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Acting Together: Anti-crime conference tackles vulnerable youth, resilience to gangs

A poster for EndGangLife.ca, a police ad campaign designed to steer youth and others away from a life of crime. - EndGangLife.ca
A poster for EndGangLife.ca, a police ad campaign designed to steer youth and others away from a life of crime.
— image credit: EndGangLife.ca

"I kind of feel like I'm the after-dinner mint right now," said Dr. Michael Ungar, as the closing keynote speaker at last week's three-day Acting Together conference in Surrey.

Ungar, a Dalhouse University professor, was one of the academics at the conference, which aimed itself at the topic of 'Youth Strengths and Prevention of Delinquency and Gang Involvement: Academics and Community Acting Together'.

It was put on by the RCMP and Kwantlen Polytechnic University.

Ungar himself has been a social worker and a journalist, and he studies 'resiliency' all around the world, researching potentially vulnerable youth as his case studies.

"Resilience seems to be highly contextual," he said. "The amount of children who fit this (troubled) profile, who would be school dropouts, suicidal, or themselves into violent activities, we know that is a significant risk."

Ungar said he believes there are more than one or two factors that contribute to a child being vulnerable to gangs or to a troubled life.

"I wanted to debunk this myth that resilience is just this capacity to overcome adversity," he said on Friday. "That, to me, is a little bit shallow."

He said resiliency isn't just overcoming adversity, but also showing strength against adversity. And, it means "navigation and negotiation" – the ability of someone to adjust to new situations and uncomfortable situations, and to justify them to themselves.

"Kids who can navigate their way... and then are able to actually get those resources in ways that are meaningful to their communities, seem to survive well," he said. "And they don't slip into patterns like drugs, crime, and other issues."

Ungar said he believes there are seven things that contribute to a child's well-being, or lack of one.

1. The relationships they have with people.

2. Identity

3. A sense of power and control

4. Social justice, as in "being treated fairly"

5. Basical material resources

6. A sense of cohesion – to belong, to have spirituality, or a bigger purpose to someone else, etc.

7. A culture

"It's really hard to zero in on one of these factors," he said. "It's a package... when you give people a sense of being treated fairly, you also change their identity.

"When you all of a sudden make a space in the community where they don't feel so excluded, well that makes their identity.

"They (these seven things) interact, they're in tension with each other."

Ungar also touched on relationships several times, both with an entire neighbourhood, with friends, and with a child and his or her family.

"Most of these kids we work with don't have "well-functioning parents" so they find the capacity for those relationships else," he said.

Friday's keynote was a more theoretical approach from Thursday's event, when RCMP Chief Supt. Dan Malo spoke to the crowd about the police force's crackdown on crime in B.C.

"We're down in the statistics," Malo said. "A number of (gangsters) are in jail, a number of them are dead, a number of them have changed their behaviour and others we have forced to change their behaviour.

Three people have been killed from gang-linked murders in 2014. From 2007 to 2009, the annual death toll hit 36. (via Surrey Leader)

Malo also touched on the youth angle that Ungar would address the next day.

"Many of these young kids went from street level bullying to drug trafficking to extortion to contract killing in a matter of a few years," he said, "when traditional organized crime takes decades to do that.

"It needs to become part of the fabric of British Columbia that this kind of behaviour is not tolerated. We take our young kids, we turn them into superstars in our communities – not gangsters."

Michael Ungar speech at Kwantlen conference

Ungar began his speech on Friday with the example of a young boy in a small First Nations community who was just such an example – a superstar to those around him, despite his own fragile situation.

The boy had been removed from his parents' house and put into a foster home. Ungar told the crowd the young boy had been singled out by a local advisory committee as someone who wasn't using drugs, who was going to school regularly, and wasn't involved in criminal or delinquent activities.

"He was spending a lot of time leaving his foster home and going to another house in the same community, where his uncles and aunts lived, and his cousins and his nephews and nieces," Ungar said. "He spent a huge amount of his day making a genuine contribution to the care and welfare of his extended family, especially his nephews and nieces.

"He maintained a connection with family, cultural continuity... This is a great strategy, we thought."

Ungar said the house the boy would go to – where he and his crew filmed him helping his family, taking care of his younger relatives – was actually a hub of drug-dealing, and many of the people who would spend their day there were involved in gangs.

"He's leaving a "safe" foster home and he's spending his day – where we're filming him – in a drug house," said Ungar. "In a very odd way, he has actually found his own pattern of making himself resilient, but it's very unconventional."

From studies in Australia, Ungar said his research shows that kids who escape poverty do "worse, not better" because they people they're now around don't always resemble themselves.

"Unless we also change the racism that kids experience around them, cultural adherence is going to back fire," he said.

Additionally, children will negotiate and navigate their way through even the very worst of situations. The result, though, is often that "they ultimately get worse and worse in their overall sense of well-being," Ungar said.

"Kids actually who are being physically or sexually abused by a parent do better when they shut down emotionally," he said. "Now, that's not a long-term strategy."

Instead, it's an "avoidance strategy," said Ungar.

"Gangs can be an adaptive strategy," he said, adding that kids may change their lifestyle or be resilient to criminal or delinquent activies "when they find alternatives that still meet their same needs."

A day earlier, Malo spoke of the strategy the RCMP has taken to coax people out of criminal or delinquent activities.

Part of that strategy has been the EndGangLife.ca campaign, an ad blitz that focuses on the collateral damage – on the families of dead gangsters.

Another part, but in the same process, has been a training program that helps those who want to turn their lives around do so in a productive way.

"If they choose to exit that lifestyle, we're going to help them do that," Malo said. "We're going to support them because they're going to change their behaviour."

– Files and quotes from Jeff Nagel, Black Press (story link above)

EndGangLife poster

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