I was listening to a program on NPR the other day that focused on the problem of gun violence in Chicago. As part of the program, they were interviewing current gang members to gain insight into their experiences. How did they get started? What were their experiences with guns and gun violence? What kept them involved in the gang? How did they feel about it now?
Grace and Acceptance
One of the comments that stood out to me had to do with a topic that I think and write a lot about: grace and acceptance. When asked why they joined the gang in the first place, one gang member talked about the importance of grace and acceptance. “They [the gang] accepts pretty much anybody.”
In other words, the gang offered unconditional acceptance. You didn’t have to look a certain way, or have a certain amount of money to be accepted by the gang. You didn’t have to be “cool” or be a football star, in order to join the gang. You could come just as you were, and you could gain acceptance, community, and a family.
Love and Acceptance are Basic Needs
Love and acceptance are incredibly important to us as human beings. As a baby, if you don’t receive enough love, touch, and nurturance, your growth and development literally stops. Psychologist Abraham Maslow said that love and acceptance were some of our most important and foundational needs.
The Struggle to Be Loved and Accepted
So many kids nowadays grow up in broken homes. This is a problem, because the family is (ideally) the first place where children learn that they are loved and accepted just as they are. When that foundation isn’t in place, it’s a challenge for kids. Then kids go to school, where acceptance often has to be earned. Do you remember what junior high and high school were like? Usually you have to look a certain way, or have a certain amount of athletic ability in order to be accepted by your peers. If you are “different” or “weird” in any way, it’s a tough go. Is it any wonder that young people join gangs, where they “accept pretty much anybody?”
The Root of the Problem
We often look at social problems like gangs and gun violence and feel angry and scared, not knowing what to do. But gangs and gun violence are symptoms of a deeper problem. No child is born wanting to kill people and put their own lives in danger on a daily basis. Kids turn to gangs when something in their lives isn’t working.
How can we help families not only survive but thrive? How can we help families stick together so they can provide a safe environment for their kids to learn and grow? How can we help at-risk youth get involved in teams, organizations, and clubs that give them a place to belong and something to look forward to in their lives? These are the kinds of questions we must begin to address if we hope to solve the problem of gangs and gun violence.