Hector Verdugo is a former gang member who found a way out. He lives in Los Angeles and was it not for a will to change himself, he would have probably been in prison by now. In his exit program he realized that he was not merely a member of a gang, he was a natural born leader. Today, he is one of the masterminds behind the largest gang intervention programs in the world. We sat down to talk with him.
Hector, thanks for finding the time to talk to us. Tell me where you are today?
I’m in Los Angeles, California, at work at Homeboy Industries.
And for those of our readers who aren’t sure what Homeboy Industries is, enlighten us.
Homeboy Industries is a miracle factory. We are the largest gang intervention, rehab and re-entry program in the world. It’s free to come here and seek help. New people will find likeminded souls here. We’ll even pay you to stay.
That almost sounds like something out a Danish fairytale welfare model.
Haha. At Homeboy Industries, we lead former gang member away from a life with crime and help them reshape their lives. Let them become contributing members in our community.
And how do you do that?
We do that through our therapeutic environment where we offer job training, free tattoo removal, classes, substance abuse resources, and so on. Last year our 18-month employment and re-entry program was offered to over 400 men and women in Los Angeles.
And let me get this straight, you pay people to stay?
You have 8-hour work days here. But during our program you don’t work for us, you work on yourself. Take classes. Face your fears. Face your innermost feelings. Find a new way of thinking. Start to live your life.
Who’s the kind of person that comes in and asks for help?
Gang members. Convicted felons. People who have served in jail. Numbers in the system. All of the humans that wish to reshape their lives and change for the better. They come in, they ask for help, and we got their backs.
And you being involved in Homeboy Industries doesn’t exactly come out of the blue I imagine. You have a background as a gang member yourself?
I do. I got in touch with Homeboy Industries 13 years ago when I was around 30 years old. Before that, I had a lightning temper, engaged in violence, miserable fights. Had a criminal mind. I had met Father Greg, the founder of Homeboy Industries, when I was a kid, and one day someone encouraged me to find him and have a talk. I didn’t know what to expect. But he asked me a question and provided me with some answers that were eyeopening for me.
What was the question?
‘Why did you get jumped into a gang?’ At that time I didn’t know that it was going to be so powerful. My immediate response circled around lack of privilege, the fact that pretty women like gangsters, silly answers like that.
And what was his response?
“Let me tell you, ”he said. “You got jumped into a gang because you are running away from home.”
Was he right?
He was. I recalled situations from my childhood where I slept side by side with my cousins and siblings like sardines in our grandmas' room in the projects while our moms were drugged out and our uncles were pcp’ed. I hated being there, so when I got a bit older I began to party, and it was a natural step to be a tough kid.
And that was running away.
Yes, my fantasy world was to be in a gang. But in reality, I ran away from not being loved and from living in a place with nobody to care for us or give nourishment. That reality took me for a spin. My life was a lie that I had created for myself. But if that was my lie, what was my truth then? As you’re exploring that, you start to uncover all the layers of shit you’ve dealt with through life.
That’s a tough one.
You break down, you cry, you find the emotions you’ve stuffed away for so long. And when the healing starts to happen, you start to live a new life.
But I guess it just wasn’t from one day to the next?
No. If I wanted something else I had to move physically. Away from old friends. I hardly had any money but I managed to rent a room across the city. I was alone, reflected on my life. Read books by Joseph Murphy. And started to change the way I thought. I didn’t want to be violent. I didn’t want to engage in violence. I didn’t want to be a criminal.
“You break down, you cry, you find the emotions you’ve stuffed away for so long. And when the healing starts to happen, you start to live a new life."
– Hector Verdugo
When did you realize for the first time that you had skills that you could use professionally?
About a year into my own program. I didn’t come here to be a leader. Just to work on myself. But every time we did something all of us, people told me to lead the way and that I was a great leader. “What are you talking about” would be my default response, but I began to see the influence I had on others.
What is your role at Homeboy Industries today?
As the executive director I’ve initiated a rearrangment of the entire program. We made it more structured so we could serve more people.
And what’s the most important thing you bring to work every day?
People come in with these crazy stories about drug abuse, sexual abuse, mental abuse, physical violence etcetera by close family members. They been thrown directly in the wrong communities and from there on into prisons. But doing 30 years doesn’t necessarily help them.
What do they ask for?
“Just help me get out of my head.” It’s the pain that needs to come out. We need to transform that pain. To heal the pain.
And how do you help them?
I need to be clear minded every day. At peace in my heart. Lots of peace, lots of compassion. Be as loving as possible, listening. Allowing their pain to touch mine. When they get emotional, I get emotional. My role is to invite them to be in a safe place and let go. I’m not one to give them a tissue to wipe their tears off. Let the emotions show. Today, when gang members come in, we need to show them that this is not the final destination. This is just the beginning.
Hector joined the Headlight Program on a scholarship in November 2018. He continues to be a part of our ever-growing community of alumni who wants to change work for the better. If you want to learn more about Homeboy Industries and how you can get involved, visit their website here. If you want to know how Headlight can play a role in your worklife, do not hesitate to get in touch.
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