For many people living in underserved Black and brown communities, there are few options to find a way out. For some, the lure of gangs brings a sense of community and belonging when there are not a lot of other options.
It’s a story that happens all too often: A person with promise who never reaches their full potential due to reasons that have plagued underserved communities for decades. Socioeconomic and racial disparities have stacked the deck against many who are born into these communities.
Xuan Santos, Ph.D., wants that to change.
“Society normally discriminates against folks that are formerly incarcerated,” Santos told NBC 7. “We know that when you’re applying for certain jobs if you’re a felon, you’re denied employment, sometimes denied housing. You’re denied access to resources that other people have.”
The associate professor and Chicano studies educator at Cal State University San Marcos said that growing up in the tough Boyle Heights community of Los Angeles is the reason he has become a success.
“My upbringing really informed what I do today, which is standing on the side of those that are marginalized, disenfranchised,” Santos said, adding, “mobilizing resources to give people a better footing in the world.”
Santos calls the mentors who helped turn his life around “OG’s” -- “Opportunity Givers.”
“I don't mean OG’s like the gang lexicon of ‘original gangster,’ but more so as people who understand your struggle, your plight, and they want to reverse that by empowering you to become a productive member of the community,” Santos said.
While many in the community get sucked into a life of crime by associating with “original gangsters,” Santos said he used OG’s as a way out. He attended Cal State Los Angeles for his undergraduate degree and received his first master's degree from Cal State University Dominguez Hills. Santos went on to earn a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California Santa Barbara.
During his studies, Santos said he had a calling to give back and help his community.
“When you think about the Chicanx culture, we really got to think about how unique and different we are in the borderlands region," Santos said. "What sets us apart from other groups is, we live in a region that was once annexed to the United States. This was Mexico. And what we’re seeing is the descendants of this colonized space got transformed, and a lot of people got marginalized -- mass incarceration.”
Santos said that the present-day communities are being gentrified.
“They’re seeing that there is a push to silence ethnic studies," Santos said. "But we have people that need to be reminded that we come from a space that is filled with cultural wealth.”
Santos was one of the founders of Project Rebound, a program that helps mentor and educate people who were formerly incarcerated. It’s a role he takes very seriously.
“We’re reversing the school-to-prison pipeline by creating a prison-to-school pipeline,” Santos said. “That’s something I try to instill in my students: that I'm going to stand by them as long as they need me.”
To learn more about Project Rebound, click here.