17 July 2013

Don't Hate Me Because I'm Not Fluffy

I interviewed Father Greg Boyle today for a magazine article. For those of you who aren’t aware of him, Father Boyle started Los Angeles-based Homeboy Industries 25 years ago, the country’s largest gang-intervention organization. 

One of the primary services Homeboy has offered since the start is free tattoo removal (that started when an ex-gang member complained for Father G, as he’s called,that he couldn’t get a job and Father G replied that it could be because of the large tattoo across his forehead that read “Fuck the World.”

Since then, Homeboy has greatly expanded into classes, legal services, training and running six different social enterprises, including the Homeboy Bakery, the Homegirl Cafe, and an silkscreen/embroidery shop that has more than 2,500 clients. Homeboy employs more than 200 former gang members, many of whom leave Homeboy and find jobs in the private sector.

Boyle is a hero in Los Angeles and he’s a hero in the social justice movement, speaking all over the world about second chances and kinship. Just being in his calm presence feels redemptive.

Despite all his fame, and the tremendous good that Homeboy Industries does by every metric, he talked about how much of a struggle it is to raise money. He talked about how people who work with animal shelters have told him about getting handed $1 million checks, repeatedly, and how that doesn’t happen at Homeboy Industries because gang members aren’t “cuddly.” It’s a much tougher sell to convince someone to give to someone with a possible criminal record, covered in tattoos, than a cute, furry creature that wags its tail. 

I thought a lot about that all day and how it affects my giving. For a long time I didn’t give money to animal causes (though I gave my time by volunteering the Humane Society in New York and then the Lange Foundation in Los Angeles) because I put a higher premium on two-legged creature than four-legged ones in terms of my dollars. Plus, it always felt like animal causes were a much easier sell.

However, I realize that animal causes are one of the three biggest areas I’ve given to since I started giving daily in January (I’ve also given a lot to LGBT issues and to charities that assist the military). I’ve become a total sucker for a cute photo of a kitten who looks like it wants its belly rubbed or a puppy cocking its head a certain way to ensure maximum cuteness. We all like giving to animals because they need our help and we see them as defenseless against the cruelties waged against them. But so are ex-gang members. Maybe not in the same way, but they are in a culture that gives them no hope of a better life and they have no one to take care of them either. Many of them have been abused and battered, just like helpless animals.

I’m not going to stop giving to animal causes for the rest of the year, but I think I’m going to try to spread it out a little bit more and not have my head turned so easily by a little ball of fluff. 

I’m not giving to Homeboy Industries today. I’ll save that for after I’ve turned in my article and my professional dealings with them are done.

Today’s $10 goes to Brothers and Sisters of Love, a Catholic ministry based in Chicago that works with gangs and the poor. 

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