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Since writing this story, I’ve made it a personal goal to learn more about local gang culture. You’ve seen some of that research in my articles about crime trends, prosecution tactics or Q&A interviews with community leaders.

On Wednesday, Manny Castro, a former gang member, invited me to attend a gang intervention meeting at Turning the Hearts, a Chula Vista-based nonprofit. The meeting is part of a program Castro created to steer at-risk teens away from gangs, and it recently expanded to serve youth between middle school and age 21.

Castro allowed me access to the meeting on one condition: No names.

As Castro and others have explained to me, joining a gang can be simple. Just be young and willing to do anything. But leaving a gang can be complicated and dangerous. Castro said telling a gang that you want out can be a death warrant in some cliques.

At Turning the Hearts, Castro wants to help teens learn how to leave gangs safely. So we agreed to keep participants anonymous. The meeting included seven teenage boys and four adults, ex-gang members who volunteered to help guide the teens. Most of the boys attended to fulfill the conditions of probation, but some also chose to be there.

The group sat in a circle of metallic folding chairs, creaking with each person’s shifting weight, and at times, breaking an uncomfortable silence. An air conditioner also rattled in the corner, despite the chilly breeze outside — the doors and windows had been locked shut.

The boys and adults came from across the region, from different gangs, from different backgrounds. Some served time in jail. Some said they had been drug addicts. One boy said he had been a drug dealer. So how could this diverse group engage in a productive conversation?

An adult volunteer started the meeting, asking each teen a straightforward question: What would you do if you were rich?

“I would drop out of school,” the first boy replied. “That’s what school is for. Making money. I would make it last.”

But how would you make it last, the adult challenged him. How would you plan it out? How would you pay your taxes? How would you invest? “There’s reasons why we go to school,” he said, and the boy nodded.

One after the other, the teens told what they would buy or who they would support. “My grandma,” said one. “I would give it to my mom,” said another, “because she deserves it.”

The adults helped the teens identify goals and how, regardless of wealth, gang life could be a barrier to those aspirations. They encouraged college for boys who hadn’t even thought about graduating from high school. And all of it was meant to have the boys think about the future, beyond the immediate consequence of committing a crime, to the long-term impact on themselves and their family.

Committing robbery, for example, doesn’t just put you in prison for at least three years. It takes a source of income away from your family. It takes a brother away from a younger sibling. It makes getting a job down the road more difficult.

But then the question came to the biggest teen in the room. He slouched forward in his chair, arms hanging over his knees, and said he would buy a car. Then he would give half of the money to his family.

“Why?” one adult asked. “What have they done for you?”

“I don’t know,” the teen shrugged.

Although other boys gave specific examples, explaining why they would give money to their family — because parents needed to pay bills or because they needed to care for their parents — the big teen didn’t offer reasons.

After several rounds questions, the adults noticed a theme. The big teen wasn’t talking as much as the other boys. His answers didn’t explore the future. As one volunteer explained, he was still hiding behind a tough-guy shield.

Challenging at-risk teens to express themselves is one of the major obstacles for gang intervention programs. Researchers and local service providers describe gangs as a breeding ground for kids with low self-esteem. They’re attracted to a sense of belonging or the promise of instant respect. Those were part of the reason why Castro himself joined a gang decades ago, he said.

Some meetings for Castro’s intervention program are held in a children’s nursery in an effort to loosen up those tough guys. That puts a group discussing shootings and prison stories amongst pink flowery rocking chairs, strollers, baby rattles and other brightly colored toys.

“It does set a different tone when you walk into that room,” Castro said.

In Wednesday’s meeting in the nursery, the adults started pushing the teens with harder questions, trying to help them understand the risks of gang affiliation.

“What makes you afraid?” one adult asked.

“Not disappointing the people who believe in me,” one teen replied. “Getting shot,” added another.

And that’s what the adults were really waiting to hear. The conversation shifted from its unhurried question and answer format to a fast-paced discussion about gang life. The teens started to share their own experiences, talking about the risk of wearing certain clothes, about witnessing shootings, about the stress that gang life caused their families.

Even the big teenager, after being told to drop the tough-guy shield, started to open up more, engaging the group both verbally and through body language. He didn’t slouch anymore, but sat upright in his chair, nodding at others’ remarks. It showed confidence.

Death, or the fear of dying, also became a subject that brought their diverse backgrounds together. One adult explained how a friend’s friend had been killed by his own gang because he wore the wrong colors. “That was my cousin,” the youngest boy in the room said.

Toward the end of the session, the adult volunteers geared their questions more toward the support that the teens would need to leave gang life in the future. They talked about family, about their parents waiting in the parking lot outside.

“The gang used to be the most important thing to me. Today, my gang is my family,” one adult said. “Those are the ones who stuck by me.”

Please contact Keegan Kyle directly at keegan.kyle@voiceofsandiego.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/keegankyle.

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