After the acquittal of the four police officers who brutally assaulted Rodney King in the early 1990s, the city of Los Angeles erupted into chaos. But the Dolores Mission Church, nestled between two large public housing projects with the highest concentration of gang activity in the city, remained calm.
The 60 rival gang members who worked around the parish had a reason to refrain from disrupting their own community: They had a sense of purpose and hope, Father Gregory Boyle said to 300 Yale community members and New Haven residents Tuesday night.
Those 60 men were “homies” at Boyle’s education and employment program for formerly incarcerated people. Boyle, the founder of Homeboy Industries, the world’s largest gang intervention, rehabilitation and re-entry program, spoke about his efforts to provide opportunities for gang-involved youth at the Tuesday talk co-hosted by Dwight Hall, Yale Undergraduate Prison Project and several local groups.
“In the collective imagination of gang members, there was no way to get off this crazy violent freeway,” Boyle said. “And if this is about a lethal absence of hope, the fact that they couldn’t get off this freeway compounded this despair. Once you had one exit ramp, they knew that they could get off this thing.”
In 1988, as law enforcement pursued mass incarceration to target gang violence, Boyle and the members of his congregation sought an alternative approach. Jobs for a Future, as they initially called it, offered alternative schooling and employment to gang-involved youth.
But slowly the program expanded into multiple social enterprises that taught rival gang members practical working skills. The Homeboy Bakery, the first social venture, provides baked goods to Homegirl Café, Homeboy Farmer’s Markets and various other restaurants across Los Angeles. A silkscreen and embroidery studio customizes apparel, pens, mugs, notebooks and other products while other ventures include Homeboy Recycling and an online store.
In 2001, Jobs for a Future was rebranded as Homeboy Industries, an independent nonprofit organization that now provides more than 200 employment opportunities.
Each year, the enterprise — which Boyle described as “reverse cherry pickers” — provides 15,000 felons and gang members with therapy, employment, education, legal services and a network of support.
Noting that the term “community service” implies a distinction between the service provider and the service recipient, Boyle discussed ways to remove this implicit gap between “us” and “them.”
“At Homeboy, I’m not the great healer, and the gang member over there is in need of my expertise,” he said. “We’re all in need of help and we’re all in need of healing — it’s what joins us together as a human family.”
When Lily Gonzalez, the first “homegirl” to receive a bachelor’s degree, arrived at Homeboy Industries, she had only $40, Gonzalez told the News after the event. But after she took a “Pathway to College” class, Gonzalez was inspired to apply to the local state university. As she faced barriers to financial aid due to her status as a formerly incarcerated person, Gonzalez relied on the support from Homeboy Industries to complete her degree, she recalled. Gonzalez currently attends graduate school at California State University, Northridge.
Kristen Bell, a parishioner at St. Thomas More Catholic Church and a Senior Liman Fellow at Yale Law School, said Boyle’s approach replaces mass incarceration with “mass humanization.”
Bell, who advocates for people sentenced to life in prison as minors, said she often becomes so consumed with the daily tasks of her cases that she forgets her clients are humans with feelings. But Boyle’s philosophy reminded her the value of kinship for relating to and helping others, Bell told the News.
Zelda Roland ’08 GRD ’16, director of the Yale Prison Education Initiative, said the organizers deliberately opened the event to people beyond the Yale community.
“It was so powerful to see the audience listen and reflect together during and after the event and think about the impact of Father Boyle’s message on our daily lives, actions and interactions,” she said.
According to the National Institute of Corrections, 338 out of every 100,000 people are incarcerated in the state of Connecticut.
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