Around the Institute

#MyAspenAction: Reintegrating Gang Members Into the Community

October 15, 2014

Above, watch Central America Leadership Initiative Fellow KC Hardin explain his Action Pledge.

The Aspen Action Forum is an annual event designed to connect Aspen Global Leadership Network Fellows as well as other action-oriented leaders from Aspen Institute programs and partners and spur them to move “from thought to action.” Each participant at the Aspen Action Forum is asked to make an “Action Pledge” — a public commitment to do something about a societal challenge of their choosing. More than 500 Action Pledges have been made since the inaugural event in 2013. Read below for a Q&A with one of our Fellows about his own Action Pledge.

At this year’s Aspen Action Forum, Central America Leadership Initiative Fellow KC Hardin from Panama pledged that he will “help the four gangs in the historic district of Panama City, Panamá, demobilize and integrate into formal society in the next two years.”

Hardin is a hospitality and real estate entrepreneur whose work is focused on revitalizing the UNESCO World Heritage site of Casco Viejo in Panama City. His Action Pledge is among his many efforts to transform not just the buildings, but also create opportunities for people who live in this community. He has created a program that combines personal development and entrepreneurship training to provide gang members with an “exit” opportunity and a path into formal society. In addition to finding permanent employment, graduates become part of a volunteer corps that conducts community security patrols. Below, Hardin tells us more about his unique approach to working with gangs, and the ripple effects that benefit the entire Casco Viejo community. 

Aspen Idea: What about your approach to working with gang members is different? Why is it working?

KC Hardin: We took a chance on a model that works with an entire active street gang to transition from an anti-social to a pro-social orientation. This approach isn’t often successful — most of the well-known programs either try to prevent youth from joining or re-integrate individual members who leave gangs — but we felt that we needed to be more ambitious and that it would work in our context. I think the key for us has been that our community has embraced the program and the guys, so the gang leadership commits because it believes that the opportunities are real and the intentions are good. I’m not sure it would work the same for some outside entity coming to their territory.

AI: Tell me a story of one person who has been transformed by the work you are doing.

KH: There are so many, but one that comes to mind is that the leader from the most recent group just started his own social program. He is known as “Picoro,” which gives you an idea of his reputation if you happen to know the character of that name from the manga “Dragon Ball.” We were already elated that in the six months since graduating he has built a business doing tours of the neighborhood and a small informal restaurant. But he has now created a kids group called “The Mosquito Hunters” that teaches kids how to prevent mosquito borne illness (a serious concern in dense parts of Panama City). Seeing him lead a huge pack of kids around the neighborhood on a mission to seek and destroy mosquito breeding sites is the surest sign to us that he sees the world differently than he did a year ago.

AI: How does your work to reintegrate gang members fit in with your work as a real estate and hospitality entrepreneur to revitalize the Casco Viejo?

KH: It’s all part and parcel of the same vision. I got into revitalizing Casco Viejo because it seemed to me it could be done in an inclusive, sustainable way. There are programs focusing on many vulnerable populations here, giving them opportunities to be a part of their neighborhood’s transformation, but the gangs were the one group that most people seemed to agree needed to be moved out. What has been interesting is that, not only has their transformation created a social benefit, but we’re seeing now that it creates economic and cultural capital as well. Businesses in their former territories obviously do better when the public isn’t afraid to come, and the public reacts really well to going to the former gang leader’s businesses or being served by former members at hotels because it is an authentic, rare, and emotionally uplifting experience. That interplay between culture, commerce, and social progress fascinates me.

AI: How have the Aspen Global Leadership Network and the Action Forum inspired you?

KH: Camus’ famous image of Sisyphus eternally pushing the rock and smiling always sticks with me. I have to guess a lot of Fellows feel that the mountain may not actually have a top, but it sure is a lot easier to smile about it in a network like the Aspen Global Leadership Network.

Check out our playlist of #MyAspenAction Pledge Stories for more like this one. A new clip will be released each week throughout the fall.   

Caitlin Colegrove is the network and communications manager for the Aspen Global Leadership Network.