Steering young people away from a life mixed up with gangs

Naomi McSwain was once a member of the notorious Crips gang in South Los Angeles before leaving that path of violence and drug use to devote her career to helping other young people escape. McSwain sits down with special correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault to discuss her solutions for combating gang violence.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But, first, tonight, we have another look at Race Matters Solutions.

    PBS NewsHour special correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault is examining specific solutions to racial problems in our year-long series.

    As we reported earlier, police in Chicago today announced murder charges against a man for killing a 9-year-old boy as part of what they are calling gang retaliation. Charlayne's conversation tonight focuses on preventing gang-related black-on-black crime.

    She traveled to South Central Los Angeles to meet Naomi McSwain and learn about a solution that keeps kids out of gangs, and in doing so, is keeping them alive.

  • CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT:

    This crime scene, the result of a gang-related shooting, is not unusual here in South Los Angeles. And, recently, police attributed 80 percent of the homicides in South L.A. to gang violence.

    No one knows this violence and its consequences better than Naomi McSwain, once a gang member herself. Years ago, she was a member of the notorious Crips, still today one of the largest and most violent street gangs in the country. But, unlike many gang members, McSwain escaped, later finishing college and becoming a journalist who reported on gangs and looked for solutions.

    In 2010, McSwain became executive director of the 20-year-old Wooten Center, founded by her late aunt, Myrtle FayeRumph. She set up storefront havens to get children off South L.A.'s mean streets after her 35-year-old son, Al Wooten, was killed on one of them in a drive-by shooting.

    Naomi McSwain, thank you for joining us.

  • NAOMI MCSWAIN, Executive Director, Al Wooten Jr. Heritage Center:

    Thanks for having me.

  • CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT:

    I think most of our viewers will want to know right away, how did you get out of the gang life?

  • NAOMI MCSWAIN:

    My mother. She intervened. She saw her daughter changing. I went from a practically straight-A student to a practically straight-F student. This was in high school.

    And I was doing drugs. She didn't know all of that, but she saw the signs of it, my belligerence, truancy. She pretty much saw my grades and my attitude changing. But it was because of the gang activity and the drugs that I was doing.

  • CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT:

    So, what did she do?

  • NAOMI MCSWAIN:

    She did two things. One, she sent me to church. I was 16 years old, and I remember her saying, those church people are the only one that can help you.

    And the second thing she did was, she enrolled me in a youth center named Anti-Self Destruction. And it was right here in Los Angeles. And they actually paid us to come. We got minimum wage, so it was a great incentive to go.

    And with the two of those, the church on the one hand teaching me about morals and making me think about the things that I was doing, and then the youth center giving me that practical — they actually helped me fill out my financial aid and college applications. They talked to me about my attitude.

    And so, between the two of those things, I changed.

  • CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT:

    But it seems as if little has really changed, not in your life, of course, but there are so many gangs still in this area and all over the country.

  • NAOMI MCSWAIN:

    Right. It's still not as bad as it was back then in the '80s and '90s.

  • CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT:

    But, still, right now, you have some of the highest rates of gang violence that you have had in the past…

  • NAOMI MCSWAIN:

    I'm seeing a resurgence. You know, personally…

  • CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT:

    Why is that?

  • NAOMI MCSWAIN:

    I have heard stories.

    You know, I have talked to some of the young men. I have talked to police. I have asked that question. And what the police say — have told me is that some of the men coming out of prison, they're coming back and saying, you know, why haven't you guys been putting in work? You know, why haven't you settled these old debts?

    And so they — they have, you know, gotten some of the young men engaged in this. That's what the police have said.

  • CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT:

    In an area like this, there are so few jobs, there are so few opportunities for young people. Does that drive them into the gang life?

  • NAOMI MCSWAIN:

    The first thing I want to say is, it's not simple. You know, there is no one solution.

    Every child is different. But, for the most part, the young men have told me, yes, we need jobs, we need education, those things. We need — they realize that they need substance abuse treatment, you know, because, for the most part, you're not working, you don't have any money. That's a great motivation to steal.

    I had one young man, and he told me he actually got arrested for a case at the liquor store. And he ran. And he was hungry. And he didn't have a job, didn't have the money, ran in, and stole something, and ended up getting arrested for it.

  • CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT:

    They say that there is black-on-black crime, and why aren't black people taking ownership? How do you see what you're doing with these young people affecting racism?

  • NAOMI MCSWAIN:

    Well, we tell the kids that you're all brothers and sisters. You know, we're primarily African-American and Latino here. We tell them that the city of Los Angeles was founded by Mexicans and a number of them of African descent.

    So we say that you're actually in a city that was born multicultural, so you have no reason for fighting, because you're relayed. So, we get them to buy into that we are a family, and they love that.

  • CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT:

    So, how do you get children in here, when there is so much temptation in the streets?

  • NAOMI MCSWAIN:

    Yes. The parents. The parents want their kids to succeed. Just about every parent that I have talked to, they come in the door and they say, can you help my child, mostly because of education. They want tutoring, so they largely come for that.

    But they're — that small number that says, he's trouble, he's getting mixed up with gangs, can you help him, so that's why we have our life skills programs. So, we deal with — we have the discussion groups with the young men where they talk about life.

  • CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT:

    And what drives you?

  • NAOMI MCSWAIN:

    Al Wooten, and what happened to him.

  • CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT:

    Your cousin.

  • NAOMI MCSWAIN:

    My cousin. That's why we were founded. He was killed. It became very personal.

    You see it in the news, but, when it hits home, it really hurts.

  • CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT:

    So, you share all this with these children. And they can handle it? It's not too traumatic?

  • NAOMI MCSWAIN:

    No.

    It's interesting. Whenever we tell them the story, the room goes quiet. They could be talking and chattering. And then I say, you know, when my cousin was killed, and the room goes quiet. It's very respectful.

    And I ask them, has this ever happened to you, anyone in your family been shot? And they raise their hands, my uncle, my dad, my mom, you know? They have their own stories. And it gets very emotional.

    And so I just tell them. I say, that's why we're here. We don't want this to happen to you. And they listen. This is one of the greatest motivator, even for homework, because I bring it around, and I say, you know, being educated, you will be able to get a great job or own your own company, and you won't have to steal, because you will have money.

    I explain it to them like that. I say, that's why you do your homework. If you don't learn that math, you are not going to be able to do it when you go to college, so you need to learn it now.

    And you just break it down to them and explain to them. And they say, OK, and they go off and they do their homework. So, it's real simple. I just wish more people would try it.

  • CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT:

    So, what's your goal here at the center and how are you achieving it?

  • NAOMI MCSWAIN:

    Academic excellence and good citizenship. That's our mission statement.

    The United Way says there is a direct correlation between education and crime. People who are more educated are less likely to commit crime because they have the money. They have don't have run into a liquor store and steal a bag of chips.

    And so we're real heavy on the education, making sure our kids can go to college because they want to.

  • CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT:

    Are you at all optimistic that you can overcome the challenges that so many communities like this face?

  • NAOMI MCSWAIN:

    You can't save the whole world. God never even called you to save the whole world. That's the reason why he has people working in different places.

    So, you have to just find your niche of the world and do your best at that and to support and partner with others the best you can.

  • CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT:

    Thank you so much, Naomi McSwain.

  • NAOMI MCSWAIN:

    Thank you, too.

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