Creativity and imagination can lift us to new and unexpected heights, and when fully facilitated by nurturing and knowledge, can make possible the dreams that spark personal growth and social innovation. Unfortunately, for today’s poorest and least educated Americans, creativity and the dreams it produces are abstract concepts with no relevance in their lives.
This case study and essay is based on my conversations with one Los Angeles gang-member for whom creativity, and dreams of a brighter future, have long been deferred and usurped by the struggle to survive.
I drove south from my West Adams neighborhood, anticipating the conversation that lay ahead, and unsure of exactly what to expect. Exiting the 110 Freeway I swung onto Rosecrans Boulevard and headed east, into a quietly benign Compton, where empty buildings and abandoned businesses lined the once thriving Boulevard.
Compton, like so many of America’s urban neighborhoods, had seen the flight of jobs and dollars years before our latest economic downturn. Its 2011 cost-of-living index was considerably higher then the US average and despite a murder rate that had dropped steadily since 2005, violent crime remained twice the national average. It seemed a reasonable assumption that Compton would see little economic growth for some time.
I turned toward the residential section where modest homes sported neatly trimmed lawns with gated windows and doors. Old, scarcely driven gas-guzzlers sat unattended in the driveways of senior citizens, who arrived more than forty years ago with the second great Black migration from the south (1941 – 1970). Compton was peaceful, though the hard stares of several young men tracked me with suspicion as I slowed to read the house addresses.
Exiting my car at my destination, I noticed a large laminated poster mounted on the outside wall of a nearby house. Smiling down at me was a handsome eighteen-year-old in a suit, the suit he wore to church on Sundays, with crisp white shirt and a perfectly knotted tie.
He was so proud, so promising. He was dead. Murdered two years prior by gang members as he ate dinner with his date.
“Where you from?” he was asked as they stared him down. He was shot before he could answer – one week before his High School graduation. The football scholarship and college education he treasured died with him.
Thirty-four year-old Jay (not his real name) stepped outside and we shook hands warmly. Stylish glasses framed his dark round face and his ponytail, usually pulled perfectly into place, was uncharacteristically frayed around the edges. We first met at a weekly life skills and job training class for ex-felons and gang members. Always neatly dressed and punctual, Jay seldom spoke, but when he did, his voice was soft and his words self-examining. His eyes took in everything while giving away nothing, a valuable skill in a world where silence was power and emotions were a sign of weakness.
We walked into his maternal grandparents’ small home where Jay lived with his pregnant wife, their one-year-old son and his twelve-year-old stepdaughter. His son ran up laughing and was swept into his father’s arms, bringing to mind my own son’s first year. Jay liked to laugh but laughter did not come easily, nor last for more than an instant before it was gone.
“My grandmother’s got Alzheimers. My grandfather is in the bedroom watching after her,” he informed me, helplessly, as we passed their bedroom and walked out the back door.
At eleven-years-old Jay had moved into their home after running away, and had been well loved and provided for. But his grandparents were hampered by their age and a generation gap.
“My grandparents always been working people. They was tired, they was old. I didn’t really look at that when I was supposed to,” he confessed. “I had moral guidance right here but I never grabbed it,” he told me, describing his Grandparents unconditional love and the heartache he caused them. Still, after moving in, he returned to the projects daily, seeking his mother’s love and attention. He got neither and each night he returned, disappointed, to his grandparent’s house. And each morning, he headed for the projects, to try all over again.
Before living with his grandparents, Jay called Watts’ infamous Jordan Downs housing project home; a 700-unit center of gang activity and drugs during the mid-eighties/nineties crack epidemic in South Central. Once home to Olympic track star, Florence Griffith-Joyner and a hopeful working class, the projects were surrounded by liquor stores and churches, both unable to quell the brutality that took place in their midst.
“My pops was straight but my mom was cracked out,” was his explanation of the family structure and life in the projects. Growing up, Jay witnessed the intimate details of his mother’s crack addiction and his families’ gang activities as members of the Grape Street Crips. After school, if he went to school at all, he returned to a war zone.
So, why did he not avoid the hostile world of the projects and his family? This question is often asked, and understandably so. To be clear, others have overcome poverty, drugs and violence, but they’ve often had the benefit of individuals and institutions who’ve provided some level of stability; instilling and supporting the creative and aspirational thinking that enabled them to dream of a brighter future.
As pointed out in Betty A. Velthouse’s paper, Creativity and Empowerment: A Complementary Relationship, which appeared in the publication Review of Business (1990), a creative leap is required in order for one to envision or create alternatives to their current reality or circumstances. Under his mother’s roof, the neglect Jay experienced stifled any notions that he could leave the projects behind or find new solutions to his problems. His world was insular and hostile, regulated and finite, distrusting of alternative lifestyles. Consequently, Jay lacked the belief that he could change his surroundings through his behavior; and was shackled with a self-image that would remain unchanged for over twenty years.
“I ain’t never done nothing but wrong,” was a typical refrain throughout our talks. Fueled by his mother’s crack addition, his father’s absence and his brothers’ violent gang activities, Jay took to the streets with a vengeance and was fully embedded in the Grape Street Crips, as an eleven-year-old.
“I never had a childhood. I grew up as a man and I was doing whatever grown men was doing, having the same fun grown men was having. All I ever done is wrong,” Jay he said, lowering his eyes as we sat in his grandfather’s vegetable garden.
In their July 10, 2010 policy brief written by Erica Adams, the Justice Policy Institute identified neglect, witnessing of drug abuse, violence, and the loss of a caregiver as causes of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome in children; serving as indicators and contributors to entre into the criminal justice system. The Institute went on to state that 50 to 79 percent of males who experienced maltreatment before twelve years of age will become involved in serious juvenile delinquency. As predicted, Jay was right on schedule for disaster.
We talked about his mother and their family life; I felt the pull and tug of Jay’s emotions. The boy who desperately desired his mother’s care and tenderness lay just beneath the hardened surface.
Our imaginations and the understanding of our world owes much to our physical and emotional well-being, and the quality time parents, guardians and loved ones share with us in play. Stanley Greenspan, M.D., makes a strong case for this premise in his book, Building Healthy Minds (2000), where he contends that the attachment that takes place as we touch, cuddle and laugh, provides the solid foundation upon which children can build an expanded vision of their environment. It was no surprise that Jay made few references to dreams and aspirations, beyond those which he had seen with his own eyes. He had no basis or context for the creation of new perspectives on his existing condition.
Dreaming of changing his reality would have required that Jay feel empowered to influence his environment. It also would have required that he perceive his environment as flexible enough to allow his vision to actually become that new reality. Jay was never empowered by his own positive behavior, and instead, felt empowered only when the source of his power was external, via gang affiliations, money from drugs and the peer acceptance those activities provided. To walk away from gang life was beyond his comprehension, an intolerable act of disloyalty to his Grape Street family.
Raised around such chaos and dysfunction, Jay never considered the consequences of his actions, even when those decisions determined life or death. He simply lacked the “context” and examples such consideration required. He had never seen anyone, that he respected, pause to review his or her options. In Jay’s world, decisions were impulsive, responses were immediate and the subsequent actions often irrevocable.
There was little room for a conscience, which typically develops via the influence of parents and other key people in a child’s environment. In their absence, ample room was left for the negative people and actions that defined Jay’s life.
The question that most of us hear as children, “what do you want to be when you grow up” went unasked; Jay’s dream was to follow in the footsteps of his older brothers and uncles, who made their money on the streets.
“The dream came true, now I don’t even want it,” he said, looking back and sharing one of the few dreams of success, as he saw it, he had as a kid. He recalled the day he asked his brothers for candy money and was told that it was time he got his own, just like everybody else. They provided the drugs to get him started and coached him on the fine-points of the drug trade.
In no time, Jay was smoking “sherm” (PCP) with his Grape Street crew and controlled his own drug turf, with a pistol stashed under a bush and a steady stream of regulars that included his crack smoking mother. After years of chronic truancy, Jay officially dropped out, ending his formal education.
Quick to anger and fearless, Jay had no interest in advice from the absentee father who had left when he was an infant. Jay recounted his father’s attempt to intercede. “He was talking bad, telling me what I was supposed to be doing, out in front of all these grown men who were slinging drugs. I went over to the bush and pulled out my pistol and he shut up,” Jay’s shame was clear as he told the story, but so was his defiance as he calmly continued, “I would have killed him if he said something wrong. It was right after that my luck went bad.”
It was a morning like most others and Jay left his grandparents, with no intention of going to class. A few minutes later, he arrived at his fourteen-year-old friend’s house to play video games. They drove to the projects around 10:00 a.m. and began the daily ritual of drug dealing and chillin. As the morning warmed up Jay sipped from a bottle of cheap wine, Mad Dog 20-20, and smoked PCP. No one noticed the carload of PJ Crips from Imperial Court as they rolled up, until they opened fire, sending everyone scattering and leaving two Grape Street Crips wounded.
Guns were tossed aside. Drugs we stashed for safekeeping. Threats were made and promises of revenge declared. It was an all too familiar scenario that Jay had witnessed countless times before. The smoke cleared and the proverbial dust settled while police cars arrived with blaring sirens and flashing lights. As they conducted their post drive-by investigation, Jay and his friend slipped into their car to find the shooters. I asked Jay how his buddy was able to drive when he was clearly too young to have a license. Jay chuckled at my naivite. There was no illegal act that scared him, at least, not enough to stop him from committing it.
His friend drove with a Tec-9 stretched across his lap. Jay rode shotgun, slumped low in his seat with a 357 Magnum. Two boys, one twelve and the other fourteen, found their targets. Jay’s purple bandana left only his eyes revealed.
“Soon as my homie stopped I raised up and they was right there, five or six of ’em, on 114th street. We blasted ’em. I was loaded (high). They was eighteen, nineteen-years-old,” he told me in a matter-of-fact tone that was, at least for the moment, emotionally removed from the incident.
That day, Jay killed one nineteen-year-old, a new father. A second, the eighteen-year-old, would die later when the family removed him from life support following months in a coma. There was no music or slow-motion cinematography. No gasps from the popcorn eating audience. The blood was real as were the bodies stretched out on the street.
With their targets bleeding on the sidewalk, they sped off and, almost immediately, crashed their car within sight of the crime scene. By one o’clock, that afternoon twelve-year-old Jay was in jail and charged with murder. Nevertheless, he showed no remorse and had just earned a reputation as a deadly little homie.
Within two months, Jay was a convicted murderer and ushered in his thirteenth birthday from inside a maximum-security juvenile facility. The formal instruction he had abandoned in elementary school was quickly replaced by a prison education within a system that currently leads the world in incarceration, while its international standings in education steadily decline.
Jay spent seventeen years in the most heavily secured prisons in the United States; Pelican Bay, High Desert, San Quentin. He rattled them off as easily as a student rattles off the classes he took at his Alma mater. He did nine years straight before he was paroled for the murders he committed. He was on the streets for less than a year before he was arrested for bank robbery and served eight more years.
“When you get out the penitentiary you ain’t thinking about going back to your family. You’re thinking about women, getting high and getting back to your homies. And they going to pull you right back in,” he said.
In one afternoon, Jay had gone from being a boy in need of love and a brighter future, to being a seldom-discussed reflection of personal and societal failure. Behind bars, he kept his mouth shut and gravitated toward the older inmates, learning lessons from men who knew the system and feared nothing. The prisons were well stocked with Crips, who taught him how to thrive behind bars. Life in prison, where a $12 tin of tobacco goes for $2,200, wasn’t much different than in Jordan Downs; there was money to be made and people to be dealt with.
“There’s lots of money in prison. And everything else,” he informed me. He explained how prisoners not only ran their crews from behind the walls, but received steady streams of cash and drugs from the various enterprises that continued in their absence. “And if somebody needed to be done,” he went on, “I was going to do ’em. I didn’t need nobody holding my hand.”
“Doing” targeted inmates made Jay a valuable commodity. His prison mentors taught him how to kill a man efficiently and supported their lessons with illustrated books, authored by other inmates. The assassination techniques Jay shared with me seemed surprisingly simple. Sitting next to him, he was quiet and controlled. I imagined him inside, finding a camera-less area and slipping the shiv beneath his targets armpit while passing along a congested passageway. Then, vanishing as he’d been taught to do, before the man hit the floor with a fatal stab wound.
Survival in prison required a strategy and Jay knew what he had to do to make it out alive. Dark talents earned him cash and the power to demand the solitude he desired. He had proved himself a valuable and trustworthy soldier, with only the prison OGs (Original Gangsters) who controlled everything inside and out, to answer to. The multiple assassinations he committed went unpunished and five years ago, after 17 years of incarceration, he was paroled at thirty years of age.
An incoming text flashed across Jay’s cell phone. There had been numerous others during our conversation. He read them slowly and with some effort, a reminder that he had dropped out of school by the sixth grade. Cell phones behind prison walls were prohibited, especially in the level four prisons where Jay’s friends were housed. He didn’t text back, though he glanced at the numbers as the phone vibrated, time and again.
“Lot a dudes are like, ‘Man I wish you were in here with us,’ ” and we laughed at the truth of the old saying, “misery loves company” – especially in prison.
I questioned weather anyone declaring such a wish was a true friend.
Jay shot back, “You get out of prison with nothing and nobody looking out for you. It’s just you. We need some programs when you get out.”
Not exactly an answer to my question about friendship, but Jay was making clear, with his “it’s just you” pronouncement, that he felt very much alone; a feeling conveyed by his words and body language, throughout our conversation. I felt that my very presence came from his desire to be heard by someone who would try to understand, without judging. The truth is, as hard as I might have tried not to judge him, somewhere down deep, I did.
Jay was right about a need for programs however. Budget cuts over the years had resulted in overcrowding, fewer prison improvements and drastic reductions in life skills, job training and job retention programs for parolees. The texts on his cell phone were ominous reminders that prison’s influences were always calling.
“They send a kite (letter) from the pen and they say do something, you gonna get it done. Or they gonna do you. And that’s what they look for me to do now,” Jay said. He fell suddenly silent. His words had conjured up visions of people, places and things that he would rather forget. “I’m so messed up from doing so much bad stuff. I have nightmares about all the people I killed. I see their faces. Wake up in a cold sweat,” he muttered in a voice tinged with pain and perhaps fear, “Don’t never look a man you gonna kill in the eyes. It’ll haunt you the rest of your life.”
This man, who had taken lives without remorse, both inside the prison and out, wiped away the wet streak left on his cheek by a tear. I wanted to know if he had ever let another man see him cry, but I didn’t ask.
A strange thing happened as I interviewed Jay. The crimes he committed were horrendous and intolerable. I wanted men like him locked up, forever, so they could not do in the future, what they had done in the past. Yet, as I sat beside him, I wanted to see his pain go away. When you don’t see the Jays of the world, it’s easy to ignore their circumstances and our own neglect.
“I be asking God for help but I know I done so much wrong. I wish I had God in me when I was young. I never been to church until a few years ago,” he told me.
It was a favorite cousin who took Jay to church when he finally got out of prison. Jay found the sense of community and acceptance overwhelming. He began attending regularly but continued his gang activities, spending Sundays praying and the rest of the week in his old haunts.
Two years after getting out, Jay met his first real girlfriend and future wife. She was unlike the women he had known during his brief period of freedom, between arrests. She was neither a gang member nor one of the women they used for sex. She came from working parents with no connection to the world that Jay grew up in.
She was well spoken and welcoming as she offered me something to drink. I wondered what she saw in Jay, and I think he wondered about that too. Perhaps it was the quiet strength that he projected. The kind of focused power and strategic thinking that could have landed him in a boardroom instead of prison, if only his circumstances had been different.
He did not fully understanding his new girlfriend’s world but Jay had finally stumbled upon a healthy family. They dated and he did his best to act like a typical boyfriend, shielding her from his gang associates and anything related to that community.
The new relationship and the impending birth of his son ignited a desire for normalcy. For the first time Jay exhibited the kind of creative thinking and counterfactual imagination that could help him transcend his past and move toward new goals, not based of the facts as they existed, but based on how he imagined they could be. It is this concept of counterfactual imagination (what could be) and counterfactual alternatives (finding new solutions), as presented in Ruth M.J. Byrne’s Precis of The rational Imagination: How People Create Alternatives to Reality (2007), that perhaps speaks most strongly to Jay’s approach to his past, present and future.
Jay had always operated according to the rules of his world, and that world was built upon a set of facts he knew to be true. Drug dealing was a fact. Murder was a fact. Gang membership was a fact. Prison was a fact. He was incapable of conceiving an alternative to his way of life, or in other words, envisioning a life other than that which he had experienced and had been part of his reality.
Until this point in Jay’s life, bucking the system that established and perpetuated what was factually true was beyond his comprehension, for two reasons. First, he had not connected other facts from non-gang lifestyles, with his own ability to change. Secondly, he did not believe he had the power to change the status quo, or convince others to do so. As stated by Robert J. Sternberg in his 2006 article, Creating a Vision for Creativity: The First 25 Years, “Society generally perceives opposition to the status quo as annoying, and as reason enough to ignore innovative ideas.” Jay’s fellow gang members were not exempt from this concept.
Still, through his girlfriend, Jay had been exposed to a new set of facts, where families communicated with one another. Mothers and fathers raised their children, together. Everyone had a legitimate job. To be clear, Jay always knew these facts existed but the distance between that reality and his had been too great. However, he had, at long last, begun to believe that there existed a different way to live.
In a bold and dangerous move, motivated by this new relationship, Jay informed his “old homie”, a respected OG, that he wanted out of his gang commitments. Because of the work he had put in over the years, the request was granted and Jay was allowed to stop his criminal activities. But old habits remained difficult to shake.
“All I know is how to talk to men,” he said, complaining about his young wife’s need to talk and share. “I don’t know nothing about relationships. A lot of stuff is new to me. I’m just used to being around men, that’s where I feel cool. But that’s crazy. You should feel comfortable being around your wife,” he said, more to himself then to me.
Just holding her hand caused him to withdraw and grow quiet. His wife accused him of cheating because he didn’t seem interested in her anymore. Jay wasn’t cheating, on the contrary, he just could not muster the tender words of love that would have put her mind at ease. The many nuances of a husband-wife relationship baffled Jay; nonetheless, this was the only authentically romantic relationship he had ever experienced.
Despite that, seventeen years behind bars had resulted in difficulty coping with, and not overreacting to, the situations that seemed to pop up daily. Such was the case when Jay’s in-laws babysat and his son, a toddler, fell and hurt himself slightly. Jay loudly accused them of neglect and swore never to leave the child in their care again. He had no reference that would have helped him understand that falling is a part of learning to walk. Everything that seemed so simple and obvious remained foreign to him.
Jay shifted topics to his son and the daughter that was in his wife’s belly. I was happy to see him smile as he talked about his children. He appeared to relish the unconditional love he got from his son and anticipated from his, soon to arrive, daughter.
Regardless of the challenges, his family gave him a purpose and inspired the few light moments I had witnessed. Still, it was hard to be a square and leave the old ways behind, particularly because Jay wanted desperately to be the family breadwinner – a goal that remained beyond his reach. He had lost the only job he’d gotten in the last five years of freedom.
Complicating matters, there were constant texts, phone calls and requests that hung like bait, waiting to yank him back into his former world where he would be robbed of family and freedom.
“I’ve been to 120 funerals since I been out,” he stated, “and all my partners got something going on. Robbery, extortion, dope and prostitution. If I get caught up again I ain’t never coming home. I’ll be gone forever,” Jay told me, in a voice that simultaneously conveyed his determination to remain free, yet doubted about his ability stay out of trouble. One more strike would mean mandatory life in prison.
To my surprise, Jay held no bitterness toward the preachers, teachers, and community that ignored the little boy who so desperately needed their help. “That’s just the way it was,” he said with a dismissive shrug.
But the bitterness was there; aimed at those who did know that little boy, yet failed to love and protect him. Again and again, he wondered aloud, why they had taught him all the wrong things. He expressed frustration because the nurturing he missed as a child, imprisoned his emotions today, even as a free man. He seemed keenly aware that his childhood was lost forever, like the many friends whose funerals he’d attended.
Jay’s mother is now off crack but her heavy drinking upsets him. They seldom speak. His brothers eventually served five and six years each and became law-abiding family men.
“They was scared straight. Wish I had been,” he declared, noting the irony of spending more than twice as much time in prison as the brothers who taught him how to gang bang and sell dope.
With pride, Jay told me that he reconnected with his father and they watch the football games together. And he attends church regularly; staying “prayed up”.
It was time for me to go. Jay’s wife was preparing to leave for one of her two jobs. While she works, Jay will care for his son and twelve-year-old stepdaughter who is the same age that Jay was when he first committed murder. He will watch over them and pray that the phone rings with a job. He wants to be someone they can look up to. He’s terrified that he will fail.
I stood to leave and asked what talents he had. “Everyone has some talent,” I said.
“I never tried nothing,” came his reply, reinforcing my contention that he still lacked the ability to step outside his box, the place where his creativity and imagination could lead to new aspirations and outcomes.
“What about dreams for the future,” I nudged.
“I just want a job. I want my kids to have it better than I did,” he said as he wiped his sweat-dampened forehead, “But it’s hard man. It’s hard.”
His eyes saddened as he admitted this to me, and himself. I left Jay standing on his grandparent’s lawn. Soon after, he stopped attending class and my calls have gone unanswered.
A final thought…
Creativity and imagination are merely two pieces of a very complex puzzle that influence our success, but they are without question, vital to seeing ourselves not just as we are, but also as we can be.
Jay’s apparent failure to make this leap does not negate creativity’s role as a facilitator of aspirational and transcendent thinking; psychologists over the years have well documented that connection. Instead, it illustrates the fundamental need for stable family and community systems that encourage out-of-the-box thinking about themselves, their environments and their opportunities. When coupled with appropriate resources, creative thinking and a properly prioritized society can provide hope, empowerment and actionable solutions for at-risk populations.
Betty A. Velthouse. “Creativity and empowerment: a complementary relationship.” Review of Business 12.2, (Fall 1990): 13.
Erica J. Adams, M.D., “Healing Invisible Wounds: Why Investing in Trauma-Informed Care for Children Makes Sense,” Justice Policy Institute, 1 (2010). http://www.justicepolicy.org/research/1913
Stanley Greenspan, M.D. with Nancy Breslau Lewis, Building Healthy Minds (New York: Da Capo Press, 2000), 199-251
Ruth M. J. Byrne, “PrÄcis of The Rational Imagination: How People Create Alternatives to Reality,” Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Vol. 30, (2007): 440-441, 451-452.
Robert J. Sternberg, “Creating a Vision for Creativity: The First 25 Years,” Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, Vol. S, No. 1, (2006): 2-7.