WHEN FIRST LADY LAURA BUSH VISITED HOMEBOY INDUSTRIES in the Los Angeles barrio of Boyle Heights on April 27, eyebrows went up among some people who have worked with hardened gang youth: What was a Republican, former librarian, and President Bush's much better half doing among tattooed, brown-skinned men who had been shot, had done some shootings, and were often portrayed in the media as "the worst of the worst"?
Laura Bush was ostensibly on a mission, fueled by $150 million, called "Helping America's Youth," which President Bush had announced in his February 6 State of the Union address.
Mrs. Bush listened as Homeboy Industries founder Father Gregory Boyle showed her around while former gang members greeted her. She had one question for thirty-one-year-old Alex Zamudio, a baker in Homeboy's Bakery, who lost an eye at age thirteen after being shot: "When you were a child and you went and chose the path to go to a gang, do you think there was anything you could have done at that point in your life that would have directed you another way?"
"Everywhere we grew up was gang infested," Alex answered. "You grow up into that--either family members or people you go to school with. Everybody you are involved with is in gangs, so you end up being a gang member."
I know Alex. He's a formidable, large-framed man with close-cropped hair. He has seen the barrio gang life from the inside out. For him, joining a gang wasn't a choice. He lived in neighborhoods where gangs have been around for several generations--grandfather to father to son--where gangs proved to be the best organized means to get attention, respect, and even money.
In late May, Alex played a mentoring role for around fifty teens from Watts, South Central, Boyle Heights/East L.A., the San Fernando Valley, Seattle, San Francisco, and Chicago during a "Voices of Youth, Voices of Community" youth conference I helped facilitate in the Malibu Hills. Despite many difficulties, including having youngsters who didn't know how to write, Alex worked hard to get most of these young men and women to write their lives. They came up with some harrowing stories that they later read to an audience of 200 people at Mount Saint Mary's College, near downtown L.A. Alex also read a piece about his former existence he called "My Wicked Past."
I give Laura Bush credit--for giving gang youth credence and respect.
But at the very time the First Lady was visiting Homeboy Industries, the White House was pushing the...