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An Altar Boy With a Gun

At Homeboy Industries, Raul Diaz embodies the new generation of activists. A book excerpt from "Do It Anyway."

| Mon Sep. 6, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

Adapted from the forthcoming book Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, by Courtney E. Martin. Excerpted with permission by Beacon Press.

Raul Diaz is crushing flowers underfoot as he runs. Though he doesn't have the stamina of his teenage years, he's grateful that his legs can still take him up a hill at thirty-four. He pauses at the top of a slope in Elysian Park, puts his hands on his hips, and looks out at Los Angeles, the city that has formed him in all of its beauty and violence. He can almost make out the outlines of Boyle Heights, his courageous little neighborhood—just east of downtown L.A. and the Los Angeles River, César E. Chávez Avenue rolling boldly through.

Up here Raul can get a break from life down there—the way the boys drag their feet as they head back to their cells in Chino when his visits with them are over, the sadly predictable swollen bellies on teenage girls hanging out in the project playground, the incessant needs of his clients (housing, jobs, work clothes, car insurance, food), unmet unless he figures out a way to meet them. He runs up here because it's a way to leave all that behind. But even more, he runs up here because he has never figured out any other way of staving off the sadness.

The youngest of eight brothers, Raul was raised by one firecracker mom who fled an abusive husband, the father of her six initial sons, in Texas and relocated to the Pico projects of Boyle Heights without a single friend in 1968. In the early seventies, she met Raul's father—a Vietnam vet—who would end up shirking responsibility for his two kids. By the time Raul was five years old, his father was mostly absent, with the exception of a few random Saturdays when he would pull into the parking lot of the projects and start drinking. On those days he might show one of the boys how to fix a car or give them advice about girls, but Raul mostly stayed away.

"Don't get me wrong," he says. "I wanted a dad, but I realized that not having a dad at all was sometimes better than having one that abused you."

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Raul is a prison reentry social worker at Homeboy Industries, a center for at-risk and formerly gang-involved youth to get job placement, training, and education. Inside, the waiting room is packed. Mostly guys, but a few young women, fill the twenty-five seats in the lobby, and about a dozen more mill about watching CNN on a large flat-screen television. Two security guards with earpieces stand next to the check-in desk and survey the crowd, looking for rival gang members eyeing one another up. A few younger guys sit behind the desk, making sure that everyone who enters signs in. I find Raul in the upstairs hallway, talking to some kids in blue and khaki vests (the uniform for Homeboy employees in training). He's wearing a black button-up shirt, dark jeans, and black leather shoes; he prides himself on looking nice and setting an example for the boys.

Homeboy Industries has come a long way since its origins in the Lord Mission Church twenty-plus years ago. Funded mostly by private donors, it now serves twelve thousand people a year—eight thousand gang members and four thousand gang-impacted youth between eighteen and twenty-five. (These figures don't include the countless people who are helped outside the building in countless little ways.) It provides young men and women with training in several types of jobs: baking, catering, and service through the Homegirl Café; retail and silk screening through the on-site store, landscaping; clerical work (including basic computer skills); and most recently, solar panel creation and installation. The youngest employees also take classes during the day in everything from parenting skills to meditation. Most of those who come through the building have a gang tattoo or two removed in the clinic on the first floor, staffed entirely by volunteer doctors.

Raul and two other case managers at Homeboy Industries are currently nearing the end of a two-year grant from the Department of Juvenile Justice, the purpose of which is to help young people from the L.A. County area between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five reenter the real world after incarceration. Raul's caseload of sixty is filled with "hard-core" guys—murderers and drug offenders; the public defender's office started referring the most difficult cases his way after realizing how successful he was at cracking their previously impenetrable facades.

Raul has been part of this world, in one form or another, since he was a child. At sixteen, he remembers convincing his mom to let him go to a party. It was the era of Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, and Raul had just tried gin and juice for the first time. He had a feeling in the pit of his stomach that he shouldn't go: "We were on our way there. I was in the back seat of the car, and suddenly I realize that I'm in a drive-by. One of the guys in the front seat pulls out a gun and just starts shooting. I was in shock.

"I never spoke about it again, but I decided right there that I would walk away from anything that didn't feel right the second it hit me," he says.

He believes that it was his instincts that kept him from letting the tide take him along.

"I knew all the street politics, but I wasn't involved, really. My guts kept me away. I had one foot in, but the rest of my body was out… I was an altar boy with a gun."

Raul's job description is technically "case manager," but "rehumanizer" sounds more appropriate. What he does with his clients goes far deeper than preparing their "reentry plans"—housing, job training, mental health services, and so on. He meets with them frequently, gets to know them through a series of intuitive questions about the relationships they've had, their families back in Boyle Heights, even their crimes.

Raul is all instincts. He describes an exercise that he made up and uses frequently with clients to get them to reflect on their crimes: "I pretend to be the victim: I kissed my daughter this morning. Hugged my wife before I left the house. Headed out to get a loaf of bread and some milk, and your punk ass came to the bus stop and robbed me at four a.m. Do you know what it was like to have a gun in my face? When you robbed me, you robbed my pride, you took away my balls."

Some of his clients will still act hard about it, at which point Raul breaks out the mom card: "How would you feel if it was your mom standing at that bus stop at four a.m. and some hard-core guy came and put a gun in her face? You rob people of their freedom when you do this shit, dog. You make them feel like they can't be safe in their own community. So you tell me, should you get parole yet?"

Many of them will simply say no, their eyes softened by the mention of their mothers, the "gangster mentality," as Raul refers to it, cracked. Some say yes: The ultimate punishment is to parole me. I got nobody.

"That's where the relationship really starts," Raul reports. "That's when I really gain their trust, because they know that I see the truth about what they've done and I'm still going to care about them."

Thirty to ninety days prior to a client's release date, Raul starts asking different kinds of questions—Are you ready to get out? Surprisingly, many aren't. They often feel as if they have no anchor on the outside. Some literally have no home until Raul figures out a place for them to stay. What is your biggest fear about being back? Number one: getting killed. Number two: having sex for the first time. Add sexual educator to Raul's list of roles; he's explained the basics of intercourse and contraception more times than he'd like to remember. Many of his clients, after all, have been incarcerated in one form or another since they were twelve years old. Sex Raul estimates that at least a quarter of his current caseload have been sexually abused in the past. When I ask about physical abuse, he scoffs and then says, "One hundred percent, no question."

"If you could change just one thing about the system, what would it be?" I ask, overwhelmed by how completely broken the whole thing seems.

"The mental health services," Raul answers immediately. "Not just drug counseling, but actually getting these guys therapists who can listen to them talk about what they've been through and where they're going."

For now, Raul will play that role too.

The first catalyst Raul's formal work with youth was the summer of '94, when seven people, one of them only twelve years old, were killed in Pico-Aliso. Raul, nineteen at the time, and his friend Carlos decided to start an after-school program in response to what they called "the massacre of '94." The 4-H organization, usually thought of as a rural program, was actually looking to help out after hearing about the unprecedented violence. They provided a small amount of funding for snacks, sports equipment, and the equivalent of a janitor's salary for Raul and Carlos.

There was an empty gym near the projects that the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles owned but hadn't yet figured out what to do with, so it rented the space to Raul for a dollar a year. He opened the doors of the gym around 2:00 p.m. and gave the kids activities to keep them busy, helped them with their homework, and talked to them about their struggles. They held poetry nights, painted murals over gang tags, and celebrated holidays together. "No one was dealing with the wannabes at that time," Raul says. Only the hard-core gang members were getting the attention of authorities or community intervention. Raul saw his role as that of prevention—get the kids just before the gangs would recruit them.

In the winter of 1995, Raul insisted that the kids from two different turfs were going to celebrate Christmas together with a big pizza party. Many people from Pico-Aliso thought he was nuts to bring teenagers from separate sides—kids with older brothers and sisters deep in rival gangs into the same room and expect them not to rip one another apart. But Raul was insistent.

The negative energy was palpable. Within the first few minutes, a kid reported to Raul that someone had tagged on the bathroom wall. Thirteen-, fourteen-, and fifteen-year-old kids in oversized T-shirts and sagging pants stood posted up on opposite sides of the room, staring one another down, imitating their older siblings to a T. The pizza steamed from the dozen boxes sitting on the front table.

Raul announced, "No one is eating any pizza until every single one of you goes into that bathroom and does your part to paint over the tagging. Some people don't think you all are capable of spending time in one room. They think you all are animals. But I know better. You know better." One by one, the kids trickled out and took the paintbrush that Raul had set near the gang symbol, dipped it in white paint, and erased the false start. The celebration was a success, at least temporarily—leading to friendships and even romances cross-neighborhood.

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