All the Difference in the World

Richard J. Riordan is the Mayor of Los Angeles

Voices From the Streets is a collection of profiles of young people who have lived--and left--the life of street gangs. These autobiographies tell stories of people who are following rewarding careers--in many cases by being mentors to gang members.

"Voices" is fascinating reading about young adults who experienced far more trauma during their childhoods than most of us experience in a lifetime--drugs, teen pregnancy, violence, murder, loss of siblings and friends. What was their ticket out of gang life? Intelligence that had never before been channeled, talent that had never been nurtured. In most cases, they discovered passion for art, poetry or dancing. Perhaps the most important reason for these kids' newfound lifestyle was an adult--a parent, relative or a professional--who took the time to care. This sends us a powerful message: that we, as adults, can make a powerful difference for young people . . . if we take the time.

Children tell of the "addiction"--the feelings of support, friendship and power--that gang life held for them. These emotions mask the hopelessness prevalent in their communities. As with other addictions, gang life tempts them even after they leave its grasp, even after they learn life skills that give them hope for the future. The survivors in "Voices" say that the best way to get rid of an unhealthy addiction is to substitute a healthy activity--Bible study, dancing, athletics or mentoring younger people. Even so, the addiction of gang membership still lingers because the illusion of security is magnetic and the human desire for friendship, acceptance and power is ever potent.

Reading "Voices From the Streets" reminded me of a simple yet profound story. An old man and his granddaughter were walking on a beach where thousands of starfish had washed up. One by one, the little girl kept picking up the starfish and throwing them back in the ocean. The grandfather finally asked her, "Why do you do that? There are thousands of starfish here; you can't make a difference." The little girl picked up one more starfish, looked at it and said, "For this one it makes all the difference in the world." The moral is simple: It does not take a lot of effort to make a difference in a child's life.

As a leader, I must concern myself with the thousands of children still washed up on a beach of hopelessness--children who cannot read or write effectively, who lack a solid work ethic and who, consequently, do not have the skills to become productive adults.

We have an obligation to these children--we must find solutions. For the vast majority of them, the answer lies in early intervention, starting at the age of 3 or 4. At each school level, goals must be set and met. Children must not be advanced to another grade unless they pass the previous grade. There should be no more "social promotions."

Instead, we must take the time to work with our children until they succeed. Every child must be able to read and write English effectively by the end of the second grade. They must start out with the skills that allow them to grow intellectually year by year. When they are most impressionable, they must be taught the effects of gangs, drugs and guns.

It's never too early to teach young children the skills to compete in life. It's never too early to make children feel important. It's never too early to teach children that their dreams can become real. Indeed, it's never too early to let our children know that they are the stars of our families and our communities.

The rallying cry must be "What is in the best interests of our children?" In our schools we must demand and get what is in their best interests. We must have the courage to replace those who fail them.

I would have been interested in reading about the children who didn't get out of gangs, who didn't connect with a mentor or who did not have the intelligence and skills to make it out. Perhaps it's up to each of us to pursue the stories of these children--the thousands of starfish left on the beach. It's up to each of us to listen to the voices from the streets.


Holiday 1996 / BOOK CITY

VOICES FROM THE STREETS, by S. Beth Atkin (Little Brown: $17.95, 131 pp.)


And Bear in Mind as gifts for friends interested in issues of justice and civil rights:

THE PAPERS OF MARTIN LUTHER KING Vols. I and II, edited by Clayborne Carson. (University of California Press: 484 pp. and 645 pp., $35 each)

THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT: A Photographic History 1954-1968 by Steven Kasher. (Abbeville: 255 pp., $35.)

MAY IT PLEASE THE COURT: 23 Live Recordings of Landmark Cases Argued Before the Supreme Court, edited by Peter Irons and Stephanie Guitton. (The New Press: $35)

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