Santa Cruz Good Times

Friday
Apr 18th
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

 

Growing Hope

Campos Seguros combats sexual assault in the Watsonville farmworker community Farm work was a way of life for Rocio Camargo, who grew up in Watsonville as the daughter of Mexican immigrants. Her parents met while working the fields 30 years ago, and her father went on to run Fuentes Berry Farms.

 

Cardinal Grand Cross in the Sky

Following Holy Week (passion, death and burial of the Pisces World Teacher) and Easter Sunday (Resurrection Festival), from April 19 to the 23, the long-awaited and discussed Cardinal Cross of Change appears in the sky, composed of Cardinal signs Aries, Libra, Cancer, and Capricorn, with planets (13-14 degrees) Uranus (in Aries), Jupiter (in Cancer), Mars (in Libra) and Pluto (in Capricorn), an actual geometrical square or cross configuration. Cardinal signs mark the seasons of change, initiating new realities.

 

Sugar: The New Tobacco?

Proposed bill would require warning labels on sugary drinks Will soda and other saccharine libations soon come with a health warning? They will if it’s up to our state senator, Bill Monning (D-Carmel). On Feb. 27, Monning proposed first-of-its-kind legislation that would require a consumer warning label be placed on sugar-sweetened beverages sold in California. SB 1000, also known as the Sugar-Sweetened Beverages Safety Warning Act, was proposed to provide vital information to consumers about the harmful effects of consuming sugary drinks, such as sodas, sports drinks, energy drinks, and sweetened teas.

 

Film, Times & Events: Week of April 17

Santa Cruz area movie theaters >
Sign up for Tomorrow's Good Times Today
Upcoming arts & events

RSS Feed Burner

 Subscribe in a reader

Latest Comments

 

Foodie File: Red Apple Cafe

Breakfast takes center stage at Gracia Krakauer's Red Apple Cafe Before they moved to Aptos, Gracia and her husband Dan Krakauer would visit friends in Santa Cruz County and eat at the Red Apple Café all the time. Then they moved up here from Santa Monica five years ago, and bought the Aptos location (there’s a separate one in Watsonville) from the family who owned it for two decades.

 

How would you feel about a tech industry boom in Santa Cruz?

I feel like it would ruin the small old-town feeling of Santa Cruz. It wouldn’t be the same Surf City kind of vacation town that it is. Antoinette BennettSanta Cruz | Construction Management

 

Best of Santa Cruz County

The 2013 Santa Cruz County Readers' Poll and Critics’ Picks It’s our biggest issue of the year, and in it, your votes—more than 6,500 of them—determined the winners of The Best of Santa Cruz County Readers’ Poll. New to the long list of local restaurants, shops and other notables that captured your interest: Best Beer Selection, Best Locally Owned Business, Best Customer Service and Best Marijuana Dispensary. In the meantime, many readers were ever so chatty online about potential new categories. Some of the suggestions that stood out: Best Teen Program and Best Web Design/Designer. But what about: Dog Park, Church, Hotel, Local Farm, Therapist (I second that!) or Sports Bar—not to be confused with Bra. Our favorite suggestion: Best Act of Kindness—one reader noted Café Gratitude and the free meals it offered to the Santa Cruz Police Department in the aftermath of recent crimes. Perhaps some of these can be woven into next year’s ballot, so stay tuned. In the meantime, enjoy the following pages and take note of our Critics’ Picks, too, beginning on page 91. A big thanks for voting—and for reading—and an even bigger congratulations to all of the winners. Enjoy.  -Greg Archer, EditorBest of Santa Cruz County Readers’ Poll INDEX

 

Trout Gulch Vineyards

Cinsault 2012—la grande plage diurne The most popular wines on store shelves are those most generally known and available—Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, which are all superb for sure. But when you come across a more unusual varietal, like Trout Gulch Vineyards’ Cinsault ($18), it opens up a whole new world.