A 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.
“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
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.
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