EastBay Today

social justice
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Posted February 7, 2017

Unlocking the Promise

Alumnus Victor Rios says that for young men on the street, their hardship is their potential

Alumnus Victor Rios started life as a gang member on the streets of Oakland, and is now a professor at UC Santa Barbara.

Alumnus Victor Rios (B.A. ’00, Sociology) would be the first to tell you he was the type of kid who was always in trouble. Arrests, expulsion and affiliation with a violent street gang in Oakland — “I didn’t even think I could make it to my 18th birthday,” Rios told a full auditorium during a 2015 TED Talk. “I had lost faith and hope in the world … and I had nothing to offer because no one had anything to offer me.”

Unlike the majority of his peers, Rios ended up being one of the lucky ones. A high school educator, who was persistent in her efforts to get him to turn his life around, was there the day he broke down after the death of his best friend — shot by a rival gang member.

“Mrs. Russ was the type of teacher who was always in your business,” Rios told the crowd. But after he finally opened up to her about his life, about the poverty and violence and working odd jobs to make ends meet, she had a life-changing insight to share: “She said, ‘Victor, this is your power. This is your potential. Your family, your culture, your community have taught you a hard work ethic — and you will use it to empower yourself.’”

It’s the message Rios, now a professor of sociology at UC Santa Barbara, has made it his life’s work to spread. Rios is dedicated to transforming how he believes the world thinks about gang-associated and impoverished young men of color, and what they’re capable of. To no longer view them as ‘at-risk’ but ‘at-promise.’

“What you label someone determines how you treat them,” Rios says. “And what do we do with risks? We reduce them, minimize them, push them away, lock them away — we’re locking away our promise.”

And Cal State East Bay, which he now calls his “intellectual birthplace,” was pivotal in that journey.  

“If someone at this institution had not looked at my application, at a kid who had a 0.09 GPA his freshman and sophomore year, but who turned it around his senior year — if someone had not seen a kid who was worth a chance, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” Rios says.

Rios has shared this message in a variety of ways, including speaking engagements and several books, but the backbone of his work takes place on the streets of marginalized communities, convincing teens and young adults of their potential and self-worth.

“Over the last 10 years I’ve studied kids who get in trouble with the law in Oakland, L.A. and in Ferguson, Missouri,” he says. “A lot of the work I do involves going to different places, but the theme is always the same: Human dignity, and how do restore human dignity, and how do we confront institutions that are systematically stripping people of their dignity. I like to think that it’s a universal, human calling, and that I just happen to focus on these boys that are on the streets.”

“I think few people would disagree that we want more Martin Luther King Jrs. in the world.”

Although Rios is striving for a more equitable world for young black and Latino men, and he is a proponent of restorative justice, he also finds reason for hope in the visibility of the racial tensions that are currently playing out across the country.

“What I think is of urgency is the fact that now we can pay attention to the movements, the resistance, the opportunities for change — the small ‘microsocieties’ that get created whenever we do see injustice and people want to push for justice. A lot of possibilities are born. I’m thinking of Ferguson, but all of a sudden, you have civil rights leaders overnight. I think few people would disagree that we want more Martin Luther King Jrs. in the world; they’re out there. We just need to support them.”

Coming next for Rios is his fifth book, “Human Targets,” due out in March, which focuses on young men of color being viewed as a threat by authority figures, leading to suspensions and expulsions, and ultimately, an ongoing lack of education and opportunity in underserved communities. His scholarship on the subject and mentoring of teens will also be featured in a documentary forthcoming in early 2019 called “The Pushouts,” funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Despite the growing attention to his work, Rios was still stunned when, just a few months ago, he received an email from then-Vice President Joe Biden inviting him to dinner.

“I thought it was spam,” Rios says. “I was about to hit the delete button, but I thought ‘OK, I’ll call.’”

What Rios found was, the email was legitimate — and he was being asked to attend a gathering of Latino leaders from across the United States.

That left just one more question to ask.

“I said, ‘Who are the leaders?’” Rios recalls. “And the woman on the phone said, ‘You’re one of them, sir. I couldn’t believe it.’” 

“He’s one of our great success stories,” says Diana Balgas, executive director of transfer student programs at Cal State East Bay and a former mentor to Rios. “He never forgets where he came from, and despite all his success, that’s the part I’m most proud of.”

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