Homeboy Industries – A Story of Redemption
February 28th 2016, Written by Nathan Robertson
I’ve heard it said before that one of the most humbling human experiences is to meet someone who may have less than you materially, but who possesses joy and hope beyond your personal understanding.
This past week, I spent some time in Southern California doing workshops and meeting with a few clients. Friday morning was free, so I decided to head north up the 405 into Los Angeles to visit Homeboy Industries. For me, it was a humbling human experience.
HBI provides help, support and training to gang-involved or previously incarcerated men and women. Services range from college and technical courses, counseling, case management, and a tattoo removal center that has removed more tattoos than any other institution in the world. They put people on an 18-month program to prepare for integrating back into the community. That’s all I really knew going into it. I wanted to avoid scraping Google beforehand so that I could experience HBI with as little bias as possible.
When I walk in, it’s unclear to me if I am in an office space or a pep rally. The staff has gathered 75 or more of their walk-ins for morning announcements. Every single staff member that will be working with the walk-ins is introduced to sound of applause. An Irish-American Catholic gives a quick anecdote on the health benefits of laughing often. Where I am at is standing room only, and more people are coming in the doors throughout the announcement.
What was interesting to see was the diversity in the staff. Some of them were Caucasian, corporate, with buttoned up shirts tucked into slacks. Others looked like they came from the community – not just because of their skin color, but also because of how they dressed and looked. It’s not just a multiracial team, but also a team that clearly comes from a range of backgrounds.
The morning meeting breaks, and then the place turns into organized chaos as everyone moves to a class, meeting, or to take care of the community garden outside. I’m quickly passed on to my tour guide, Jimmy.
Here’s where the humility begins to kick in. I spent an hour with Jimmy touring the building and walking through the gardens outside, listening to his story. If you ever meet Jimmy, he will tell his story to you as freely as he did to me: he was incarcerated at 16 for killing a man in an act of gang violence. Despite the fact he began to reform and change during his sentence, it would not be until 30 years later that he was released. The woman he married during his sentence, who was waiting for him to be released, died less than a week before he was free. He came back into the world in June 2015 with his wife gone and her son in need of a guardian.
Now, this level of trauma is enough to shut most people down. Some may be able to power through, but they would do so with gritted teeth and a jaded outlook on the world. They would numb themselves to the pain in order that they may cope.
But not Jimmy. Jimmy is a man of hope. Even if his wife’s 14-year-old son is not his biological son, he said he must be an example for him to follow. Even if two-thirds of his life has been spent behind bars, he said he must be an example for his community. That’s why he came to Homeboy to start his 18 months, and that’s why he volunteers to lead tours. That he may share not only his story, but his excitement and vision for the future.
During this conversation my mind is reeling. As Indigo continues to grow into more inner-city schools, we are beginning to run into this undercurrent of gang culture. I was all questions with him, but the biggest question I had was, “Jimmy, how do you connect with someone if that person feels like they have no value, if that person thinks they can’t succeed?”
Jimmy looked at me levelly and just smiled. “It’s about compassion, brother. It goes beyond just understanding where they are at, it’s connecting them to people that have been where they are at, and can show them the way.”
I sat with my notebook afterward at Homegirl Bakery (a spinoff company next door that employs incarcerated women and helps fund the services provided at Homeboy Industries) trying to process everything. What does this mean for how Indigo approaches education, I wondered? How can I translate this back to what we do for students?
I suddenly recalled the words of an Assistant Principal at a Denver inner-city school with which we work. “Education is important. Sometimes, however, we as educators need to step back and realize that life is more important than education.”
Indigo as a company stands for expanding how schools and educators can interact with students, but this takes things to another level. How can Indigo support boots-on-the-ground staff in servicing not only students’ educational needs, but also life needs through Indigo? If life is more important than education, how can we help students conquer the problems in their lives so that they can move forward to excel in their future education and career?
A day at Homeboy Industries answered questions, but also created many more that need to be explored. However, it is the pursuit of answers to these types of questions that will make Indigo more and more relevant in schools.
If we are designed to be partnering with the schools to help them push students forward, then we have to meet them on all fronts. But when I meet guys like Jimmy, I know that any student, regardless of their background, beliefs or situation, can unlock their strengths and find an outlet that allows them to become fully realized in the person they are uniquely designed to be.
In short, it reminded me why I do the work that I do.