Are Gangs Ready for Touchy-Feely Self-Esteem Crowd?

Because it just seemed so California , it was easy to poke fun a few years ago when a statewide task force on self-esteem was established. It sounded like a touchy-feely idea geared for Oprah fans, a warm fuzzy in the midst of a real world that had jagged edges.

We're now three years deeper into our growing social sinkhole, however, and the self-esteem people have set up a local chapter.

And guess what? They want to help. The velvet glove crowd wants to get its hands dirty.

After reading elsewhere in the paper today about Orange County's widening gang problem, you may conclude, like me, that this isn't a time to turn down help from anyone.

Christine Parker is the executive director of the Orange County Council for Self-Esteem, still getting off the ground but convinced it can fly.

"When I started this chapter in Orange County, a lot of people didn't get what that meant," she says. "They have their self-image, but they don't know what feeling is. It's not the Mercedeses, it's not the house, not their ego. It's how they feel about themselves emotionally."

Already, many of you are gagging, but Parker says the universal message of self-esteem can reach right into the gang-ridden areas.

"Why are these kids joining gangs? Because they feel a sense of belonging. And who are they responsible to? They're responsible to their gang. Well, we've got to get them back to basic values. We've got to tell them that, 'Not only are you harming society, but you're harming yourself. You're totally in self-destruction. You don't love yourself or you wouldn't be out doing that.' "

Parker concedes the self-esteem movement draws snickers. "I think people thought it was just a fad . . . but if they can get the connection between a sense of self-worth and that's why people are acting out and why there's all this violence, if they get sick and tired of all this crime and see that it's a major result of low self-esteem, then maybe they'll say, 'We really have to work on self-esteem.' "

Self-esteem workshops aren't my bag, but I subscribe completely to Parker's thesis. My working model would be team sports, where the best coaches instill in the athletes a sense that they're part of a larger group and that their contribution is necessary. The message filters down that the individual has value. It's no coincidence that you hear civic leaders talking about more recreational sports opportunities for troubled kids.

Parker says gang leaders too often fill the void.

"A gang empowers them," Parker says. "They don't know how to empower themselves. They haven't seen it in their parents' role model. Everybody wants a sense of belonging and to empower themselves. And they want to feel loved and want to feel capable and lovable. Those are two things people really need to feel. That's what self-esteem is all about. People reach out to that in whatever ways they can get it."

I asked Parker if the task isn't already too great. "It is an overwhelming task, but what's happening is that people are starting to say they're sick of crime, what are we going to do about it. Well, we're going to have to get a grip, that people can be taught to be socially and personally responsible. There are fundamental skills for self-esteem, and they can be taught that."

The new Orange County group will do more than talk, Parker says. It hopes to donate books on self-esteem to schools and make speakers or other training counselors available. The new chapter isn't targeting troubled kids, however, and will provide similar services to businesses or other organizations. The group will also have experts in gang violence, she says.

Parker's specialty happens to be senior citizens. Many of them, she says, have low self-esteem and question their value to society. Despite some obvious differences, the fundamental feelings aren't all that different from those of a troubled teen looking for meaning.

I don't know whether groups like Parker's can bridge the gap between the clinical world of self-esteem workshops and the down-and-dirty world of gang involvement.

But it seems clear that the gang leaders are already a step or two ahead of mainstream society when it comes to recruiting. Do their recruiters know something we don't?

If this is a war, all Parker and her group are saying is, "We've got some weapons. Where do we sign up to join the fight?"

Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Readers may reach Parsons by writing to him at The Times Orange County Edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, Calif. 92626, or calling (714) 966-7821.

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