Glen Steyn is revitalizing the South African township of Westbury by showing young people how to turn away from gangs and take control of their futures. He is enabling young people to transform hopelessness into hope and rid the community of gang wars, drug lords, and violence.
The New Idea
Glen believes that bad kids are not born: they are made and they can be remade. Many programs working with young people caught up in gangs deal with the symptoms and not the fundamental problem. They send gang members to rehabilitation centers or other forms of counseling but then release them into their previous environment with little or no support. As a former gang member, Glen understands that if young people are to make new life choices, they must change their environment. Five years ago he founded Conquest for Life (CFL), an organization that helps young people escape from gangs and establish a new environment that supports and demands a commitment to life-giving change.
Westbury was built during the 1920s to accommodate African residents evicted from areas near Johannesburg, and in 1960 it also received "colored," or mixed races, people included in the final removal of African residents to Soweto Township under the Group Areas Act. Westbury's population of seventy thousand to ninety thousand is poor and suffers from an unemployment rate estimated at about 75 percent. All too many of its young people drop out of school and join gangs that control the rampant crime and drug trafficking. Gangs not only oppress the community, causing many deaths as they fight for territory, but provide bad role models for the young. Heavily armed gang and drug lords move about dressed in expensive clothes and drive flashy cars. Westbury differs from other townships in that gangs effectively own children born into the families of their members. "Giving birth to a boy in Westbury is a curse because either you will lose him to gangsterism, he will go to jail, or he will get killed," is a common local saying. Increasingly it applies to girls as well. The gang's power derives partly from its ability to function as a family substitute. Gangsters will do favors for residents, who may therefore be reluctant to assist the police. The family-like bond discourages members from breaking out of the gang. Indeed, since leaving a gang may reduce a household's income, the courageous young person who chooses to leave the gang may be forced out of the home.
Conquest for Life operates three interlinked programs and two others that include parents and family members. The In and Out Youth Development Project runs outdoor camps that take older youth, aged fourteen to twenty-five, out of their regular environment for three weeks to provide an opportunity to think on their own without peer pressure. The program seeks to break the influence of gangs and begin the hard work of building alternative trust relationships. A five and a half acre farm will serve as a new facility for the project and offer activities focusing on environmental issues. Another part of the strategy is the Youth Enrichment Program, which provides a safe after-school environment where youth aged six to fourteen learn life skills and build self-esteem. The program meets at CFL's main facility and also sends representatives to schools to run a program called Play for Peace that teaches peacemaking skills through games. In and Out Project participants often become teachers for the Youth Enrichment Project.
Youth from the In and Out Project and the Youth Enrichment Project also participate in the Income Generating Project, which helps them become self-sufficient and break their economic dependence on gangs and drug-trafficking. They learn how to manufacture detergents and sell them, primarily door-to-door, although CFL is negotiating distribution contracts with various companies and organizations. The project also trains young people to repair household appliances. Participants of the In and Out Project run the program.
Two of CFL's programs bring families and other community members into the process of assisting youth. The Computer Training Center teaches computer literacy to children and parents, offering training in basics, Microsoft Office, and the Internet as well as technical support and parent and family workshops. The center trains approximately forty residents a month and is booked far in advance. A new pilot project, the Victim/Offender Conferencing program, promotes healing of the victims and rehabilitation of the offenders in a forum where skilled community mediators apply an integrated approach rooted in African values.
Word about CFL has spread far beyond South Africa. Glen often hosts international visitors, and has received requests for assistance from organizations in Northern Ireland, Ethiopia, and Los Angeles in the United States. M-Net has produced a powerful promotional video that Glen will use to market CFL. Two consultants from McKinsey & Co. have been assisting Glen in planning CFL and launching it.
Glen originally planned that CFL would work in Westbury for five years before opening elsewhere, but it has been so successful that he has begun pilots in two other Johannesburg communities. CFL has more than doubled its budget, from approximately sixty thousand to one hundred fifty thousand dollars during the past few years, and its staff has grown to thirteen full-time, salaried youth workers and sixteen volunteers. Glen plans to introduce his model into other parts of the city and then into greater Gauteng Province, with the youth of Westbury serving as CFL ambassadors. Eventually his approach will reach all of South Africa.
Glen Steyn grew up in Westbury and lives there with his three sons. At age twelve he got involved in a gang, an experience which taught him that he had significant leadership skills. Deciding to use those skills to make a positive contribution, he founded a church youth group that did community service work. He studied theology for two years and then began a career in banking, from which he resigned out of boredom and frustration. Glen founded a local ministry and focused on youth, helping establish the New Claremont Development Forum and the Community Police Forum. When Glen's stepbrother was killed in a gang related incident in 1993, he used the tragedy as an entry point for working with the local gangs. Glen is committed to making Westbury a safe place in which his children can grow up.