants his students to take away from his class, it would be the fact that the street gang subculture is extremely complex, that no two gangs are the same. and also that no two gang members are exactly alike.
“There’s a lot of diversity and heritage in a gang,” he says. “Just because you see a news story about a particular gang member, don’t extrapolate from that story and think it represents a big part of what’s going on. “
Former Alicia Cass is one of the guest speakers in Ward’s class that challenges many stereotypes. Cass is a former Crips member who joined the gang when she was just 13 years old.
“I had suffered a trauma when I was 4 years old,” says Cass. “Being in and out of the foster care system, I was looking for protection, belonging and a family. I found this in the gang.
Cass left the Crips at the age of 26 after a close friend was killed and enrolled in classes at Long Beach City College, graduated from high school and was accepted as a student of undergraduate at USC. At the time, she was raising her six children.
After earning a BA in Sociology from USC Dornsife in 2004 and an MA in Social Work from USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work in 2007 – when she was a mother of eight – she is considering now to resume its activity. from a doctorate to the latter.
She is the founder of The Metamorphosis Experience, a nonprofit organization that helps women, girls and youth experience trauma and grief, and the author of the self-published book Metamorphosis: the butterfly experience (SEP, 2016).
Cass first got involved in Ward’s class as a college student and says she became a guest speaker because “a woman’s voice was always missing when it came to gang involvement. “.
Her key message to students, she says, is that trauma and underlying trauma are the backdrop to gang life and that gangs mirror society.
Mirna Solorzano, who was in a gang for eight years after joining when she was just 11, also speaks to Ward’s class.
“My cousin and other people I knew were part of a gang and they treated me like their own family, and that’s when I decided to join. I had two families, my blood family and the Hood family.
She met Ward while working in gang intervention and prevention.
“We are not those monsters or thugs who are portrayed in the news. We have families, children, and we also want to accomplish more than we have in our lives, ”says Solorzano, who is now a freelance paralegal and provides human resources support.
“We are smart, very resourceful, passionate, and we love and protect our families. “