Trading Weapons for Salamanders

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Photo by Joshua Tree National Park via Flickr

At the start of her more than 30-year career with the National Park Service, Robin White, transported, among others, teen members of the Latin Kings, Black Gangster Disciples and other gang members from violent, isolated and insular Chicago neighborhoods to the Indiana Dunes National Lake Shore.

There, on Lake Michigan— an hour’s drive from the Windy City— park ranger White, using  nature as a tool, aimed to help those young people rein in their destructive impulses and make sense of the family and community dysfunctions that often fuel those impulses.

She has continued that work in her current posting in Arkansas, where the 58-year-old White is superintendent of the Little Rock Central High National Historic Site. Her youth volunteers include non-felony juvenile offenders doing community service at that federal park service venue—White raises money from private donors to underwrite some service efforts—in lieu of completing their sentences in detention.

With The Crime Report contributing editor Katti Gray, White discussed starting out as a park service maintenance worker through a Nixon Administration training program for public service jobs; her own troubled childhood; how her against-the-odds success story is a testament to what’s possible for floundering youth who wind up in the criminal justice system; and why she believes their futures should matter to everyone.

The Crime Report: Why have you maintained a career-long involvement with juvenile offenders?

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Robin White

Robin White: The late Harold Washington was mayor of Chicago when I started this work of bringing young people to the national parks, which can only thrive if it brings in people who reflect the realities and changing demographics of this country. Working with Chicago’s gang intervention network, we brought rival gangs to the national parks for overnight camping, to fetch water and put up their own tents, to watch maple trees get tapped, then head to the sugar shack where maple syrup gets made. These things—for these kids—can be life-changing events.

So, that busload of kids would show up and one of my colleagues would say ‘Robbie, there’s your group.’ And my colleagues would all disappear.

I told the young people to leave their weapons—brass knuckles or whatever they had—on the bus. The plan was to show them turtles and snakes and salamanders, to teach them through games tracking how fast deer run and what deer eat. This is stuff you don’t see and do when you come from Cabrini Green or the Robert Taylor Homes or other public housing projects. They had never seen the lake before, though they live in Chicago and the lake is right there. They never go out of their communities.

TCR: How did those young people respond to your efforts?

White: On one of their trips, one of the young men took hold of a snake that had been in my hands as I showed it to the kids. Well, this young man is handling the snake, gently. And I watched while admiration for this kid with the snake slowly spread across these other young people’s faces. Our goal was to help these young men and women interact with each other in positive ways.

One kid—he was 17—said he didn’t give a damn about glaciers and lakes, that he was going to die that summer, that he wasn’t supposed to be alive. He was real, real angry. Forty-nine kids surrounded me while this boy was going off on me. He could not penetrate that protective circle … I told him “It is so easy to die. It’s harder living. You are not a surface player; you have command in your gang, you’re running stuff.”

I told him I knew a little about that because I had been orphaned and on my own since I was 11, though, technically, my oldest sister was my guardian. When I’d run away, she’d have the police come find me … Later on during that camping trip, this boy asked me what would have happened to me if he’d attacked me. I told him I would have peeled his head off. I’m 5-feet, 4-inches tall, and weighed about 100 pounds at the time, but I’d been a very angry girl who would fight in a minute.

I also told him and the others about succession, about how one community prepared the way for the next community, and how we all have a role in that. I talked about owning your own stuff and not being the victim and blaming others. It’s easy to blame others.

A year later, he called and told me he had dropped his gang flag and that he was back in Puerto Rico with his grandma and that she was crying happy tears. Not every story turns out that way. But these things are possible.

TCR: You’ve replicated some version of those youth intervention efforts at each of the seven national parks where you’ve been employed. What’s the nature of your work at the Central High Historic Site?

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Photo by Cliff via Flickr

White: We’ve brought youthful offenders—kids convicted of petty theft, stealing from the corner store, truancy from school, sometimes violating probation—to the site for that last five years. We call them community cadets. When we fold them in with the nine Central High students who make up our annual Youth Leadership Academy—those nine are symbolic of the Little Rock Nine—no one knows who’s who. No one knows [that] this child or that child is going through a court-mandated community service program.

And I do not immediately tell them to pull their saggy pants up. I say “Come on in here. How many you know about Emmett Till, the Little Rock Nine, the Freedom Riders … that the Civil Rights Movement, in many ways, was built on the backs of youth? They say “Nope,” we don’t know.  I put on the Emmett Till movie, turn out the lights and sit in the corner. I hear some of them sniffling in the dark … They ask me, “Why did this happen?” They realize this is not so long ago.

The cadets have helped out when there are events with Harry Belafonte, Julian Bond, some of the Little Rock Nine … They’re exposed to civil rights icons. Over time, some of the saggy pants get pulled up.

Over the years, when, for example, the FBI or some other law enforcement or social service organization called me to talk about what I knew—I did training on gangs and gang lifestyles—I pointed at a kid and said ‘You’re going, you’re the public speaker, That’s your story; it belongs to you. That paycheck belongs to you.” I helped them to negotiate their speaking fees. What they have to say is worth something.

When I was doing this work in Albuquerque, we gave the young people video cameras to record what they thought needed to be recorded and communicated. They were looking at the number of liquor stores in the community, the vices in the community that were impacting them. They were developing anti-tobacco messages, their own anti-drug messages or ones regarding their educational concerns.

TCR: You’ve said there are some misperceptions about juvenile offenders and, perhaps, about kids most at risk for getting into the criminal justice system.

White: Some folks see three black kids walking together, and those kids automatically are labeled. Gang-bangers. That’s what some people think. That’s what they choose to think.

As for our community cadets, they’re a very diverse group of kids. Black, white, brown, every color. They’re boys and girls. And not all of them are poor, either.

What I know is that they are children. I’m trying not to put them in categories because they all have a need and I am looking at that.

TCR: How did you become attuned to their needs?

White: I knew some of that from personal experience. When I was 11 years old, I was running from Gary, Indiana, where I lived with my oldest sister, to a hospital in Chicago where my mother was. She’d gone in for heart surgery, then had a brain stroke and never came home again … She died … No one asked me what I was running from, and why I ran away so often. I was placed on probation and declared incorrigible … sent to a [detention home for justice-involved girls] and then into foster care. I believe the caseworker, Miss Brady, knew that I wasn’t incorrigible—that I was just hurting—but I don’t think she felt she had the power to do anything.

Also, as an adult, at one time, 13 gang members lived with me—and they were not one of the 50 foster children I helped raise over the years. Our household got no financial help feeding, housing and caring for those 13, some of whom my [two] biological sons had brought home. But the community helped. One guy bought us a cow and had it butchered. The police activity league planted a garden and we could get all the vegetables we needed.

What I found is that all these young people want structure. They did chores. They wanted to go to school … They wanted someone to care about them. These same needs, we all have.

When they have [needs met], you often can see the transition … You watch them start to stand in their own shine. This work is about recovery, discovery; it’s about repairing and building across communities, cultures and eco-systems.

TCR: Given your work with juvenile offenders, what message, relating to them, do you give others?

White: We’ve got to take the time to get to know these kids, to listen, read between the lines. We have own our bigotry and prejudices when it comes to them … I have—we have—an opportunity to invest in youth and to prepare them to sit at the tables were decisions get made. They will make decisions that impact us. If we don’t ready them to do that in the right way, we are in for some hurts.

We don’t think about that reality, not nearly enough.

Katti Gray is a contributing editor of The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.

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