Don’t want youths joining gangs? Give them hope and opportunity, civic leaders say

Hope for da Hood founder Beni Santibanez runs a music ministry that helps people avoid and escape the gang life. (April 26, 2017)
Hope for da Hood founder Beni Santibanez runs a music ministry that helps people avoid and escape the gang life. (April 26, 2017) File photo

When Beni Santibanez hears about the latest drive-by shooting or clashes between gangs, he shakes his head.

That used to be him.

“We were the one causing all the wreckage in the ’90s,” Santibanez said.

Gangs arrived in Wichita in force then, sending homicide numbers soaring to unseen heights. Drive-by shootings became a nightly occurrence.

Fights could break out because of a look. Santibanez knows, because he was in the middle of many of them.

And if he’d kept living that life, he says, he would be dead now.

“Absolutely,” he insisted. “The way I was living, there’s not a doubt.”

But Santibanez doesn’t dwell on retribution and vengeance these days. He tries to offer something else: hope.

His Hope 4 da Hood music ministry reaches out to people in gangs or at risk of being recruited to that life. He wants them to know it doesn’t have to be like that.

The music ministry is just one of a variety of efforts to counteract gangs in the city, and police and community leaders are looking for ways to develop even more.

Wichita Police Chief Gordon Ramsay is hunting for money to pay for positions that focus on gang prevention efforts.

April provided fresh evidence of the need for alternatives, Santibanez and others said. According to Wichita police, there were 10 drive-by shootings that month and a gang-related homicide.

So far this year, there have been two gang-related homicides, said Sgt. Nikki Woodrow of the Wichita Police Department.

There’s a public perception that gang-related shootings have increased significantly, Ramsay said, but crime statistics don’t indicate that.

“It’s not as large as it seems,” Ramsay said.

But Ramsay acknowledged that gang prevention and intervention measures are needed.

“We don’t want this to be a temporary thing,” he said. “We want to put together a program that sustains the efforts.”

Police and community leaders have begun a series of meetings to discuss how to provide opportunities for those at risk for gang involvement.

“At the end of the day, people are really tired of the violence,” community organizer Djuan Wash said. “People are wanting the violence to stop.”

Those efforts will need to go beyond camps and entertainment, he said.

“We’re trying to find some other opportunities for these youth – to try to find them some jobs,” Wash said. “If people have jobs and opportunities and they can support themselves and support their families, there’s a far less chance of them getting involved in gang activities.”

One such enterprise is 2nd Chance Industries, which for the past 18 months has offered sober living homes for men and women as well as employment for people who have struggled to land work because of a criminal past.

“We’ve created small business to try to put guys to work,” owner Heath Duncan said. “They can be guys fresh out of jail,” looking for a new start.

Brandon Johnson, a community activist who is running for the City Council, said the key to steering young people away from gangs is to show them better alternatives.

“Opportunity is lacking in a lot of areas,” said Johnson, who is running for the District 1 council seat being vacated by Lavonta Williams.

Crime is not the first choice people typically make, he said. But if they can’t find a job – or the jobs available offer low wages and no hope for advancement – their heads can be turned by neighbors who have nice jewelry, flashy shoes and money to spend.

“That’s happening because they are part of a gang selling drugs, and they make quick money,” Johnson said. “If you don’t have that hope for opportunity … it’s going to be easier for you to join that gang.”

A lot of times, Johnson said, young people join gangs for a sense of family that they aren’t getting at home.

Santibanez is trying to fill that void with his ministry.

“What we want to do is knock down every barrier and let them just feel loved,” he said.

There is preaching and sharing from the Bible, he said, but at the heart of it, “we just want to show people we care for the community.”

The gang life can seem glamorous from the outside, he said, but when he seemed to be at his toughest is when he was at the bottom.

“I really hated my life,” Santibanez said. “I didn’t care if I lived or died, because I was a miserable person.”

He was getting into fights with just about anyone, including his best friends in the gang. Three years in a row, he broke his hand in fights.

“I would run into the gunfire,” he said. “People would shoot at me, and I would run at the gunfire.”

The journey to his current ministry wasn’t a straight path. He went to church for the first time in 1997 while he was going through a divorce, had just totaled one of his cars and was living a wild life.

He went for six weeks but was soon back to his old ways – until one night when he and a friend were driving and saw a rival gang member at 19th and Broadway.

“We were going to shoot him at the light,” Santibanez said.

But he felt the Lord speaking to him, telling him not to do it.

“What would you do if that was your friend that was killed?” he sensed the Lord asking him.

He took the gun from his friend and said, “We’re not going to shoot him.”

There were more false starts until he and his wife saw someone killed in their front yard. He left his job selling cars in 2009 and turned a record label into a ministry, using rap music as a pulpit.

That first year, he says, 200 gang members “gave themselves to the Lord” and began turning their lives around.

The effort has grown since then to include prayer walks, concerts, car shows, Bible studies and mentorship.

“It’s sharing hope with the people,” Santibanez said. “The vision that we have is clear: to see the ’hood transformed.”

Stan Finger: 316-268-6437, @StanFinger