Friday, May 1, 2009

What It All Means

A few final thoughts to complete my Gang Leader for a Day triptych.

The projects as described in the book are essentially a smaller, more concentrated version of the urban ghettos in which a huge percentage of our educational problems lie. Looking at them and the kinds of solutions that might work to help alleviate poverty, neglect, and the poor conditions in those projects can help point us in the right direction for how to solve the broader issues in the larger neighborhoods.

I want to turn again to the concept of the vaccuum because that seems to be the key to all this. Where there is a power vaccuum created by the withdrawal/removal of traditional authorities, alternative powers will insert themselves. This is part of the power of the gangs. Where there is a vaccuum in terms of economic possibilities, it will be filled. In the book we learn about drugs, prostitution, and the various other hustles that become the basis for the project economy.

Up and down the line, wherever there is an absence, it will be filled. A vaccuum does not last. Given this, it's pretty tough to try to educate children as if they're operating in a world that plays by the same rules and has the same opportunities as middle class neighborhoods.

The answer, then, is to plug the holes. It means increasing the presence of police and public safety officers while making clear that these people are here to help, not harass. (There's some interesting stuff about police harassment in the book too.) It means making sure that basic social services - health care, sanitation, etc - are provided at the same levels they are in more affluent areas. It also means major economic investment to create actual opportunities for people outside of the alternative, underground economy. Projects like the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, started by Robert Kennedy, are the kinds of things we need to be looking to expand and support.

We can talk about people needing to pull themselves up by their bootstraps all we want. But until they actually have some boots to start pulling on, it's not going to make much difference.

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