Survival Skills

Chicago Gang Members Take a Challenging Leap

Magazine Issue
January/February 2019
A group of kids in life vests play on a dock

Vontay is looking at me straight in the eye, panic-stricken. “Momma Jo, get me out of here, now,” he pleads. “If we fall in, I’m gonna die! Momma Jo, d’ya hear me? I’m gonna die. I can’t see the bottom. I can’t see the bottom!”

I paddle toward him as fast as I can. “Vontay, you’ve gotta help me here. Paddle!” He stares at me, frozen. My heart is beating fast; if this 140-pound guy topples into the water, what am I going to do? Then I come to my senses: we’re canoeing in a pond. It’s maybe four feet deep. After convincing the young man to paddle to shore, I help him out of his canoe. “Vontay, we were safe,” I tell him quietly. “The pond is shallow. Even if we’d fallen in, we could’ve easily gotten to shore.”

He shakes his head, his breathing still ragged. “Momma Jo, black folks don’t swim. We can’t! We’ll drown!”

“Vontay, where did you hear that?”

“Everybody knows!”

Part of me is flabbergasted, while another part knows it makes perfect sense. “We’ll talk about this later in Circle,” I promise him. “We all should’ve talked before we got into the canoes. I’m sorry.”

Vontay, a 21-year-old African American man, is a gang member from the South Side of Chicago. He’s one of 20 gang members who are on a five-day camping trip with me and four other adults; we call these trips Passages. On this particular Passage, we’re set up on the grounds of an abandoned monastery in the Iowa countryside, which includes a bunch of rough-hewn cabins (former monks’ quarters) in the middle of a peaceful field with acres of prairie grass.

Other Passages take place in the woods, always in nature, away from the violent streets and abandoned buildings in the South Side. The young men, who range in age from 18 to 28, hike with us, build fires, meditate, do yoga, make amazing music, and most importantly, build trust and safety, which makes it possible to work on the tough emotional issues that matter to them.

As you can imagine, this is no ordinary camping trip. These guys have spent their entire lives in catastrophically violent neighborhoods, where there’s no guarantee they’ll survive from day to day. Most have suffered repeated abuse and severe poverty, seen friends and family members shot, stabbed, or fatally overdosed on drugs. Most have been shot themselves; some still carry bullets inside their bodies. Police shootings are a constant threat. Every one of these guys lives in daily fear of dying.

They, of course, are no angels themselves. Some have shot and killed others, and nearly all of them have sold drugs and guns. They’ve robbed and beaten people, many of them rival gang members. A lot of them have done prison time. Not surprisingly, every one of them suffers from complex trauma—which is why I’m here as a therapist, trying to apply what I know and use in my office in a place far away from the comfortable world I usually inhabit.

Later that evening, when we gather in the rec cabin for our nightly Circle, we talk more about Vontay’s canoeing experience and their other fears of being out of the neighborhood. Many of the guys had shared his panic; in fact, shortly after he’d come to shore, the rest of them had bailed, too. “It was mad scary,” says one.

I listen, and then throw out the question: “Who thinks your fear of deep water might have to do with racism?” Silence. Puzzled expressions. These guys know plenty about racism from firsthand experience, but this element is obviously new to them. They don’t know, for example, that nearly 70 percent of African American children can’t swim, compared to 42 percent of white kids.

“This is about historical racism,” I tell the guys. “In the slavery era, blacks weren’t allowed to learn to swim because it could be a way to escape, especially on plantations that were near swamps or rivers. Later, in the Jim Crow era, whites beat up black people who tried to enter public pools.” The legacy lives on: many African American parents never got the chance to learn how to swim, so they can’t teach their kids.

Some of the guys are nodding, while others knit their brows, not sure what I’m getting at. I know I’m sounding a little lectur-y, but Vontay’s crisis has given me an opening to talk about some of the larger forces that have shaped these guys’ lives. In my experience, the wider a person’s perspective, the more possibilities open up for them. And on this camping trip, the instructors and I want to take every opportunity to help these young men enlarge their vision of themselves. But I have to admit I’m often unsure what they’re taking in.

How Did I Get Here?

In case you’re wondering, I’m no wilderness maven. I’m the founder and director of an organization called The Center for Contextual Change, a clinic specializing in complex trauma and interpersonal violence. I do workshops and trainings around the country, mostly for other therapists. The point here is that I’m a white, well-educated, solidly middle-class, 65-year-old woman, who works mainly with other white, middle-class people. So how did I end up camping in the wild with a bunch of hardened gang members from a notoriously violent Chicago neighborhood?

One late November afternoon in 2017, I was sitting alone in my office in the near dark, aware that it was time to go home but unable to stand up and get out of my chair. Since the 2016 presidential election, I’d frequently felt glued to that chair. Most mornings, I awakened with a knot in my stomach. If forced to describe my state, I’d say it was one of helplessness, hopelessness, and fear.

As I slumped in my chair, I tried to talk myself out of my disconsolation, recalling the time-honored activist’s mantra that when faced with despair, take action. But I’d already tried that. I’d signed petitions, made contributions to a dozen progressive organizations, posted on Facebook, attended marches. So what? Each day, I was not only feeling my own sense of defeat, but absorbing the gloomy postelection mood of my clients and staff.

I’d tried all the grounding activities that had sustained me for the last 25 years—meditating and exercising daily, eating healthfully, talking to supportive friends and family. They were no help. Here I was, a seasoned trauma therapist, and I couldn’t get a grip on my own distress. But why would I? The country was going to hell, and I couldn’t do a thing about it.

Just then my iPhone vibrated. I sighed and considered ignoring it, but at the last moment, I picked up. A youthful male voice said, “I’m sure you don’t remember me, but I was in your class at U. Chicago five years ago.” He reintroduced himself—Ben was his name—and told me that he was now working on the ground floor of a local gang-intervention program in Englewood, a neighborhood on the South Side. “Great, Ben,” I said. “Work there is really important. Every day, people are being killed in their own neighborhoods.”

“Thanks,” he said. “But here’s the thing. Every time we meet with these guys and they share what they’ve been through, I think of you, and how you taught us about complex and historical trauma.” He cleared his throat. “We need your help.”

When Ben said those words, I immediately felt a call to action. A burst of dopamine coursed through my body. I straightened up in my chair. “Okay,” I said. “What can I do?”

Within a week, I was meeting with a man named Ra Frye, the founder and director of Pride ROC, the program Ben was involved in. Ra, an ex-gang member in his early 50s, had finally gotten himself off the streets after a childhood filled with violence and trauma, multiple incarcerations, and kicking a thousand-dollar-a-week cocaine habit. He’d become passionate about stemming violence on the South Side by helping gang members build better, healthier lives. Reflecting on what had worked to transform and heal him, he’d created a vision to help others in his community do the same.

Pride ROC operates several projects, including weekly support groups and daily meetings with a life coach, who advises them on practical matters: how to get enough food in the house, how to get and keep a job, how to be a consistent presence in the lives of their young children.

But the heart and soul of Pride ROC are the Passages, which give the guys a respite from the streets and a chance to work with their self-destructive behaviors and the painful issues that underlie them. As Ra described the process to me, I could feel how fierce, smart, street-savvy, and committed he was. By the time we’d wrapped up our meeting, I’d volunteered to help design the Passages and the group meetings to be contextually trauma informed. I’d do trauma work with the guys—however and wherever it could be useful.

Later, Ra would say, “You, my white Jewish lady, have come into my life so that, together, we can stop gang violence in the streets of Chicago.” We’d both laughed, knowing full well that roughly 100,000 gang members populate our city. Police records show that in 2017, Chicago had more shootings than New York and Los Angeles combined. So Ra and I chuckled at his grand pronouncement, but we were serious about trying to make a difference in at least one neighborhood. From people like Ra, I’ve learned you can’t really make change in an impoverished, exceedingly crime-ridden community like Englewood without grand visions and pronouncements.

But when I first meet the Pride ROC participants, sitting scattered around a room in a forest preserve on the outside of Chicago at one of the first orientations, they look at me with cool suspicion. I take a deep breath. “Hi, I’m Mary Jo,” I begin, trying not to betray my nervousness. “I’ve never lived on the South Side. I’ve never been shot at, and I’ve never lost one of my kids to the streets. I’m a white Jew of privilege.” Some of the guys now look at me with interest, but several keep their arms folded over their chests, their faces blank.

I soldier on. “What I do know about is trauma,” I say. “I know something about what a person goes through when they’ve been traumatized over and over again. I know what it does to your brain and your body and your heart. And if you’re interested, I’d like to work on that with you.”

“Hey, the South Side is dangerous,” calls out one guy. “Does your husband let you do this?”

“Fuck this,” interrupts a guy from the back of the room, standing up to leave. I later learned that his street name is Four Five, in honor of his pistol, the notorious Colt .45.

Ra jumps in. “Hey, hey! Every time I talk with Mary Jo—and I’m talking about dealing with my own stuff here—she helps me to untangle some of the nappy dreads inside my head. So, brothers, I advise that you listen to her.” A few guys chuckle at this. Four Five sits back down, grumbling under his breath.

Camp Gangsta

Prior to each Passage, we take the young men through a three-day orientation program in a nearby forest preserve. We hike, share meals, and get to know each other. All the guys here are in friendly gangs, meaning that they own the same side of the street, in contrast to “opps” (short for opposition), their sworn enemies. Most of the men first hear about Pride ROC from guys in their “mother hub,” which is the home of a gang member’s mom where they regularly congregate. One young man talks up the program; others apply. To be accepted, you need to meet one of the grim criteria: you’ve been shot, or you’ve shot someone, or you’ve lost someone to gunfire.

From the start, we make clear that this trip won’t just be some free-form ramble in the woods. Instead, it’ll be a highly structured process, focusing on developing self-awareness and healthier behaviors, while also making time for fun. We go over the schedule. Each morning, they’ll be getting up 6:30 a.m. (loud groans here) and hit the ground for Warrior Yoga by 7 a.m. Next, they’ll meditate, followed by a fruit snack. After that, they’ll do some hard-core aerobic exercise led by Buddy, an ex-gang member who got ultra-fit while in prison and then became a trainer after his release. Next, everyone will gather round for a brief prayer and a protein-rich breakfast. Then, they’ll have a little free time, followed by some serious business—a trauma education class led by me.

After that, the arts (music, spoken-word poetry, photography on their smartphones, painting, and dance), lunch, rest, sports, and free time, which usually means more music and games and dancing. Then, dinner, followed by Evening Circle, and finally, “freestyle,” which involves a kind of improvised rapping and dancing that every single one of them loves.

Sounds pretty good, right? Organized and therapeutic, challenge mixed with fun. But our carefully planned program of structured activities takes us only so far. What I’ve learned is that you can take the man off the streets, but it can take a hell of a long time to take the hyperarousal out of the man. It takes only the tiniest spark to ignite a five-alarm fire. Forget structure during these times of ignition.

This is why I believe our daily trauma education class is a vital part of the program. And I try make it as easy as possible for them to accept. Rather than use therapeutic jargon—or even emotion-laden words like anger or fear—I stick to down-to-earth terms like higher brain for the neocortex and lower brain (or even pea-brain) for the amygdala.

These guys accept that they go into pea-brain mode easily and often, honed by bad experiences now embedded in their nervous systems. But they generally believe that their supercharged reactions are right and just, even when they touch off episodes of serious violence.

Their number-one priority, they tell me, is to be respected. Anything that could be construed as an act of disrespect—from trespassing to talking to someone’s girlfriend to making a derogatory comment on social media—deserves swift retaliation. But as long as they subscribe to this belief system, and as long as their brains explode at the slightest provocation, the cycle of killing and misery will continue—not just for them, but for their children, and their children’s children.

Trauma 101

When we arrived at our Iowa campground, I made clear that everyone—everyone—needed to attend all the experiences on the schedule, including my trauma-education class, every day, no excuses. My goal was twofold: first, to help these men discover what they actually wanted in their lives, and second, to show them how they could reach those goals by soothing their perpetually hyperaroused brains and developing their problem-solving skills. In fact, everything about a Passage is designed to teach skills and soothe their bodies and brain; the trauma class is to help them make sense of it all: who they are and why they’re here and what we’re doing.

We began the first class by forming a circle around a large pile of sand and handing out Ziploc bags and markers to each participant, who labeled the bags with the life burdens he carried, filled them with sand, and put it on the floor next to him. Then we asked each guy to crouch in a squat while we handed him back his heavy parcels, one by one, as he named each of those burdens out loud. Here’s what this looked like for one of these men:

“Guns.” (I hand him a one-pound bag of sand.)

“Opps.” (I hand him a second bag.)

“Police.” (Now he’s holding three bags.)

“Xanax.” (The drug of choice for many of these guys.) (Now 4 bags)

“Baby Mamas.” (5 bags)

“Taking care of my OG” (Old Gal, his mom). (6 bags)

“No Work.” (7 bags)

“My Children.” (8 bags)

We enacted this ritual with each guy in the group. Pretty soon, these notoriously tough, macho guys began to groan under the weight of their many burdens. Squatting, their quads began to quiver, they squeezed their eyes shut, and they panted hard. Finally, one of them shouted, “I can’t do this anymore!” In unison, they dropped their burdens to the floor.

Afterward, we talked about these burdens and made clear that they didn’t have to shoulder them alone—they could get support from Pride ROC programs, Passages staff, and each other. They began to brainstorm about activities that could help them to relieve their burdens and make positive life changes:

“Bring the police on a Passage so we can meet with them.”

“Help us find good jobs.”

“Bring our OGs to Passages.”

“Therapy for our Baby Mamas.”

“Therapy for us.”

“More Passages.”

“Come with us to court to tell our probation officers what we do here.”

“Help get our music, poetry, and art out there.”

I emphasized that to get these things, they’d need to learn how to calm their chronically hyperaroused brains, which triggered behaviors that pushed them further away from their goals. We began to practice new, healthier ways to deal with their knee-jerk fury, such as deep breathing, walking away from a charged situation, anger management techniques, and having internal conversations with the different parts of their brains. Our daily practices of meditation, yoga, and exercise supported them in this work.

Circles and Squares

On the second day, the guys are hanging out during some free time when Ra and I hear loud arguing and shouted threats. The source of the dispute, we discover, is that someone has surreptitiously stolen another guy’s “squares”—cigarettes. It wasn’t just the loss of the smokes; it was a matter of injured pride. I see that Four Five, who’s already emerged as a leader of this Passages group, is among the angriest. “Nobody steals from us and gets away with it!” he yells.

We ask him for a moment alone and get right to the point: “Four Five, what’s your intention?”

His face tenses up. “I’ll get my bros and we’ll make sure he knows he can’t steal from us again. He needs to learn, and we gonna teach him.”

I look at him gravely. “You know, most of the time when you speak up in Circle, you say something incredibly smart and helpful to the other guys. We see you as one of the leaders, someone who has the potential to lead a Circle yourself.” I’m not conning him: this young man exudes unusual presence and compassion when he’s not flying into a rage. “But what you did just now? It doesn’t help anybody, including you. And I think you know that.” He nods, a barely perceptible downward head-jerk. “Let’s take a second, pause, and decide together how we should handle this situation.”

We spend a few moments in silence, and I put my hand on his shoulder; gradually, I see his fury subside. “Four Five, are you in full brain now?” I ask. He nods. Then we all talk. After a half hour, he and few of the staff decide to convene a special Circle that evening to discuss the issue.

“Okay,” Four Five says when I encourage him to speak first. “I know who stole the squares. If he tells us what’s goin’ down now, he won’t have to pay for it back on the street. Everybody cool with that?” Brief head-jerks all around.

A tense silence follows. Finally, a thin, soft-spoken young man clears his throat. “Yeah, I took it,” BoBo mumbles, staring at the ground. So far, he’s been nearly invisible in the group, mostly keeping to himself and marginally participating in Circle. “See, I didn’t get my fair share of squares before,” he says, referring to a couple of cartons of cigarettes that we’d bought for the guys, instructing them to share equally.

I’ve already noticed that BoBo had grabbed extra snacks throughout the previous two days, stuffing Cheez-Its and candy bars into his pockets and going back for more food over and over again at meals. When I note this, he admits that he has some “crazy stuff with food,” ducking his head in embarrassment. “I guess I’m always worried there won’t be enough for me.”

The support is instantaneous. There isn’t a guy in the room who can’t relate to opening his own family’s refrigerator and finding nothing there. “No way you’re goin’ hungry here,” says one. “We got your back on that.” Four Five adds we’re all here to take care of each other, and that the staff are here to make sure of that. But BoBo continues to look down at this hands in his lap; it’s obvious that something is still very, very wrong.

Four Five asks the young man more about his family and who he hangs with, and finally it comes out: on the night before this Passage, BoBo’s brother had been shot and killed by an opp. Now Four Five is drilling him with more questions. Who was the gang? Where did it happen? When BoBo tells him, Four Five’s face collapses. In a broken voice, he says, “Bro, them opps that shot your brother? They was lookin’ for me.”

The room goes still.

“BoBo, I’m sorry,” he whispers. “I’m sorry.”

BoBo is crying now. He chokes out, “So am I. You feel me? . . . So am I.”

Ruby’s Debut

Five years ago, when I turned 60, I treated myself to something I’d always wanted—a red convertible. I called her Ruby, and for the latest Passages experience, I drove her from Chicago to our Iowa campsite. Not surprisingly, the guys went crazy over her, and begged me to let them put Ruby in a music video they were making. You’re probably thinking, No, don’t do that! But I agreed.

That day, a young man named Tako 2x approached me after meditation with an uncharacteristic spring in his step. “Yo, Momma Jo!” he called out from across the room.

“Tako,” I responded, a bit wary.

“We aren’t comin’ to trauma class this afternoon cuz that’s when we’re takin’ Ruby out to shoot the video.” He grinned his most charming grin. My heart sank into my stomach.

Tako knew, as they all did, that showing up for trauma ed class was required—every day. I was annoyed, bordering on angry. “No Tako, that won’t be happening,” I said in my most assertive, don’t-mess-with-me tone. “You know you can’t cut trauma class. Nope. Not happening.” To make my response extra emphatic, I made a sharp, swift hand gesture, slicing the air horizontally.

The next thing I knew, Tako had jumped over three chairs, all six-foot-four of him. Towering over me, he snarled, “Fuck you! You aren’t telling me what I am or am not doing! Fuck this shit!” With that, he turned and stormed out of the room.

I was shaking, partly with anger but mostly with fear. At that moment, Tako exuded menace, something that felt like hatred. What might he do next? Was I in danger? Or would he just leave the group and take off somewhere? My own pea-brain was clearly working overtime, propelling me into a state of fight, flight, or freeze. Then, luckily, a small voice inside me said, “Isn’t it time to practice what you preach?” I managed to pause, close my eyes, and take several deep, slow breaths. As my brain shifted into a calmer state, I began to see reality: Tako had no weapons, and no place to run. Both of us just needed some time to cool off.

I took my own advice literally and jumped into the shower. As I stood under the cold water, I thought about the best way to approach Tako and knew we needed to have a CAT, a collaborative accountability talk, which is a process we all practice with the men whenever it’s necessary. In a CAT, two people in conflict have a conversation in which each takes responsibility for his or her own feelings, while the other person listens as openly as possible. Both behave in a way that promotes reconnection.

First, though, I had to find Tako. I searched the campgrounds for what seemed like a long time. Finally, I saw him off in the distance, sitting on a fence with another Passenger. He looked at me coldly, and I felt frightened all over again. I walked toward him carefully, just close enough for him to hear me, but not close enough to appear confrontative. “May I approach?” I asked.

He shrugged, dismissive. “Well you’ve come this far, haven’t you? You might as well come the whole way.”

I took a few more steps forward. “Tako, what happened back there for you? Tell me what’s going on.”

“What’s goin’ on is that I don’t like your attitude, Mary Jo,” he said, his voice thick with resentment. “I see it all the time. You think you know so much more than we do, and that what you’re tellin’ us is so goddamn important. You and that hand motion.” Disdainfully, he imitates me, cutting his hand through the air. “Shit, Mary Jo, you’re on a power trip for real.”

“Tako, do you think I’m on a power trip because I’m white?” I asked.

“Stop playing the race card,” he sneered.” I think it’s just who you are.”

I remembered to breathe. “I get that you think I’m on a power trip,” I say. “Can I tell you what I was feeling, what happened inside of me?”

He looked bored. “Sure.”

“I felt really sad and hurt that you valued time with Ruby more than you valued time with me,” I began. “You seemed to love the class yesterday, and I felt really connected to you when you shared your story about your mom and your brilliant idea that the word homeostasis was home and static, because your mom just wants you to stay the same. I was awestruck when you told us about her.” For the first time, Tako made eye contact with me. He looked surprised. “When you blew me off, I dropped—pow!—right into my lower brain,” I confessed. “My in-your-face talk and hand gesture were my ‘fight’ response. Your attitude kicked my lower brain’s ass.”

We both laughed, despite ourselves.

After a moment, he said, “A’ight, I guess I can see that.” He took a long breath. “I didn’t mean to hurt you, Momma Jo.” He hopped off the fence, loped toward me, and gave me a version of his gang handshake. Then we hugged. We hashed a plan to shoot the video at sunset, which Tako said would be even better from a lighting point of view. “You know, ‘magic hour,’ he said impishly.

A little later, when we walked into trauma class, he called the group to attention, “Listen up, ya’ll. Momma Jo and I just got our asses outta our lower brains!” The guys laughed, and Tako joined them. Then he turned serious. “But I’m not playin’ with you. This shit works!”

Making Music

If these guys didn’t have music, I honestly don’t think they’d be able to do the work of healing and growing. During our freestyle period at the end of the day, they create spontaneous rap songs and poetry, and perform dances that involve intricate, lightning-fast, gleeful gyrations, which seem to transport them to another realm. Once in a while, they’ll say, “Come on, Momma Jo, get up here and dance with us!” And I reluctantly do (which is not something you’d want to witness but turns out to be really fun). Mostly, though, I just watch these young men, who still have bullets in their body and metaphoric ones in their soul, but are out there dancing and rapping with something close to pure joy.

But they don’t ignore their pain. In a raw, unflinching song they wrote called “Anxiety,” the young men name and trace their own emotional struggles. You can’t hear the music, of course, so you’ll have to try to imagine its pulsing, haunting power. Here are a few lines:

I got mad anxiety!

I do not belong in this society!

Lurking, plotting, scheming, what you tryin’ to see?

Get the fuck away; I need my privacy!

I got mad anxiety!

I swear all these demons live inside of me.

Lately I’ve been trippin’, stressin’, trying to be

Calm, collected, chill to find serenity.

— Jebiga


I’ve been fighting this depression!

Meditating when I’m irritated has got my spirit better.


Contemplating if I should end it with a Smith and Wesson.

Can’t do that because I haven’t seen my children develop.

Insomnia been a problem, can’t sleep

Because I have a couple voices in my head that won’t submit.

My doctor don’t understand all this pain I’m going through, mental trauma.

— Tako 2x


When I listen to this stuff, I’m blown away. These guys blow me away. They’re honest, creative, warm, and motivated. In just a short time, their poetry, the music they create, has moved from drill rap (a style that originated in the South Side and emphasizes gun violence and gangs) to hip-hop lyrics of change and desire for transformation. Of course, these same creative, warm, motivated men are still burdened by violence and poverty, and they’re often angry and full of shit. Well, maybe not full of shit, but still definitely capable of it.

Our work is only beginning. After volunteering with Pride ROC for a year, and after coleading four Passages trips, I see how often these guys are still at the mercy of their amygdalas. Perceived slights can still enrage them. But I’m also noticing that their hyperarousal doesn’t last as long as it used to, and they’re less likely to lash out in violence. They’re becoming more responsible for their behavior.

Pride ROC reports that over the past two years, there’s been a 50 percent increase in participants’ employment, a 75 percent decrease in the desire to “hang out on the block,” and an amazing 98 percent drop in their contact with police. Lately, we’ve been involving their OGs in our Passages program, and these women are learning how to support their sons better in reaching their goals—as well as working toward their own.

It’s a bumpy, imperfect process. But it’s going forward. I no longer feel helpless. I no longer think of myself as a therapist with special expertise, but rather as a member of a community—of young men, moms, and volunteers—that’s taking small steps toward creating neighborhoods of peace and healing.


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Mary Jo Barrett

Mary Jo Barrett, MSW, is the founder and director of Contextual Change and coauthor of Treating Complex Trauma: A Relational Blueprint for Collaboration and Change and The Systemic Treatment of Incest.