Ex-Gang Members in Baseball Uniforms

How Recreation Programs Can be Used To Mitigate Youth Gang Involvement and Violence

Recreation programs, in addition to other strategies, can potentially be effective in addressing youth gang involvement and violence, according to a new study from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The study, titled, “The Roles of Recreation in the Prevention, Intervention, and Rehabilitation Programs Addressing Youth Gang Involvement and Violence,” was published in April in Leisure Sciences.

The researchers -- Liza Berdychevsky, Monika Stodolska and Kim Shinew, professors in the Recreation, Sport and Tourism Department in the College of Applied Health Sciences at Illinois -- conducted 39 interviews with former gang members and practitioners working with current or former gang members, mostly in the metro Chicago area, with the focus being on examining the roles and benefits of recreation in preventing or mitigating youth gang involvement and violence.

The Illinois researchers argued that recreation (including sports, arts, music, and crafts) can be used effectively in multi-approach prevention, intervention, and rehabilitation initiatives.

The former gang members represented the gangs of Latin Kings and Latin Queens, Two-Sixes, Almighty Saints, Satan’s Disciples, Vice Lords, Latin Angels, La Raza, Insane Spanish Cobras, Almighty Bishops, Tutu Boys, Gangster Disciples, and Blackstone Rangers (Almighty Black P. Stone Nation).

The researchers stressed the need to have former gang members involved in program planning and delivery. They argued that omitting ex-gang members’ input “is problematic because consultation and collaboration with the recipients of the programming are crucial for designing and delivering the most appropriate and relevant services. Therefore, in addition to presenting the views of practitioners working with gang-affiliated youth, this study gave voice to people who have lived through the cycles of violence, gang involvement, and (for many) subsequent incarceration.”

The study’s findings point to some key qualities boosting the preventative, interventional, and rehabilitative capacities of recreation programs, such as attractiveness and affordability of offered activities, cooperation with community stakeholders, consistency of programming efforts, structure and supervision, skillful mentoring and coaching, and targeting vulnerable youth.

The researchers found that recreation programs possessing these qualities offer numerous benefits, such as exposing youth to positive role models, nurturing prosocial relationships, teaching life skills, offering diversion and safety, and leading to meaningful reappraisals among vulnerable youth. Hence, they argued that properly planned and delivered recreation programs can be part of a multi-approach toolkit addressing youth gang involvement and violence.

The findings highlight that programs addressing gang involvement need to be attractive and fun for youth. Examples of these activities include sports, physical activity, music, arts, movie nights, and trips.

One former gang member told the Illinois researchers, “The way to keep kids away from gangs is to have a lot of fun programs. Like YMCA, events, movie nights [to] keep these kids from wanting to run in the street. That would be a big help.” Another gang member advocated for sports, stressing the need for something with “energy. It would definitely have to be something physical.”

Yet another ex-gang member stressed the need for affordable, and even free programs. “The thing is, lots of families can’t afford them!,” she said.

The need for intervention is obvious. Between 2002 and 2010, the number of gangs in the United States has grown from approximately 21,800 to 29,400 — an increase of 35%, according to statistics from the Chicago Police Department. Crime statistics showed that of the 764 homicides in metropolitan Chicago in 2016, 67 percent of offenders had a current or prior gang affiliation and youth made up a majority of offenders arrested for homicide.

Still, the researchers caution that recreation is not “a panacea for youth gang involvement and violence,” and that a sustainable solution would require a multi-pronged approach that involves the collaboration of schools, communities, police, and other agencies. In addition, efforts to address “the underlying issues of systemic and structural violence against youth in these disenfranchised communities and other broader causes of inequality” are needed.

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