Over the past months, the public has grown increasingly aware of systematic discrimination and racism in the U.S., and calls for racial justice and justice reform are growing louder.
As many people start to reimagine criminal justice and public safety, Homeboy Industries, an LA-based non-profit, is setting a powerful example of what the justice system could look like if rehabilitation was prioritized over mass incarceration.
Homeboy Industries was founded in 1988 by Gregory Boyle—who served as pastor of Dolores Mission Church from 1986-1992—with the goal of rehabilitating and giving a second chance to gang members in the East Los Angeles area.
Today, the organization provides a variety of services and programs to help former gang members re-enter society, such as tattoo removal, education, work opportunities, therapy and parenting classes.
At the center of Homeboy’s mission is shifting the narrative surrounding gang affiliation—which comes from recognizing the presence of a system that systematically marginalizes individuals and their communities from a young age. Homeboy gives space for individuals who have been involved in gangs and faced incarceration to pursue new opportunities in their lives.
“Where others only saw criminals, Father Greg saw people in need of help.”—Homeboy Industries Official Website
Earlier this month, Homeboy Industries was recognized for its work by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation: Homeboy received the 2020 Humanitarian Prize, a $2.5 million award for its work in alleviating human suffering—the largest annual humanitarian award and a tremendous honor for the organization. This funding will allow Homeboy to continue providing service and support to a wider cohort of individuals across the nation and world.
Although the name ‘Homeboy’ can initially seem to suggest a male-oriented focus—and, in fact, the majority of gang members are men—Homeboy also works with women and youth. The women coming to Homeboy have dealt with a unique set of issues and experiences compared to their male counterparts in both their youth and adulthood.
Ms. reporter Marissa Talcott had the opportunity to interview three women involved with Homeboy, who discussed their unique experiences at Homeboy, the importance of mentorship, and how Homeboy can serve as a model for community and nationwide rehabilitation.
Although much of the work done at Homeboy does not distinguish men from women, there are some spaces specifically created for women—such as Homegirl Cafe, which offers not only employment opportunities, but also “a space for women to have their own place to connect, to have a purpose” explained Shirley Torres, the chief officer of program services.
“We work with the population that nobody desires to work with, and it’s a principle of this place that we stand with them.”—Greg Boyle, Founder of Homeboy Industries
Gender and sexuality often have a role in informing one’s experiences with others and the world around them, and this holds true in the world of gangs, which are typically male-oriented and -dominated.
“We come from a place where being feminine it’s seen as a weakness,” explained Johanna Carbajal, who initially came to Homeboy in her youth and is now a core staff member of the organization.
“There’s this masculinity associated with being a gang member in terms of proving yourself, and there’s a hardness…but I would say that the hardness was not by choice, it was necessary to survive… I think it was an armor.”
The hardness and masculinity that so many female gang members adopt can leave lasting impacts on their ability to form relationships and establish trust with other women. Because of this, Homeboy emphasizes mentorship and trust building.
Connie Cordero came to Homeboy seven years ago for job training. Cordero, now a case manager and navigator at the organization, understands the importance of mentorship. She found it was easier to trust and build relationships with “women who could relate to what I’ve been through.”
Now, acting as a mentor, Cordero is able to make powerful and lasting connections with the women and girls she works with, just by saying: “I get it, I’ve been there, I know how it feels.”
Having women mentors and leaders to look up to also helps the women at Homeboy to explore their femininity and sexuality. Many women walking through the doors of Homeboy have survived sexual abuse at some point, and because of this do not “want to be seen as attractive or as wanted,” explained Torres. Many female gang members will “dress more like a boy” as a means of protection.
At Homeboy, there is the opportunity to redefine gender and sexuality both internally and through outward expression. The women joked about learning to wear makeup and high heels for the first time at Homeboy—because they were finally in a space where doing so did not make them feel weak.
“Yeah, we can wear heels and we can wear lipstick—and we’re still strong and we’re still smart, and we’re gonna live our lives the way we want and we’re gonna be part of creating a healthy community,” Torres said.
The mentorship opportunities and training programs provided by Homeboy are crucial to its success in rehabilitation—especially since the U.S. criminal justice system tends to prioritize incarceration over rehabilitation, especially in the case of any form of violent offenses.
However, Cordero pointed out that “incarceration isn’t the answer for everything.” Oftentimes, those who join gangs are in need of a home. They turn to gangs for safety, stability and community in their lives.
If more resources were allotted for both prevention and rehabilitation, far fewer adolescents and young adults would feel compelled to join gangs.
They also may feel that they have no other options: Carbajal explained she “pretty much gave up” before coming to Homeboy—but even so, rehabilitation was possible for her with the resources and community that Homeboy provided.
However, right now, even the rehabilitation services present in the justice system are failing. Cordero explained that in prison facilities, it often takes so long to get signed up for mental health and rehabilitation services that these services do little good. The justice system is not designed primarily for rehabilitation, and the results of this are obvious in the United States’ high recidivism rates. Without adequate resources in prison and after being released, people are more likely to face repeated incarceration.
At a time of national reckoning in wake of the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of law enforcement, it is important to address issues of race, marginalization, and flaws in the justice system.
“No one across the country can say we’re okay … no one after George Floyd and the police brutality can say, ‘Oh, we’ve really made progress’” explained Torres.
Amidst uncertainty and outrage, Homeboy can serve as a model for how we can move forward in the future by supporting and rehabilitating marginalized communities. What we need now is to “provide hope and healing and love to a community that’s been dehumanized,” Torres said.
And by starting with a few individuals, these practices can have a ripple effect throughout the community and, eventually, the nation. All three women are hopeful for healing and growth in the future.