A young boy with a purple bandana covering his face walks through the streets of his Watts neighborhood. He carries an AK-47 assault rifle in hand, but no one seems to notice. But Jorja Leap does.
Leap, an anthropologist and professor in the Department of Social Welfare, recently published her memoir “Jumped In: What Gangs Taught Me about Violence, Drugs, Love, and Redemption.”
The book documents the lives and personal histories of gangs and gang members through Leap’s encounters and experiences with them in Los Angeles.
“I wanted to understand and talk to people about how they reacted (to this), and I ultimately wanted to do something to get money and resources into this area to help with the struggle against gangs,” Leap said.
Leap first became interested in gang violence 30 years ago when working as a social worker in South Los Angeles and is now the senior policy adviser on gangs and youth violence for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
With both current and former gang members as guides, Leap said she was able to speak with gang members and get their perspectives on the violence and crime that plagues areas such as Pacoima, Harbor Gateway, Watts and other neighborhoods in South Los Angeles.
“I didn’t want to write a typical book about crime and statistics and how to solve the gang problem. Instead, I wanted people to hear the voices and learn about the lives of those who are rarely truly understood in their own words … and those who struggle every day,” Leap said.
According to Leap, if people look beyond the criminal aspects of the issue, they can also relate to and understand the personal struggles these people face, such as the need for family and happiness.
Leap also works closely with Homeboy Industries, a Los Angeles-based foundation that serves as a safe gathering place for former gang members or those who wish to leave gangs.
“(Homeboy Industries) is for individuals who have decided that they want to change their lives. Many of these people have been in local or federal custody, and through our services, we try to give them the support they need,” said Elie Miller, Homeboy Industries attorney and Legal Services director.
According to Miller, the gang rehabilitation organization offers free services and classes about subjects ranging from anger management and substance abuse to job training.
As part of a current five-year longitudinal study at Homeboy Industries, Leap has collected data and life histories of more than 300 people who went to the organization for help with leaving their gangs.
Although Leap’s data is preliminary, her findings show that a majority of these people have been successful in leaving gangs within the past three years.
Todd Franke, an associate professor in the Department of Social Welfare, also worked with Leap at Homeboy Industries to develop a system for tracking the outcomes of those who want to leave gangs.
According to Franke, the two professors wanted to identify the qualities that make new ex-gang members successful at leaving their gangs in order to devise a way to better help those who come to the organization.
“Gang involvement is a complex issue. No one has the answer, but we are adding information to the discussion and deciding how we want to format our plan to help people move forward and out of gang life if that is what they want to do,” Franke said.