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Q&A: Laurence Ralph on Injury and Resilience in Gangland Chicago

The Harvard anthropologist talks about his new book ‘Renegade Dreams,’ the work of three years observing a West Side Chicago neighborhood.

Photos: Courtesy of Harvard University (left) and the University of Chicago Press (right)

A few years ago, Laurence Ralph—now an assistant professor of African-American Studies and Anthropology at Harvard—was a young Ph.D. student in anthropology at the University of Chicago. He came into a city with gang-violence problems, and a program that had produced some of the most significant research on gangs for going on a century.

That dynamic created a community wary (and weary) of being studied; to build ties, Ralph moved in to the neighborhood that he gives the nom de anthropology “Eastwood.” And his years in the neighborhood developing his work led him past gang violence itself and into the injury that results from it, and how people live through and beyond injury. And that concept of injury expanded into a community-wide frame—into redevelopment, incarceration, poverty, and HIV.

From that experience comes Ralph’s new book, Renegade Dreams: Living Through Injury in Gangland Chicago. It’s a difficult book to summarize, though on one level it’s very simple—immersing himself in the neighborhood, Ralph documents scenes of people talking through traumas, be they gunshot wounds, lockups, infection, or the potential destruction of housing, trying to work through them as individuals and as a community.

On another level, an approach to the problems of Eastwood begins to emerge, less from empirical schematics than from the residents themselves, using those injuries as a foundation from which to build. In Ralph’s words, “through the eyes of Eastwoodians, I saw how injury could be crippling, but could also become a potential, an engine, a generative force that propelled new trajectories.”

If that sounds conceptually difficult, consider Alcoholics Anonymous, which many of the scenes in Renegade Dreams reminded me of. Not so much in the structured, 12-step sense, but in how it’s formed by social bonds created by people who share an injury, and maintained by a willingness to talk about those injuries with each other, rather than through a controlled system led by professionals.

Take Brendan I. Koerner’s Wired piece explaining what we know about Alcoholics Anonymous (not as much as you’d think) and why it works for many people. First, it’s a group:

To begin with, there is evidence that a big part of AA’s effectiveness may have nothing to do with the actual steps. It may derive from something more fundamental: the power of the group. Psychologists have long known that one of the best ways to change human behavior is to gather people with similar problems into groups, rather than treat them individually.

Then there’s the mentoring aspect—reaching out to prevent further injury:

According to J. Scott Tonigan, a research professor at the University of New Mexico’s Center on Alcoholism, Substance Abuse, and Addictions, numerous studies show that AA members who become involved in activities like sponsorship—becoming a mentor to someone just starting out—are more likely to stay sober than those who simply attend meetings.

Within that group, people talk about their injuries, which is also theraputic:

AA, it seems, helps neutralize the power of these sensory cues by whipping the prefrontal cortex back into shape. Publicly revealing one’s deepest flaws and hearing others do likewise forces a person to confront the terrible consequences of their alcoholism—something that is very difficult to do all alone. This, in turn, prods the impaired prefrontal cortex into resuming its regulatory mission.

(To be clear, Renegade Dreams doesn’t use AA as a model; it’s simply something I have some familiarity with that was helpful in reading the book and getting inside Ralph’s thesis.)

One of the most fascinating parts of Renegade Dreams is an informal group Ralph finds, the Crippled Footprint Collective, consisting of paralyzed ex-gang members who talk openly about life with paralysis, which formed out of a physical rehab program. Ralph describes one of their outreach sessions at a high school:

Darius continues, “As you can see, all of us here have wheelchairs. And the reason we have wheelchairs is because we were out in the streets gang banging, selling drugs. We got shot, and ultimately we got paralyzed.” Today, Darius says, the students will learn what happens to the body when the spinal cord is injured. By educating the students about the grim realities of being wheelchair bound, the Crippled Footprint Collective speakers hope to get current gang members thinking about their lives outside the gang—specifically, if they become paralyzed and have to care for themselves. Eventually, the gang deserts gunshot victims. If this message resonates with the students, Darius and company are well on their way to achieving their primary goal: Reversing the foundational belief that the perpetuation of violence unifies the gang….

What’s interesting about the Crippled Footprint Collective is that, in a sense, ex-gang members have a particular standing in the community to say this. On one hand, they’re given an “honorable discharge” from the gang, in Ralph’s words; they’re respected for having sacrificed themselves for the group. Like disabled veterans of war, they have an elevated status in the context of violence, and their words resonate. On the other, they’re marginalized within the community; being disabled, they’re of little to no use to the gang, while facing the same problems the disabled do in the wider community—if not more, in a resource-poor neighborhood like Eastwood.

And this gets to what Ralph means by saying that injury simultaneously cripples but also establishes potential, and potential to help others.

Nor are they alone. Ralph spends some time with an HIV-positive teenager named Amy and a health worker assigned to her, a gay, black, Christian man in his 40s also living with HIV. It’s Mark’s job to transition Amy from her high-risk lifestyle to the regimented life of living with the disease. Part of that transition involves talking—at one point, to a huge crowd at an outdoor worship service, as the teenage heroin addict addresses a community of believers:

Amy’s story personalizes an already-valuable healing narrative. As someone who is well equipped to discuss an onerous and ongoing process of healing, she is expert at eliciting empathy. On the one hand, Amy’s illness narrative is… built on a framework that would be familiar to an audience of churchgoers. But… the point of it all is not merely personal transformation, but to refocus the audience’s attention on the daily rigors of managing injury. Like “renegade dreams,” the “renegade wills” that Fatima, Noel, and Amy have developed are grounded in injury and seek to refigure the pain experienced through addiction and disease into newfound aspirations or a radical reorientation to the world (in this case related to sobriety and drug adherence).


In this context, developing the will it takes to cope with the injury of addiction and disease ceases to be solely a single-minded cognitive relationship with a higher power. It is a far more radical endeavor. Allowing other Eastwoodians to see you managing various forms of injury is both action and strategy that can be adopted in adverse times—a collective asset others might draw on. This is the very resource on which many of their lives may depend.

This is not to say that Renegade Dreams presents a recipe for this transformation of injury. There’s no schematic for a Gang Members Anonymous; it’s not a policy document, it’s a work of anthropology. And it’s not mean to take a model from outside Eastwood and impose it on the neighborhood, or vice versa. It’s about considering the deep injuries to Eastwood as a resource, and specifically a resource specific to and held by the community, and, as Ralph told me, “it calls for a different kind of collaboration in terms of how we imagine change, or where we imagine the change to come from.”

You spent three years in Eastwood. How’d you come to do your study there?

I started as a grad student at the University of Chicago, and I was interested in the problem of gang violence, just from volunteering around Chicago in different anti-violence and gang-prevention problems. I was commuting from Hyde Park, where the University of Chicago is located, to Eastwood. I wasn’t really getting anywhere in terms of the relationships I wanted to build and sustain over time, so I decided to move into the neighborhood.

From there the focus shifted to building relationships with the people who lived there, and viewing the gang problem, so to speak, in terms of the wider community relationships and the communal projects that people were interested in—that didn’t necessarily have to do with the gang, per se, but ended up allowing me to see how people are connected to the gangs in not-so-obvious ways. Did you go in to Eastwood intending to write your thesis on it?

Not necessarily. I wanted to understand the problem of crime and violence more broadly, and it led me to this particular community, and led me to focus on the particular aspects of violence that I focus on in the book, such as gun violence and disability.

While you were in Eastwood, you were also reading the immense literature on gangs, violence, and poverty in Chicago. And you mention finding “the limits of how scholars and experts have been talking about violence and injury.” What are those limits?

There’s been a long legacy of gang research in Chicago. As researchers we’re not always aware of what that legacy means for the people in those communities who have been the subject of the research. When I would explain that I just wanted to understand some of these problems, there was initially a lot of pushback, in terms of people telling me how they’ve been represented. And also telling me how they wanted to be represented.

In the book I distinguish between injury and living through injury—that was a product of some of those conversations, in which people wanted to not just talk about the injuries that they suffered, which they didn’t deny, but how they were trying to cope and how to develop strategies for overcoming those injuries, and how they were wrestling with how to make a different future based on the injuries they suffered.

When I talk about limitations, I’m talking about having a particular notion of what you’re going to find going in versus allowing that to be more flexible, contingent, based on how people themselves are discussing research in relationship to their lives.

That ties into the idea of isolation that you’re working with—like William Julius Wilson’s concept of isolation. We think of neighborhoods like Eastwood as being “isolated,” but they’re deeply tied to the state and the globalized economy.

What I want to do is—not necessarily negate isolation altogether, but look at it as a Janus-faced thing, where there’s two sides to it. How does isolation produce a different kind of network? You can look at mass incarceration, for example, as a global phenomenon that also generates revenues in a particular way.

But when we think about isolation, we don’t usually think about that kind of economy. Or the drug economy, that’s also global, that also has its tentacles in different parts of the world. Looking at the other side of isolation in terms of isolation produces. If we can study some of those networks, and how they lead and intersect with inner-city communities, we can begin to develop sustained mechanisms for changing the particular dynamics.

The two big concepts that run through the book are injury and this idea of the renegade. They start with very specific things—physical injury, and the idea of the renegade that comes out of gang culture. But then you evolve them into larger, encompassing concepts. How did that take place in the process of your work.

All of these issues are so big that you can get lost in the intricacies of the concepts themselves. The idea of a gang renegade was so prominent, located in particular members that people would say are renegades. What I want to get at is a different sensibility, a renegade sensibility, if you will. I think that a lot of times, the idea of a renegade was a projection. People would blame the renegade for things, but they themselves were renegades in other ways, in the sense that they themselves were marginalized within the community, or within the gang. And they were blamed for the reason why the community was going wrong.

I think that forced me to see that as a bigger thing than just a particular gang member, but to look at how people are struggling with the renegade will or the renegade sensibility, how they negotiated their positions within the community in relationship to that idea.

I’m interested in the historical tension between the older gang members—the oldest ones, like Mr. Otis, going back through the ones who are in their 30s, and the ones who are in their teens. And how the idea of nostalgia runs through at. When Mr. Otis is talking about younger gang members, it reminded me of how nostalgia is used in all sorts of contexts.

This goes along the lines of the projection I was just talking about. What interested me about the idea of nostalgia is that it’s not just about the past—it presumes to be about the past, but it’s also about anxieties about the present, anxieties about the future. One thing that struck me, when I started doing this research, especially in the context of anti-violence campaigns around the city, is that you have a lot of older gang members who work for these organizations, who are really crucial and critical, and they still have connections to the gangs, people respect them. They might still have family members that are younger, that are involved in the gang.

Again, this is a 50-year gang. It’s unique, in a way, that other cities may not be. You have different generations of gang members. When somebody is 70 years old, and claiming affiliation to the gang, often times what the gang means to them is very different than somebody who’s 20 years old who’s claiming affiliation. Or somebody who’s eight.

For me, I was interested in what those cleavages were, and what people were actually talking about when they said they belonged to this gang. I found that often times they meant very different things in terms of the gang. For older generations, they meant a community organization that had a particular obligation to look out for the community, to shepherd the community.

For younger generations, they had an idea of the gang as a kind of business model, a business enterprise. Nostalgia helped me find points of orientation that people were referencing when they said “the gang,”  because they always used the same word. But what was the wider context they were referring to? How were those in conflict with each other? What were the possibilities for those different models of the gang to come together, right? Those became key questions that I wanted to answer.

When they were talking about those generational cleavages, did they take into account the outside influences that, in part, created those cleavages? Like, the older gang members, who were in the gangs in the mid-to-late 1960s, when it seemed like the gangs would be integrated into the greater city power structure, but the Daley administration pushed back against that.

And later on, there’s the collapse of the large, hierarchical gang structure. Then you have younger gang members who are nominally part of these large, long-running gangs, but since those don’t really exist anymore, there are all these block-level conflicts.

Yes and no. Another thing about nostalgia that’s interesting to me is that there are erasures. History gets erased in the idea of nostalgia. People have this idea that the idea that the gang could get government grants in the same way that they did in the past, but they’d erase the part about the Daley crackback against that. People would say that, you know, the gang should be more structured, as it was in the past, when you had the heyday when it was organized around the drug trade, but mass incarceration took the possibility of that away by locking up members for long periods of time. So you have a fragmenting of the gang now.

People would yearn for a more stabilized system, but it can’t exist in the same way.

I was interested in what gets erased in those histories, that people don’t always recognized. If you asked people what kinds of change in structure happened, they would eventually get to the idea that people are locked up. But on an everyday basis, people go around with the idea that the gang needs to be more unified, needs to be more organized.

Each of these periods contain their own kind of erasures of why the gang can’t be the ideal that it is for particular members. And that idea breaks down along generational lines. It was important for me to show what got erased in those histories, in those historical retellings, and why the gang couldn’t be the way that certain members imagined it.

But also how that created a particular kind of burden for the younger members, who had to exist within the gang, and they couldn’t possibly ideal gang members, because people had all these ideas of what the gang should be, and what kind of gang member they should be. But the structure for them to be that kind of gang member wasn’t there.

It seems like a substantial problem with gang violence is what you call “the crippling currency of obligation upon which gang life is built.” What do you mean?

This what drew me to the idea of disability and the figure of the disabled gang member, because there’s a lot of ways you can think about obligation in terms of that figure—the person who was wounded, the person who was shot on behalf of the gang.

I think that they are held up as a martyr, a person who has sacrificed themselves on behalf of the gang, and explicitly in the gang discourse, the way gang members talk about it, that person should be honored. There’s an idea there that if you dedicate yourself to the gang in particular ways, you should be honored, you should be recognized for that sacrifice.

Yet, at the same time, they were very marginal figures. They often didn’t get the kind of recognition that they ordinarily would. I was drawn to the figure of the disabled gang member because I saw people in wheelchairs—young people. And people were talking about everything except for the fact that they were in the wheelchair, and I found that striking.

There’s a way in which they become marginalized, but at the same time supposedly honored. What I wanted to do was draw out what was beneath that, how this idea of sacrifice and obligation propelled particular kinds of activities. On the one hand, we can say that it propels violence; but on the other hand, I saw that it was about relationships more broadly. It was the same kind of obligations that made people honor older members like Mr. Otis that eventually helped gang members programs to stop violence.

I think that the important part is the obligation itself and how it works in terms of the organization. I think that can provide a potential for what gangs can ultimately do that’s not just about violence, that’s not just about crime. For me it was important to draw that out, and to look at how those notions of reciprocity, notions of obligation, work within the gang structure itself.

What’s interesting to me is that these members were, as you put it, given an “honorable discharge,” where they could break out of those bonds of obligation and move forward.

In a way, they’ve already proven that they’re dedicated to the gang, so that no more is asked of them. I met other gang members who felt perpetually obligated to perform their allegiance to the gang. That character I talk about in the book, Blizzard, this is somebody that feels they can’t get away from the gang, no matter what. There’s a tension there between somebody whose wounds are visible, but they can’t distance themselves from gang activity even when they want to.

I talk about that as a way to show that it’s not necessarily all about someone’s aspiration to leave the gang. There’s wider networks that draw them back into the gang even when they try to get away.

There’s a way that this model emerges in your book—not just the Crippled Footprint Collective, but also Amy and Mark addressing HIV—that reminded me of Alcoholics Anonymous in a way, where you have people who have experienced injury talking together to build off of that acknowledged injury.

In closing the book, that’s what I wanted to show—a model of how narratives of injury come together and are thus used as a collective resource for everyone to see, and take from it what they can, and try to make a different life out of that resource. There’s a way in which injury is constantly harnessed, and it’s not just one’s own injury. It becomes a communal injury, both in the sense that it’s shared, publicly, but also that in the public sharing people build onto it and add onto it their own experiences. So it becomes more than even a religious thing, or more than just a personal thing, but a way in which injury becomes a communal resource.

That’s the strength that I wanted to show in the concept of injury, moving towards a theory of resilience, or a theory of how people actually manage to make a life for themselves, and imagine a different future, given all the injuries that seem to be piled upon them throughout the book.

The way you get to that endpoint, the frame seems to narrow as the book goes along. It starts with the neighborhood as a whole talking about infrastructure and housing. Then gangs and incarceration, and narrowing down to individuals with the chapter on HIV.

And it also seems like the efficacy of that process increases. At the beginning, when they’re talking about housing and infrastructure, they’re talking at cross-purposes, trying to work out these enormously broad issues. Do you see a possibility for that process of talking about, working through injury, working on that level of the whole neighborhood?

In the beginning of the book I wanted to show how social injury was, how much of a felt experience that it was for different people who may have different perspectives in the community, but they all intersect with different issues like housing.

I think that’s a critical component, and I think that’s always there. I think the possibility for those intersections are always there, especially when a community is under threat, or they feel themselves to be under attack, and in may ways the redevelopment chapter was about that—the community feeling like they were under attack, so it lends itself to broad coalitions.

Towards the end of the book I wanted to show how that kind of social injury becomes embodied in individuals and individual people. I kind of narrowed the scope to show how the physical injury becomes manifested out of that social experience of injury. I thought about starting it the other way around, with physical injury and going to a broader frame, but it goes back to the issue of framing—I think that we always have these ideas about people being responsible for their own injury, and I wanted to show that in many ways it’s a social aspect that contributes to these individual injuries, so we have to understand the social landscape before we can understand how it becomes embodied in a particular person. That’s why I went broader to narrow.

That leads me to my last question—one of the ways in which that frame works is that it starts at this level where there’s a lot of interaction with outsiders, whether it’s the city, social welfare groups, churches, that are connected at the city, state, and national levels. And there’s a lot of tension between the work of outsiders and community members.

And when you get into the Crippled Footprint Collective and Amy and Mark, you show the possibility of how powerful it is for members of the community to be leading this. At one point you say that “Eastwoodians have taught us how to harness injury.” What can people outside Eastwood do with those lessons?

That’s ultimately where I want to leave us with the book. For me it goes back to how to frame the issue, or what we bring to the table when we try to address these questions. It calls for a different kind of collaboration in terms of how we imagine change, or where we imagine the change to come from.

When I talked about issues of redevelopment, it wasn’t that people didn’t want their communities to be changed, it was just that they felt their voices weren’t being heard or valued, and their lives weren’t being valued as something that was integral to the change that was going to take place. And led to them to presume that the change wasn’t for them, that they would have to go.

That’s how we can use the presumption of injury and the real, material effects of how people are injured, to change our approach to social intervention. We can start just with the injury that people experience, the threats that they feel that they’re under, and use that as a building block for the way that we want to transform society, or the way we want to think about what the future’s going to look like. I think that the key resources are already there. In other words, they’re human resources, that have gone through these experiences, and the challenge is to harness that potential, that comes from the multiple ways that people themselves are building on these injuries.

When I view things like the Crippled Footprint Collective as a successful intervention, or Amy’s approach as a successful intervention, what I’m saying is that those are kind of moments where human infrastructure is used. Human infrastructure is the building block for realizing or imagining a different future, rather than an outside imposition of what successful communities look like, a model that’s brought from outside of the frame, and presumed to be successful within it.


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