Combatting gang enrolment

We love complex problems and the challenge to simplify them so they become manageable. And few problems are as complex as the issue of criminal gangs. Unfortunately, gangs are a growing problem across Canada and they have become a matter of great public concern.

And gangs will continue to exist if they are able to attract and recruit new members. Worryingly, most of these new recruits are from school age kids, aged 12 to 18. As a result, we were charged with getting to the bottom of issues, incentives and influences that affect gang enrolment so that the Alberta Gang Reduction Strategy could be as effective as possible.

Our role was to develop an education and awareness strategy that would:

  1. Determine how best to deglamorize the gang lifestyle
  2. Determine the most effective form of messaging about risk and protective factors
  3. Determine the best way to communicate with the target audiences.

To do this we designed a research program using a variety of interesting tools: an on-line review of gang reduction campaigns from around the world, an extensive review of existing gang reduction literature, particularly summary studies developed by the RCMP, in-depth, one-on-one telephone interviews with experts and front-line police officers, in-classroom discussions with 11 junior high school classes (3 in Calgary and 8 in Edmonton), parent council meetings in Edmonton, community meetings with 3 First Nations communities, ethnic community meetings, focus group discussions with randomly invited members of the public, a quantitative survey validating findings, and a review of the relevant public opinion results provided by Alberta Justice.

Our challenge was so complex because gang enrolment is inter-connected with a number of other social issues including family violence, bullying, culture, education, and even town planning.

We identified four broad potential audiences for gang enrollment reduction: youth, ethno-cultural communities, Aboriginal communities and the general public. And while there are vast differences between these groups, a number of significant insights were common:

  • Gangs and gang activity are far more evident to youth than to adults.
  • The public has a much simpler view of gangs than youth – focused on violence and brotherhood.
  • Communities have normalized the presence of gangs.
  • The path to youth getting in trouble is common across many of the audiences: ethnic, Aboriginal and urban.
  • The biggest appeal of gangs to youth is not money, drugs or even simply belonging. It is control and power.
  • Youth need to be engaged before they start to become at risk – before age 12.
  • Cultural identity and self-identity play a strong part in the attraction to gangs.
  • Campaigns must be culturally sensitive and use role models from within the community.
  • Gang activity is more relevant than gangs.
  • Bullying and gangs are deeply connected.
  • When gangs hurt each other, communities see it as social justice in action.
  • The community sees violence and drugs more than it sees “criminal gangs.” And street-level dealing and using drugs are disconnected from gangs.
  • Gangs are a community problem, and the community needs to be empowered to speak up.
  • Society becomes afraid rather than thinking about how they might get involved.
  • Knowing how to talk to an at-risk youth is essential - when they are alone, not when they are hanging with their gang.
  • The school system is the best (or often only) place to identify children early who are at risk.

On top of these findings we investigated the power of messaging with kids, and the messages that most resonated with kids were those related to: Power and control, Drugs, Danger, Losing the joy and meaning of life.

And by far and away the most effective message that ties in all of these elements was:

Being in a gang is like being someone's bitch.

Based off these learnings we were able to develop an overall strategic positioning for future actions and messaging: Gangs are not what you think.

This was supported by two core strategic principles. The first principle is to talk about gang activity more than gangs.

The second principle runs counter to most gang reduction approaches: don’t just de-glamorize gangs, de-normalize them.

We developed an interwoven, and integrated strategy that works in concert to target at-risk youth, the general public, Aboriginal communities, ethno-cultural communities and influencers. This integrated approach is the only way that the AGRS can achieve its objectives.

A full presentation of the campaign research is available through a January 17, 2012 AGRS webcast at: http://agrs.justice.alberta.ca/webcasts/, alternatively, we’d be very happy to take you through further elements of the work, which we have full permission to share with you.

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