Growing up, I was not taught how to value or prioritize my identity, nor did I know how it would shape the landscape of my perspective and how life responded to me. Because of the circumstances and conditions that influenced my childhood upbringing, I was forced on the frontline of life without a guide or compass to lead me and help me understand my identity. I allowed and in many instances desired that the nouns (people, places, and things) of my neighborhood shape, create, or define what my identity would be. At the age of 12 years old, I joined a gang. That gangs identity, reputation, values, beliefs, and pathology slowly began to transform into my own. I diligently and intentionally took ownership of it and wanted and desired to the point of infatuation to be known and respected by that identity at whatever cost.
As time lapsed, I became assimilated into that identity and did whatever necessary to maintain, cultivate, and renovate that identity for the sake of self preservation within the gang culture and a sense of acceptance and love within my heart. By the age of 16 years old, I had endured a lot of difficulties and witnessed things that suppressed my emotions and feed a self-created tolerance for consequences. At the age of 17, I was shot six times in a gang related incident and later turned 18 years old in a state penitentiary. I would spend the next 11 of 13 years of my life incarcerated.
While incarcerated, I came face to face with how my identity had shaped my life and was affecting how life was responding to me. People didn’t recognize me for who I was behind the identity I portrayed and earned while in the streets. And if I’m honest with myself, I didn’t know who I truly was either. I knew I had to maintain that identity or else I would put myself in a vulnerable state amongst my brothers. I just came to the realization that I had to change yet I didn’t how or where to begin, I just felt that deep within I had a greater sense of purpose flowing in my veins than the reality of what I had settled for or experienced.
If the nouns of my past helped create what I became, I understood that I needed to change those nouns. I had to take back my life and redefine my identity. The first step that I took was acknowledging that I couldn’t do it on my own and needed help. That help came in the form of a relationship with God and accountability to a mentor who came into my life while I was incarcerated. I started to understand and accept that everything that shaped my past can be an asset to my present if I filter it through those relationships with transparency.
After my release I committed myself to youth work. I have worked and continue to work with youth from all different social classes (at risk, high risk, college bound, fatherless, homeless, those with incarcerated parents, those in group homes or foster care) in various different roles (mentor, volunteer, program assistant, group facilitator, project coordinator, sports/life coach, guest speaker). I have also had the opportunity to work with local organizations and Ministries on community projects focused on Youth America and the day-to-day challenges and hurdles that countless youth experience.
I grew up facing some of the same challenges and hurdles that youth face today and because of that I am on the Frontline in whatever capacity necessary to serve and assist the youth to not only overcome but to build a future for themselves and an example for the next generation.
I'm humble enough to admit that I can learn more to be effective as a youth worker and I am teachable enough to do so and that is my identity.
by Jose Vasquez
Youth Outreach Coordinator, Gods Touch Milwaukee