December 27, 2006

Gang Seminar Draws Crowds

Most local people like to believe gangs of thugs roam upIsland and in the city, but not here. Think again.

Yanyka Troutman's grandmother has three masters degrees. Her mother is a social worker. Other family members are military officers and lawyers. Pretty, well dressed and articulate, she admits that she is not the "typical visual of a female gang member."

Although she sports no facial scars from "buck-fifties," slashes requiring 150 stitches, make no mistake, Troutman, born in the Bronx, was once a hard-core leader of the Bloods, one of the nation's most well-known and vicious gangs.

Although she comes from a stereotypically "good" family, Troutman grew up with a single mother and two younger sisters whom she was expected to help raise. Forced to forego teen activities in favor of chores, she was angry and isolated. "I needed a place to feel like I belonged."

At 14, Troutman met members of the Bloods who offered "the opportunity to be a part of what I was missing."

Unlike some Bloodettes, who earn gang respect by becoming a "Bloods slut" and prostituting themselves, Troutman was "jumped in" to the gang by allowing herself to be beaten in order to gain membership. "I was jumped by five guys and I held my own."

Like Troutman, by the time Sean "Dino" Johnson was 14, he was trafficking drugs and guns to different states. Deeply entrenched in gang lifestyle, he spent every birthday from his 25th to his 40th behind bars.

Both Troutman and keynote speaker Johnson told their stories at last week's East End Gang Awareness 103 seminar, held at The Inn at East Wind in Wading River. Over 300 attended workshops addressing the very real threat of gangs on the East End today.

The seminar was organized by the East End Gang Awareness Committee, a group of professionals and community members who work with and care about East End youth. The committee, comprised of residents, public and private youth agencies, law enforcement representatives, school personnel and members of the faith community, has been meeting since the fall of 2003 to develop strategies to address the emerging gang problem in East End communities.

And it is a problem. Signs of gang activity are seeping onto East End streets, symbolized by incidents of violence as well as by graffiti and the wearing of certain colors and signs observed in local hamlets.

Riverhead Town Police Chief David Hagermiller said the police department noticed "a bit of a decrease" in criminal activity related to gangs after "an intensive six-week crackdown" by a gang task force last fall.

But, despite a decrease in gang-related crime this year, gangs are a real fear and Hagermiller stresses vigilance and education, which was the focus of the seminar's work sessions on subjects ranging from cyber bullying to law enforcement alternatives and therapeutic interventions.

Riverhead Town Supervisor Phil Cardinale said that he and members of the Riverhead Town Board, including Councilpersons Barbara Blass and George Bartunek, were present to take a stand against gangs: "It's time to collaborate to address the problem, not ignore it, ostrich-like."

Today, both Troutman and Johnson have chosen new destinies after joining the Council for Unity, a New York City based-organization with a 30-year history of promoting inter-group relations and reducing violence in schools and communities, and which was also the focus of workshops at the seminar.

Troutman, after being kicked out of a series of schools, found her "last chance" in Columbus High School's Council for Unity class: "It was the perfect opportunity for me to change, to be a positive role model for my little sisters."

Utilizing her innate leadership abilities for good, Troutman became president of the Council for Unity in her school and signed on for a stint in the military, heading to college with a 3.8 grade point average. Troutman is now 22, attending Baruch College, and works at a corporate law firm. "You can be a leader. It can happen."

Johnson agreed: "There are a lot of intelligent young men and women wasting their talents in the streets."

After Council for Unity founder Robert DeSena reached out to Johnson in maximum security prison, hugging him and telling him "you're needed out there," the inmate turned his life around.

Today, Johnson works as an outreach and site coordinator for the council and has realized his acting dreams as a Screen Actors Guild member.

Hagermiller said he first met Johnson when local gang leaders "on a self-destruct mission" had the threat of violence simmering on Riverhead streets. Johnson "stepped right up" and eased tensions.

Solutions begin with understanding — kids, stressed Johnson and Troutman, need a positive support system at home, school and the community. "Show you care," urged Troutman.

"Validate their feelings by listening and letting them have their say. That's empowering. The best thing we can do is listen."

During his keynote address, Johnson, rapped solemnly on the podium and urged those attending the conference to hear the urgency: "Change is knocking at our door. As a society, we have to realize that we all have to hear the knock."

Nancy Lynott, of the Southampton Youth Bureau, instrumental in organizing the seminar for the past three years, won't stop until gangs have gotten the message and gone home.

"Someone asked me if we will be here again next year," she said. "We'll be here for Gang Awareness 1475."

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