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Students Discuss Gang Violence

By Mercer R. Cook, Crimson Staff Writer

Christopher Yanov, founder of the mentorship group Reality Changers, critiqued current gang-violence prevention practices, promoting an alternative approach that focused on providing young people with options outside of gangs, in a talk in Adams Lower Common Room yesterday.

Yanov spent the majority of his speech criticizing current approaches to preventing gang violence.

“Prevention, Intervention, Suppression,” he said, rattling off the mantra of most gang-prevention groups.

Instead, Yanov proposed a different theory for preventing gang violence, which he called “Provide, Understanding, Transcend.”

“When you provide more options for [challenged youth], they come to the understanding that they have choices and then can transcend the [gang violence] in their neighborhood,” Yanov told the audience.

Reality Changers, a mentorship program that encourages first-generation college attendance, has helped its students attain over $15 million in scholarship money and claims a 100 percent college attendance rate for children who complete the program.

Yanov’s talk was co-sponsored by several Harvard diversity groups including the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations. Jesse G. Sanchez ’13, a former mentee of Yanov and graduate of Reality Changers, introduced the event.

Yanov recounted anecdotes from working with “challenged youth” in what he called the “probation capitol” of San Diego. He also criticized what he called typical prevention programs’ inadvertent advertising of gangs in their well-intentioned efforts to reduce gang violence, saying that he initially made the same mistake when he began trying to help inner city youth.

“Gang prevention programs, they don’t work because they are unintentionally advertising those negative behaviors,” he said.

Students who attended the event said that while Yanov had beneficial strategies towards gang prevention, much of what he proposed would not lead to widespread improvement.

“It is giving real options to youth,” said Karla Reyes ’11. “But I don’t think it was grass roots enough—change needs to come from parents and youth. It’s not sustainable on a large scale.”

But Sanchez said that he believed the event was a great educational opportunity for members of the Harvard community.

“This is a great chance for Harvard to see what the issue of gang violence consists of,” he said. “This issue impacts the Harvard community and beyond.”

—Staff writer Mercer R. Cook can be reached at mcook@college.harvard.edu.

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