Shared Goals, Shared Progress

“They need more than a lecture or a warning about gangs — they need something that will move them to another place in life. I understand how they got where they are and how to help.”

– Anthony Ruiz, Friends Outside

Anthony Ruiz was in a solitary confinement cell at Pelican Bay State Prison when a guard took him to the captain’s office and told to him to call home. Over the phone, Anthony learned that his brother had been fatally shot, becoming the most recent victim of Stockton’s gang violence. In the background, he heard his mother scream.

It was the same scream Anthony had heard in the courtroom three decades earlier when, as a teenager, he received a life sentence for a gang-related homicide. That scream stayed with him throughout the journey that would change his life — and eventually the lives of countless others.

“That was my rock bottom,” Anthony says. “Something happened that day. I looked at my life and didn’t like what I saw. I began to analyze and then understand why I gravitated to that criminal lifestyle.”

Anthony wanted to help other young men have the same realizations. He started running support groups for other inmates in prison. After he was paroled, he was determined to find a way to tackle the violence affecting his hometown of Stockton.

It was a hard time for Stockton, which faced bankruptcy, escalating homicide rates and failed violence prevention strategies. A new police chief was looking for innovative ways to address these problems, and he called upon city leaders, social services providers and community members like Anthony to try something different.

They partnered with the California Partnership for Safe Communities to create an action plan for reducing violence without relying only on law enforcement strategies that would inevitably lead to incarceration. The plan included an in-depth analysis of local violence to identify the young men at highest risk.

Next, multiple community partners reach out and invite them to meetings hosted by young people formerly involved in violence, advocates, service organizations, criminal justice agencies, family members and faith leaders. The Stockton meetings are held at a community center, with participants usually sitting around a table or in a circle. Members of the group, speaking from their particular perspective, assure the young men that they are valued and that the community deeply wants them to succeed, but emphasize that their lives are at enormous risk of violence.

Anthony is one person present at those meetings. He tells his story, including what he experienced serving a life sentence in prison and how his brother’s death changed his life. He uses his street credibility to resonate with the men and invites them to visit him at his office. He now works as a case manager for Friends Outside, a nonprofit that helps currently and formerly incarcerated people.

Anthony is there to help the men process the trauma that often comes with poverty and violence.

“They need more than a lecture or a warning about gangs — they need something that will move them to another place in life,” Anthony says. “I don’t see a gang member or a violent offender; I see a man or a woman who has dealt with serious issues. I understand how they got where they are and how to help.”