Nation, World + Society

UCLA professor gets schooled by gangs of L.A.

In her new book ‘Jumped In,’ Jorja Leap tries to transform public attitudes about gangs by immersing readers in the realities of gang life

Jumped In book cover

Jorja Leap could write a book on her work as a gang expert extraordinaire, citing statistics about probation, parole and recidivism from her longitudinal studies of Homeboy Industries and other gang-intervention programs aimed at giving the 80,000 members of L.A.’s estimated 1,200 gangs a new start.

She could write about her high-level posts as a gang policy adviser to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca and the National Institute of Justice, to name just a few. An adjunct professor of social welfare since 1992 in the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, she could write a scholarly book, an educational book.

Leap has written a book, but “Jumped In: What Gangs Taught Me About Violence, Drugs, Love, and Redemption” (Beacon Press) sprints way past scholarly and educational, aiming for the outright transformational. And it’s not gang members she is looking to transform as much as the rest of us, far removed from a world where a child or teenager is killed by gunfire every three hours and homicide is the leading cause of death for young African-American males. 

The book is an action-packed trek through 10 years as a gang anthropologist on the streets of L.A.’s toughest neighborhoods, where Leap has watched children die in pools of blood, met parents selling crack to pay for groceries, and learned from gang members who tell her how they joined to feel safe, to belong — and who can leave the gang only at risk of being killed by their homies.

But here’s the thing, Leap explained in an interview: Despite all the violence and mayhem, gang members and the people in their lives are just like you and me: human beings who need a good meal, a roof over our head, love and even a meaningful reason to be.

“These are our brothers and sisters,” said Leap. “They’re not the ‘super-predators,’ not horrible, evil people. People who are caught up with gangs are just like us. Truly.” 

It is only by a toss of the dice, Leap said, that people find themselves born in places like South L.A. or wide swaths of the San Fernando Valley where drug dealing, gunrunning or prostitution become a survival skill of choice. 

“Jumped In” introduces us to people Leap has come to know and even love. People like Mike Cummings. Now reformed, “Big Mike” was a notorious gangster in Watts during the late 1980s and early 1990s — the “Decade of Death,” said Leap of that time period. “That’s when we saw homicides of 1,000 per year in Los Angeles. It was a nightmare, a war zone.” Big Mike — 6 feet tall and hovering around 300 pounds — took Leap under his wing when she first hit the streets. 

“I’m gonna school you in the neighborhoods,” he told her. “It’s time for you to understand what’s going on here … things are really, really bad. We got innocent youngsters dyin’ every day.” Big Mike toured her around the massive housing projects of Jordan Downs, 1,000-plus “townhouses” controlled by the Grape Street Crips, and Nickerson Gardens, territory of the Bloods, the Crips’ archrivals. 

We also meet Ronny, a drug dealer who offhandedly tells Leap that he grew up living with 29 people in a three-bedroom apartment at Nickerson Gardens. 

“It was a lot of fun,” Ronny insists. “My dad was gone, and when I was 4 my mom got addicted to crack.” His father — who did time in prison for killing a man — beat his mother and eventually left her, at which point Ronny’s grandmother took custody of him. Ronny had two half-brothers, both of whom murdered people during the 1980s gang wars and both of whom are now dead. His family banded together and organized their own “neighborhood,” the Hillbilly Bloods, a “set” within the Bounty Hunter Bloods that call Nickerson Gardens home. 

And while Ronny has seen many in his neighborhood killed and has served time in probation camps and prison for drug dealing, he still fondly recalls that “I loved school and had great grades … and played every sport up to Jordan High.” He never missed a day of school because “I got a welfare lunch every day … most times that lunch was my only food.” 

And then there’s Joanna. “In the midst of my research, I start spending a lot of time with Dark Eyes, whose real name is Joanna Carillo,” Leap writes. “Joanna is a self-proclaimed third-generation gang member. She grew up watching her grandparents, parents, cousins, and uncles all caught up in the life of different cliques that eventually merged into [the gang] Florencia-13. Her father was killed in a drive-by shooting a week after Joanna’s 13th birthday.” After he died, her mother supported the family by dealing drugs, and Joanna joined the gang, surviving the initiation rite of serving as designated driver in a drive-by shooting. She has gone through several boyfriends and one husband — scars on her face attest to their abuse — and produced five children by the age of 30. Leap meets Joanna at Homeboy Industries, where she is trying to get straight and, perhaps someday, Leap writes, “have a normal family with birthday parties and friends, a life unfettered by drugs hidden in diapers or Daddy hitting Mommy. But she is not there yet.” 

Leap works hard to balance her passion for her subjects with pragmatism and to avoid romanticizing the gang life. Some of the people Leap meets are leading double lives: One minute they introduce themselves as gang interventionists, the next, Leap gets a phone call learning they've been arrested for dealing drugs. Others share their life stories and then suddenly are gone — killed.

Leap with former gang member Fabian Debora in front of mural he painted in East Los Angeles. Debora also created the artwork for the cover of Leap’s book.
Leap with former gang member Fabian Debora in front of mural he painted in East Los Angeles. Debora also created the artwork for the cover of Leap’s book.

“There is danger. I don’t want to minimize that,” said Leap. “I had to be very careful for a very long time” going into these neighborhoods. “I would never go anywhere without a gang member or former gang member with me. I always had a bodyguard.” 

Her affiliation with UCLA, she said, boosted her safety. “UCLA has this tremendous relationship with the community, and I’ve been able to be a part of that.” When introducing herself to people on the streets, she said, “I’m never ‘Jorja Leap’ but ‘Jorja Leap from UCLA.’ Once I say I’m from UCLA, they feel I’m not a snitch. I’m not just a person poking around or a journalist.” And while now she is something of a journalist in publishing this book, some of the people she describes are heavily disguised, at their request.

Another factor in her safety, Leap said, was people knowing “I’m not the police or working undercover for the LAPD (Los Angeles Police Department).” And while this was technically accurate, it was complicated. Because shortly after she started her work with gangs in 2002, she fell head-over-heels in love with and married a handsome widower, Commander Mark Leap of the LAPD. Which brought on repeated warnings from her contacts in the streets, “If they find out you’re married to LAPD, you could be killed.” 

With her husband since retired — “he’s five years out of the life,” as she put it — Leap’s safety quotient has gone up. And she is quite transparent about her marriage in her book, interweaving stories about Mark and their daughter, Shannon. The early years of her marriage juxtaposed with her gang work were not easy, she makes clear. 

“It was a very split life, kind of a multiple-personality disorder of a life,” Leap recalled. “There I was, living in a very middle-class neighborhood, where the streets are clean and life is safe … and then I’d get in my little Prius and drive to Jordan Downs.” And while her husband understood from the beginning of their relationship what her work entailed and has always supported it, that didn’t prevent long stretches of deep conflict. 

“There were unhappy times,” she recalled. “We fought. It was horrible although we had wonderful times when we weren’t fighting.”

One particularly painful battle erupted around her husband’s gratification that, after 9/11, about $55 million in federal grants went to L.A. law enforcement for counterterrorism — money that Leap thought could be better put toward gang intervention.

“The feds saw terrorism as the big threat,” she recalled, “and meanwhile, I was watching people die. I was going to their funerals.” 

These conflicts have ended, Leap said. And in her husband’s retirement, he has taken what Leap calls the “remarkable” step of participating in some of her projects and meeting some of her people. “They’ve gotten to know him. They’ll say, ‘Well, he was LAPD but now he’s OK.’ “ 

Gang conflict has also declined, she said. “The gang issue has changed tremendously in the past decade,” thanks to a push by law enforcement to contain gangs in limited “hotspots,” coupled with years of groundbreaking work by Homeboy Industries’ Father Greg Boyle and his gang-intervention peers across the city. The mayor’s office has also played a role, said Leap, who gives special credit to Deputy Mayor Guillermo Cespedes, director of the Gang Reduction and Youth Development program and, this year, a senior fellow at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs. 

One program from Cespedes’ office that Leap is especially fond of is Summer Night Lights, which takes place in parks in gang-impacted areas when rising summer temperatures, out-of-session schools and limited community resources traditionally lead to a spike in crime. 

“Every night during the summer the lights are on till midnight,” Leap said. “The police are there and former gang members are there … but they invite families, and there are games, sports activities and barbecues. If you went to Summer Night Lights, you would just see a bunch of families having fun the way any family would. You would not go, ‘Oh my God, I’m scared.’ 

“I want people to understand that it’s not all drama, it’s not all homicide,” Leap said. “These are just people who got caught up, as the homies say. They got caught up, and it could be you or me. I am utterly convinced of that.” 

Leap’s book will enjoy an official launch at the Luskin School. On Thursday, March 15, 5:30 p.m., she will talk about her work with the assist of “Big Mike” Cummings and other former gang members. The free event, sponsored by the Department of Social Welfare and open to the public, will take place in Room 2355, Public Affairs Building.

Read an excerpt from “Jumped In: What Gangs Taught Me About Violence, Drugs, Love, and Redemption” in the Huffington Post. Leap was also lauded last October in a Los Angeles Magazine article about five L.A. residents who make a difference because “their generosity is boundless and their belief in a better world unshakable.” Listen to an interview with Leap on KPCC radio’s “Air Talk” with Larry Mantle on March 14, 11 a.m.

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