Vol 3 November 2002       

gang markings and graffiti
From
Gangbanger
to Teacher
of Peace

with Bob DeSena

by Carol Hiltner

 
 

Bob DeSena is working on the front line with Brooklyn gang members — going beyond tolerance and forgiveness to unity.

A former gang member himself, he knows that in order to stop the cycle of violence, the kids have to be offered something better at a core level.

His passion is contagious. His story is sobering. And the challenges are both ongoing and critical: During this interview, Bob was interrupted several times to address emerging crises!

What kind of help does Bob DeSena need? Beyond funding, he would like our prayers and our spiritual gifts to help end the cycle of violence.

Carol: Bob, please tell us about what you are doing.

Bob: Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, has had a history of racial conflict. It's an infamous neighborhood. In 1982, an African-American transit worker was beaten to death by a mob. In 1989, a young African-American man was shot to death in a bias-related attack.

So Bensonhurst was — not is, but was — a community wracked by a lot of conflict. Twenty-seven years ago, the Council for Unity was born out of that conflict.

It started at Bensonhurst's John Dewey High School, one of the most innovative schools in the country at the time, drawing their pupils from populations all over the city. But the conflict between Blacks and Italians began to affect other ethnic groups, namely Asians, Latinos, and Jews.

In its darkest moment, it was bad enough that the board of education, because of security issues, was actually considering changing the school from an innovative model to a traditional one.

So I went there to intervene, to see if something could be done to bring these kids out of violence and see if there was some way to reverse these trends.

I got all the leaders together — it took a year — and at the end of that year, a miracle happened. Remember that these kids were gang leaders, they were racists, they were enemies. And at the end of that one-year period, they became friends, and they embraced unity as the only true way to be safe.

[At this point, Bob's cell phone rang. He answered it, then returned to our interview.]

I've got to keep this line open — and it's a propos to what we are talking about. There're some major gang conflicts going on in the Bronx right now, which I'm going to have to deal with, probably, before this week is out.

My background is in mythology, and it's had a profound impact on my life. It brought me out of things parochial into things spiritual. I have to tell you that the miracles I have witnessed in this program could never have taken place in a church or any other building, because I think this was a connection of souls from the most extraordinary circumstances. I mean, these people would be perceived as evil, and they ended up becoming saviors. They saved the school, and with the legacy they left, we've been saving schools and communities, and kids caught up in violent life-styles, for the last twenty-seven years.

So getting back to this year of negotiation and mediation: We decided to create a Council for Unity, and we based it on mythology. We knew that, for this program to be successful, we would have to create something that didn't exist.

Most schools have mediation programs, or they have clubs, but none of these things really addresses the deepest needs of children. So the gangs are left to do that. That's why gangs have tremendous appeal, because they cater to these needs. A gang will look at a kid and say, "Hey, listen, nobody loves you, you haven't got a family. You do now — now you're with us."

Carol: Core stuff.

Bob: Yeah, it's the truth. That's what myth is. It's about the deepest needs. For the first time, this kid feels safe: You're hooked up with us. You got juice, you got props, you got nothin' to worry about. You don't have any self-esteem? Now you're going to be wearing our colors. You're going to be tattooed, you're going to be scarred, pierced. You will reflect (whatever they consider to be the nation, whatever that denomination might be). Now, you're somebody!

It's a very powerful, powerful attraction for kids. There is nothing in the schools to compete with that. So for the cycle of violence to be broken, something had to be created that could compete.

So we took a page out of the gangbangers' handbook, and out of mythology, and we created our own mythology, which was more powerful than the ones that these kids were involved in. It was based on four core values — we call them the Four Pillars of Council.

The first pillar was Family. Join Council of Unity, you join a family. The difference is going to be that the friendships in Council of Unity will be based on your potential to grow and develop. In a gang, your friendship is based on your willingness to commit a criminal act. So that was the first line of demarcation, the first separation between one culture and another. And of course while the gangs offered loss of free will, ours offered all this promise.

The second thing was Unity. Because what the Council discovered, and what these enemies and racists discovered in the process of becoming friends, is that you can't have a safe school unless you have a unified school. So bringing everybody together meant there was nobody left to fight. Once you had everybody together, everybody was safe, and safe in the best of ways.

When you join a gang, you may get safety initially. But since you're in competition and conflict with other gangs, you inherit hundreds of enemies, some of whom you will never see, who could end up killing you! So the safety that we provide through unity is profound, because it creates peace. It ends hostilities.

The third thing was Self-Esteem. Our program is designed to showcase the talents, abilities, and resources of the kids that are in it.

And the final piece, which is equally attractive, is Empowerment. In a gang, you are not empowered. You submit. You do what you're told. You're dictated to. In Council for Unity, we reverse the process so you are empowered to run the program. Instead of the kids being dictated to, they literally run the program, creating their goals and objectives. And their interests are served by running this program. They are trained in organizational skills, and they are trained in interpersonal skills.

Now we took something else that is present in gang cultures, and is also present in ancient and primitive cultures, and that's the Rite of Passage.

As a youngster, in order to join a gang you have to go through some sort of ritual. You want to join a fraternity or a sorority? It's the same thing. In religion, we have bar mitvahs and bat mitvahs, confirmations — every culture's got its puberty rites to bring young people into adulthood.

We use one, too. Our kids are on probation for a year, and then we hold a ceremony.

For the probationary year, the kids are given a manual. They are required to know everything that's in it, and they are required to do two things. One is to select interpersonal goals that will help them form quality relationships with people from different backgrounds. That requirement was established because if someone joined Council for Unity and couldn't function in a diverse group, then that group would dissolve.

The other thing has to do with character development. They have to work on projects that meet the Council's mission. Those projects revolve around unity, safety, and achievement. So now youngsters will be organized in committees to carry out action plans that will benefit the school and all of the stakeholders in that school.

Carol: I presume that the kids are given coaching to help with all this.

Bob: Oh, absolutely. They actually go through a group dynamics/sensitivity group experience, and they learn how groups function, the roles that all groups need in order to be successful and dynamic. And then they learn to take on those roles, and all the communication skills that go with them. That's part of their journey.

The kids work with, and partner with, administrators, teachers, deans, law enforcement, parents' associations, custodians, kitchen workers . . . Whoever's in the school who has a stake in safety and unity is brought into this plan.

What we're doing — what the kids are required to do — is to create a community that is designed to promote a common good. And the common good of the building is a safe and unified environment where children can grow and develop and achieve.

These projects are all logged and evaluated, as are the interpersonal goals and objectives, and at the end of the year, the kids are inducted into the program in a beautiful ceremony where they take an oath, which is basically American values promoting brotherhood and sisterhood, service to the community, promising to resolve conflicts, to treat one another as family — all about service. And they become members for life.

This is mythology at its richest. That was instituted twenty-seven years ago, and the model has worked so well that now it is in nine states and one foreign country. All from six gang leaders. That is truly a miracle.

Carol: Why was it you who was called, and how did you know what to do?

Bob: My first experience teaching was in a school called East New York Vocational Technical High School, and they had a couple of riots during the '60s. The school did not have a student government that was reflective of the kids in the building, and they also had a mixed population of Italians, Blacks, Puerto Ricans, and Jews. In the midst of a pretty bad walk-out, nobody wanted to go outside to get the kids to come back in.

Somebody said, "Why don't you get that guy DeSena? He knows all these kids."

But I told them, "If I go outside, I'm going to come back with some issues that you are going to have to address, or I wash my hands of this."

So I went outside. It was unbelievable. I don't know, but they all went crazy. The kids wanted a new form of student government. They wanted to be involved in decisions that affected them, from curriculum to school policy.

The principal said, "Do it." And so I created this program called Students United, which was a prototype of Council for Unity. Actually, members of Students United got grandfathered into Council for Unity automatically when I left that school.

After three years of Students United at East New York Vocational Technical High School, the place underwent a renaissance. I got a Wall Street firm to invest money in a new curriculum. The kids were doing college-level work. It had been considered a vocational school where the the kids really weren't able to do that. We proved that wrong.

We started this literary arts magazine which triggered an explosion of creativity. We got a blackboard in every classroom, and those blackboards were filled with art and poetry. It was extraordinary.

The Daily News came along and did a story that appeared in the magazine section on the front cover, with a center-fold story on this whole explosion of change in this school. The people at John Dewey knew of my background, they knew I had done this work before, and that's why they asked me to intervene.

Carol: What was your epiphany that pulled you out of the gangs and got you into teaching?

Bob: Oof. That's something I really don't enjoy talking about, because it's a horrible life. It really is. It's dehumanizing.

You have to understand that if you are involved in gangs, if you're serious, you really have to be in love with death. Because if you're going to be a criminal, you can't be afraid of anything.

It's not a question of how tough you are. It never is. It's how crazy you are. People have to fear you because they know that you are savage and capable of unlimited brutality. That's the only way you can do business.

If you've got a gun, you have to be ready to use it. If you're afraid to use it, you're dead. In a sense, you're finished already.

But there was this older guy, about ten years older than me — and if you talk about an epiphany, or you believe in communities of souls that conspire to bring someone to a level of consciousness, I think this guy was "sent." He made me see my future in ways that nobody else could.

He introduced me to guys who were only ten, twelve, fifteen years older than I was who had done time. They looked like they were sixty. Bad teeth. They looked like bums. They were junkies. He made me see that the codes I was living by pointed to death or prison.

This guy began to ask me a lot of questions about God that I could not answer.

He was a major force in my life. He made me stay in school — I was actually in college at the time, but I was still brawling. I didn't get out of my neighborhood until after graduate school, so I was kind of stuck.

But what ended up making the biggest difference was how that friendship ended. This man was involved in heroin himself, which I really wasn't that aware of, and his addiction was getting worse and worse.

Anyway, I was supposed to meet him one night in this bar. I didn't show up, and he did. He was looking for me, out of his mind. Then he went to the Bronx to see his brother, who took one look at him and called the priest.

When the priest showed up, my friend took off. They ran after him. He ran up to an elevated train, threw a dollar at the toll-booth, leaped over the turnstile, and jumped in front of the train. Killed himself.

I was absolutely devastated. That did it. I guess I wasn't listening that good when he was alive, but I couldn't avoid hearing him when he was dead.

They gave me his street name. That was probably it. He came to save me, and I felt... well, it was an epiphany. I now felt responsible for returning the favor.

So I got passionately involved in my teaching, with a special passion for kids at risk. And here I am.

I got involved in mythology in graduate school, and eventually taught it, even wrote the curriculum for it at John Dewey. It's just been an incredible journey — Joseph Campbell, Karl Jung...

For me, there's a spiritual backdrop to the Council of Unity, because the study of myth really makes you aware of an inner force that is transmitting profound messages for all people at all times. Those messages come through dreams, through myth and religion. They come through literature and art. Myth is like those little pieces of bread leading to the castle.

You get back, and you're not in a gingerbread house, but you're in a place of great illumination. That's been my journey.

Carol: You were saying that you showcase the kids. How do you do that?

Bob: They run the program. The essence of the program — the perception of the program — is that it's empowered by youth. Of course there are times when I have to take meetings myself, but when principals and teachers, or an elected official, meet with the Council for Unity, mostly those meetings are conducted by our young people.

The stakeholders that get to meet these kids are in awe of their abilities. These kids really are creating a new image for young people, an image that is the opposite of "sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll." They are about service and commitment and community, about growth and development and the future. They are energizing to be around.

Carol: So, forgiveness. Is that implicit? Is that something that just happens as a result of the new information? Or is forgiveness something that you also work with them on?

Bob: Forgiveness is a huge part of what we do. If people are in conflict, that's the only way that conflict will end. That's why the Mideast hostilities, for instance, will never end until they get a new spirituality there, because both religions are believing in a God that endorses their violence. As long as they hold to those belief systems, they will be slaughtering each other forever.

In Council, the realization is that violence ends when one person says they're sorry and the other person accepts it. So forgiveness is the essence of change. Without it, violence never ends. You would have feuds and vendettas forever. The only way the feuds are going to stop is when somebody says, "Enough. I forgive you for what you've done. Don't do it any more," and the other party says, "I do, too, and I accept. Let's begin anew."

That implies forgiveness. You just can't forgive and not create something new, a newer value system. Otherwise you're going to slip back into where you were.

[The cell phone rings again, and Bob picks it up and handles the call.]

Carol: What about religious organizations? Are they helping?

Bob: That's one of the things that came up at the recent Fourth Neighborhood Watch Conference in Albany, New York, whether the religious communities, the churches and the synagogues were doing enough.

If you don't have two strong parents available, you're still going to seek guidance somewhere. And if there's no one there, then the street wins, because you will go to whoever gives you love and support. If it comes from a dark side, as far as you're concerned, that's the only side that you're witnessing, so that's where you go.

We need to get the religious organizations to accept the fact that as a religion they should not just be concerned about their own children, but about all children.

When all religions do that, these kids will be nurtured spiritually, enough that they won't have to be violent. Because these kids need to live in hope, and I don't think they do. And I don't think they're loved. They need love and hope, and in most cases I don't see that love and hope coming from our schools or our communities or our churches.

Carol: If our readers, people who are of the spiritual bent, want to support you, what are your needs at this point?

Bob: That's interesting.

They can get involved. The problem with the program is basically funding. That's a huge issue.

But people who are spiritual? First, they could pray for me. They could meditate on these things.

And I would like to hear from them. People who are spiritual bring great energy. They could do a lot of things. They could come and meet our kids. They could come and speak. They could bring their spiritual gifts, because if they have spiritual gifts, those gifts have to go somewhere.

[Another interruption from the phone.]

I think that spiritual people should look at what gifts they have that they want to give away. We will welcome those gifts.

Carol: This conflict that you are now working on [the cell-phone messages]. Is there anything that you want to say about that?

Bob: Right. I will be dealing with that, as we do all year long. When conflicts occur, the school system calls us, and we're on it.

Carol: Is there anything more you want to say?

Bob: People should dream. Under the most horrific circumstances, my experience has been that there are miracles lurking right around the corner for someone who follows a belief regardless of the consequences. For someone who follows a dream.

It's time for people to provide their spiritual gifts.

Or else get used to the violence we're witnessing.


Bob DeSena is founder and president of Council for Unity in New York City. To learn how readers can help and participate, he suggests that they visit the Council website at CouncilForUnity.org. "It's full of information."

Bob DeSena can be contacted by email at BobDeSena@aol.com.