Magdaleno Rose Avila
This profile was prepared when Magdaleno Rose Avila was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1999.
The New Idea
Magdaleno Rose-Avila realizes that the fundamental flaws in existing attempts to address the explosive problem of gang violence grow out of their failure to involve gang members themselves in the design of outreach efforts and a lack of understanding about the lives of these young people and their reasons for becoming involved with gangs in the first place. At great risk to himself, he set about the task of meeting gang members, winning their trust, and learning about their experiences, fears and aspirations. These efforts enabled him to create Homeboys United, the first organization in the region set up by gang members themselves to explore their own ideas for leading better lives, rather than simply receiving services offered by other institutions. There are several truly unique dimensions to the approach of Homeboys United. Firstly, no other organization has encouraged gang members to design their own structures or propose their own solutions to the root causes of their problems. Secondly, nobody else has been able to create an environment in which members of rival gangs can work together. Thirdly, Magdaleno is the only agent creative enough to work within the existing structures of the gangs, recognizing that their bond of acceptance is a powerful lure to disillusioned and alienated young people, and that he can build on their sense of belonging while working against the violence and anti-social behavior for which the gangs are reviled. Finally, he has forged links with police and immigration officials both in El Salvador and the United States to educate them about positive contributions they can make to the resolution of the gang problem. By facilitating the development of an organization that offers help and understanding to youths who want to escape the violence of their current predicament, Magdaleno has established a structure and method for the self-rehabilitation of gang members that can now be replicated across El Salvador, and eventually throughout Central America and Mexico.