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How to get out of a street gang: STR8 UP shares its successful formula

There will always be street gangs but their numbers can be reduced. Saskatchewan is plagued with a violent gang problem but gang experts are optimistic there’s light at the end of the tunnel.
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There will always be street gangs but their numbers can be reduced. Saskatchewan is plagued with a violent gang problem but gang experts are optimistic there’s light at the end of the tunnel.

“I believe they will be less,” said Stan Tu’Inukuafe, cofounder of STR8 UP, a non-profit Saskatoon-based group that helps gang members leave the lifestyle.

“The reason I say that, not to sound simplistic, but hurting people hurt people. You transmit pain towards other people because you are hurting.”

Community members like to ask, “Why are youth joining gangs?” but Tu’Inukuafe turns the question around.

“A lot of kids join gangs because they feel they don’t belong. What is your community doing that makes them feel like they don’t belong? Why is the young person feeling disconnected to your community?”

Gang experts throughout the world echo that sentiment.

“Gang violence is about a lethal absence of hope,” says Father Gregory Boyle, founder of Los Angeles, Calif., Homeboy Industries, the largest gang-intervention, rehabilitation, and re-entry program in the world.

How to get out of a gang

STR8 UP is a grassroots organization that had its beginnings decades ago when Father André Poilièvre, a lead chaplain at the Saskatoon Correctional Centre, teamed up with Stan Tu’Inkuafe, a youth worker with the John Howard Society. Under the umbrella of the John Howard Society they developed an outreach program to help gang members. In 2013 STR8 UP left the John Howard Society and formed a separate non-profit charity.

Today STR8 UP offers outreach services and programs, provides advocacy and support in prisons and courtrooms, and connects former gang members with community supports and resources. They help gang members get out of the gang, return to school, get a job, find housing and stay out of prison.

“We don’t recruit and we don’t advertise,” said Tu’Inkuafe in an interview Aug. 24. “It’s all by word of mouth.”

He said gang members hear about STR8 UP when they are in jail, or through a friend or support worker. Sometimes the hospital will call STR8 UP after a gang member ends up in emergency from a knife or gunshot wound and he’s afraid and wants to leave the gang.

It’s a big decision to leave a gang and safety is an issue. But once a gang member reaches out to STR8 UP - and agrees to their five conditions - the long journey of healing begins.

“If you are interested in joining STR8 UP the first condition is you have to drop your colours,” said Tu’Inkuafe. “You have to make your intention known. You have to tell your higher up. You have to let people know.”

The second decision that must be made by the gang member is to deal with his/her addiction.

“Every gang member has an addiction,” said Tu’Inkuafe.

He said ways to help break an addiction to drugs or alcohol include going to church, attending Alcoholics Anonymous, or participating in Aboriginal spirituality.

“If they are still using and drop their colours, that fear they have is more of a reality. Using crystal meth and not having slept three to four days they have a heightened sense of anxiety and not thinking straight.”

The third condition is honesty.

“Living that lifestyle of manipulating and hustling, lying is second nature,” said Tu’Inkuafe. “We say ‘you have to be honest.’”

Gang members can’t give lip service to STR8 UP and counselors; just saying they left the gang but still being in the gang.

“Don’t tell me one thing and then go and still be in that lifestyle.”

The fourth condition is humility.

“Be humble. That means get rid of the street attitude that ‘I can do whatever I want.’”

The fifth condition is committing four years to STR8 UP.

“It’s a symbolic number, healing takes time,” said Tu’Inkuafe.

“Just because you quit doing drugs that’s good, but you might still think the same, you might still treat people the same. It takes time to change your values but you can’t do that if you’re not sober. Healing isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon race.”

STR8 UP walks alongside former gang members

With STR8 UP, former gang members will have a dedicated outreach worker who supports him/her.

The rehabilitation process includes visions of helping the former gang member become a better citizen.

The first vision is to become better parents.

“You have to start where you are at. Do you know your child’s first, middle and last name? Do you know how to spell that? Do you know their birthdate? Don’t make any promises (to child) you can’t keep.”

The second vision is being a faithful partner.

“In the gang lifestyle people aren’t faithful,” said Tu’Inkuafe.

In the gang culture if a gang member tells his girlfriend to sleep with someone else, she has to obey. Girls in gangs are generally treated as commodities and expected to have sex with other members of their gang or rival gang members.

The third vision is being a responsible citizen.

Tu’Inkuafe said this means different things to different individuals. For one former gang member it can mean finally getting a piece of government issued identification when he/she gets out of prison. For another it means not driving while drunk or high. And the level of responsibility increases over time, said Tu’Inkuafe.

“As you get healthy, being a responsible citizen looks different. It could mean working, or going to school, or having your own place.”

STR8 UP supports the former gang member through every step of his/her journey. They help him/her get into a treatment centre, counselling, advocate for visits with their children, help find safe housing and a job.

“We help people do that,” said Tu’Inkuafe. “People outside the gang life, those goals and conditions look simple. For gang members it’s hard. It’s a process.”

Riley: A success story

Three weeks ago Riley, 31, left a Saskatoon street gang and reached out to STR8 UP for help.

“I gave up my colours,” he said proudly in an interview Aug. 24. “I just wanted a fresh start to life without the gang life.”

Being a part of a gang seemed glamorous at first with the alluring promise of women, money and power.

“At first it was what I expected,” he said. “The first couple of months.”

But nothing is ever free and all the fun and good times eventually came with a price tag.

“They got me doing stuff that I didn’t want to do,” said Riley.

Gang members have to follow orders – without question – and obeying a leader was Riley’s least favourite aspect of being a gang member.

Bit by bit Riley got deeper into the gang lifestyle. He saw and did things that still haunt his soul.

“If I could go back and change all that, yes I would,” said Riley.

His advice to youth considering joining a gang is simple.

“I would tell them don’t do it because it’s not like you expected, all parties, girls and jewellery. Maybe in the first month or two it’s kind of like that but in the end it takes a toll on your body and your life.”

Riley speaks from experience. A few years ago he was attacked by rival gang members with a machete and suffered several blows to his head. He was in the hospital four months and had to learn how to walk and talk all over again.

“When I was in the hospital the pain was too much.”

Riley also thought his fellow gang members would be there for him while he was in the hospital. They weren’t.

“It was a let down. I thought my brothers would support me and be there for me and I would have this support, then you realize there’s nothing like that.”

Eventually, like many gang members, Riley ended up in prison. That’s where he decided to turn his life around. He heard about STR8 UP and reached out to Tu’Inkuafe.

“Before I phoned Stan when I was in the correctional centre I didn’t have a game plan when I got out of jail. Now I got something to look forward to.”

That something is a job, even though it’s temporary, and a journey of healing.

STR8 UP connects with local businesses to help former gang members get jobs.

“There just happened to be one company looking for workers when Riley called,” said Tu’Inkuafe. “I tell Riley, ‘If you do well you are actually opening the doors for other STR8 UP workers.’”

Tu’Inkuafe said Riley is doing a tremendous job. He shows up on time and is a good worker.

“My impression is the boss really likes Riley.”

STR8 UP’s approach to helping gang members leave the lifestyle is working.

“What we are doing actually works,” said Tu’Inkuafe. “If a person is thinking of leaving, it’s possible to leave a life of dysfunction and despair. There is hope.”

Rewarding work

Tu’Inkuafe has worked hard over the decades to build trust with gang members wanting to leave the lifestyle.

“In this line of work relationship is key.”

He said he follows through on what he tells STR8 UP participants he is going to do.

“I say ‘I’m going to do this’ and they see that you followed through. That’s how you build trust.

“They grow in an environment of a lot of false promises and people not following through,” added Tu’Inkuafe. “I come along and say ‘I will help you get your ID’ and I follow through. I have been doing this a long time. I have heard people tell me ‘I know so and so and they said you’re going to help me.’ So other people vouch for me. Other people say ‘Stan is a good guy, talk to him.’”

He said you have to follow through with what you said you would do, and never judge.

“Essentially you work with where they are at.”

Helping gang members leave the lifestyle is challenging work but Tu’Inkuafe finds it rewarding.

“When you are around gang members and hear them sharing their stories, you will never see more honesty than from them.”

He also appreciates their sense of humour and ability to make changes.

“Those are the things I enjoy about it,” said Tu’Inkuafe. “Their sense of real. They don’t have to hide. They are authentic.”

He also likes the challenge.

“I didn’t see myself sitting behind a desk all day. I saw myself working with people. I was fortunate to have healthy parents and played a lot of sports and had opportunities. I was outgoing and was drawn to work that allowed me to interact with others, but at the same time always learn.”

Tu’Inkuafe said STR8 UP’s philosophy of helping and not enabling keeps him from getting burned out.

“We have a saying at STR8 UP. ‘We’re not there to walk in front of you pulling you, we’re not there to be behind you pushing you, we are there to just walk beside you so when you fall we will wait until you pick yourself up and walk with you.’”

Takes a community

Tu’Inkuafe said resources and community support are needed to help people get out of gangs.

He visited Homeboy in Los Angeles and likes their gang-intervention, rehabilitation, and re-entry model.

“I believe in that model,” said Tu’Inkuafe. “They do a lot of social enterprises.”

In particular Tu’Inkuafe said he likes their approach that an individual needs healing. Homeboy has an 18-month model that focuses as much on healing as it does on developing work readiness skills. Homeboy’s goal is to help the individual heal from trauma and help them contribute to their family and community. They strive for five key outcomes including reducing recidivism, reducing substance abuse, improving social connectedness, improving housing safety and stability and reunifying families.

“When a guy or gal gets out of prison their parole officer says they have to look for work. They find a job and are working all day. STR8 UP argues that just because you’re working doesn’t mean you’re healing. Yes they are working but they get their first pay check and disappear or they are using on the side until it completely falls apart on them.”

Tu’Inkuafe said he would like STR8 UP to follow Homeboy’s model but needs community partners.

Tu’Inkuafe says he also likes Homeboy’s explanation of why youth join gangs. They assert that it’s easier for them to say they join for a sense of belonging than to say they are running from something.

“If your home environment is a place of chaos and dysfunction and abuse, you are running away from that,” said Tu’Inkuafe.

“If you find a group of people who accept you the way you are, in the beginning life is better but then you get caught up in the transient lifestyle. It’s easier for them to say it was for a sense of belonging than to say, ‘I was abused or tortured.’ It’s not as simple as saying it’s belonging. This person was abused, tortured, and their needs were not met.”