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She rebuilds strife-torn lives of people in crisis

Professor Jorja Leap works with some of the toughest gangs in Los Angeles. (Photo by Reed Hutchinson)

Not long ago, if you asked Jorja Leap to work in a war zone or disaster area, she'd be there. Bosnia, Kosovo, Ground Zero, New Orleans — as an international expert in crisis intervention and trauma response, she has dug into some of the world's toughest spots.

But then the United Nations invited her to war-torn Afghanistan and Iraq, and Leap, an adjunct assistant professor of social welfare in the School of Public Affairs, stopped to consider her life as a wife and a mother.

"My daughter looked at me and said, 'Mom, you can’t go,' " Leap recalled, "and I said, 'No, sweetheart, I won’t.' "

Instead, Leap decided to employ her skills closer to home: in local battlegrounds for some of the toughest gangs around. A three-time UCLA alumna with a Ph.D. in psychological anthropology, Leap works with outreach and intervention programs spanning the gang-saturated territories of South and East L.A. and the San Fernando Valley.

Leap's territory extends to City Hall: She is Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's policy adviser on gangs and youth violence at a critical time: gang violence escalated 15.7% during 2006. Together, they have developed a comprehensive anti-gang policy — to be announced in the Mayor's April 18 State of the City address — that combines prevention, intervention for current gang members and help for ex-gang members returning home from prison.

Working with gangs, Leap admitted, "can be scary. They're big and they're bad. When I first showed up, it was like, 'Who's this white woman from UCLA?' " But over time they have come to accept her — even teasing her about her blue and gold "colors." In turn, she has come to understand gangs and the forces that pull people into them: unfathomable poverty coupled with extremely dysfunctional families.

"I don't mean families with problems like 'I lost my temper with my daughter this morning,' " she said. "[Gang members] have family members who are in the life — brothers, fathers and uncles in gangs. Their families have big drug problems, instability and neglect. They’re not taking care of these kids."

For many young people, Leap said, "Gangs are a better family. As I joke, they're stand-up, they're loyal, they're consistent, they have rituals — you might not live till you're 21, but they've got your back."

In L.A., police suppression of gangs alone is not working, she noted. "Police action takes care of the problem immediately, but it doesn't take care of the long-term problem. The police go in and arrest the bad guys but they don’t get the young gang members, so what happens is the next generation comes up and it starts all over again. In the meantime, those bad guys get released from prison, come back to the communities they disrupted and start up again with this fully trained new cadre as well."

The approach Leap has developed with Villaraigosa puts a bigger focus on prevention, with an emphasis on school involvement.

"I think the place that's got to replace the gangs is the schools," Leap said. "School has to become a sanctuary, a place where the kids are safe, where there's somebody to take care of them."

Leap is evaluating L.A.'s current efforts, as well as programs nationwide for the National Institute of Justice in Washington, D.C. She's also formulating a plan for future research and evaluation of L.A.'s anti-gang efforts by a consortium to include UCLA, other local universities and think tanks.

"This is not hopeless," she said of local anti-gang endeavors. "In fact, I would go so far to say this is not difficult."

One challenge to the success of these efforts is the city's shifting priorities, said Leap. "Sometimes it's gangs, other times it's terrorism or drugs." She knows the challenge up close and personal: She is married to LAPD Deputy Chief Mark Leap, who heads the city's counter-terrorism efforts.

"We spend a lot of time arguing about where the money should go," she said. "Being married to him has been very good practice for my policy work. Our discussion is ongoing, frustrating and wonderful."

Meanwhile, Leap's daughter, despite initial fears for her mother, has visited anti-gang programs with her and she even did a school research project on why people join gangs.

"She was very frightened at first," Leap said, "but once she got to know them, then it was, 'Mom's OK.' "

Updated April 13, 2007.

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