Former gang member now studies gang culture


Victor Rios at the 2010 Commencement ceremony receiving an award from Chancellor Henry Yang for mentoring undergraduate research. Grad Images photo.

Imagine a career check list for rising young academics, and compare it to the c.v. of UCSB assistant professor of sociology Victor Rios. His life has all the hallmarks of success: Ph.D. from UC Berkeley, check; tenure-track position at a major research university, check; research fellowship from the Ford Foundation, check; book contract from a major university press, check; campus awards for mentoring students, check. Missing from this list, however, is the life-changing experience that sets Victor Rios apart from his academic peers, and continues to drive him both personally and professionally. Rios, who grew up an impoverished community in Oakland in a household led by a single mother on welfare, joined a gang at age 13, eventually dropped out of high school, and ended up in “juvey” for a short time. Witnessing the tragic death of his best friend at age 15 motivated him to dedicate his life to help find solutions to poverty and youth violence. Today, Victor Rios studies young men who join gangs, and looks for solutions that can help them avoid the life he so narrowly escaped.

Rios describes himself as an “urban ethnographer” who studies people in their environment, but he is also a public intellectual who looks for solutions to the problems he studies. His scholarly interests were a natural outgrowth of his background and his desire to help people in marginalized communities. He began his research on delinquent young men and juvenile justice while at UC Berkeley, and continued after he began teaching at the University of San Francisco. Not long after Rios arrived at UCSB, he learned that gangs and youth violence were also pressing issues in Santa Barbara. Following the stabbing death of 15-year-old Luis Angel Linares near Saks Fifth Avenue on State Street in March 2007, Rios started to examine the group behavior of poor Latino youth living in this wealthy town. The best way to find out was to get to know the kids themselves, and so began Rios’ newest research – and outreach – project.


Rios (left) meets some of the young men he and his students mentor at a local park. Photo courtesy V. Rios.

“The only way I could make sense of this was to be out there,” says Rios. “I put together a small team of graduate and undergraduate students who were interested in interacting with these kids.” They began by talking to a handful of young people, mostly boys, first at La Casa de la Raza, a non-profit community center on the East Side of Santa Barbara, and then at El Puente Community School, an alternative educational program set up by the probation department for kids who have been expelled from the regular school system or are transitioning back to school from the juvenile justice system. Since 2007, Rios and close to 60 UCSB students have conducted research with these youths, and their findings have been consistent: the kids who get involved with gangs are usually not seeking a group of friends or a lifestyle as much as they are fleeing horrendous conditions of poverty and neglect. Their parents are frequently absent, working grueling jobs, sometimes 60 hours a week, to make ends meet. High rental costs in Santa Barbara make this an especially pressing problem.

“I found that young people who feel that they are treated like criminals, based on the way they look, before they have even committed any crime, are the most vulnerable to becoming criminal,” Rios says. “We found that young people who find a teacher or police officer who is willing to mentor them, give them the benefit of the doubt, and allow them to redeem themselves, have the highest chances of leaving the gang, staying in school, and graduating.” Rios advocates for what he calls a “positive public relations” approach. “The teachers, residents, and police officers who focus on keeping positive relationships with kids who others might suspect are committing criminal activity because they look like gang members, are the ones who have the most success with these kids. In other words, when adults treat these young people with respect, trust, and unconditional nurturing, most of them reciprocate.”

Rios is not naïve about gang culture, admitting that “some of these young boys commit violence, many have substance abuse and alcohol problems, and it is tough to find programs for them. Of course, a few do commit serious crimes and in these cases the community has to enforce the law. But most of the time, the majority of these guys are living life, maintaining the peace, just like you and I are”. He is also aware that the issue of gangs is especially sensitive in a city like Santa Barbara, as witnessed by the explosion of comments on local blogs and websites whenever a gang-related incident is reported. But Rios is adamant about what works, and what does not.

Asked about the utility of a gang injunction, he says that no study has found them to be effective, and in fact, they may cause gang violence to spread and increase. Santa Barbara has two gangs that are far apart from each other, with a distance of about two miles between them and State Street as the dividing line. “This is surprising for a small town,” Rios says. “In LA, some gangs are across the street from each other.” He says that an injunction removes specific people from a place or area, so they relocate to other areas along the dividing line, increasing the potential for violence. “In Santa Barbara, an injunction may bring the two gangs closer to each other,” says Rios. “Despite the fact that some of these kids have access to guns, there have been no drive-by shootings in Santa Barbara in a long time because of the dynamics here. Even the kids who some claim to be ‘violent gang bangers’ are relatively peaceful when it comes to handling conflict. I believe that it is the local culture that socializes these young people to stay away from using guns. Things could be much worse here than they are.”

So what does work? Rios is quick to answer: alternatives to the street life, and mentoring. The data from Rios’ interviews and observations show that these kids lack activities that could make them feel self-affirmed and worthy. While there are many youth programs in Santa Barbara, only a few target the most at-risk, he says. There are parks, of course, but there is not much to do there besides hang out. “I have found that connecting these kids with mentors who take them out on excursions, to see new places, to explore the world, gives these young people an outlet and a space for personal development.”

Already, about 30 of Rios’ students have developed mentorships with some of the youths, tutoring them and connecting them with institutions like SBCC and UCSB through outreach programs, workshops, and campus visits. “I know from experience how important it is to find a mentor before it is too late. When I wanted to leave the gang and go back to high school, I was fortunate to meet a teacher who became my mentor. With her help, I ended up graduating on time with my class and being admitted to Cal State East Bay. There is so much human and social capital in Santa Barbara,” Rios says. “Sometimes I think about holding ‘office hours’ on State Street to recruit local professionals to mentor some of these kids. You’d be surprised how much a good mentor could change a life.”

Using the data gathered as part of this project, Rios is working on an academic book in which he tries to understand the collective behavior of “street-oriented young people”. He intends to use this case study to show what works and what does not, and make recommendations for policy makers.

Rios acts as a mentor to his own students, and is known on campus as an excellent teacher. In just four years at UCSB, he has had an extraordinary impact. Last month he received an award for supporting undergraduate research from Chancellor Henry Yang and a second award from the Office of Student Life for his overall commitment to students and the quality of student life. One of his favorite classes to teach is Introduction to Sociology, with almost 500 students, because it attracts a range of students from different majors and backgrounds. He also teaches upper-division classes on juvenile justice and youth.

As a group, his students represent the diversity of the UCSB student population. Some are from wealthy backgrounds, others from working-class families. Some are part of the McNair Scholars program, which encourages first-generation and underrepresented minority students to pursue doctoral studies. What they have in common is a focus on social justice, and a desire to “do something.” So Rios has taken them, including honors students and freshmen, to meet and learn from some of the youth who have been labeled gang members and criminals.

Being part of Rios’ research group means more than having empathy, however. His students learn about research methods, including how to conduct interviews, do fieldwork, code and analyze data, write research papers, and in some cases present their findings at conferences. Some have been accepted at top graduate programs in public policy, public health, and sociology. A recent graduate, José Lumbreras, a first-generation college student, will be entering the Ph.D. program in sociology at UC Berkeley this fall. “Dr. Rios has done more than teach his undergraduates the research process,” says Lumbreras. “He trains his students to become confident, self-sufficient intellectuals and to take an active role in our education.” Another member of the class of 2010, Sarah Alexander, adds, “it is common knowledge among my classmates that Dr. Rios is willing to mentor us by overseeing independent research, guiding us toward graduate school options, or giving references. This support can make all the difference in navigating our way through college.”

Rios says that UC students are the next generation of California’s leaders, lawyers, teachers, and policy makers, who will run institutions and impact change. He hopes that his UCSB students will take some of what they have learned from him, personally and academically, and use it to create scientific knowledge about our social world and use it to help others. “Our students at UCSB have big hearts and that has touched me. My own story is a testament to human possibility, and I hope it will inspire my students to succeed and reach their hands out to others along the way.”

September 2010

News Date: 

Wednesday, September 1, 2010