Society for Social Work and Research

Sixteenth Annual Conference Research That Makes A Difference: Advancing Practice and Shaping Public Policy
11-15 January 2012 I Grand Hyatt Washington I Washington, DC

15675 Gang Activity Among New Immigrant Latina Adolescents

Saturday, January 14, 2012: 2:30 PM
McPherson Square (Grand Hyatt Washington)
* noted as presenting author
Mimi V. Chapman, PhD, Associate Professor, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC
Micaela Mercado, MSW, PhD Candidate, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Durham, NC
Jenna Tucker, MSW, Doctoral Student, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC
Background: This investigation is part of an on-going community-based participatory research project working with rural schools to change school climate and provide mental health services for new immigrant teens. Last year we were approached about an emerging problem: young girls becoming involved and victimized by their participation in gangs. Based on previous data and literature, we hypothesized that a version of strain theory may be at work in these young girls. Specifically, as girls emigrate from Latin-American countries, they internalize American notions of strong, independent women who have their own dreams and aspirations outside of domestic roles. Accordingly, these young women are interested in appearing powerful. Yet, outlets for acquiring independence and power are not present. After school activities are severely lacking in rural immigrant communities. From sports to drama to dance, there are limited ways in which girls can demonstrate excellence. School success is possible but is dependent language acquisition and parental participation in schooling. Post-secondary education opportunities are limited because of finances and documentation status.

Without avenues to acquire pro-social power, these young women may be channeling their desire for strength into aggression versus achievement. Hence, they identify with powerful and aggressive gang values. Paradoxically, gang involvement and the risky behavior that follows will likely dis-empower them over time.

Methods: Using qualitative interviews with 24 seventh and eighth grade girls nominated by school staff, we investigated perceptions power among Latina girls progressing well through middle school (n=12) as compared to girls who were manifesting behavior that put them at risk for gang involvement (n=12). Because of human subjects concerns, all interviews were conducted using pseudonyms and only hypothetical questions were posed. All interviews were taped and transcribed immediately following the interview. Two of the three authors coded the transcripts independently using Atlas TI. We met to compare codes and resolve discrepancies. The coders represented both insider and outsider perspectives as one coder is an immigrant from Mexico while one was not. Themes were derived from our coding which inform our findings.

Findings: Our work suggests that these groups of girls have different perceptions of strength. For those girls deemed by their school to be at risk for gang affiliation, strength equates with raw power. Those girls describe strength as being able to gain respect through physical means or through the protection of powerful others [i.e. gangs]. Girls progressing well describe strength in terms of future accomplishments. These young women also describe the lengths to which they must go to avoid gang involvement. Religious participation as well as staying isolated from their neighbors appear key.

Implications: Our analysis suggests the need for a youth development approach to this problem. Girls need outlets in which they can achieve success; some may need direct educational and mental health services to promote school achievement. Others may need ways to demonstrate competence outside of academics. Faith communities appear particularly important and may be an important prevention and intervention point with which social workers should interface.

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