Jorja Leap could write a book on her work as a gang expert extraordinaire, citing statistics about probation, parole and recidivism from her longitudinal studies of Homeboy Industries and other gang-intervention programs aimed at giving the 80,000 members of L.A.’s estimated 1,200 gangs a new start.
She could write about her high-level posts as a gang policy adviser to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca and the National Institute of Justice, to name just a few. An adjunct professor of social welfare since 1992 in the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, she could write a scholarly book, an educational book.
Leap has written a book, but "Jumped In: What Gangs Taught Me About Violence, Drugs, Love, and Redemption"(Beacon Press) sprints way past scholarly and educational, aiming for the outright transformational. And it’s not gang members she is looking to transform as much as the rest of us, far removed from a world where a child or teenager is killed by gunfire every three hours and homicide is the leading cause of death for young African-American males.
The book is an action-packed trek through 10 years as a gang anthropologist on the streets of L.A.’s toughest neighborhoods, where Leap has watched children die in pools of blood, met parents selling crack to pay for groceries, and learned from gang members who tell her how they joined to feel safe, to belong — and who can leave the gang only at risk of being killed by their homies.
But here’s the thing, Leap explained in an interview: Despite all the violence and mayhem, gang members and the people in their lives are just like you and me: human beings who need a good meal, a roof over our head, love and even a meaningful reason to be.
"Jumped In" introduces us to people Leap has come to know and even love. People like Mike Cummings. Now reformed, "Big Mike" was a notorious gangster in Watts during the late 1980s and early 1990s — the "Decade of Death," said Leap of that time period. "That’s when we saw homicides of 1,000 per year in Los Angeles. It was a nightmare, a war zone." Big Mike — 6 feet tall and hovering around 300 pounds — took Leap under his wing when she first hit the streets.
"I’m gonna school you in the neighborhoods," he told her. "It’s time for you to understand what’s going on here … things are really, really bad. We got innocent youngsters dyin’ every day." Big Mike toured her around the massive housing projects of Jordan Downs, 1,000-plus "townhouses" controlled by the Grape Street Crips, and Nickerson Gardens, territory of the Bloods, the Crips’ archrivals.
Read an excerpt from "Jumped In: What Gangs Taught Me About Violence, Drugs, Love, and Redemption" in the Huffington Post. Leap was also lauded last October in a Los Angeles Magazine article about five L.A. residents who make a difference because "their generosity is boundless and their belief in a better world unshakable." Listen to an interview with Leap on KPCC radio’s "Air Talk" [specific link] with Larry Mantle on March 14, 11 a.m.
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