President Bush and first lady Laura Bush are waging war on the rise of gang involvement in American youth. On Friday, the two spoke out at a charter school in Washington about their new youth initiative that will urge teens to shun gangs and make better choices for their future, according to The Associated Press.
President Bush proposed the three-year, $150 million initiative, titled Helping America's Youth, in his State of the Union address in January. Among the components of the program is an anti-gang program headed up by Laura Bush that will supply grants to faith-based and community organizations. It will specifically target children and teens between the ages of 8 and 17, the demographic most at risk of gang influence.
One-third of individuals under the age of 18 are now members of gangs, according to the Department of Justice. Males still account for 90 percent of the gang population in larger cities, but membership among girls is growing at a steady rate.
Anita McBride, Laura Bush's chief of staff, confirmed that the first lady has already been working with the USA Freedom Corps and the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives to discuss effective programs around the country.
A Better Way Inc. was one of 600 organizations whose representatives met with President Bush on Friday to discuss the implementation of the anti-gang initiative. A.V. Strong, executive director of the South Carolina-based nonprofit, said the president is looking to collaborate with members of a host of grass-roots programs that work closely with at-risk youth.
"The gang problem in our nation is terrible," said Strong. "It's really a work in progress, but [President Bush] is currently looking at our program as a model for the nation."
A Better Way's main program, Project G.O. ("Gang Out"), has been helping teens find a safe way out of gang life since 2001 by providing a haven for ex-members. The teens are offered one-on-one counseling every week to track their progress and are assigned mentors as part of the one-year program.
Strong said Project G.O., which mainly deals with teens ages 14 to 18, stands firmly by its 85 percent success rate. "One thing that we pride our success on is that we're able to build relationships with these kids and we become their support system," he said. "They trust us."
As a former gang member himself, Strong, who grew up in South Central Los Angeles, saw his family become a victim of gang violence when his brother was murdered.
"It's exciting, and the camaraderie [draws you in]," he said. "One day you're by yourself and the next day you have 30 guys who've got your back."
Parental support groups are an integral part of the program, Strong said, and parents are required to undergo classes at the same time as their kids. "A lot of parents come into our program thinking they're the only one going through that, and there's some shame and stigma attached to it," said Strong. "But once they get together with other parents, they learn to support each other."
Teens most at risk are referred to the faith-based program through the Department of Juvenile Justice, family court, walk-in referrals, and particularly schools and churches.
Strong sees the media, especially music videos, as playing a significant role in glorifying gang life. Next month he'll meet with rappers Ice-T and Ice Cube and actor Denzel Washington, who have expressed interest in joining the fight against gang violence.
In the fall, the first lady will host a White House conference to bring together researchers, community leaders and educators who want to find solutions to the challenges teens face today, according to her Deputy Press Secretary Peter Watkins.
"We can't do this without the investment of everybody," Strong said. "If this program is going to work, everyone needs to bring their best solution to the table, and then let's put it in action."