Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Personal history with street gangs sparks U. of I. graduate student's research


Public Release: 21-Jan-2016
Personal history with street gangs sparks U. of I. graduate student's research
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

The allure of street gangs is something Gabriel "Joey" Merrin knows firsthand, having grown up in low-income neighborhoods in inner-city Chicago that are notorious for gang violence, crime and poverty.

For youths living in these hardscrabble surroundings, "It's not a question of if, it's a question of when you'll be faced with an offer or pressure to join a gang," said Merrin, who affiliated with a neighborhood gang for part of his youth.

"I grew up very scared," Merrin said. "I was surrounded by crime, drugs and violence at a very young age. I was around older kids a lot, and I looked up to them. My mother was a single parent who was always gone, so I spent a lot of time in the streets.

Many of my friends had been shot, killed or arrested. I was searching for protection and a way out."


"Researchers don't really talk about the individuals who have resisted membership as a way to better understand the youth gang phenomena, and that's one of the things I'm really proud of about the paper," Merrin said. "We know that some of these individuals who face similar risks as their peers choose not to join gangs, and I want to better understand these individuals and identify some key protective elements."

Of the more than 15,700 participants in Merrin's study, 973 youths (5.6 percent) reported they had been asked or pressured to join a gang but declined. Another 625 youths, or 3.6 percent of the participants, reported being current or former gang members.

Many of the youths who resisted recruitment were exposed to the same risk factors as their peers who became gang members, including alcohol or drug use, dysfunctional families, and residing in chaotic, dangerous neighborhoods.

However, compared with peers who became gang members, youths who resisted pressure to join were 1 1/2 times more likely to perceive fair treatment by their teachers and other school personnel, and to report having at least one adult in their lives they could depend on for help with their problems, Merrin found.


Nicknamed "Smart Guy" by his friends, Merrin's intellect, along with his aptitude for sports, may have saved him from the bleak consequences that awaited many of the young men around him. Recognizing Merrin's potential, his football coach and some guidance counselors at his school encouraged Merrin to concentrate on sports and academics. They also urged him to envision a future that included going to college, a brass ring that Merrin, and many kids in impoverished neighborhoods like his, perceived as being beyond their grasps.

"They encouraged me to stay in school, and I trusted them, so I threw myself into school, not knowing where it would take me," Merrin said. "When I left high school, I was running in search of a better life with more certainty and opportunities."


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