Lived It, Studied It: Redefining Education at Homeboy Industries

BY DANIEL SIMONDS | July 3, 2019

[Editor’s Note: This is the second in a three-part series highlighting the pursuit of higher education by members of the Homeboy Industries community, and their unique experiences and contributions in the classroom. The first installment, Homies Sit in Front: Homeboy Industries Assumes its Voice in the Classroom, can be read here.]

Gabriel Lopez’s (right) final semester at East Los Angeles College included studying American Social Problems with Roman Flores (left), a recent Homeboy GED-cohort graduate, current Homegirl Cafe staff member, and mentee.

Gabriel Lopez, a navigator at Homeboy Industries, was “pumped up” after taking a course titled American Social and Political History. Now, he could identify the government’s impactful role in society and in his life, and then, take further ownership.

“The same companies, such as the American Legislative Exchange Council, that persuaded lawmakers to make the Three Strikes law, mandatory minimum sentencing…are the same companies that own all the CDC (California Department of Corrections) prisons. . . In mass incarceration and with the 13th amendment, with felonies, we are legalized slaves,” Lopez said.

Homies do not just sit in front for show—these students who masterfully meld together lived experience and academic knowledge leave an impact. As members of the Homeboy Industries community internalize and contextualize course content, both intrapersonal and interpersonal applications are made. Homies, through their passion, desire to share their knowledge with their community, and through intellectual curiosity, exemplify a truly transformative education.

After taking a course titled The African-American in the History of the U.S., Lami Glenn, Homeboy case manager, began to see himself in his education, deeming the class “the history of me.”

Glenn believes he has much to contribute to this living document as a future professor of African-American studies, having been raised in South L.A., a victim of gang and police violence, and imprisoned, before assuming leadership roles at Homeboy. In the world of the humanities, Glenn can contribute to conversations on race and incarceration and power as a scholar grounded in research, yet also as a primary source. 

“You can sit at any table, and have any conversation. I wouldn’t have to excuse myself from the table if someone was here having a conversation about police brutality,” Glenn said.

Homies talk a lot about what they can add to the table, as though they are entering in the higher education world out of scarcity, which may be true, given the cycles that are broken through their achievements. But what is also emphasized is what record-free professors lack and how homies can fill in that instructional gap.

Jessi Fernandez, Homeboy trainee-intern in educational services, posited, “When they do ethnographic field research, it’s from an ethnocentric standpoint, at times, because they’re looking from out, in. But I’m able to give you a wider perspective on little things that get misunderstood. There’s individuals in class that go, ‘aw, I wouldn’t give my money to a homeless person because he’s probably just gonna buy drugs with it.’ But who are you to decide how he spends his money? You don’t know what that individual is going through. He just probably went homeless because he probably just lost all his family. Or, he went bankrupt. You don’t know these factors, and I’ve been in those positions. I’ve learned to have a sociological imagination.”

Jessi Fernandez (left), a Homeboy Industries educational services trainee-Intern, assists a fellow trainee, David Cedillo (right), in furthering his education.

UCLA Ph.D. candidate in sociology Jorge-David Mancillas recently visited a school-to-prison pipeline/prison-to-college pipeline forum. An Underground Scholar and current researcher, Mancillas added that lived experience allows you to know where to look in academic inquiry, highlighting the imperative for positionality. 

Sociologists Frances Maher and Mary Kay Tetreault said in Frames of Positionality: Constructing Meaningful Dialogues about Gender and Race, “Knowledge is valid when it includes an acknowledgment of the knower’s specific position in any context. Because changing contextual and relational factors are crucial for defining identities.” 

The literature indicates that we cannot truly understand the multitude of social issues that stem from gangs and incarceration without enlisting the expertise of a homie from the inside-in.

Lopez added, “You can’t be an expert on child neglect. You can’t be an expert on child abuse. You can’t be an expert on gangs because you just studied it. I lived it, and I’m studying it.”

Homies value application just as much as theory, as every American has some form of access to education, but most Americans do not know what it’s like to be a gang member. Barred from employment, housing, and even public benefits upon reentry into society, only the formerly incarcerated most acutely know the terrors of abuse, have endured trauma, and withstand stigmatization as second-class citizens. 

Yet, when reflecting on the system that forms when folks are pushed outside of mainstream society—gang involvement—Fernandez cites a shared vision, space for building relationships, entrepreneurial development, conflict resolution, and values of collectivism over individualism as outcomes. Now, firmly planted at Homeboy, the incoming University of California – Berkeley transfer student recalled the conditions that made gang life attractive.

“If I leave here, I’m not going to continue this school stuff. I’m gonna go hustle, and I’m going back to selling guns, drugs, or whatever it was to make money…It’s life. We’ve gotta pay bills and put clothes on our backs. We need to eat and pay the rent. That’s not going to be put on pause because you’re trying to do better,” Fernandez said. 

Fernandez now thrives as an analyst, rather than someone still immersed in the lifestyle that allowed him to merely survive. He recently shared his message of perseverance, potential realized, and inclusivity of formerly incarcerated people as the Class of 2019 speaker at the commencement at one of America’s top-ten community colleges – Pasadena City College.

“For The Hood,” inscribed in cartoon letters, accompanied by an Aztec warrior, and an “ollin”—an Aztec symbol for movement—illustrated this trailblazer’s graduation cap. If one thinks about the symbolism involved in Fernandez’s cap illustration, it becomes abundantly clear that the education which a homie pursues is deeply transformative. Through my brothers and sisters at Homeboy, I have been afforded an intimate knowledge of an education that is transcendent. 

Transcends systems of inequity. Transcends stigma. And, most importantly, transcends any conventional idea of what American education looks like.

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