Family, fear, ‘a sense of belonging.’ What pushes Lexington teens toward gangs?

·3 min read

Limited opportunities, a need for protection and a desire to fit in make some Lexington residents, including those in their early teens, vulnerable to gangs and the lifestyles they offer.

Devine Carama, the director of One Lexington and a longtime community activist trying to prevent youth violence, said many kids who get involved in gangs or groups resembling gangs don’t see other options.

“They need something, and they’re going to take what is available to them,” he said.

Lexington investigators see individuals as young as 14 get involved in gang activities in Lexington, Lt. Paul Boyles said. The age range for gang members extends into the late 20s, he said. Boyles, who oversees homicide investigators and other detectives, said people often do what their friends or family members do.

“The affiliations track friendship ties, they track school ties, they track familial ties,” he said.

Carama said deep-rooted inequalities in housing, criminal justice and education have driven some young residents toward a gang lifestyle. Those inequalities “tend to impact minorities more,” he said.

“People aren’t asking to be in these conditions and these situations,” he said.

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Inequalities have been compounded by lackluster community outreach, which makes young men feel like they don’t have a place to connect with others, Carama said. That, too, makes them more susceptible to joining a gang.

“They’re going to clique up with somebody,” Carama said. “And so unfortunately what we’re seeing is they’re going towards those gangs where there is camaraderie, there is brotherhood..”

Boyles said when kids join gangs, they’re looking for the same sort of acceptance that any other person seeks out.

“We are talking about human beings who aren’t so different from the rest of us, who want close-knit affiliations; they want associations,” he said. “They want a sense of belonging.”

Boyles said the “glamorization” of gang life doesn’t help.

Carama said he’s been hosting weekly mentorship programs for kids in Lexington, and the ones who attend his program are eager to do so. It’s a positive alternative.

“These kids want to come,” he said. “They want to be part of something.”

Carama is trying to lead the effort to give young people something better. Through his position with One Lexington, he’s worked with local city leaders, including Mayor Linda Gorton, to identify ways to prevent kids from winding up in a criminal lifestyle.

Carama said Gorton and other city leaders have been focused on expanding offerings for local community centers, making housing more equitable, repairing education disparities and offering workforce development.

Carama said they’re “trying to get to these young people and pour into them before they get to the moment where they can be a victim or someone who’s inciting violence.”

But Carama said some kids are also “operating in fear.”

He’s talked to teenagers who have joined gangs, and they’ve told him they did it “for protection. So I can be safe. Everybody’s picking a side. Everybody’s picking a gang.”

Gang involvement increases someone’s risk to wind up a victim or a perpetrator of a shooting, Boyles said.

“Whether it’s a formal gang or simply a group of people engaged in a particular lifestyle, if those behaviors and habits and attitudes and outlooks aren’t healthy, certainly they’re going to impact the direction you go down for the rest of your life,” he said.

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