Santa Cruz Good Times

Tuesday
Jul 07th
Text size
  • Increase font size
  • Default font size
  • Decrease font size

A Black Sheep from the Street

news1A former Salinas gang member dedicates his life to educating local youth on healthy life choices

By the time Willie Stokes was 14 years old, living in East Salinas with his aunt and three sisters, he was deeply entrenched in gang life. Stokes was addicted to hard drugs, and would not think twice about robbing someone or breaking into a home. He spent much of his childhood in and out of juvenile hall, spent the subsequent 17 years in and out of penitentiary, and ultimately served 10 years at the maximum security Pelican Bay State Prison.

If Stokes, now 43, could go back in time and speak to his younger self, he says he would say, “Look at what you're doing. Is it worth it?”

But because that is not an option, Stokes—who is now the executive director of the Salinas-based gang intervention nonprofit Black Sheep Redemption Program (BSRP)—spends his days sharing with kids the stories of his upbringing, his experience in a gang, and the time he served in prison due to his choices.

Stokes shares his experiences with young people who are going through similar things—such as gang life, addiction, and academic failure—to show them where their course will take them and that it's not too late to find another way. He speaks regularly at Santa Cruz County schools and the local Juvenile Hall, and collaborates with the Santa Cruz County Office of Education and the Probation Department.

“I'm trying to give them guidance and direction on how to get away [from a gang] without putting their lives in danger—how to just fade back,” Stokes says, explaining that walking away from a gang, as well as resisting initially, is dangerous territory. He says his decision to drop out means there will always be a target on his back.

“I'm not afraid, but I'm not stupid either,” Stokes says. “The way I look at it, at one point I was willing to die for that [gang] stupidity, so why shouldn't I be willing to die for something that could save kids?”

In his younger years, Stokes sold drugs for a gang and associated with its members, but was not a “jumped in” member until he entered the prison system. It was there that he became more involved and was able to grasp the scope of gang operations and hierarchy.

It was that vantage point that ultimately allowed him to see gang life for what it truly is.

“We're told that this”—gang life and violence—“is for the benefit of our people, our family and our race,” he says. “And as young kids, we hear about the money, the cars, the girls, the partying—the glamour side of it. It sounded good.”

But at Pelican Bay, where he says gang leaders were pulling the strings for what happened out on the streets, what he saw made his belief in the gang mentality deteriorate. Rival gang leaders were associating, collaborating, and even helping one another.

“They sit up there with respect for each other, and I said, 'What is this all about? You got us out here killing each other, and yet, you guys are sitting up here—me amongst you—and you're playing chess, living in peace and harmony,'” he says. “That was an eye-opener for me.”

Stokes says that the gang mentality, the concept of a higher purpose, and the radicalization of the youth is all a means for the incarcerated heavyweights to carry out their plans for crime and violence.

“It's a big old sham,” he says. “I couldn't believe in something that was a lie. But I couldn't just walk away—not say anything about it and let kids continue to get caught up in that lifestyle.

“Kids hear about the glamour side, but no one tells them about the real side—how we prey on them; use them; don't care about them,” he continues. “Because I understand [gang life], having been there, I'm able to tear down that belief system in a way that no one else can.”

The tactics older gang members use to indoctrinate young people are powerful. Stokes says that, having personally used these to rope kids into the gang mentality, he is now able to use the same methods to influence youth in positive ways.

“I'm thankful for what I went through in life because it's equipped me to help,” Stokes says. “Older guys suck kids into these gangs by making them feel like they're going to be somebody. Well, I do the same thing.”

Santa Cruz County District Attorney's Office Inspector Mario Sulay, who serves as the commander of the Santa Cruz County Anti-Crime Team—which includes the Gang Task Force and the Narcotics Task Force—says that gang activity is impacting an increasingly younger demographic, both on the sides of perpetrators and the victims.

He points to the drive-by murder of 12-year-old Joey Mendoza by five teenage gang members in August 2012. Five gang-affiliated suspects were arrested in connection with that murder this year on Oct. 15.

According to a new report titled “Santa Cruz County Status on Youth Violence” by the Criminal Justice Council (CJC) of Santa Cruz County, juvenile arrests dropped by 43 percent in the county between 2006 and 2012, but juvenile misdemeanor arrests for weapons went up 36 percent during that same period.

The report, which was released on Dec. 10 at a CJC community forum called “Turning the Curve on Youth Violence: Moving from Data to Action,” also states that from January to June this year, there were 81 gang-related cases involving juveniles—12 to 17 years old—out of 315 total gang cases countywide. In 52 of those 81 cases, a juvenile was arrested.

There were 15 cases of juveniles involving weapons. Four of those were for possession of firearms, six were possession of knives, and five were for other weapons, Sulay says.

“Unfortunately it's not uncommon that we find juveniles in possession of firearms or other weapons,” he says.

Stokes says he believes those increasing weapons charges have more to do with young people feeling unsafe.

news1-2As executive director of the Salinas-based gang intervention nonprofit Black Sheep Redemption Program, Willie Stokes (center) works with local youth on making positive choices.“You have these gang members who randomly target young kids,” he says. “It's the fear.”

On the whole, Stokes, who does about 20 presentations per year, believes the appeal of gang life for young people is decreasing. Of the young people he speaks to in classrooms and at juvenile hall, he says most don't want to

be involved.

But involvement is not as simple as whether or not a young person wants to be in a gang, Sulay says. Many of these youth are being raised in gang-affiliated households. Gang life is a comfort zone.

Sulay says pre-established data on youth gang involvement is almost non-existent, so most of what authorities are working with was gathered this year.

The county's Gang Task Force has a mandate to acquire statistics on the issue, such as those in the CJC report, to better identify what they are dealing with.

“This [data] gives us a baseline to determine whether or not strategies, programs, enforcement efforts—everything across the board—are having an impact,” he says.

Stokes says the most important way to prevent kids from becoming involved with gangs is providing them with resources after school during the “critical hours,” which he says are between 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.

BSRP, in partnership with Farley's Kickboxing Academy in Soquel, offers a program called Fight for Life, giving youth the opportunity to practice a variety of activities. The program currently has about 15 students, and Stokes, in collaboration with BSRP facilitator Rhea Hadzis, aims to start a hip-hop dance class as an additional alternative to hanging out on the streets.

“My whole mission is trying to create opportunities and resources,” he says. “We never know what's going to spark these kids' interests.”

Sulay has worked with Stokes on multiple occasions and is impressed with the work he is doing.

“I hold Willie Stokes in very high regard,” he says. "I think he's somebody who can really talk and relate to some of these at-risk youth because he's come from there.” 


For more information visit blacksheepredemption.org.

Comments (1)Add Comment
...
written by Desertmoonwoman, January 01, 2014
This is a true story of Triumph and overcoming obstacles.... I thank you for the work that you are doing, you are truly making a difference in the World.

Write comment
smaller | bigger

busy
 

Share this on your social networks

Bookmark and Share

Share this

Bookmark and Share

 

The Boards Are Back in Town

More than a century after a famed trio of Hawaiian princes first surfed in Santa Cruz, their redwood olo surfboards are returning to the Museum of Art & History

 

We Hold These Truths to Be Self-Evident

Saturday, July 4, is the 239th birthday of the United States, commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence (the U.S. astrology chart has Aquarius moon—freedom for its people, by its people). Cancer, a liberating and initiating sign, is the “gate” where Spirit enters matter. Cancer receives and distributes Ray 3 (Divine Intelligence) and Ray 7 (new rules, new rhythms, new free nation under God). Cancer represents an intelligent freethinking humanity that can and must create right economics for the world. This means a policy of sharing, an opportunity for the U.S. when Venus (money, resources, possessions, etc.) retrogrades July and August in Leo (the heart of the matter). The United States has a unique spiritual task for the world: to lead humanity within and toward the light, accomplished by its people who must first awaken to this task, learn discrimination and be directed by the soul to assume the Herculean task of spiritual world leadership. Let us review the first words of our Constitution: “We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this constitution for the United States of America.” Let us form that union together. The following is a review of the spiritual tasks for each sign. Read all the signs. They all apply to everyone.  

 

The New Tech Nexus

Community leaders in science and technology unite to form web-based networking program

 

Film, Times & Events: Week of July 3

Santa Cruz area movie theaters >
Sign up for Good Times weekly newsletter
Get the latest news, events

RSS Feed Burner

 Subscribe in a reader

Latest Comments

 

Lunch is Packed

Picnic basket lunches from Your Place, plus smoked chili peppers, and new owners at Camellia Tea House

 

What would you like the Supreme Court to rule on next?

Raising the minimum wage so that those that are in poverty now can have a higher standard of life. Greanna Smith, Soquel, Nanny

 

Bruzzone Family Vineyards

Bruzzone Family Vineyards is a small operation run by Berna and John Bruzzone. Starting out a few years ago making only Chardonnay, they eventually planted Pinot Noir on their extensive property and now make this varietal as well.

 

Ty’s Eatery

Pop-up hooks up with Santa Cruz Food Lounge for healthy comfort food