Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Solving rural gang problems with rural solutions

I used to think of gangs as a city problem. Movies like Boyz 'N the Hood and even West Side Story help to reinforce this idea that gangs are urban. As Legal Ruralism has documented here and here, however, gangs are increasingly present in rural Native American communities. In California, gangs have expanded beyond the reservations to other rural communities.

According to an FBI report, the 2011 National Gang Threat Assessment – Emerging Trends, urban gangs have gained influence and members in rural communities. According to the FBI, gangs have also been using rural communities to "expand their drug distribution territories, form new alliances, and collaborate with rival gangs and criminal organizations for profit and influence." The drugs that the gangs bring into rural areas come from Mexican cartels, and thus rural communities have an extensive network to confront when they try to combat these expanding gangs.

One Central Valley town in California, Woodlake, has fallen victim to gang influence, as an Associated Press article describes here. Woodlake's population is 7,280. It has twelve documented gang members and many youth affiliate themselves loosely with the Norteno and Sureno gangs. While this amount may seem negligible when compared to urban numbers, for small towns, having even one gang member is abnormal, problematic, and troubling. Due to the rate of poverty in Woodlake (30 percent of its families live in poverty), it is less surprising that gangs have gained some support.

The focus of the Associated Press article mentioned above is a Woodlake resident who recognized the gang problem and decided to create a solution. Manuel Jimenez works as a small farm adviser for UC Cooperative Extension, an agricultural support organization from the University of California. When the city bought a railroad right of way seven years ago, Jimenez saw an opportunity and asked the city if he could convert the land into a permanent garden. With the garden, he created Woodlake Pride, a volunteer program that gives young Woodlake residents the opportunity to cultivate 14 acres of agricultural land under Jimenez's guidance. Jimenez hoped the program would keep local children out of gangs and away from violence.

The project was a community effort. Jimenez was the impetus, but the city of Woodlake gave him land, water, and insurance for the project. A local farmer provided money for irrigation, while local companies donated plants, fertilizer, and tubing.

Once they had the supplies, Jimenez and local youth laid down the irrigation pipes and started planting. First, there were banana trees and roses. Then came 20,000 zinnias that spelled Woodlake, and beautiful gardens with sunflowers. Recently, the garden had roses, grapes, stone fruit, cacti, guava, mango, papaya, and rare purple walnut trees. The gardens attracted over 800 visitors for this year's berry tasting. Some visitors cry when they see the beauty of the garden.

What is most impressive about the garden is not the crops it grows, but the lives it changes. Jimenez and his wife act as surrogate parents to the children that volunteer in the garden. They do not allow any demonstration of gang affiliation. If someone comes to volunteer wearing gang colors, they send him or her home to change. Jimenez also instructs the children and teenagers on the dangers of gangs and encourages them to go to college. The local police chief says the garden has reduced youth violence.

The gardens have allowed many volunteers to gain marketable skills and confidence. They learn about agriculture and give tours and presentations. They also see their hard work turn into something beautiful. Most of the teenagers that volunteer at the garden go to college and some have become farm managers, teachers, and engineers. One young man who volunteered at the garden in middle school and high school now works for the UC Cooperative Extension as a field assistant, and a current volunteer wants to be an agricultural engineer.

For his efforts, the California Wellness Foundation awarded Jimenez the California Peace Prize earlier this month. The award honors heroes of violence prevention. As a recipient, Jimenez received $25,000. This money will hopefully allow Jimenez to realize his dream to expand the project into a larger garden with a U-pick feature and an interpretive center.

What can rural communities learn from Woodlake Pride? Sometimes rural problems need solutions that relate to the values and culture of the rural community. A garden might not work to reduce gang violence in an urban setting due to a lack of space and a decreased emphasis on agriculture in urban culture. In a small, rural community, however, it works. A community garden can create a sense of belonging in a more positive manner than a gang can. A garden can also have cultural and familial significance in a rural area that is reliant on agriculture. Woodlake is located in one of the most important agricultural centers in the world, and many of the youths' parents work in the industry. Other rural communities should follow suit and use their creativity and local resources to find similar solutions to prevent rural youth from dropping out of school, using drugs, or resorting to gangs and violence.

Woodlake Pride is also an example of rural autonomy and self-sufficiency. As Jimenez said, "You can't wait for somebody else, like the government, to do things for you. You need to get up and fix the community yourself." When local or state government cannot or will not step in to solve a problem, you have to find a way to solve it on your own. Jimenez is a model other rural residents should look to for inspiration on how to solve the social and legal problems their communities face, including gang violence. Jimenez is truly a rural hero.


KevinN said...

The fact that gangs are a problem in rural areas is somewhat surprising to me. I typically associate gang activity with urban places and have a hard time seeing how they would thrive in a rural setting. I would have also guessed that the lack of anonymity in rural places would make it more difficult for youth to get involved in gangs in the first place. Rural gang activity would almost have to take place entirely underground in order to not come across the radar of town officials and leaders, not to mention parents. However, given these apparent obstacles to joining a gang in the first place, I also think rural areas are better situated to combat gang membership than urban places. The small numbers, easy identification, and difficulty in carrying out overt gang activity all seem to give rural places an advantage in fighting the problem. It was heartening to read that Woodlake has been able to not only work against the gangs but also provide the youth with a usable skill in the process.

Courtney Taylor said...

Sadly, I am actually not surprised to hear that gangs like the Norteños and the Sureños have moved their influence into rural areas. With large influxes of immigrants moving into rural areas, as we have discussed in class and on Legal Ruralism, language barriers and the marginalization of immigrant groups could lead to gang affiliation. With many rural immigrants who are Latino, it's unsurprising that they would chose to be affiliated with one of the two largest Latino gangs in the country. Starting one's own gang in a rural area would be difficult. A rural gang, unaffiliated with a larger gang, would be very small and it would be hard for its members to maintain gang activities. I'm really happy to read that Mr. Jimenez has found a way to connect with rural youth in Woodlake and hope to see his approach adopted in other rural areas.

Scarecrow said...

Gangs seem to benefit greatly from having a ready supplied of teenagers with nothing better to do. Mr. Jimenez seems to have found a good way to combat this. What's troubling to me is thinking how four-day school weeks might further this problem. Unless those communities that opt for such a schedule find other activities to fill the extra free day, gangs will probably mark Fridays as their big recruiting day.

ScottA. said...

With gangs seeing rural areas as places to conduct their clandestine activities (marijuana grows, methamphetamine labs), it is easy to understand why gangs would want to recruit locals to carry out their deeds.

It is great to see the town of Woodland being so open to Mr. Jimenez's ideas to provide kids with some positive alternatives. But how many towns and residents of those towns are going to be as willing to help out a similar plan elsewhere? Or able to? Still it is wonderful that Mr. Jimenez was recognized for his good work.

JT said...

This reminds me of "Ganglands" when it described gangs on the reservations. Since alcohol was outlawed there, the gangs made profits off of smuggling it in from just outside the borders. With the money that drugs bring in, it is not surprising rural kids would be tempted to join the gang. The garden project here is, as you point out, commendable and inspiring. Perhaps more after-school programs (sports?) or weekend projects could help keep kids busy and remind them to contribute positively to the community.

princesspeach said...

KevinN, gangs are not just an urban problem. Youth join gangs for a variety of reasons. One is many youth in poverty find it difficult to see a way out and feel disenfranchised. Another reason could be the youth feel out of place in their own community. As KB points out, 40% of the families in the community are in poverty. Therefore, it seems apparent many youth will want to act out by joining a gang.

I really enjoyed Mr. Jimenez’s use of the community garden because the youth are shown the value of hard work and able to spend their time doing something productive. Is this garden only for older students? I feel younger children could especially benefit as well.