The Eastern New Mexico Youth Connection Advisory Team meets to discuss gang intervention initiatives. From left: Corey Adams, juvenile probation and parole officer; Benny Adams, organizational development specialist; Amelia Sandoval, Clovis Schools social worker and chair of the Eastern New Mexico Youth Connection; Steve Reshetar, executive director of The Hope Center; and Christina Martinez, assistant director of United Way New Mexico.
The power of social work is playing out in several New Mexico communities trying to address the growing problem of gang recruitment among youth.
NASW’s New Mexico Chapter has been hosting a successful series of workshops that offer insight on why young people may be attracted to gangs and what can be done to counter the appeal, said Chapter Executive Director Patrick Tyrrell.
The workshops began in 2008 after the chapter invited Keahi Kimo Souza, a social worker and national expert on gang intervention, to speak at a conference. Through the chapter, Souza has made presentations in key regions across the state.
“We’ve done seven workshops with many more coming up,” said Souza, who is director of behavioral health for the Pueblo of Santo Domingo as well as a faculty consultant for Arizona State University and a senior research associate with the California State University Center for Delinquency and Crime Policy Studies.
Souza is chair of the NASW New Mexico Chapter’s Juvenile Justice Taskforce.
He explained that social workers are ideally trained to help unify community leaders for a common cause and they can offer participants a greater understanding of the dynamics that make up gang activity.
“Gang involvement has a variety of issues to deal with,” Souza explained. “It can be families that are dealing with limited access to resources. They feel disconnected from the people who make the rules.”
Understanding the appeal of a gang is an opportunity for a community to develop alternatives to potential recruits, he said. Besides knowing how to lead community efforts, “social workers are also interventionists,” Souza said. “They do individual and group counseling and they advocate at the legislative levels. Social workers are involved in every step.”
The workshops have already inspired one community to develop a task force of social workers, law enforcement, school officials, faith-based organizations and others.
Amelia Sandoval is a social worker with the Clovis School District. After attending one of the NASW workshops, she helped form the Eastern New Mexico Youth Connection.
She said the workshop showed her that gang recruitment can start as early as elementary school. “By the time students get to middle school, it can be hard to change their minds,” she said.
Sandoval said that even though eastern New Mexico had gang prevention programs in place, key players were unaware of each other’s efforts. The Eastern New Mexico Youth Connection has worked to unite resources for a common goal.
Now, an advisory team from the task force meets every two weeks to develop and implement an action plan.
In part, the group’s mission statement is to connect youth and their families with community resources that will empower, guide, encourage, support and foster a positive sense of self-worth and value to others and the community through character-building experiences.
Among the members is Corey Adams, a juvenile probation officer.
“The feedback has been great,” he said. “It has opened lines of communication and we’ve had joint presentations to community leaders, schools, the district attorney’s office and even the Air Force base. We’ve formed a united front.”
Adams said the experience has taught him that social workers aim to get at the root of the problem. “This program has shown the importance of not always being reactive but proactive,” he said.
Another committee member is Christina Martinez, assistant director at United Way in New Mexico. She said her subcommittee is recruiting business volunteers to help mentor children.
Martinez said the program has increased her awareness and showed her that social workers see the positive in every child and every adult.
NASW New Mexico Chapter board member Billy Bowers said that he helped organize the gang intervention workshop in the southeast section of the state, particularly in Roswell.
“We are trying to show how to recognize and prevent gang activity from spreading,” he said. “You have to partner with the effective agencies. It cannot be done alone.”
Tyrrell said the workshops will continue and the goal is to expand them to rural areas. Each workshop is tailored to the community’s needs, he explained.
“We want to build on other intervention strategies in place,” he said. “We also address other forms of youth violence. There are multiple reasons why children get into gangs.”
Overall, Tyrrell said he is very pleased with the progress being made. “This is a way we, as social workers, can get involved in our communities and it helps support social policy issues that are important to social work and NASW.”