A Dream Deferred: The Role of Creativity in the Making of a Los Angeles Gang-Member

Creativity and imagination can lift us to new and unexpected heights, and when fully facilitated by nurturing and knowledge, can make possible the dreams that spark personal growth and social innovation. Unfortunately, for today’s poorest and least educated Americans, creativity and the dreams it produces are abstract concepts with no relevance in their lives.

This case study and essay is based on my conversations with one Los Angeles gang-member for whom creativity, and dreams of a brighter future, have long been deferred and usurped by the struggle to survive.

*****

I drove south from my West Adams neighborhood, anticipating the conversation that lay ahead, and unsure of exactly what to expect. Exiting the 110 Freeway I swung onto Rosecrans Boulevard and headed east, into a quietly benign Compton, where empty buildings and abandoned businesses lined the once thriving Boulevard.

Compton, like so many of America’s urban neighborhoods, had seen the flight of jobs and dollars years before our latest economic downturn. Its 2011 cost-of-living index was considerably higher then the US average and despite a murder rate that had dropped steadily since 2005, violent crime remained twice the national average. It seemed a reasonable assumption that Compton would see little economic growth for some time.

I turned toward the residential section where modest homes sported neatly trimmed lawns with gated windows and doors. Old, scarcely driven gas-guzzlers sat unattended in the driveways of senior citizens, who arrived more than forty years ago with the second great Black migration from the south (1941 – 1970). Compton was peaceful, though the hard stares of several young men tracked me with suspicion as I slowed to read the house addresses.

Exiting my car at my destination, I noticed a large laminated Vegan poster mounted on the outside wall of a nearby house. Smiling down at me was a handsome eighteen-year-old in a suit, the suit he wore to church on Sundays, with crisp white shirt and a perfectly knotted tie.

He was so proud, so promising. He was dead. Murdered two years prior by gang members as he ate dinner with his date.

“Where you from?” he was asked as they stared him down. He was shot before he could answer – one week before his High School graduation. The football scholarship and college education he treasured died with him.

Thirty-four year-old Jay (not his real name) stepped outside and we shook hands warmly. Stylish glasses framed his dark round face and his ponytail, usually pulled perfectly into place, was uncharacteristically frayed around the edges. We first met at a weekly life skills and job training class for ex-felons and gang members. Always neatly dressed and punctual, Jay seldom spoke, but when he did, his voice was soft and his words self-examining. His eyes took in everything while giving away nothing, a valuable skill in a world where silence was power and emotions were a sign of weakness.

We walked into his maternal grandparents’ small home where Jay lived with his pregnant wife, their one-year-old son and his twelve-year-old stepdaughter. His son ran up laughing and was swept into his father’s arms, bringing to mind my own son’s first year. Jay liked to laugh but laughter did not come easily, nor last for more than an instant before it was gone.

“My grandmother’s got Alzheimers. My grandfather is in the bedroom watching after her,” he informed me, helplessly, as we passed their bedroom and walked out the back door.

At eleven-years-old Jay had moved into their home after running away, and had been well loved and provided for. But his grandparents were hampered by their age and a generation gap.

“My grandparents always been working people. They was tired, they was old. I didn’t really look at that when I was supposed to,” he confessed. “I had moral guidance right here but I never grabbed it,” he told me, describing his Grandparents unconditional love and the heartache he caused them. Still, after moving in, he returned to the projects daily, seeking his mother’s love and attention. He got neither and each night he returned, disappointed, to his grandparent’s house. And each morning, he headed for the projects, to try all over again.

Before living with his grandparents, Jay called Watts’ infamous Jordan Downs housing project home; a 700-unit center of gang activity and drugs during the mid-eighties/nineties crack epidemic in South Central. Once home to Olympic track star, Florence Griffith-Joyner and a hopeful working class, the projects were surrounded by liquor stores and churches, both unable to quell the brutality that took place in their midst.

“My pops was straight but my mom was cracked out,” was his explanation of the family structure and life in the projects. Growing up, Jay witnessed the intimate details of his mother’s crack addiction and his families’ gang activities as members of the Grape Street Crips. After school, if he went to school at all, he returned to a war zone.

So, why did he not avoid the hostile world of the projects and his family? This question is often asked, and understandably so. To be clear, others have overcome poverty, drugs and violence, but they’ve often had the benefit of individuals and institutions who’ve provided some level of stability; instilling and supporting the creative and aspirational thinking that enabled them to dream of a brighter future.

As pointed out in Betty A. Velthouse’s paper, Creativity and Empowerment: A Complementary Relationship, which appeared in the publication Review of Business (1990), a creative leap is required in order for one to envision or create alternatives to their current reality or circumstances. Under his mother’s roof, the neglect Jay experienced stifled any notions that he could leave the projects behind or find new solutions to his problems. His world was insular and hostile, regulated and finite, distrusting of alternative lifestyles. Consequently, Jay lacked the belief that he could change his surroundings through his behavior; and was shackled with a self-image that would remain unchanged for over twenty years.

“I ain’t never done nothing but wrong,” was a typical refrain throughout our talks. Fueled by his mother’s crack addition, his father’s absence and his brothers’ violent gang activities, Jay took to the streets with a vengeance and was fully embedded in the Grape Street Crips, as an eleven-year-old.

“I never had a childhood. I grew up as a man and I was doing whatever grown men was doing, having the same fun grown men was having. All I ever done is wrong,” Jay he said, lowering his eyes as we sat in his grandfather’s vegetable garden.

In their July 10, 2010 policy brief written by Erica Adams, the Justice Policy Institute identified neglect, witnessing of drug abuse, violence, and the loss of a caregiver as causes of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome in children; serving as indicators and contributors to entre into the criminal justice system. The Institute went on to state that 50 to 79 percent of males who experienced maltreatment before twelve years of age will become involved in serious juvenile delinquency. As predicted, Jay was right on schedule for disaster.

We talked about his mother and their family life; I felt the pull and tug of Jay’s emotions. The boy who desperately desired his mother’s care and tenderness lay just beneath the hardened surface.

Our imaginations and the understanding of our world owes much to our physical and emotional well-being, and the quality time parents, guardians and loved ones share with us in play. Stanley Greenspan, M.D., makes a strong case for this premise in his book, Building Healthy Minds (2000), where he contends that the attachment that takes place as we touch, cuddle and laugh, provides the solid foundation upon which children can build an expanded vision of their environment. It was no surprise that Jay made few references to dreams and aspirations, beyond those which he had seen with his own eyes. He had no basis or context for the creation of new perspectives on his existing condition.

Dreaming of changing his reality would have required that Jay feel empowered to influence his environment. It also would have required that he perceive his environment as flexible enough to allow his vision to actually become that new reality. Jay was never empowered by his own positive behavior, and instead, felt empowered only when the source of his power was external, via gang affiliations, money from drugs and the peer acceptance those activities provided. To walk away from gang life was beyond his comprehension, an intolerable act of disloyalty to his Grape Street family.

Raised around such chaos and dysfunction, Jay never considered the consequences of his actions, even when those decisions determined life or death. He simply lacked the “context” and examples such consideration required. He had never seen anyone, that he respected, pause to review his or her options. In Jay’s world, decisions were impulsive, responses were immediate and the subsequent actions often irrevocable.

There was little room for a conscience, which typically develops via the influence of parents and other key people in a child’s environment. In their absence, ample room was left for the negative people and actions that defined Jay’s life.

The question that most of us hear as children, “what do you want to be when you grow up” went unasked; Jay’s dream was to follow in the footsteps of his older brothers and uncles, who made their money on the streets.

“The dream came true, now I don’t even want it,” he said, looking back and sharing one of the few dreams of success, as he saw it, he had as a kid. He recalled the day he asked his brothers for candy money and was told that it was time he got his own, just like everybody else. They provided the drugs to get him started and coached him on the fine-points of the drug trade.

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