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A determination to improve

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MELANIE STETSON FREEMAN/STAFF

(Read caption) JOSE ROSALES (R.) FOLLOWS THE GUIDANCE OF EDDIE VALERO (C.), FOUNDER OF THE YOUNG MEN’S INITIATIVE, IN WATSONVILLE, CALIF.

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Everybody loves a fresh start, a clean sweep, hitting the reset button. But most of what is valuable in life comes as slow, steady, barely perceptible improvement. A Monitor cover story (click here) is an example of that. Patricia Leigh Brown focuses on a mentoring program in rural California that is working to wean young Latino men away from gang activity.

The success of the Young Men’s Initiative can’t be measured by a mass movement away from gangs. Gangs still entice young men and endanger public safety. That probably won’t change anytime soon.

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What is changing, because of the day-by-day work of Eddie Valero and others like him, is one life at a time. Instead of being pulled deeper into a fraternity of violence and criminality, the young men Mr. Valero and his colleagues are mentoring have formed their own brotherhood built around self-respect and education. Each of the guys freed from the thrall of gangs could become another Thomas Edison, Nelson Mandela, or – just as important – a quietly supportive son, dad, husband, or brother.

Gangs offer protection, camaraderie, and power. Those things have always enticed young men. Gangs usually start defensively: persecuted minorities protecting themselves, their families, their territory. Sometimes gangs make the leap to respectability. That can be seen in dynastic China, in feudal Europe, within immigrant groups in the United States, and in both the long-ago and the present-day Middle East. 

The Islamic State group began as a Sunni gang in Shiite-dominated Iraq. If IS were to survive, it might eventually evolve – perhaps as the Palestine Liberation Organization has done. But a new group would likely take its place.

That’s true of street gangs. They are not, I’m sorry to say, one of the many categories of criminal activity that have decreased in recent years in the US. The FBI concludes in its latest report that gangs remain adaptable and resilient, and “show no signs of diminishing.” So what’s the antidote? The Department of Justice advocates a patient, “weed and seed” strategy: Remove the worst gang members from a community via arrest and prosecution. Meanwhile, provide more attractive options – educational opportunities, mentoring, recreation, jobs – than gangs provide.

That’s slow work. There won’t be a victory-over-gangs celebration anytime soon. But as the Young Men’s Initiative shows, real progress is being made one young man at a time – by spotting those at risk and working with them, by encouraging them to join a gang motivated by achievement, dignity, and support.

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Another area where step-by-step, one-on-one progress can be seen is at the Monitor's new EqualEd site (click here). As editor Yvonne Zipp notes, because "schools can’t educate students and overcome the effects of poverty and racism in six hours a day," it is crucial to examine inequities inside and outside the classroom -- and, more important, to find the people and programs trying to reverse those inequities. 

Like the Young Men’s Initiative, overcoming educational inequality will take time. There’s no reset button. There’s just a commitment to improvement day by day, life by life.