Homeboy Industries founder talks about dealing with the realities of gang life and what he hopes the takeaway will be for readers of his book.
April 7, 2010
Homeboy Industries Father Gregory Boyle
Father Gregory Boyle is an expert on gang intervention approaches. In '88, in his L.A. hometown, he began what would become Homeboy Industries—the largest gang intervention organization in California—and has expanded it to include a number of businesses. Greg was ordained as a Jesuit priest in '84 and now pastors Dolores Mission. He's served as a prison chaplain and as consultant to youth service and governmental agencies, policy-makers and employers. In his book, Tattoos on the Heart, he presents parables from his 20 years in the barrio.
Tavis: Father Gregory Boyle is the founder and executive director of Homeboy Industries, which became a model around the country for gang intervention when it started back in 1988. His work has steadily expanded over the years and now includes five successful businesses run by former gang members.
The new text about his remarkable work is called “Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion.” All proceeds from this book are going directly to his nonprofit work.
Father Boyle was the subject of a terrific documentary narrated by Martin Sheen. Here now, a scene from “Father G and the Homeboys.”
Tavis: I’m always fascinated, Father Boyle, as much as I’ve read about your work, as many times as we’ve talked over the years, I’m always taken aback by how you got started in this line of work.
It’s especially interesting for me now, because you grew up in a rather nice, affluent neighborhood. I know it well because I live there now, so I know the neighborhood in which you grew up, and yet it was a trip to Bolivia, leaving the comfortable confines of that neighborhood here in L.A., and this trip to Bolivia, I read once where you said that you went there in part because working with the poor got you closer to the gospel.
Tell me what you mean by that quote and about your time in Bolivia.
Father Gregory Boyle: Yeah, I was only there a year. I got sick and I had to come home. But it evangelized me. It kind of turned me inside-out in terms of discovering the gospel and the truth of it, and somehow the poor had this privileged access, it seemed to me, to the gospel and the living of it.
So when I came back I was supposed to go to Santa Clara University and I said I really wanna live and work with the poor, and fortunately for me, my provincial sent me to Dolores Mission which at the time was the poorest parish in the city, so that’s where I began to discover this whole other world and a vocation within a vocation in terms of the outreach to gang members.
Tavis: What was it – I’m trying to figure out internally what it was that made you sympathetic, that spoke to your heart about the challenges, the struggle of these particular people.
Boyle: Well, first of all, you couldn’t avoid it, because I started burying kids in ’88 and during that period, a decade of death, ’88 to ’98, at one point I had eight deaths and eight funerals in a three-week period.
So it’s hard to imagine now what that was like in the city, but especially in this place of the highest concentration of gang activity in the city. It was right here in these two housing projects with eight gangs and half of them at war with the other half.
So I couldn’t avoid dealing with this reality. I had to kind of face it along with the people in the parish, and so we did a variety of things. The school, principally, the first thing, because all these kids had no school – nobody wanted them anymore. So this was way before they started to have continuation schools, so that brought gang members to the church. Then little by little they said, “If only we had jobs.”
We tried to find felony-friendly employers in the surrounding factories and that wasn’t so successful, so then we started our own business. Then little by little we’ve incrementally added to the stock of – menu of services that we offer to gang members.
Tavis: How do you build a relationship, how do you build a rapport with gang members, former gang members?
Boyle: Well, I think a lot of times people disqualify themselves. They go, “Well, I couldn’t possibly connect with these folks. I’ve never been in prison, I’m White.” People do this all the time with me, they wanna volunteer but they absent themselves from being able to do anything.
But it’s a human thing, it’s about do you have a pulse? Then come on in. It’s not about talking to somebody it’s about receiving somebody, listening to somebody, being reverent in the presence of somebody who’s had to carry more than I’ve ever had to carry.
So anybody can be compassionate and have a response that can in fact stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it, and that’s a huge problem, it seems to me. People disqualify themselves. They say, “I can’t be a beneficial presence to this issue and to this subgrouping of the poor,” and I think that’s unfortunately. It’s not necessary.
Tavis: What’s the greatest – you’ve been at this for so long now – what’s the greatest – the biggest myth, the greatest misunderstanding that people have about gang members?
Boyle: I think the outsider view thinks that a kid is drawn to a gang, pulled, lured, attracted, and so they try to address – let’s address what the attraction is.
Anderson Cooper, I was interviewed with him for this show and he ended up asking a gang member, “I don’t see the attraction.” Well, that’s the outsider view. The truth is there is no attraction. No kid is seeking anything when he joins a gang, he’s always fleeing something. He’s not being pulled; he’s being pushed by the circumstances in which he finds himself.
So gangs are not the places kids seek a kind of a new join a gang and see the world. They’re really wanting to get away from an environment or a situation or a family dynamic that’s traumatic and damaging and painful.
Tavis: Is it either-or, Father, or both-and, because I’ve heard and read, I interviewed a thousand folk over the years who have said while you’re right about the fact that they’re fleeing something the conventional, I think – I think I can say conventional wisdom on the part of us outsiders is to believe what we are told, which is that they’re seeking love, they’re seeking -
Tavis: – family unit, seeking acceptance, so they are not just fleeing, they are seeking something.
Boyle: Well, that’s only because – endlessly we interview gang members and they’re going to say that, and I’ve been with them in university settings, for example, and I know that they’re going to say, because I’ve watched them on TV say, “That’s what I wanted as a kid, I wanted the cars and the women and the money.”
But it’s only because it’s too painful to talk about, “My mom used to put cigarettes out on me and she used to hold my head in the toilet and flush till I nearly drowned.” That’s the reason why the kid joined the gang. Here’s the acceptable presentation, which is to say, “That’s what I’m seeking.”
That’s a dilemma, because people will go well, gang members themselves will say this is why, and I think it clouds the – I think that’s the myth that does the most damage, because it keeps us from addressing what this is really about.
Tavis: Tell me about this title, “Tattoos on the Heart.”
Boyle: It comes really from a specific story where a kid I was kind of – he was frustrating to me and I was kind of coming down hard on him on the phone. I was actually in Chicago giving a talk and he was bugging me for the 18th time.
Then I shifted. I said, “Well, wait a minute. This guy’s actually doing okay and why am I coming down so hard?” I said, “I’m proud of you. You’re really taking care of business. I give you credit for the man you’ve chosen to become, and I’m proud.”
There was this silence. I thought he had hung up. And he said, “Damn, G, I’m going to tattoo that on my heart.” So that was sort of where it really came from. But it’s a way of – an expression, really, about each story, and parable and vignette and image is sort of a little tattoo, if you will, but meant to kind of penetrate and get you to a deeper place of compassion.
Tavis: This book is full of stories. I want to – there are a couple of them that I want to pull out that I found interesting; one, in fact, funny.
The book, again, is written in a way that people I think will connect to it through the stories that are told. Why was it important for you to write – you’ve done other stuff before, but why write a book that tells stories about your work? What do you hope the reader is going to take away from these stories?
Boyle: Well first of all, the stories come from homilies so I preach every Sunday; I’m in 25 different detention facilities on a rotating basis, so I always tell these stories. I use three in a homily, so I’ve had them collected and I’ve been telling them for a quarter of a century. So I thought, well, I’ll pull them together.
But the thing that – I was in South Bend at Notre Dame and somebody had read the book, some White woman, middle-aged White woman, and she said, “I thought this book would be about gang members,” and she said, “The book’s about me.” Her.
And I thought that’s good because I don’t want it to be pigeonholed as anything, as a memoir or as a sort of a religious book. I want it to speak to our common humanity, to a sense of kinship, that there’s a mutuality and solidarity that everybody can join in, and that there is no “them.”
So we so demonize this group that it’s a way of kind of noticing that there’s no daylight, really, that separates us anyway, so might as well – and no kinship, no justice, and no kinship, no peace. So unless we can get to a sense that we belong to each other we’re not going to make much progress, it seems to me, in terms of all the things that we care about wanting to accomplish as a society.
Tavis: There’s a funny story in this book, and there are any number of funny stories, but one funny story about – I think that illustrates how difficult it is, even in simple ways, for people who have not been loved, respected, paid attention to, to learn how to navigate the world in which they live.
I love the story about how the tattoo removal business got started. (Laughter) There’s a kid -
Boyle: I’m not sure I can say this here.
Tavis: Yeah, no, I’ll clean it up for you. (Laughter) There’s a kid – I’ll start the story and let him finish it. There’s a kid that comes to the father – they have a tattoo removal business, and I’ll explain how it got started, but there’s a kid that comes to Father Boyle one day who has tattooed across his forehead “F the world.” I’m cleaning this up for television. “F the world” tattooed across his forehead.
He says to Father Boyle, “Father, I’ve been out trying to get a job and I can’t get one and I don’t know why.”
Boyle: I’m having a hard time.
Tavis: Having a hard time finding a job.
Boyle: “I’m having a hard time finding a job.” (Laughter) He had just gotten out of prison. But I mean a billboard – it filled his whole forehead. Talking about the understatement of the year.
Tavis: “I’m having a hard time and I can’t figure out why.” (Laughter) So you decided -
Boyle: I said, “Well, let’s put our heads together on this one.” (Laughter) Tattoo removal was born that day by this guy Frank. I call him somebody else in there, but we ended up I went to a doctor at White Memorial Hospital, a dermatologist, he had a laser machine.
I said, “Help me out with this guy,” and then pretty soon the waiting list got to be a thousand. Long story short, we have two machines, we have 12 doctors now, we have 4,000 laser treatments a year, and it was all begun because of this guy who, parenthetically, came to seem to me about two months ago. I hadn’t seen him in a long time, and now his face is completely erased of the angriest moment, the dumbest thing he had ever done, and now he’s a security guard at a movie studio here in L.A.
Boyle: But he worked in the bakery right after that, because who’s going to hire this guy?
Tavis: How important is removing these tattoos in the work that these gang members want to do with the rest of their lives?
Boyle: Well, it’s a bona-fide obstacle, so if they’re going to work for somebody other than me they’re going to have to clean that up, probably – face, neck, elbow down, anything alarming. But then they started lifting their shirts up and saying, “I want this off,” and it’s so costly and it takes so long and it’s painful.
I said, “Well, keep your shirt on. No one will see it.” They’ll say, “Well, my son will see it.” So then I thought, well, okay, we’ll take off any tattoo you want us to if you’re willing to go through the ordeal of it.”
But it’s important. It sends signal to friend and foe alike, that’s who I was, and that’s not who I want to be for my kids.
Tavis: How are all these other industries that you run faring in this recession?
Boyle: Pretty well. I think people are quite supportive in the city. We have our café and maintenance division and our merchandising, where we sell our logo stuff. Doing okay. We need to raise about – it brings in about $3.5 million of a $10 million annual operation, so the businesses are important and obviously we’d like that to go north so we can pay more for the free services we offer.
Tavis: He’s an icon in this town and his work has been emulated around this country and indeed around the world when it comes to working with these persons who many of us in society have written off. His name is Father Greg Boyle. His new book is called “Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion.”
I think that older White woman in my home state of Indiana was right – it’s not a book about gang members, it’s really a book about us and about trying to revel in the humanity of each other, so I’m always glad to have you on the program.
Boyle: Tavis, a pleasure, as always.
Tavis: Good to see you, sir.
Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm