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A photo of Kim Shinew, Monika Stodolska and Liza Berdychevsky

Podcast: A Few Minutes With Kim Shinew, Monika Stodolska and Liza Berdychevsky

In this new podcast, Recreation, Sport and Tourism Department faculty Kim Shinew, Monika Stodolska and Liza Berdychevsky discuss their study and findings on youth gang involvement and recreation programs.

Click here to see the full transcript.


VINCE LARA: This is Vince Lara in the communications department of the College of Applied Health Sciences at the University of Illinois. Recently, Kim Shinew, Monica Stodolska and Liza Berdychevsky, all of the recreation, sport, and tourism department, discussed their research on how recreation programs can be effective in addressing youth gang involvement and violence.

KIM SHINEW: My name is Kim Shinew, and I'm a faculty member in the department of recreation, sport, and tourism, in the College of Applied Health Sciences. And I'm here with my two colleagues.

MONIKA STODOLSKA: Monika Stodolska-- I'm also the faculty of the department of recreation, sport, and tourism. And I work with Kim for almost 20 years.

LIZA BERDYCHEVSKY: My name is Liza Berdychevsky. I'm also a faculty of the department of recreation, sport, and tourism. And we've been working together on this project for several years now.

KIM SHINEW: Well, we're here today to talk about a study that we did up in Chicago. The study started many years ago in a project that Monica and I did as it relates to youth in Chicago and their access to recreation and sport programs. When Liza joined us, she had an interest in gang activities. And that coincided very nicely with research findings that we had had in previous studies. And so we wanted to conduct a study that focused more specifically on the gang experience and their motivations for joining gangs and their experiences once they left gangs.

MONIKA STODOLSKA: Some of our research topics were the factors that affect people's use of outdoor recreation spaces, specifically Latina youth. And we conducted focus groups. And some of the things that people talked about over and over again was how crime affects people's ability to use public spaces and recreation resources. And that's how it all started.

LIZA BERDYCHEVSKY: And then in this particular study, which was funded by the campus research board grant, we have focused on the roles and benefits of using recreation in the prevention, intervention, and rehabilitation programs targeting youth involved in gangs. Recreation is a tool that can be used on many levels in the prevention, intervention, and rehabilitation efforts for vulnerable youth who are involved in gang violence. Now, not every recreation effort would necessarily work.

There are key features that we have to deliver to those recreation programs. They have to be consistent. They have to be affordable.

They have to be attractive to youth. They have to offer structure and supervision. And they have to target high risk youth appropriately.

And then if we are successful with that, we can deliver pro-social relationships, positive role models. We can deliver capacity for transformation and reappraisal. And we can also offer safe havens to vulnerable youth, which is extremely important.

One of the programs that was particularly instrumental in our society and helped us a lot, both with recruitment and data collection and even understanding the results that we're getting, is Cure Violence, formally known as Ceasefire. They're actually an intervention program. They employ former gang members who act as violence interrupters and mentors and coaches who work with high risk youths who are already involved in gangs and gang violence.

So many of the features that we are discussing were successfully implemented in their programming efforts. They were using recreation both as a hook to entice people to join their programs, but they were also using it as much more than that to helping them open up, grieve over things that happened, connect to each other, communicate better to each other, connect to positive role models, and even things like learning how to be a father because some of them-- not all of them.

Some of him never had a fatherly role model. So they use recreation in various roles. And many of our findings are linking well to that example.

KIM SHINEW: And I would just like to add to what Liza said about Ceasefire. They were instrumental in the success of this study. As you might imagine, it is difficult to find former gang members that want to sit down and talk to you about a research study.

And we reached out to Ceasefire, and they reached out to their group, their members, and asked them if they would participate in this study. So when we would go up to Chicago, they coordinated the interviews. And we would sit in this room with them, and we would interview someone. And then we would walk out, and we would say next.

And the next person would come in. So in terms of data collection, it was a dream because of their willingness to help us. And when we asked them about their willingness to help us, they felt that our studies, goals, aligned with the goals of their project. And that's why they wanted to assist us with recruiting people for the study.

MONIKA STODOLSKA: It was actually interesting because some of the older gang members who, you know, deceased from the activity decades ago, they mentioned that gangs in the 1960s and '70s and '80s, there were action organization that provided recreation opportunities to youth. They were the ones who set up the soup kitchens in the neighborhoods. They are the ones who took kids to Six Flags, and they actually provided recreation opportunities for the kids. And now they comment that is no longer the case.


It's more everybody's, you know, on their own, and they're focused more on obtaining money from drug sales than caring for the community. Obviously, this was the more of a romanticized notion of gangs, what happened 20, 30, 40 years ago. But they were sort of disillusion about the landscape of crime that is happening in Chicago and major urban areas right now. And it's more difficult to police them as well.

KIM SHINEW: Monika mentioned something that I just thought of when she was talking about the type of individual that is attracted to gangs. I mean, sometimes, it's been a family tradition, and they just, it's what they know. Other times, it's youth looking for thrills, right, and the risk associated with being a member of the gang. And I believe that this is another place where recreation and sport programs could play a role because if they can find other avenues to get that thrill and that excitement that comes with a gang, then that might be a good alternative to joining a gang.

MONIKA STODOLSKA: Absolutely, and the role models. For many of the youth, they mentioned that they've never had a real family. They never had someone they could depend on and someone who would actually care for them. And this is what they are looking for in gang affiliation. So the recreation practitioners whom we spoke with, they mentioned that a recreation professional, a coach, can be the mentor, can be this important person that can actually change the life of a child.

KIM SHINEW: The other thing we learned doing that study when we were interviewing middle school students is how early the recruitment for gangs started. It was much earlier than what we had anticipated and that it was happening in late elementary school, early middle school when they were being approached and asked to join gangs. We need to be on the lookout for gang activity in elementary schools and that that's where a lot of the recruitment happens. I remember interviewing someone who said that by the time they get to high school, they've already decided, right?

They're either in or they're out. But it's that late elementary school where they're making that decision and then into middle school. So I think by the time you get to high school and you think about programs to prevent gang involvement at high school, that's too late. And so it really needs to be much earlier.

LIZA BERDYCHEVSKY: And I think it also refers to what kind of programs would be offered to those different age brackets because if we're talking about primary and middle school, we should be focusing on primary prevention efforts-- so focusing on broader youth. And then when we are offering programs that are targeting high school age kids, at that point, since, like Kim said, the decision for most of them has been made already, maybe offering intervention programs that are more tailored towards high risk groups who are already involved in gangs-- so different efforts and using recreation differently in those efforts.

MONIKA STODOLSKA: Our study had a lot of interesting findings, and some of the things that really struck us was that gangs have evolved in recent decades, and they have become much less organized, much less structured, more violent. There is much less cohesion among gang members and less loyalty. And what happens is that they're mostly focused right now on earning money from drug sale.

What we are also seeing increasingly is the influence of Mexican drug cartels, especially the Sinaloa cartel in Chicago. And that really affects the landscape of violence in the city. So one of the things that we need to learn from future research is how to protect you from that new violence that is happening in our urban areas.

Another thing that was really interesting in our study that we discovered is that gangs operate not only in those impoverished central city communities-- gangs are present in every city, in every neighborhood, even in small communities like Champagne Urbana. They attract youth not only from working class families but also from middle class families. So youth of all kinds of backgrounds are exposed to gang activity. So what we need to learn more in future research is what are the protective factors, what are the personal characteristics of youth that makes some kids more resilient to crime than others, and how communities and how families can use recreation to protect their children from crime and violence.

KIM SHINEW: Some of the areas that we haven't talked about today that was certainly evident in our findings was a difference between males and females and their gang experience. And I think that is also a fertile area of research just as it relates to sexuality and risk-taking. And that's an area that Liza has done quite a bit of work in.

LIZA BERDYCHEVSKY: Mm-hm, that's one of the papers that we are currently writing up gangs have an extreme chauvinist culture. It's like taking double standards that we still unfortunately have in the society and magnifying the amplitude of their influence on what roles are available to men and what roles are available to woman, what different kinds of victimization female and male gang members are being subjected to. And unfortunately, a gang is a horrible place for everybody but even more so for young women.

KIM SHINEW: What we feel is that we need to be at the table when these different intervention and rehabilitation programs are being developed because if those key qualities are not there, they will not be successful. So practitioners who are working for YMCAs and park districts and public schools and Boys and Girls Clubs can play a really pivotal role. But they need to be included at the initial stages to ensure that the programs are set up in a way that allows them to be successful.

So recreation in sports is not a panacea. It's not an automatic that they will have a positive impact. But I think our findings highlight very well the potentially positive impact that they can have.

VINCE LARA: My thanks to Monica, Liza, and Kim. This has been A Few Minutes With.

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