In 2007, while attending the Institute for Justice and Journalism fellowship at USC, my brother Jon and I had our choice of going anywhere we wanted in Los Angeles.
We chose to go to Homeboy Industries, the multi-service center created for gang members by Father Greg Boyle, the charismatic and controversial priest with a seemingly bottomless well of compassion for poor people and an equally limitless willingness to establish hope in those who previously had none.
It was a memorable experience.
The lobby throbbed with activity, as the homeboys and homegirls lined up to participate in the largest tattoo removal in the United States, to apply for work, to get legal, parenting, psychological or nearly any other help imaginable.
Fast forward four years.
I’m back at USC, this time as a Dennis A. Hunt Fellow in a different fellowship sponsored by the Annenberg School of Journalism.
Father Greg returned to speak to our group, and, again, we got a tour of the relocated and expanded Homeboy Industries building.
Far from looking older, Boyle looked sturdier, even a bit beefy. His round glasses matched his full cheeks. His beard and what remained of his hair both were wintry, but he seemed to have made a strong recovery from the leukemia he had battled and for which he had had chemotherapy (He joked that the homies often say to him, “I hear your cancer’s in intermission.).
Boyle has dedicated at least the last quarter century of his life to the poor residents of Los Angeles, working tirelessly to combat gang violence and to help bring a better set of opportunities and choices to the young people in his community.
There have been many setbacks.
He said early in his presentation that he buried his first victim of gang violence in 1988, and will bury his 176th victim on Sunday.
Last year, on a day he called Black Thursday, he laid off 75 percent of his more than 400 workers.
The number of gang members is somewhere between 87,000 to 100,000 young people, and the abuse, indignities and oppression borne by people in the community he loves so deeply continue, with a particularly pernicious twist during the past few years of sustained economic difficulty.
And yet he keeps working and the activities keep growing.
With nearly 700 tattoos removed, June was a record month.
The bread baked at Homeboy Industries by former enemies who would have killed each other on the street is sold at more than two dozen farmer’s markets throughout Los Angeles.
The food from Homeboy Cafe is sold at City Hall, and Ralph’s has stocked Homeboy Industries chips and salsa in all of its 258 stores.
More than 12,000 gang members and an equal number of gang members served each year.
And delegations from throughout the United States and other countries like Great Britain have come to learn and see how they can take what they learn and apply it in their nations.
Beyond the numbers, though, there is a culture within the building of respect. People who have endured and committed unspeakable actions ask politely to pass by you in the hallway during the tour we received, patiently wait for our t-shirt orders in the gift shop and hold the door for us on our way out, even though the closing time had long since passed.
It’s also a place of individuals, like Vance Webster, our tour guide.
A stocky, muscular 47-year-old with a shaved head, he first heard from Father Greg while in prison for a 25-year to lifelong sentence. Vance’s mother had met Father Greg at a conference, told him her son’s story, and urged the priest to contact her boy, who at that point had been incarcerated for at least a dozen years.
The priest wrote the prisoner, telling him not to lose hope. The pair continued to exchange letters as Webster earned his G.E.D. and attended college, as he was turned down time and time again-eight times, in all, he was denied-by the parole board.
Finally, two years ago, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the parole order.
Webster had three days in which to go home.
He called his mother and Father Boyle, telling them he would be home in the next couple of days.
Then the call came.
His mother had died of a heart attack.
She would never see her son drinking in the freedom she had worked for decades to help him secure.
The blow was devastating, and, as he told the story, fresh tears started to spring to his eyes.
Earlier in his life, Vance might have gone back to the streets.
This time was different.
He’s found success at Homeboy Industries, where he interviews and hires workers, gives tours and speeches across the country about his story and the work of Homeboy Industries.
Vance’s small victories take many different forms.
Some are physical. He ran and finished the Los Angeles Marathon in driving rain this March.
Some are financial. He’s got his own apartment and is learning better how to manage his money with the help of someone from Homeboy.
Some are emotional. He’s learned with the help of a therapist to talk about his emotions and to talk again to women after nearly three decades in which to do so could mean his being locked up for additional time.
And some are learning how to adjust to a vastly different world that he is entering as an adult compared with the one he left as a young man.
He had to learn how to drive again.
He is still getting oriented to the existence of the Internet as well as figuring out how to maneuver skillfully inside it.
Father Greg talked about how he used to think that the solution to gang member’s problems lay largely in finding them work.
Now, he says, he knows better that the key to success is to help the homies learn to think differently about themselves, their lives, their pasts and their futures.
Senior Fellow Patrick Boyle (no relation) led our group in a stimulating discussion about evaluation, noting that Father Greg is quite skeptical of quantitative measures of change and of evidence-based assessments that in many way encourage working with the more, rather than less, likely to succeed.
Whatever one thinks about the evaluative strength of the program, to me there can be little doubt that the types of experiences Vance and many others like him are having would have happened without Homeboy Industries.
That insight and the visit to the site where all of this happens for me were the signal images of yesterday’s sessions.
Tomorrow we meet with editors, hear from colleagues and watch the screening of a film about the Los Angeles River.
I can’t wait.
Each of these steps has been a triumph and a reminder of the nearly three decades he spent