SASKATOON — Well-known for walking with ex-gang members through 10,000 Little Steps to Healing, the grassroots program STR8 UP has recently ventured on some next steps of its own.
A new executive director, a strong volunteer board of directors, charitable status and generous community support means that STR8 UP is moving forward in its goal to help young men and women escape gangs, criminal lifestyles and addictions, says founder Rev. André Poilièvre.
Expanding STR8 UP programming more intentionally into the “next steps” of education, job training and employment for members is part of a strategic plan now being developed under the leadership of Alex Munoz, hired in November as executive director. Plans are also underway to hire a program co-ordinator.
STR8 UP started when Poilièvre, as prison chaplain, was approached by two men who asked for help in getting out of gangs. Since those early beginnings, STR8 UP has slowly evolved as a grassroots, member-centred program.
As part of their multi-year commitment to the program, STR8 UP members are required to drop all gang involvement, deal with addictions and embrace honesty. The goal is to help each member become a loving parent, a faithful partner and a responsible citizen.
Along the way, STR8 UP members have also given hundreds of presentations in schools and churches, produced books to raise awareness about the reality of gang life, and hosted a successful community conference about gang issues. That conference, held in February 2014, was one way in which STR8 UP has formed connections with the Los Angeles-based Homeboy Industries and its social-enterprise model, which uses business and workplace opportunities as part of the journey to free young men and women from gangs.
“We are trying to become a little more proactive in our approach,” said Munoz, who comes to his new position from a background that includes working with Aboriginal youth as a program manager at the University of Saskatchewan. He recently earned his MBA, with an eye toward working in the non-profit sector, and is enthusiastic about STR8 UP’s future.
“The next phase is more of a sustainability approach, to work more long-term,” Munoz said. “In order to reduce our need for outside funding, we are going to rely more on ourselves, based on the social-enterprise model.”
Munoz says that services and programs are being streamlined to ensure that STR8 UP can direct members to the resources they need, whether that’s housing, food, or clothing — and ultimately, education, job skills and employment.
STR8 UP is seeking partnerships with businesses, and wants to put their own Saskatoon stamp on the Homeboy model, which has been summarized in the phrase: “We don’t hire homeboys to bake bread, we bake bread to hire homeboys.” Helping STR8 UP members develop skills and discover their potential is the goal of this process, according to Munoz.
“Whether it’s art or carpentry or whatever — our members all have gifts, but they also all have some obstacles to overcome,” added Poilièvre. “They have to deal with their issues, whether it’s addiction, fear of people, whatever . . . there’s a whole bunch of issues to deal with, all at the same time.”
STR8 UP members also need to earn an income, Poilièvre said, noting that this is a big struggle for those trying to survive without the kind of cash they used to have from gang or criminal activities.
A new 18-month program is envisioned, using the template from Homeboy Industries, but unique to STR8 UP’s Saskatchewan circumstances, explained Munoz.
“When they enter this program, a condition will be that they must have reached a high level of sobriety,” explains Poilièvre. “We have members who have reached a certain level — and where do they go from there? They are not ready for employment, they’re not ready even for school, maybe, so we need to enter into another level that will take them there.”
“It’s based on skill development for individuals, and it can be soft skills or hard skills — perhaps trades, employment or education, higher institutions, university, SIAST, and so on,” described Munoz. “But our first approach, our first priority, remains having members healthy enough to go into these higher stages in their odyssey. It’s not a quick fix, it’s a year and a half, and that’s where social enterprises will enter the picture.”
Young men and women seeking a way out of the gang lifestyle generally come to STR8 UP by word of mouth, said Poilièvre. Having healthy STR8 UP members trained to recruit active gang members to this path of healing is another long-term goal.
Shane Taysup, originally from the Yellow Quill First Nation, is one of the STR8 UP members walking the path to healing. Today he has an interest in film-making, and one of his goals is to go to university to study political science. “I want to educate my people around that, so they can ask their own sophisticated questions. It’s not hard to speak up once you have a voice.”
Taysup’s own healing from addictions and the gang lifestyle has not been an easy journey, but the struggle is worth it, he said. “I’ve received a lot of negative scrutiny, and even ridicule, for my decision. But it doesn’t bother me, because I wake up breathing every day.”
Taysup said that it is no use to pretend to be healed — it has to be authentic. “It’s not called real change if it’s not real to begin with, and that means dealing with a lot of things about yourself, things that you don’t like,” he said.
“That’s probably the worst of all: looking at yourself in the mirror and saying I can’t believe I did something like that, and then dealing with it.” The STR8 UP process is to “find out, deal with it and let it go,” but those are not easy steps, he said. “Some people spend a lifetime doing that. You can’t change what yesterday holds — but you can change what tomorrow holds.”
Poilièvre stresses that the strength of STR8 UP is that it is a member’s program. “They have to be involved in everything we do, because if they’re not, we’re going to fail. It’s that simple. They are the foundation,” he said.
Poilièvre noted that a local business has offered to do free tattoo removal for STR8 UP members, to eliminate tattoos on hands, face or neck. “It’s not every day that you can erase a mistake,” says Taysup of the opportunity to remove tattoos that might cause others to misjudge or fear him.
“All of these things are signs of progress, of our movement as an organization,” stressed Poilièvre. “And that is thanks to all the people that have been so good to us,” he said, listing religious orders, churches and organizations who have supported STR8 UP financially and in many other ways. “We can’t grow without the community.”
Poilièvre also acknowledged Saskatoon Police Chief Clive Weighill: “His support has been tremendous. He has stuck his neck out for us many times.”
There are hundreds of youth in the community still at risk and actively involved in gangs, added Poilièvre. He stressed the importance of STR8 UP talking to the community, giving presentations, and getting people to listen to the call to treat these young men and women as brothers and sisters, nephews and nieces, sons and daughters,¬ rather than taking an attitude of “lock them up and throw away the key.”
“Those are our kids. They’re not anybody else’s kids. We need to start thinking that way.”