Double Lives: A Qualitative Analysis of Identity Navigation in Chicago's South and West Sides

By Ava V. Levin
2021, Vol. 13 No. 05 | pg. 1/1


This paper draws on qualitative interviews to address internal and external identity navigation among gang members and how nonprofits address this navigation. Gang members ultimately lead double lives as they weave between gang and community life. At the same time, community members also engage with gang culture in daily life, as gang membership may be clear while gang and community life are blurred. This dual existence can breed cognitive dissonance, which gang members address through a variety of neutralization techniques that allow them to nevertheless view themselves as moral individuals. Finally, nonprofits working against gun violence should acknowledge this duality and leverage it to create more successful programs for the community.


This study, in asking its research question, also poses the beginning of a statement: gang members and. Mainstream understandings of gang culture might stall before the “and.” However, this paper pushes that narrative and asks how gang members navigate a world in which their identity goes beyond that of clique affiliation. It seeks to understand how gang members balance dual identities and how this balancing act reckons with their own sense of a moral self. Finally, with these findings in mind, it asks how nonprofits can incorporate the reality of the dual self. The study relies primarily on qualitative interview data with the understanding that personal vision of the self cannot be simply boiled down to quantitative data.

Too often, the popular psyche imagines gang members to be one dimensional instigators of violence. However, the people engaged in gun violence are as complicated as the roots of the problems themselves. By focusing on the stories of key stakeholders, this essay captures the humanity of those so often villainized and brings the literature one step closer to an illuminated understanding of the gun violence epidemic at an individual level. Behind aggregated statistics are human lives. Beyond high risk indicators and inadequate infrastructure are humans who must navigate neighborhoods with scant resources and myriad dangers. By asking former gang members how they view themselves, this study hopes both to give a voice to people who are often no more than a number, and to better unpack what exactly drives gang entrance and continued membership.

This paper is divided into three thematic sections, all of which focus on double lives. The first focuses on the external aspects of the double life and the second on the internal elements. The third section then examines how nonprofits make use of the reality of participant dualism. Each section draws on interviews as well as scholarly literature. Finally, the paper concludes with reflections on moving forward with further research.

Literature Review

In 2019, Chicago was home to 1,063 shootings by this time in the year (The Chicago Tribune 2020). As of June 11th of this year alone, 1,290 people have already been shot, with most violence appearing in the West and South Sides (ibid). This trend mirrors the national statistics; “very small geographic units,” particularly disadvantaged neighborhoods, are often hot spots for crime, and gun violence is no exception (Weisburd 2010). These geographical boundaries are filled with “risky social networks.” In his 2014 study, Papachristos found, “70 percent of all nonfatal gunshot victims during the observation period can be located in co-offending networks comprised of less than 6% of the city’s population” (Papachristos 2014: 1). This statistic means that, although geographic location is an undeniable risk factor for violence perpetration and victimization, many residents of these risky areas never engage in this smaller subset of violent behaviors.

These risky geographical and social networks are often characterized by gang membership. Research has time and again connected gang membership to an increased likelihood of participation in violent crime, and has related increases in gang violence to increases in the spread of guns (Stretesky 2007; Hagedorn 1998: 5). Gangs typically approve of the use of violence for the sake of both group and individual goals (Stretesky 2007: 85-86). Many experts, including Hagedorn (1998), refer to Moore’s (1998) definition of gangs as “unsupervised peer groups who are socialized by the streets rather than by conventional institutions. They define themselves as a gang or 'set' or some such term, and have the capacity to reproduce themselves, usually within a neighborhood" (Hagedorn 4, 1998). In reality, the lines of socialization are often blurred. As my interviews suggest, residents of these geographic hot spots cannot escape the ramifications of gang life even if they remain unaffiliated. A ripple effect increases the danger of gun violence victimization for individuals even with “indirect network ties” to risky individuals (Papachristos 2014: 1). The effects, then, reach far beyond gang members themselves, so much so that inner-city youths have been shown to develop a response of “normalizing cognition (moral disengagement)” to community violence (Ng-Mak 2001: 123).

A multitude of community-based nonprofits have developed programs to tackle the issue of gun violence. Acknowledging the role of gangs, a significant portion work with former and current gang members. READI and Cure Violence incorporate job training for and direct violence intervention with high-risk individuals into their solution, while BAM concentrates on youth prevention. The Chicago Violence Reduction Strategy aims to share a “moral voice” with potential perpetrators of gun violence. Claretian Associates provides low-income housing opportunities and distributes educational anti-violence literature to community members. A cocktail of solutions is perhaps warranted, but all of these approaches have one thing in common: they aim to inspire deep-seated attitudinal change.

No shortage of studies exists on the deviance of gangs (Spergel 1990; Bader 2019; Anderson 2017). These studies consider such deviance within a broader societal context rather than in neighborhood specific considerations. That is to say, in a community where violence is endemic, gang membership is rampant and the police foster mistrust, gangs may take on a “desirable and expected,” rather than a wholly deviant, nature among various mainstream social circles (Spergel 1990; Desmond 2016). These gang members are fathers, brothers, sons, and sisters. Gang life cannot be understood independently from the communities in which it persists. The key to reducing gun violence in Chicago lies in a better understanding of social networks, particularly gangs. Significant research has been published on the association between gangs and gun violence, often shown through statistical correlations. However, there exists a dearth of studies that explore how gang members navigate community life and gang membership, and how their sense of self shifts between these two worlds. Research must also address the issue of whether members’ actions reflect their values. Efforts to change perspectives on violence are limited unless the interplay between violence and actions is better understood.

Countless culprits, from redlining to gentrification to ready gun access can be implicated in the search to find the roots of gun violence, but potential policy candidates will fail to effect positive change unless norms on the ground change, too. Evaluation over time is essential. By understanding residual value judgments surrounding violence that endure post-gang membership, policymakers and activists can better understand how the perspectives of gangs might passively translate into community norms. Furthermore, key stakeholders can more successfully eradicate this epidemic by finding common ground and better understanding where values of gangs and the communities they inhabit do and do not overlap (Cook 2015). They can also understand the time and place for programs like cognitive behavioral therapy, which focuses on participants’ natural responses to immediate issues, versus BAM, which takes a reflective mentoring approach. Clearer understandings on this topic from other stakeholders are also consequential. For example, teachers’ misconceptions about the goals of gang members has negatively affected those members’ access to quality education (Schwartz 1989).

This paper adds to the literature through a breadth of qualitative interviews with individuals across a broad age range who have had personal experiences with gangs. It draws on theories of deviance, cognitive dissonance, and social networks in an effort to understand the data and evaluate how gang members navigate identity and sense of self during membership.


This paper draws largely from qualitative interview data from a variety of stakeholders who have personal or professional experiences with gangs and gun violence. Because this paper acknowledges the porous effects of gang life outside of immediate affiliation, interviewed stakeholders range in age and nature of their relationship to the issue at hand. Darius Smith, Jay Brown, and Miguel Sanchez are former gang members. Emilio Rivera also has a personal relationship to gang life, as he grew up surrounded by gangs although not personally affiliated himself.

During interviews, community actors such as Thomas Evans, Richard Mayall, Samuel Murphy, and Officer Susan Hughes discussed their role as nonprofit staff. All nonprofits focus on ending gun violence and work with high-risk individuals, ranging from South Side youth to current gang members. Paul Rossi, a Northwestern Professor of Sociology, shared his knowledge as a researcher of gun violence. Multiple interviews have occupied more than one of these worlds. Smith, for example, today works for Cure Violence and can speak to multiple perspectives.

Interviewees ranged from twenty years old to upwards of fifty. Most participants are members of the South Side Chicago community, while one is connected to Humboldt Park. Pseudonyms are used for interviewees who requested that their identity be kept private. In an effort to foster open dialogue and respect academic integrity, these wishes were respected and noted in the table below. The author had no previous relationships with any of the interviewees except for one, who asked to remain anonymous.

Interviewees were recruited through a mix of texts, phone calls, and emails. All interviews were in-depth and conducted electronically via Zoom, FaceTime, or telephone due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. All discussions were audio recorded and converted into a transcript for analysis. Interviews ranged in length, from approximately twenty minutes to just over an hour. Although covering a variety of themes, recurring topics included: policing, normalization of violence, entry and recruitment practices, shifting perspectives on gang membership, how the structure of gangs has changed over time, gun access, nonprofit programs addressing violence, the role of data in ending gun violence, and the relationship between jobs and crime. All interviews went smoothly and without technological difficulties. Approximately half of the interviews were conducted with twenty to twenty-five individuals present. The remaining were conducted one-on-one.

Conducting the research faced multiple limitations. Electronically-conducted interviews are far from ideal. They do not foster the same comfortable rapport that an in-person discussion might, and phone interviews (of which there were two) can hinder the ability to read facial cues and gestures, and to create an air of comfort. Because there were generally no pre-existing relationships with participants, more sensitive perspectives and moments may have been glossed over when relating personal experiences on this already sensitive topic. Another limitation is the breadth of interviewees. While this breadth provides a strength in the variety of perspectives, it creates difficulties when evaluating trends, judging too readily from what might be idiosyncratic perspective in the project of suggesting sweeping policy change.

This research is driven by an interest in capturing the human experiences of those who are often the focus of police yet tend to be silenced by systems of power that perpetuate poverty, racial inequalities, and educational disparities. In a reality where members of disadvantaged neighborhoods often feel their voices go unheard, this project aims to shed light on those voices both in its conclusions and by virtue of its qualitative process.

For publication, this paper has been edited to provide anonymity for interviewees. All respondents have been given pseudonyms.

Figure 1

Double Lives: Behavior & Identity Navigation

The buzzword “community” appeared in every interview, being mentioned 435 times in total. The prevailing narrative across academia and the media depicts gangs as a distinct entity which “brutalize[s]” these communities (Chicago Tribune 2020; Howell 2006). However, my research challenges that narrative. These same gang members who endanger the community are also a part of it; they are parents, sons and daughters, and students. Gang members are deeply intertwined in the multifaceted elements that create a community. In short, interviews revealed a reality in which the borders of gang membership and gang identity were more amorphous and complex than conventional wisdom indicates.

Susan Hughes, CPD officer and founder of an afterschool program, has witnessed the duality of young gang members firsthand. She works with elementary to high school students, a majority of whom, she says, are in gangs. They “may say they not, you know, they may try to pretend they're not, but the majority of them are. And they live double lives… they have to be one way for the streets. And then they're different [at home and on social media].” Recalling three male participants who were murdered within the past year, she reflected that “they never brought that gang culture to us.” These young men were active participants in community life, from the family unit to nonprofit programming. At the same time, they were highly active gang members with a threatening image in other social spheres within the neighborhood. Emilio, a resident of “The Bush” in South Side, Chicago who graduated from the public high school in 2018 and now has a scholarship to a community college, also acknowledged duality amongst his gangbanging peers. He described a student who had “gotten a full ride to UIC because of his test scores. He was book smart. But he was also street smart. He also wanted to partake in that bad lifestyle. It was very surprising to know that somebody had a full ride but they rejected it because they didn’t think it was cool.” This example shows someone who was a bright student but also a gang member, and for much of his life straddled the two worlds. Emilio also has a friend who gangbangs and “it’s kind of sad because it’s, like. he has kids and everything. He’s like, 20 years and he has two kids.” Again, there are fathers who gangbang, and to ignore these dual roles is to misunderstand the reality of many young men in gangs.

Identity theory supports these findings. It stipulates that “each person is thought to have an infinite set of identities that is dependent on the number of unique social situations that comprise an individual’s surrounding environment” (Bubolz 332). Importantly, the creation of the dual identity is a product in part of the “surrounding environment,” underscoring the fact that gang members are inescapably community members as well. The theory also proposes that no one is just a gang member, which complicates the surface-level narrative of what defines the “community.”

This dualism between gang and community membership is no accident. It is not only pragmatically inescapable, but historically rooted (Sanchez). The Latin Kings originated as a civic organization, and that legacy manifests itself today in how members conduct themselves (Sanchez). They attend community gatherings where they hold their behavior to a “gentleman’s code” which influences “the way that they interacted with the community and the way they treat to people that weren't a part of the group.” Beyond the code, their attendance at these gatherings shows that they themselves “are members of the community and they have pride in their service. They go to eat at the same places everyone else goes to eat… [gang membership is] not exactly hidden.” It was exactly this presence in the community that exposed Miguel Sanchez to the Latin Kings, who he encountered at a number of these community events. These gatherings attract a significant portion of the community, meaning that even when gang affiliation might be clear, gang presence and influence is blurred. Although more prominent members had made their identity public, Miguel hid his relationship with the Latin Kings from his aunt and uncle who live in Humboldt Park. Around his family, he presented only as a college student attending a prestigious Chicago university, an identity which is conventionally at odds with gang membership.

This duality is nothing new. Darius Smith, a former gang member in Woodlawn during the ‘80s, hid his gang affiliations from his mother. He notes that she was unaware “I was a gang chief, she didn't know I was outside carrying a gun… Even the neighbors [didn’t know]. Everything was concealed because of respect for our elders, so in that sense, it was a lot of expectations on me to do good.” Smith’s experience reveals that the motivation for hidden identities is not necessarily malicious. It also highlights the potential chasm that can arise between two individuals’ realities from the secret dualism. Without understanding her child’s gang membership, the mother could not adjust her parenting actions or expectations. She was unable to fully help Smith navigate his adolescence because she was ignorant of his activities, showing what is at stake when this dual identity is kept secret.

Although this duality is not new, methods of articulating it are. Social media has given rise to platforms that extend the dual identity into the digital sphere. Former Chicago Public Schools teacher Albert Kim explains, “in a lot of students’ Facebooks, if they still use them, they'll change their middle name, or part of their Facebook name, to the letters of their gang. It's a form of identity. It's something that a lot of students take a lot of pride in.” While such a public act would seem to defeat the purpose of any attempts to prevent gang identity from bleeding into all aspects of life, social media functions as a public extension of the self only among certain social circles. Only fellow platform users see the name change, and only users privy to the knowledge of what the letters stand for – gang membership – are let in on this symbol of pride. Officer Hughes recalled that the murdered boys who were once part of her after school program “live[d] that extra double life on Facebook, on social media, where they brought attention to themselves, you know, so in the social media world they were known as whatever gang name that they were known by.” This social media activity resulted in lethal consequences because it signalled membership to rival gangs and left the boys vulnerable in moments when they published their location but lacked active protection from fellow gang members. Social media both blurs the lines between gang and non-gang life by making affiliation more public and by amplifying the platform for expression of membership.

Just as gang members are involved in community life, community members become involved in gang life. Social network theory maintains that, through a process of “social contagion,” co-offending networks both directly and indirectly increase the risk of gunshot victimization (Papachristos 2014: 140). In other words, relationships between perpetrators of crime increase the likelihood of those individuals’ victimization. Individuals who have relationships of any nature to those perpetrators, even if it is one or two steps removed, also face higher gunshot risk. All of this is to say that dangerous behaviors permeate the lives of community members directly and indirectly. Sanchez’s description of community events attended by large swaths of the neighborhood, including Latin King members, exemplifies the intermingling of networks. Although gang networks are far from a perfect mirror for crime networks, social contagion as it applies to people affected by gang violence and attitudes demonstrates that gang life stretches beyond the official gang member.

In the same vein, community members who do not join gangs may actively choose to engage with gang culture out of social necessity. Emilio Rivera had a “very, very” difficult time throughout school being surrounded by gang culture and normalized violence. Brown affirmed the omnipresence of gangs, saying that “the gang life was something that you really couldn't avoid.” Despite never joining a gang himself, Emilio had friends in these groups. He found that he was able to navigate a social scene influenced by gang life and violence by being aware, yet not fully a part of “the hood lifestyle.” He recalled,

I guess I follow the trends and follow the culture and then I also have a social life I’m able to submerge myself in… I would slowly slip myself into that lifestyle by having that culture around me. Just like listening to the music and being aware of certain people, certain artists. I feel like doing that I would put myself on the surface of it… but not really be completely in it… I guess it kind of helps, because it shows you what you shouldn’t become and the things that you shouldn’t do.

Emilio many times highlighted the importance of mental strength. From a young age, he experienced the reality of “getting used to fearing for your life,” with mental strength a survival key early on. From being friends with gang members to listening to what he described as “hood” music, Emilio stayed on the surface of gang culture rather than completely avoiding it. This tactic helped him to achieve his lauded mental strength and begin a college education, knowing his parents had struggled to immigrate to the U.S. from Mexico with such hopes for their only son. Parental expectations both intersected and guided gang interaction.

The blurred line between gang members and community members has repercussions for the safety of the community. Harold Pollack, co-founder of the University of Chicago Crime Lab, suggested that “people will come forward to the police in a different way” when gangs cross a line in the community. If, on the other hand, the crime seems to be a normalized “gang crap going on,” bystanders are less likely to get involved “because people in the community, they know who a lot of the shooters are.” Because of that knowledge, there is a risk of getting involved. On the other hand, it is exactly because gang members are part of the community that they can be mobilized to better respect the neighborhood. Pollack reasons that “gang members are members of the community like everybody else, and people know who they are, and they're concerned about their own community” as well.

Therefore, gang members view themselves as part of the community, and other community members feel the same way. To see participants in gangs as individuals who only wreak havoc on neighborhoods is to mischaracterize the full personhood of those people. In their capacity as gang members, they perpetuate violence. However, they also exist outside of this idiosyncratic group identity, a fact which can be mobilized by stakeholders to improve neighborhood safety and decrease gun violence.

Internal View of the Self, Deviance, & Cognitive Dissonance

Gang members must navigate multiple social worlds, creating a dual identity. With these multiple worlds come multiple belief systems. What logically ensues is cognitive dissonance, a ‘‘state of tension whenever an individual holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent’’ (Lowell 2012: 18). In order to combat this dissonance, strategies of “moral rationalization” may be employed (Tsang 2002). Through these strategies, people “convince themselves that their preferred unethical choice is consistent with moral standards” (Tsang 2002: 34). In fact, a wealth of literature on deviance theory builds off of the seminal work by Sykes and Matza proposing that such “neutralization techniques” act as “justifications of deviant behavior” (Sykes 1957: 667). Expanding on the originally enumerated techniques, sociologists have identified pertinent strategies,including moral justification, displacement of responsibility, diffusion of responsibility, and dehumanization (Bandura 2002). Relying on deviance theory and the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance, this section analyzes how internal visions of the self and of morality shift with gang and community membership.

The Stages of Deviance & Rejection of Master Status

The navigation between community and gang life is not only based in conduct but also on an internal vision of the self. Deviance theory explains the process of this navigation. In the broadest strokes, “to deviate is to stray, as from a path or standard," and thus gang membership, an affiliation unconventional from standard practices in society at large, illustrates deviation (Matza 1969: 10). Deviance is born out of exposure. It is a “learned process,” triggered by an affinity for a specific belief, practice, or group in which biographical experiences lead subjects to see “X” as possible and desirable (Vail 1999: 254). In this case, that “X” is gang membership and the violence that often comes with it. Violence is normalized from a young age, and gang membership is also normalized as a protection from such violence (Aspholm 2020). Officer Hughes recalled that when she and her staff were watching children at a playground, they heard gunshots. Moving the kids inside, one seven-year-old asked, “What's wrong? It’s just gunshots.” Today as well as decades ago, this normalization remains true. Brown explained that gangs and violence were “a normal part of life” in urban communities like the ones in which he was raised.

There are four principal stages of deviant identity acquisition, with the first being affinity, or a favorable bent toward the deviance at hand (Vail 1999; Matza 1969). Such normalization, then, is crucial because it indicates that a radical shift in morals need not occur to accept violence or gang life in the same way it might be required for people not exposed to these phenomena. An affinity is more likely to occur when aspects of the deviant behavior are already normalized.

For gang members, one method of coping with potential cognitive dissonance is by rejecting “master status.” Master status is the final step in deviant identity transformation. It involves taking on “X” – in this case, gang membership – as one’s most salient identity. Those who have not reached master status more likely and more thoroughly bow to the weight of morals normalized by society at large. Therefore, deviant behavior can result in cognitive dissonance. In this case, the inconsistent attitudes originate from gangs on the one hand and school, church, or family on the other. Rejection of master status, then, serves as a catalyst for cognitive dissonance but can also be employed to quell it, as actors can distance their actions from their identity exactly because the gang identity is not their most salient characteristic.

By distancing action from attribute, Jay Brown was able to rationalize past behavior: “And that was what was most important to me – was putting money in my pocket. It wasn't hurting anyone… It was cool at that time, but that really wasn't who I was as an individual. I was about trying to accumulate funds.” Brown acknowledges his actions but separates them from who he is as a person, allowing himself to admit potential immortality of his actions without declaring himself to be an immoral person. Thomas Evans similarly justified illegal activity by separating his actions from his identity. He had dreams of going to Hollywood, with the drug trade generating the funds necessary to be financially stable enough to achieve his dreams. He thought, “you know what, I'm going to sell drugs to get enough money to become an actor. I just didn't want to be in California as a starving artist because I researched this stuff.” In his mind, he was an artist-to-be and the drugs represented a pathway, not personhood.

This distancing between the self and its actions can result in such an extreme dissonance that gang members develop two different selves. The idea of the multiple selves and identity theory were discussed in the previous section in terms of behavior. This view is also internalized. Miguel Sanchez explains,

There’s two worlds. In this world where everyone lives, the normal world, the legal world, they [gang members] are moral. They're generally more moral in the sense of normal people. They interact with normal human beings. [They reconcile the two worlds] because they feel separate. You box them off in your head, like you do with your own actions. Personally, I've tried to after all that situation. There’s a large part of guilt towards what I did. There was some guilt. I guess a way that I coped with it while doing it was to separate it and be, like, I'm a student on one hand and then I do this on the other hand. I'm doing this because I can use the money and that's it.

Sanchez explicitly acknowledges the way in which he separated his guilt-ridden actions from his identity. He saw himself as a student rather than a gang affiliate even though his actions might indicate both identities. Sanchez therefore aims to dismiss his actions of any larger significance in an effort to allay his guilt. Furthermore, by compartmentalizing morality, Sanchez is able to view gang members as moral in the “normal” world.

Dehumanization & Moral Justification

When one reaches a level of signification, that person “reconceptualizes his or her life in terms of that deviance” (Vail 1999: 10). Deviants at this stage have internalized conduct that might otherwise cause hesitation, which makes the cognitive dissonance strategy of dehumanization particularly apt. Dehumanization entails victims being “no longer viewed as persons with feelings, hopes and concerns but as sub-human objects” (Bandura, 2002, p. 109). Thinking back to his time with the Gangster Disciples, Jay Brown recalled,

Without any type of conscience, the need and the greed was so overwhelming to where, even if you knocked the old lady down and you were trying to rob her, you know, most guys would run off laughing about it because they didn't see the hurt that they were causing someone else. They couldn't see. You know, it was like, to the point of, this is how I survive. This is my only form of survival. Everybody that we practically knew was committing crime in some form or another.

Brown and his peers no longer saw the old lady as a person they were harming, but rather as a key to a larger goal of economic elevation. Harming the person was an impersonal matter. Following this view, Brown employs moral justification – “the end justifies the means” – to further explain this behavior (Alleyne 751). It was simple survival. Finally, he uses the tactic of diffusion of responsibility to justify the scene. Because everyone was committing crimes, no singular person bore as much responsibility – it was the norm. This rationalization tactic is also key to the deviance level of signification, in which morals draw heavily on the conduct of the deviant group. Overall, these men rationalized their behavior in order to allay the cognitive dissonance between the moral guilt of causing harm to an innocent woman and the actions engaged by Gangster Disciple members. These tactics successfully distance questionable behavior from intrinsic identity, providing insight into maintenance of a positive view of the self in the face of less positive behavior.

Displacement of Responsibility

When gang members have expressed ambivalence surrounding the ethics of their actions, they also employ a rationalization tactic that avoids full agency over their actions. Such displacement of responsibility takes place when “responsibility is attributed to the person giving orders, not the person carrying out the deed” (Alleyne 2014: 751). For example, gang members who expressed ambivalence over selling drugs have rationalized this choice “to reduce cognitive dissonance between drug selling and their self-image as moral people who try to try to protect their neighborhoods” (Dickson-Gomez 2017: 568). Specifically, they reasoned that they simply sold the drugs; they explained that they simply viewed their participation as a part of a larger transaction and were just doing their job. Sanchez used distancing language of a similar sentiment. He reflected that, during his time transferring drugs for the Latin Kings, he was “a cog in the machine… I continued to do it, but it didn't feel like I had a choice. It was like being told to me, in a way, and I knew that I was dealing with people who could hurt me and could hurt people I love.” Jay Brown used the same tactic of distancing himself from agency, explaining that even upon disagreement with leadership, it “could be dangerous for the individual that felt the need to bring it to the forefront, and the people they love and care about. So you have to think about that if you feel like being a good guy.” This last statement dichotomizes moral consonance with safety. The decision to stay silent can be rationally explained, as safety of oneself and of others presents its own significant moral immediacy.

Gang members may even express a regret for gang membership yet view themselves as unable to leave gang life. Richard Mayall described an encounter with a high-ranking 35-year-old member of the Vice Lords. The member said of Mayall’s anti-violence seminars,

I wish a black man had said this to me. 25 years ago, it would have changed my life. I'm not going to change. That's the thing people don't understand: how much time have I invested in the street. That would be like me coming to you after you're at the very end of your senior year and telling you that university was garbage. [Mayall reflects,] We don't consider how much these guys have invested in what they are and where they are, even if they're ready.

The member of the Vice Lords saw himself as lacking autonomy over continued gang membership due to the years he had already committed to this lifestyle. He was thus able to reflect on his own remorse but excuse his ongoing behavior, seeing such behavior as inescapable.

Boundary Work

Deviant groups may engage in boundary work to “draw parallels” between themselves and more widely accepted groups in order to create a “bridge” between the two parties (Iturriaga 2017: 336). This linguistic technique is not simply performative but can also provide internal reaffirmation of one’s position. Interviewed respondents drew parallels between gangs and police forces, which reveals how the latter are viewed by the former and aims to equalize the two in terms of legitimacy. Darius Smith remembered “a lot of people refer to [the police force] as the blue gang.” Sanchez echoed these sentiments, eloquently asking, “What do you think the police are? The police are just a gang that was endorsed by the state and has access to weaponry and other things to combat the bad actors in the state.” By bridging the police and gangs, two groups which in the popular psyche are diametrically opposed, Smith and Sanchez at once delegitimize the police while making more understandable gang formation.

The Role of Perspective

Overall, interaction with gang membership lies both in action and in internal perspectives. Because it is the mind that rationalizes, excuses, or induces guilt for behavior, internal and external navigation of gang identity are inextricably intertwined. Understanding the root of gang membership and perpetuation is a deeply complex question, and one far too lengthy to address fully here. However, the view of the self undoubtedly plays a role. As Emilio Rivera, a student who never joined a gang but was surrounded by them growing up, argued, one’s mindset has significant weight beyond external factors. Rivera has many friends in similar situations to him in terms of neighborhood and parental support, yet his friends joined gang life while Emilio did not. He reflected, “it’s all just about the mental strength and the mental compass that people have nowadays to really decide whether they want to contribute to the neighborhood and to making it better.” This is not to say that external factors do not matter; they do. However, internal view of the self plays a key role.

Double Lives: Nonprofits

Both internally and externally, gang members navigate double lives. If nonprofits hope to successfully decrease gang membership and to support South and West Side communities, they must create programs with this dual identity in mind. Employees from various nonprofits working on gun violence issues shared their philosophies for successful engagement. This section aims to highlight best practices for nonprofit programs by evaluating when they authentically engage gang members through acknowledgement of the dual identity.

Many nonprofit employees acknowledged the difficult challenges they faced in their social work yet lauded the efforts of their respective organizations (González, Mayall, Green, Murphy). At the same time, interviewed stakeholders who were not part of these organizations offered far more skeptical viewpoints. Speaking to the job programs that many of these organizations run, Emilio Rivera remarked,

A job wouldn’t help a gangbanger. If there were more jobs, that would just mean more gangbangers would have money. Because in reality, people aren’t gangbangers because they don’t have jobs. People don’t get money from gangbanging. The most you can do is probably sell drugs, but that’s entering more of a crime thing, like, now I’m a drug dealer, not a gangbanger.

The debate around the effectiveness of jobs at stopping bullets is one that could be its own dissertation. That debate aside, what Emilio importantly acknowledges here is that jobs alone are not the solution: something deeper is at play. When asked about the effectiveness of nonprofit programs, he rolled his eyes. He retorted that a nonprofit program will not eradicate gangs because “it doesn’t change you” (Sanchez). His skepticism stemmed not from a lack of resources or shortage of programs, but from a chasm between nonprofits’ goals and their ability to change inner beliefs of the populations with whom they work. In order to address this concern surrounding authenticity, nonprofits must create programs that instill deep inner change.

Mentoring programs in schools play a vital role in combatting gun violence and gang membership. Albert Kim, former CPS high school teacher and advisor to the school’s male-centered mentorship program, emphasized the importance of reconciling both students and teachers’ double lives in order to create an authentic and successful program. He evaluated the issue of mixed messages and the existence of double selves quite eloquently, pointing out that:

students are experiencing different messages and different types of conversations from different people versus the school, and when those clash, students struggle with, when do I bring my home self might, you know the version of me outside of school, into the classroom and when do I not? And the issue is sometimes when those messages are so separate, students compartmentalize themselves and say, I act proper when I'm in the school, and then I can be my real self when I'm not in school. But then that doesn't solve the problem because then they think that the real version of them is whatever's outside of the school, and whatever they put into the school is not authentic in any way… And so you want to make sure that you're able to bridge those messages.

Lim’s program aims to answer the concerns of stakeholders such as Sanchez and Rivera. If programs want to help students beyond the classroom, they need to find a way to engage the home self and the school self that students experience. This is not to say that nonprofits which fail to do this have no impact. However, Officer Hughes acknowledged of her nonprofit that participants kept gang life separate from program participation. It may keep kids “off the streets” during program hours, but it cannot always keep children from joining gangs unless it can confront and merge the multiple identities of participants.

Essential to achieving student authenticity is through mentor authenticity as well. Kim emphasizes the importance of consistency and commitment outside the classroom. He describes attending baptisms and welcoming students over to his house. One of his former students is now his goddaughter. Commitment goes beyond an hour per week and beyond a time slot that can be pencilled into a calendar. Authentic change is as much a lifestyle commitment on the mentors’ end as it is on the students’. Then, students can “internalize and understand, oh, I can be supported outside of this and I can be who I am in this hour [of the mentorship program], but I can also be that same person outside of just that hour” (Lim). Full commitment from the teachers is especially important given that students in the past have viewed “educators as ineffectual in dealing with gangs” (Birts 2001: 72). Overall, effective mentorship programs must ask students to give 100% and, therefore, mentors must do the same.

The reason that engaging the multiple selves is critical is that only this engagement can lead to behavioral change across settings. Rossi explains that structural change, such as increasing public transportation access, is key. However, beyond these efforts, behavioral change is crucial: “things that focus on people, places, and behaviors. And the interesting thing about changing behaviors is you can do that without criminalizing or forcing people to change everything about themselves” (Papachristos).

Changing mindsets extends beyond classroom programs. Cure Violence supervisor Darius Smith maintained of his interactions with clients, “I try to change their mindset in any way I can.” Chicago Violence Reduction Strategy projects a singular “moral voice” when relating the perils of gun violence. These tactics are a step toward addressing the deeper roots of gun violence because they beckon inner reflection. They also must be authentically designed. Programs like Cure Violence and BAM rely on credible messengers to do just that, which echoes Kim’s point on the importance of authentic mentors.

As was stressed in the first findings section, gang members are also community members. Nonprofits can leverage the dual identity to find common ground between gang members and non-gang members with the understanding that the former are willing to compromise for the sake of their community. Claretian Associates in South Side Chicago created the Safe Passages program for young students who were afraid of violence on their walk to school. Jasmine Taylor, the organization’s Safety Program Manager, remarked, “when we have Safe Passage out there, it’s 99 percent that they [the gang members] are going to respect the Passage being out there and then nothing will happen.” Claretian Associates works with gang members and the most vulnerable people in their community. By acknowledging the multiple interests the various stakeholders have, regardless of other lifestyles they might pursue, the nonprofit has been able to serve South Side Chicago since 1991. From 2010-2013, it saw a truancy decrease at 98.5%, a decrease in student fights by 75%, and a decrease in Student Code of Conduct incidents by 99% (Safe Passages). In Little Village, too, gang members have altered behavior in light of community requests. When parents in the area asked the gangs to stay away from a local park in so it would be safer for children, members complied (Pollack).

Overall, the dual identities of gang members mean that authenticity in a program’s design is vital to success in the fight against gun violence. This dualism must not only be acknowledged. It can also be leveraged to find common ground and bridge different stakeholders. The issue of gun violence is deeply complicated and its solutions lie in a multitude of avenues, but interpersonal programs that engage the multiple aspects of the self are a large step in the right direction.


This study set out to better understand internal and external navigation of the self among gang members. In the process, it sought to humanize stakeholders whose voices have in the past been drowned out and flattened. Its findings also explored how nonprofits and mentorship programs leverage the dual identity of gang members to their advantage. The paper found that because gang members are also community members, they navigate these two worlds in their daily lives. This resulting dual identity can cause cognitive dissonance, which is allayed through neutralization techniques that allow agents to view themselves as moral. Finally, such dualism is key to the success of nonprofits hoping to address the roots of gun and gang violence and effect lasting change. Nonprofits can even use these dual identities to their advantage, finding common ground between seemingly disparate parties.

From this research, key stakeholders can better understand the internal and external dynamics that perpetuate gang life. They may do so through a refreshingly humanized depiction of gang members which is essential to evaluating gun violence beyond statistics. The more nonprofits understand the textured experiences of gang members, the better equipped they are to be effective agents of change in their communities. The gun violence problem is deeply complex and undoubtedly requires sweeping institutional change to solve. At the same time, it also requires interpersonal and attitudinal change deeply rooted in the norms of everyday life of Chicago’s South and West Sides. Past research has not shied away from seeking institutional answers, but more investigation remains to be done on the rich dynamics of community life across all cities with a gang presence.


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