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Fighting Gangs by Building Bridges

By Mike Signer | February 17, 2011 | 2 Comments

I recently interviewed Robert “Tito” Vilchez, the coordinator of the Northern Virginia Regional Gang Task Force in his office at the Arlington County Justice Center.  It was easy to talk with Tito—we’ve known each other since we were five years old.  The connections we share shows the promise of Tito’s philosophy, which is based not only on punishing wrongdoers but on building bridges and preventing the isolation that can lead youth to turn to gangs.

I grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in Arlington where the most exciting action for me was the new crop of baseball cards every few days at the corner store.  Tito was raised in a very different neighborhood in Arlington.  “It’s sad to say that in my neighborhood there was a lot of prostitution, drug dealing,” Tito recalled.  “There were gangs that resided there in my community.”

Today, this background gives Tito a special capacity to work with youth at risk for joining a gang.  “I put myself in the kids shoes now that I’m working with and what they’re going through,” he says.  “Sometimes these kids get involved in gangs and make the wrong decision.  But it’s never too late that we can change that child.”

Unlike some of the kids he works with today, Tito was fortunate to have a strong family structure.  His parents, originally from Peru, have a happy, 40-year long marriage.  They raised Tito and his brother to “take advantage of education we have here and in this great country, to take advantage of extracurricular activities.”

In addition to his parents, Tito was fortunate to have strong mentors.  He specifically recalls his warm friendship with Emma Violand-Sanchez, who taught him how to read and write Spanish at Key Elementary and later went on to become Arlington County’s first Latina School Board member. “I can’t tell you how important that is in this job right now that I’m bilingual,” Tito explains.  “I never forgot the language or my culture, the Latino culture.  That’s very important to pursue that and to teach our younger generation.”

Tito worked his way through college.  As a part-time student at George Mason University in Fairfax, he worked at J.C. Penney’s as a Loss Prevention Officer, apprehending shoplifters and embezzlers.  He had the opportunity to meet Assistant Commonwealth Attorneys, sheriffs, even judges.  When the opportunity to work as a Juvenile Parole Officer opened up, he took it.  Later, he co-initiated the Gang Intelligence Program, which ultimately helped him take his job with the Task Force.

He came up with the idea for coordination on the problem of gangs through personal experience.  “It wasn’t until high school that I started seeing gang activity,” he remembers.  “I saw the jump-ins in the school parking lot, in the bathrooms.  At that time, the police in the County were in denial that we had gang activity.”  The gangs, in Arlington County and throughout Northern Virginia, had the same intimidating, terrifying names you find across the country:  Tito recalls Los Vatos Locos (“The Crazy Guys”) and Los Locos Intocables (“The Crazy Untouchables”).

Tito had friends who ended up badly.  He says, “Unfortunately some of the people passed away from being murdered, some of them committed serious crimes and are locked up.”

Tito has seen great promise in programs that connect kids from very different backgrounds in social, extracurricular activities.  He and I actually came to know each other by playing on the soccer team at Key Elementary School in Arlington, a very diverse public school with bilingual education and a minority-white student body.  I still remember Tito as a strong player with a hard kick and a warm smile.  Though we had extremely different backgrounds, we became friends and have stayed in touch for three decades.

Tito credits programs like our soccer team for breaking down barriers.  “It’s an opportunity to meet new people, African-Americans, Caucasians, Asians,” he explains.  He looked at me and smiled:  “That’s how I met you, if you think about it.  We were very young, and we established a rapport there where you and I knew each other.  Obviously we may not have been enrolled in the same classes, but we acknowledged each other.”  He explained:  “We knew that if you needed help with anything or if I needed help, you knew who I was.”

His work on the Northern Virginia Regional Gang Task Force builds on his own experience.  The Task Force was started in 2003 with the help of funding secured by Congressman Frank Wolf (R-VA).  It focuses on three linked policy goals:  suppression (arrest and prosecution of wrongdoers), intervention (getting to at-risk kids and helping them avoid the path of gangs), and prevention (connecting with children before they’re at risk).

The program also shows the promise of cooperation—across governmental, nonprofit, even religious lines.  Arlington County’s counterparts are Fairfax County, the City of Alexandria, Falls Church City, Prince William County, and Loudoun County.  Tito and his colleagues routinely partner with faith-based organizations and nonprofits, such as the Catholic charity WorldVision and the Boy Scouts of America.

Tito told me a moving story about a Gang Task Force Soccer Tournament soccer team he started.  Watch the video here.  “A lot of the people thought I was crazy to do this because they thought that it would be a war on the field,” he says. “But the only war that we saw was it was competition.”  The tournament teaches members that “they can work together and accomplish something positive,” that they can “have a relationship where they get along.  And that’s one of the reason I think gang activity has declined in our region.”

With this sort of work, Northern Virginia has seen a decline in gang activity of 35%.  Tito is intensely proud of his work, which he believes is changing lives every day.  The Task Force’s offerings are diverse and aggressive.  One example Tito recounted with pride is a tattoo removal program Fairfax County has started, opening its doors to Arlington as well, called Skin Deep Tattoo Removal Program.  To gain access, gang members have to do 40 hours of community service.  A doctor donates his time pro bono.

Tito’s background bridging different groups helps him in his job today.  He notes that, “Even though we have a black president, there’s still segregation going on in the schools.”  He tries to break down those barriers simply by talking with kids and listening:  “I take advantage of going to the cafeteria, it’s more informal.  Kids are more at ease, they can talk to me.  I establish a rapport with them.”

His general approach is clear:  wherever possible, educators, parents, law enforcement officials, and civic leaders need to throw themselves into building bridges and resolving problems like gangs before they happen.  “We can’t sit behind our desk in our office and wait for the kids to come to us for the programs and resources that are available,” he explains.  “We need to go to them.”

Many affluent families already know about the programs and resources through their parents.  “But the kids that we’re dealing with, English is limited, they don’t have access to the Internet. . . . The child doesn’t fit in, is embarrassed, doesn’t know how to ask for help.”  This is why he frequents English as a Second Language (ESL) and special education classes.  “I think the schools are doing a great job,” he says, “but they need to improve.”  He gives an example of an athletic director going into those classes and promoting the programs that exist after school.

When I asked Tito what generates gang activity, he paused.  “One of the reasons why gangs exist is racism and discrimination,” he explained.  “Kids don’t feel like they belong to anything.”  He recounted an example of recently meeting with a group of kids at a school who “don’t fit in,” and the school “doesn’t seem like they accept them either.”  Through the Task Force, Tito is trying to “engage them in something positive.”  He’s not sure how his work will go, but he’s cautiously optimistic his approach will be helpful.

Today, the Task Force’s funding is at risk.  Tito’s story shows the promise not only of enforcing the law (suppression), but on bridging gaps and making at-risk kids feel like full members of society (intervention and prevention).  These programs deserve our support, as part of a broader effort to make progress by creating unity among groups in an increasingly diverse society.

Find out more about the Task Force at this link.

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