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Former Gang Member Shares Strategies for Ending Violence

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By Zenaida Gonzalez Kotala

Luis Rodriguez, a former gang member and award-winning author, encouraged about 100 people attending a gang violence conference at the University of Central Florida to stay connected to their children and work together as a community to end gangs and gang violence.

"I neglected my own son," Rodriguez said. "What my father did to me, I did to him. Like me, he got into a gang."

His son is now serving a 28-year-sentence for shooting another gang member in Chicago.

A national expert on gangs, Rodriguez wrote one of the first books about gang life in Los Angeles in the early 1990s. His vivid descriptions of gang life in "Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A." earned him literary accolades and gave people a new look into gang life. He is now a community activist and the founder of Youth Struggling to Survive, which helps young people leave the gang life behind. 

"This is not just a police issue," he told the audience that gathered at the FairwindsAlumni Center on campus. "This is a community issue, and that's the only way to solve the problem."

Attendees at the "Understanding Gang Violence - Prevention and Intervention: A Community Response" conference ran the gambit from parents, social workers and nonprofit leaders to school counselors and police officers.

The UCF School of Social Work organized the event with help from several partners, including the College of Health and Public Affairs, the Ninth Judicial District Court, the State Attorney's Office, the Orange County Sheriff's Office and the National Alliance of Gang Investigators' Association. The event was funded in part by grants from the African American Focus Fund and Nuestro Futuro initiatives of the Community Foundation of Central Florida.

"This is a critical issues for our community," said Estelli Ramos, a UCF instructor who specializes in gang prevention. "Luis is such a great speaker because he brings an authentic perspective."

Rodriguez identified the five "empties" by which residents can identify a gang member. Young people drawn to gangs generally feel like they have no roots or connections to anyone or anything. They feel helpless and powerless, and they have lost all hope. They also believe that life has lost all meaning for them.

Rodriguez implored all those who attended the conference to provide opportunities for young people to get involved and connect to their communities. Simply arresting or deporting offenders doesn't solve the problem, he said.

Afternoon workshops focused on the dynamics of a variety of gangs, an explanation of what lures young people to gang life and culture and strategies for helping to end the violence.

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