September 20, 2010

UCLA MSW Field Module: Homeboy Industries

Ever wonder what it's like to survive a gang war? Or how to live through 29 years at a federal prison? How about how to start your life over at 46 years old, without money, a family, or the slightest prospect of a job?

This past Friday, I was fortunate enough to receive insights into these questions by attending my first field module of the year. As part of the first year curriculum at the UCLA MSW program, students attend eight field modules in order to learn about different agencies serving a variety of populations across Los Angeles.

To gain exposure to a criminal justice setting, a segment of our class attended Homeboy Industries, an incredible organization that helps ex-gang members become contributing members of society. What's so incredible about this organization? Here are just a few reasons:
  • Ex-gang members are hired to run all of their small businesses including a bakery, catering business, gift shop, and silkscreen business
  • All nine of the programs, case management, therapy, education, employment, Homeboy press, legal assistance, twelve step meetings, solar panel installation/training program, and tattoo removal are free, so long as members take a vow to stay out of the gang life
  • Regardless of jail history, Homeboy Industries opens its doors to anyone who needs their services
  • The headquarters are situated at an $8.5 million facility in a gang-neutral part of downtown, allowing members a chance to geographically separate from their old lifestyle
  • The facility runs free tours!

Vance, our tour guide, started us off in the Homeboy Industries bakery. Not only is the cafe worth a five-star rating on Yelp, but it has some really unique menu items (I recommend getting Angela's Potion -- spinach infused mint green tea with limeaid).

Our tour continued through the gift shop, various conference rooms, past the tattoo-removal clinic and upstairs through the offices. I was thoroughly impressed with the availability as well as the comprehensiveness of all the services being provided. Did I mention it's all free?

By far, the best part of the tour was listening to Vance's personal story. Thrown into juvenile hall as a teenager for attempted murder of his step-father (a retaliation to a domestic violence incident involving his mother), Vance recounted the horrific details of the next 29 years of his life. He also recounted the survival tactics he learned while serving his sentence at Folsom State Prison in Sacramento, California. The facility is notorious for being "the end of the line" for many inmates, since such a large percentage are killed while serving their sentences.

While Vance spent a generous hour delving into his personal story, I wanted to share just a few of his anecdotes that surprised me:
  1. Inmates attempt to kill other inmates if they come in with a rape or child abuse conviction 
  2. If one inmate snitches on another, the guilty inmate becomes a murder target
  3. Inmates learn Sign Language and Swahili, in order to understand the guards as well as communicate with each other, respectively
  4. In order to survive, inmates must keep their boots on when showering, never interact with other races, and never sleep during the day
Despite the tremendous odds, and with the help of Homeboy Industries, Vance now leads a vibrant and successful life.
    Below are a few photos from the tour. Enjoy!

    Vance (Tour Guide)

    Angela's Potion

    The Cafe
    T-shirts in the gift shop
    Tattoo removal clinic
    Second floor offices
    Life collage from ex-gang member
    Memorial for an individual killed in gang warfare

      1 comment:

      SM said...

      Hi there! I've been following your blog for the last few months... I'm applying for the MSW at UCLA for fall 2011. It has been great to read about your experiences. Per your suggestion, I'll be attending the diversity fair. Good luck with the rest of the semester!