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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.

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

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.

Courtesy of Amita Swadhin
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In 2016, Amita Swadhin, a child of two immigrant parents from India, founded Mirror Memoirs to help combat rape culture. The national storytelling and organizing project is dedicated to sharing the stories of LGBTQIA+ Black, indigenous people, and people of color who survived child sexual abuse.

"Whether or not you are a survivor, 100% of us are raised in rape culture. It's the water that we're swimming in. But just as fish don't know they are in water, because it's just the world around them that they've always been in, people (and especially those who aren't survivors) may need some help actually seeing it," they add.

"Mirror Memoirs attempts to be the dye that helps everyone understand the reality of rape culture."

Amita built the idea for Mirror Memoirs from a theater project called "Undesirable Elements: Secret Survivors" that featured their story and those of four other survivors in New York City, as well as a documentary film and educational toolkit based on the project.

"Secret Survivors had a cast that was gender, race, and age-diverse in many ways, but we had neglected to include transgender women," Amita explains. "Our goal was to help all people who want to co-create a world without child sexual abuse understand that the systems historically meant to help survivors find 'healing' and 'justice' — namely the child welfare system, policing, and prisons — are actually systems that facilitate the rape of children in oppressed communities," Amita continues. "We all have to explore tools of healing and accountability outside of these systems if we truly want to end all forms of sexual violence and rape culture."

Amita also wants Mirror Memoirs to be a place of healing for survivors that have historically been ignored or underserved by anti-violence organizations due to transphobia, homophobia, racism, xenophobia, and white supremacy.

Amita Swadhin

"Hearing survivors' stories is absolutely healing for other survivors, since child sexual abuse is a global pandemic that few people know how to talk about, let alone treat and prevent."

"Since sexual violence is an isolating event, girded by shame and stigma, understanding that you're not alone and connecting with other survivors is alchemy, transmuting isolation into intimacy and connection."

This is something that Amita knows and understands well as a survivor herself.

"My childhood included a lot of violence from my father, including rape and other forms of domestic violence," says Amita. "Mandated reporting was imposed on me when I was 13 and it was largely unhelpful since the prosecutors threatened to incarcerate my mother for 'being complicit' in the violence I experienced, even though she was also abused by my father for years."

What helped them during this time was having the support of others.

"I'm grateful to have had a loving younger sister and a few really close friends, some of whom were also surviving child sexual abuse, though we didn't know how to talk about it at the time," Amita says.

"I'm also a queer, non-binary femme person living with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, and those identities have shaped a lot of my life experiences," they continue. "I'm really lucky to have an incredible partner and network of friends and family who love me."

"These realizations put me on the path of my life's work to end this violence quite early in life," they said.

Amita wants Mirror Memoirs to help build awareness of just how pervasive rape culture is. "One in four girls and one in six boys will be raped or sexually assaulted by the age of 18," Amita explains, "and the rates are even higher for vulnerable populations, such as gender non-conforming, disabled, deaf, unhoused, and institutionalized children." By sharing their stories, they're hoping to create change.

"Listening to stories is also a powerful way to build empathy, due to the mirror neurons in people's brains. This is, in part, why the project is called Mirror Memoirs."

So far, Mirror Memoirs has created an audio archive of BIPOC LGBTQI+ child sexual abuse survivors sharing their stories of survival and resilience that includes stories from 60 survivors across 50 states. This year, they plan to record another 15 stories, specifically of transgender and nonbinary people who survived child sexual abuse in a sport-related setting, with their partner organization, Athlete Ally.

"This endeavor is in response to the more than 100 bills that have been proposed across at least 36 states in 2021 seeking to limit the rights of transgender and non-binary children to play sports and to receive gender-affirming medical care with the support of their parents and doctors," Amita says.

In 2017, Mirror Memoirs held its first gathering, which was attended by 31 people. Today, the organization is a fiscally sponsored, national nonprofit with two staff members, a board of 10 people, a leadership council of seven people, and 500 members nationally.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, they created a mutual aid fund for the LGBTQIA+ community of color and were able to raise a quarter-million dollars. They received 2,509 applications for assistance, and in the end, they decided to split the money evenly between each applicant.

While they're still using storytelling as the building block of their work, they're also engaging in policy and advocacy work, leadership development, and hosting monthly member meetings online.

For their work, Amita is one of Tory's Burch's Empowered Women. Their donation will go to Mirror Memoirs to help fund production costs for their new theater project, "Transmutation: A Ceremony," featuring four Black transgender, intersex, and non-binary women and femmes who live in California.

"I'm grateful to every single child sexual survivor who has ever disclosed their truth to me," Amita says. "I know another world is possible, and I know survivors will build it, together with all the people who love us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons

Wil Wheaton speaking to an audience at 2019 Wondercon.

In an era of debates over cancel culture and increased accountability for people with horrendous views and behaviors, the question of art vs. artist is a tricky one. When you find out an actor whose work you enjoy is blatantly racist and anti-semitic in real life, does that realization ruin every movie they've been a part of? What about an author who has expressed harmful opinions about a marginalized group? What about a smart, witty comedian who turns out to be a serial sexual assaulter? Where do you draw the line between a creator and their creation?

As someone with his feet in both worlds, actor Wil Wheaton weighed in on that question and offered a refreshingly reasonable perspective.

A reader who goes by @avinlander asked Wheaton on Tumblr:

"Question: I have more of an opinion question for you. When fans of things hear about misconduct happening on sets/behind-the-scenes are they allowed to still enjoy the thing? Or should it be boycotted completely? Example: I've been a major fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer since I was a teenager and it was currently airing. I really nerded out on it and when I lost my Dad at age 16 'The Body' episode had me in such cathartic tears. Now we know about Joss Whedon. I haven't rewatched a single episode since his behavior came to light. As a fan, do I respectfully have to just box that away? Is it disrespectful of the actors that went through it to knowingly keep watching?"

And Wheaton offered this response, which he shared on Facebook:

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When a pet is admitted to a shelter it can be a traumatizing experience. Many are afraid of their new surroundings and are far from comfortable showing off their unique personalities. The problem is that's when many of them have their photos taken to appear in online searches.

Chewy, the pet retailer who has dedicated themselves to supporting shelters and rescues throughout the country, recognized the important work of a couple in Tampa, FL who have been taking professional photos of shelter pets to help get them adopted.

"If it's a photo of a scared animal, most people, subconsciously or even consciously, are going to skip over it," pet photographer Adam Goldberg says. "They can't visualize that dog in their home."

Adam realized the importance of quality shelter photos while working as a social media specialist for the Humane Society of Broward County in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

"The photos were taken top-down so you couldn't see the size of the pet, and the flash would create these red eyes," he recalls. "Sometimes [volunteers] would shoot the photos through the chain-link fences."

That's why Adam and his wife, Mary, have spent much of their free time over the past five years photographing over 1,200 shelter animals to show off their unique personalities to potential adoptive families. The Goldbergs' wonderful work was recently profiled by Chewy in the video above entitled, "A Day in the Life of a Shelter Pet Photographer."