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.