Former gang members are helping to end violence in L.A. through an awesome program.

Ex-gang members are taking their community back, one relationship at a time.

While growing up in Southwest Houston post-Rodney King, I heard a lot about the turbulence and gang violence taking place in South Central Los Angeles.  

All images used with permission from "License to Operate."

Shows like "A Different World" and movies like John Singleton's "Boyz n the Hood" showcased the impact of gang violence and the unrest between communities of color and police.


This was the post-Jim Crow era, and black people were being pushed to the poorest corners of large cities, areas that funneled the worst drugs to a group of people already struggling to survive. With the rise of the cocaine epidemic, a push for economic improvement, and a desire for brotherhood, many young black men felt forced to join gangs.

I listened to my mostly black neighbors talk about making sure the young men in our community focused on school and work, rather than falling into what was seen as an unforgivable gang lifestyle.

But for people living in L.A., getting out of those lethal neighborhoods wasn't as easy as just going to class on time or getting an education. For the thousands of young black men who lost their lives to guns during the '80s and '90s, there were few ways out.

Aquil Basheer remembers feeling forced into gang life as a teenager.

"To get people out of the gang life, you have to show them that there's something more out there," said Basheer. "When I was coming up, that something more didn't exist."

Basheer was born in Pacoima, a neighborhood in Los Angeles. He got involved with gangs as a teenager, but a short stint in gangbanging led him to a life he eventually realized he didn't want. He narrowly escaped a prison sentence thanks to some influential role models, but he says many of his friends got life in prison or ended up buried.

For many, seeing a family member killed or losing a loved one too soon can change everything. For Basheer, it wasn't a single incident that changed everything, but rather a variety of experiences that came together to make a big issue clear to him: The city he loved was becoming unrecognizable.

Eventually, Basheer and other former gang members decided that enough was enough.

The city they knew and loved was now a breeding ground for terror. And it wasn't just their male friends who were in danger either. Now, mothers were dying — and grandmothers and children. Boundaries no longer existed, and Basheer knew that he and others had played a large role in developing that culture.

"We had to bring an [option] to the table that would get individuals away from their mindset that [this type of] life was the way to go," Basheer says.

Basheer noticed that lots of gang members wanted to change, particularly when they hit their 30s. As people matured, they wanted a safer city for their own children.

"When people start having children and when they see that their brothers and sisters are at risk, they reevaluate things and start wanting to make some major changes," Basheer said.

But to do so, they needed someone with street credibility to step in and act as a mentor.

The former gang members got together and developed a gang interventionist group.

The middle-aged men — once some of the most feared men walking the streets — decided that their children and their community deserved better. Instead of searching for help outside the community, the men looked inward to figure out how to instill peace and restoration to a city that needed it.

In 2006, the community organizers came together and developed what they called the Professional Community Intervention Training Institute (PCITI).

The plan was simple: First, they brought in a group of community elders. These men and women would act as an anchor to people in a community in crisis, such as mothers who lost sons and children who lost classmates.

By training these elders how to deal with trauma and assist in stopping gang violence, safety nets are created. Going into the community to get a larger grasp of the needs isn't as difficult as it was before.

"It's operational protocol," Basheer said. "You have to create a whole new nexus for them to attach themselves to, to get away from their normal of gang culture — the thought they have to be better than the next."

Then, most importantly, these community elders show volunteers and workers how to navigate a given neighborhood, how to mediate in stressful issues, and how to create real conflict resolution that works.

It’s this dedication to conflict resolution that is sparking a rebirth in the city’s most plagued communities.  

According to the organization, PCITI has a 93% success rate, meaning that many who were caught up in gang life are now actively working toward other options.

On a human level, PCITI has managed to grow relationships with young people in the community, which is where the real change is starting to happen. Finding at-risk gang members isn't exactly difficult, Basheer says, because most don't hide their affiliation — instead, they brag about it.  

And rather than making exiting a gang the main goal, Basheer's team works to show gang members there are other options, a concept that hasn't necessarily been taught to many living in impoverished areas.    

To understand how drastic this improvement is, you have to know a bit about L.A.'s gang history.

Los Angeles has long been hailed as the "gang capital" of America. Currently, there are believed to be 450 active gangs in the city — many of which have existed for over 50 years. Collectively, it's estimated that 45,000 individuals have been members. During the late '80s to the early '90s, almost 1,000 people died due to homicide in Los Angeles every year.

It's no secret that black and Latino men were — and still are — particularly susceptible to gang violence. In 1996, 46% of all gang members identified as Hispanic or Latino, and 35% were black. And 79% of large cities reported gang problems from 2008 to 2012.  

While Basheer’s program is certainly a pleasant addition to the city, it’s just one piece to a very complicated puzzle that continues to take lives.

Even though gang violence was steadily declining during the early 2000s, L.A. recently saw its highest rise in gang violence since 2009. LAPD data showed that almost 60% of homicides were gang-related, putting a damper on an already struggling city.  

But that’s exactly why Basheer and others keep going: They know that the road to peace and stability is never smooth. Instead, it’s often turbulent and complicated.

“These are everyday people that are part of the solution,” said Basheer. “They aren’t necessarily police officers or firemen. They’re citizens that want to improve lives in their communities.”

Basheer has also taken this plan to various communities in South Africa and Europe.

Most recently, he spoke at a UN conference focused on bringing safety to some of the world's largest cities.

"Surprisingly, the international communities get it and are way more on task than [American] urban cities," Basheer said.

He's also gotten involved with the Black Lives Matter movement, and he says this is what shows him the plan has strong potential; if his program works, the template has to be able to be replicated in other besieged areas too.

Community policing is important and effective — and it could be one of our best ways forward.

After documenting Basheer's movement in the documentary "License to Operate," producer Mike Wallen says he was surprised by how well this system was working.

“I felt like I was from an open-thinking, progressive family, but you don’t know what you don’t know,” said Wallen, who grew up in L.A. After taking on the film production pro bono, he got heavily involved with the interventionists and says he listened more than he spoke.

“It’s really important that we all care about this, whether we’re directly affected or not," Wallen said.

As distrust continues between communities of color and police, Wallen is right: Programs like this are key. It's important for people to see familiar faces in positions of authority. Engaging both parties to create solutions is a tool that everyone can work toward sharpening.

"The goal is to create sustainable communities, which are violence free, that can create their own version of sustainability," Basheer said.

The bottom line is that gang violence is a complicated issue.

But the best way to combat it might be the most basic and the most emotional: reaching out to others in your community to promote human connection, support, and mentorship.

Many young people join gangs because of the respect that comes with it and the sense of community they find. And, certainly, one solution will not fix a decades-long problem. With more people like Basheer in the mix, it is definitely possible to create a culture in which gang violence becomes a thing of the past.

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Should a man lose his home because the grass in his yard grew higher than 10 inches? The city of Dunedin, Florida seems to think so.

According to the Institute of Justice, which is representing Jim Ficken, he had a very good reason for not mowing his lawn – and tried to rectify the situation as best he could.

In 2014, Jim's mom became ill and he visited her often in South Carolina to help her out. When he was away, his grass grew too long and he was cited by a code office; he cut the grass and wasn't fined.

France has started forcing supermarkets to donate food instead of throwing it away.

But several years later, this one infraction would come back to haunt him after he left to take care of him's mom's affairs after she died. The arrangements he made to have his grass cut fell through (his friend who he asked to help him out passed away unexpectedly) and that set off a chain reaction that may result in him losing his home.

The 69-year-old retiree now faces a $29,833.50 fine plus interest. Watch the video to find out just what Jim is having to deal with.

Mow Your Lawn or Lose Your House! www.youtube.com

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The world officially loves Michelle Obama.

The former first lady has overtaken the number one spot in a poll of the world's most admired women. Conducted by online research firm YouGov, the study uses international polling tools to survey people in countries around the world about who they most admire.

In the men's category, Bill Gates took the top spot, followed by Barack Obama and Jackie Chan.

In the women's category, Michelle Obama came first, followed by Oprah Winfrey and Angelina Jolie. Obama pushed Jolie out of the number one spot she claimed last year.

Unsurprising, really, because what's not to love about Michelle Obama? She is smart, kind, funny, accomplished, a great dancer, a devoted wife and mother, and an all-around, genuinely good person.

She has remained dignified and strong in the face of rabid masses of so-called Americans who spent eight years and beyond insisting that she's a man disguised as a woman. She's endured non-stop racist memes and terrifying threats to her family. She has received far more than her fair share of cruelty, and always takes the high road. She's the one who coined, "When they go low, we go high," after all.

She came from humble beginnings and remains down to earth despite becoming a familiar face around the world. She's not much older than me, but I still want to be like Michelle Obama when I grow up.

Her memoir, Becoming, may end up being the best-selling memoir of all time, having already sold 10 million copies—a clear sign that people can't get enough Michelle, because there's no such thing as too much Michelle.

Don't like Michelle Obama? Don't care. Those of us who love her will fly our MO flags high and without apology, paying no mind to folks with cold, dead hearts who don't know a gem of a human being when they see one. There is nothing any hater can say or do to make us admire this undeniably admirable woman any less.

When it seems like the world has lost its mind—which is how it feels most days these days—I'm just going to keep coming back to this study as evidence that hope for humanity is not lost.

Here. Enjoy some real-life Michelle on Jimmy Kimmel. (GAH. WHY IS SHE SO CUTE AND AWESOME. I can't even handle it.)

Michelle & Barack Obama are Boring Now www.youtube.com

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via EarthFix / Flickr

What will future generations never believe that we tolerated in 2019?

Dolphin and orca captivity, for sure. They'll probably shake their heads at how people died because they couldn't afford healthcare. And, they'll be completely mystified at the amount of food some people waste while others go starving.

According to Biological Diversity, "An estimated 40 percent of the food produced in the United States is wasted every year, costing households, businesses and farms about $218 billion annually."

There are so many things wrong with this.

First of all it's a waste of money for the households who throw out good food. Second, it's a waste of all of the resources that went into growing the food, including the animals who gave their lives for the meal. Third, there's something very wrong with throwing out food when one in eight Americans struggle with hunger.

Supermarkets are just as guilty of this unnecessary waste as consumers. About 10% of all food waste are supermarket products thrown out before they've reached their expiration date.

Three years ago, France took big steps to combat food waste by making a law that bans grocery stores from throwing away edible food.According to the new ordinance, stores can be fined for up to $4,500 for each infraction.

Previously, the French threw out 7.1 million tons of food. Sixty-seven percent of which was tossed by consumers, 15% by restaurants, and 11% by grocery stores.

This has created a network of over 5,000 charities that accept the food from supermarkets and donate them to charity. The law also struck down agreements between supermarkets and manufacturers that prohibited the stores from donating food to charities.

"There was one food manufacturer that was not authorized to donate the sandwiches it made for a particular supermarket brand. But now, we get 30,000 sandwiches a month from them — sandwiches that used to be thrown away," Jacques Bailet, head of the French network of food banks known as Banques Alimentaires, told NPR.

It's expected that similar laws may spread through Europe, but people are a lot less confident at it happening in the United States. The USDA believes that the biggest barrier to such a program would be cost to the charities and or supermarkets.

"The logistics of getting safe, wholesome, edible food from anywhere to people that can use it is really difficult," the organization said according to Gizmodo. "If you're having to set up a really expensive system to recover marginal amounts of food, that's not good for anybody."

Plus, the idea may seem a little too "socialist" for the average American's appetite.

"The French version is quite socialist, but I would say in a great way because you're providing a way where they [supermarkets] have to do the beneficial things not only for the environment, but from an ethical standpoint of getting healthy food to those who need it and minimizing some of the harmful greenhouse gas emissions that come when food ends up in a landfill," Jonathan Bloom, the author of American Wasteland, told NPR.

However, just because something may be socialist doesn't mean it's wrong. The greater wrong is the insane waste of money, damage to the environment, and devastation caused by hunger that can easily be avoided.

Planet

The world is dark and full of terrors, but every once in a while it graces us with something to warm our icy-cold hearts. And that is what we have today, with a single dad who went viral on Twitter after his daughter posted the photos he sent her when trying to pick out and outfit for his date. You love to see it.




After seeing these heartwarming pics, people on Twitter started suggesting this adorable man date their moms. It was essentially a mom and date matchmaking frenzy.

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