Q&A: 2020 Hilton Humanitarian Prize recipient on creating cultures of healing

Homeboy Industries is the largest gang rehabilitation and reentry program in the world and the recipient of this year's Hilton Humanitarian Prize. Photo by: Homeboy Industries

Los Angeles-based Homeboy Industries has been announced as the recipient of the largest annual humanitarian award, the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize. Presented to nonprofit organizations that have made “extraordinary contributions toward alleviating human suffering,” the prize is worth $2.5 million.

This year’s recipient is the largest gang rehabilitation and re-entry program in the world and has been offering support and training to those formerly incarcerated for over 30 years. Homeboy Industries’ founder, Father Gregory Boyle, hopes the recognition of the award will help to highlight their model of creating a culture of compassion, tenderness, and kinship, which he says can be applied to other contexts and issues.

“The largest mental institution on planet Earth is the Los Angeles County Jail, which should indicate that maybe we're doing something wrong.”

— Gregory Boyle, founder, Homeboy Industries

“What if we were to invest in people? What if we were to see people as belonging to us? What if we obliterated once and for all the illusion that we're separate, that there's an ‘us’ and ‘them?’” he asked. “As a model — not just specifically a gang thing — Homeboy Industries has helped serve as an instruction. How do you get underneath what lies underneath a lot of social dilemmas, not just gang violence, but homelessness, mental health issues, and the like.”

Soon after learning Homeboy Industries had been named the 2020 prize recipient, Boyle spoke to Devex about the impact the award will have on their work, how their model is a paradigm for social change, and the lessons other organizations can take from their experience.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What impact does gang culture have on the socioeconomic environment of an area and how does it impact a community?

The Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize

Running since 1996, the award acknowledges significant efforts made by those working to improve humanity. As the largest humanitarian prize now at $2.5 million, the aim is to highlight the importance of humanitarian aid and spotlight those organizations making a difference. Previous recipients have included HelpAge International, The Task Force for Global Health, Shining Hope for Communities, and METAdrasi.

I buried my 235th young person and gang member [who was] killed, probably two weeks ago. So it's still there, but gang violence and gang membership is a language. The task of any society is to try to decipher what language this violence is speaking. Then you can look underneath it, "find the thorn underneath,” as one of the homies said. It's about despair and young people being unable to imagine a future. And it's about the traumatized [that] can't find their way to somehow transform their pain, so they just keep inflicting it. And then it's a story about mental health.

That's where we get pointed, to infuse hope to young people for whom hope is foreign, and to help heal the traumatized and damaged, and deliver mental health services.

How do you think racism plays into gang culture and incarceration and the other issues that Homeboy Industries is working to fight?

African-Americans make up 13% of the nation's population here in the United States, but they make up 40% of the homeless population and way more than that have been incarcerated. That's telling you that something's not right.

At Homeboy, we have an added complexity; you try to address mass incarceration as the failure that it is, but you also have gang members formerly incarcerated, who come to us from a highly segregated world. The Blacks are over here in this yard, the Latinos are over here, and the whites are over here. That's an added layer of complexity that at Homeboy we hope to be reverent of. It's hard to be facile and glib about that reality because it's so deeply embedded in their mindsets.

In religious terms, repent means to move beyond the mind you have. And so that's what Homeboy tries to fashion. How do we hasten that movement beyond the mind you have that sees gang members, rivals, and enemies, or see races as not belonging?

As the founder of the world's largest gang intervention and rehabilitation program, what does success look like to you?

In the early days, it was about jobs. “Jobs, not jails.” Nothing stops a bullet like a job. Partly because we were listening to gang members and they would say, “If only we had a job.”

Once we came to know gang members, it was a completely different thing. Then we knew it was about healing. Education may or may not help a gang member from returning to prison. A job might do it, but healing is forever. No healed gang member will ever return to prison.

Watch: Hilton Foundation announces the 2020 humanitarian prize laureate

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Probably 15 years ago, in the middle of our 32 years, we said, “Oh, that's what it is. Healing should be the overarching thing.” So we do all the menu of services that anyone would imagine — from anger management to therapy to tattoo removal — but all those things are secondary to the fundamental principle of healing that happens in a beloved community and a community of tenderness and connection.

Talk us through Homeboy Industriesmodel, how it incorporates that healing, and how it works as a pathway to social justice and a paradigm for global change.

There's a reliance that most organizations have on content. “Here's our program. Here are the 10 steps. Here's our curriculum. Here's the messaging that we inculcate to our participants.” Homeboy doesn't do that. Primary is context, not content.

If it's true that a traumatized gang member or a damaged person may well cause damage, then it's equally true that a cherished person will find their way to the joy there is in cherishing others and cherishing themselves. It's not about surviving as the fittest, but thriving as the nurtured; that’s the context. It's the secret sauce at Homeboy.

And thinking specifically of the U.S. context, do you think some reforms are needed within the criminal justice system to align and complement the work that you are doing?

Absolutely. Dynamite is probably in order here. The largest mental institution on planet Earth is the Los Angeles County Jail, which should indicate that maybe we're doing something wrong. We punish rather than heal, and that's an essential blindness in our society, born of a white supremacist, systemic racist notion.

More fundamental is the notion, as Mother Teresa said, “We've forgotten that we belong to each other.” The minute we remember that, it will mark the end of excessive use of force by police, which will mark the end of mass incarceration by the states.

There is a byproduct of our kinship, of our belonging, of standing against forgetting that we belong to each other. The byproduct is incarceration as a way to heal the wounded, but as long as there’s an idea out there that's truly taken root in the world, it's at the root of all that's wrong with it. And the idea would be this: that there might be lives out there that matter less than other lives. The minute we all choose to stand against that idea, watch the by-product, watch peace, justice, we watch those things take root in a way that's never happened before.

Are there lessons that you think governments or other civil society organizations can learn from your work and apply to their work in a low- and middle-income country context?

Everything is about something else. I've never seen this not be true.

In 18th century medical history when they were trying to deal with very vexing diseases and they didn't know what to do, they applied everything they normally would — hospitals, doctors, nurses, medicine — but nothing worked to address these diseases until inadvertently, and quite by accident, they addressed the water supply and the sewer system. Suddenly the diseases disappeared and it was because the diseases were about something else.

The trick in any country is to find the ”something else.” We always pride ourselves as human beings that we're going to address something head-on — poverty, racism, the criminal justice system — but all of these things are about something else. Try to find the lack of connection and kinship. How do we dismantle the barriers that exclude? All these things have a byproduct, which is a solution. It happens by understanding that everything is truly about something else — so find the something else.

Once again, congratulations on winning the 2020 Hilton Humanitarian Prize. What does that mean for Homeboy Industries, the work that you do, and how is it going to help you in your mission?

We’re eternally grateful to the Hilton Foundation. We were quite blown away and surprised by it. All these things become a validation and we hope it'll be a validation of a certain approach to the social complexities that every society faces. Homeboy has always wanted to be the front porch of the house that everybody wants to live in and stand for something beyond the services we provide.

We want to stand for something that galvanizes the imagination of people. What if we were to invest in people? What if we were to see people as belonging to us? What if we obliterated once or for all the illusion that we're separate, that there's an “us” and “them”? Homeboy posits that notion to the world and the Hilton Foundation recognition leads us to just another way to get that message out there; a message we all firmly believe in here.

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