From Gang to Grown Up

The Alaska Native Justice Center’s youth program is preparing young people for success outside the system

McLaughlin Youth Center

“You’re selling your soul to people that don’t care about you.”

That’s how Dimitrius Young defines gang life — and he should know. From the age of thirteen, Dimitrius ran with city gangs, first in Chicago, then in Anchorage.

The irony is that he turned to gangs in search of a way to support the people in his life who did care about him: His family.

“My family have always been the ones who’ve got my back,” he said. “So I tried to help out my mother, who used to be a drug addict. I would help her with money to pay the rent or money for food.”

But good intentions led to bad results when Dimitrius took out a gun during a fight. He found himself serving time at McLaughlin Youth Center (MYC).

Youth involved with the Duhdeldih program made dreamcatchers. ANJC staff lead activities to connect young offenders to their culture.

Meanwhile, the Alaska Native Justice Center (ANJC) was launching its Duhdeldih Youth Transition Support Program at MYC. The program offers case management and culturally-informed group activities to help young offenders build protective factors that can help them be successful when they’re released. The goal is to reduce recidivism among high-risk youth who have become involved with the prison system.

For someone like Dimitrius, who entered MYC with a reputation, ANJC provided interaction with people who could be a positive influence and offer perspective.

“Kids in MYC knew me as someone you don’t want to mess with,” Dimitrius said. “It made me feel socially awkward because you have everyone looking at me, but they didn’t know the real me. But the people at ANJC were willing to get to know the real me. They saw my other side.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, ANJC staff prepped supplies to hold virtual activities with MYC youth.

One protective factor ANJC seeks to help young people build is social connection, said ANJC Youth Advocate Michael Farahjood. “If young people like Dimitrius can build trust and have adults in their lives who can advise and guide them, that means when they release, they have that person they know and trust, who can keep them on the straight and narrow.”

Michael became that person for Dimitrius. When he was released from MYC in October 2020, he immediately contacted Michael with a plan: He wanted to get a job, he wanted to go to school to learn a trade, and he wanted to get his driver’s license.

“If Dimitrius hadn’t been so motivated, I would have helped get him there,” Michael said. “But he did all the work. I mostly encouraged him and provided supportive services.”

Supportive services include anything an individual might need to find and keep a job. In Dimitrius’s case, once he landed a job at Burlington Coat Factory, he needed a comfortable pair of shoes for standing on the sales floor all day.

In addition to crafts, ANJC groups at MYC teach youth skills they need to be successful adults, including budgeting and money management.

Dimitrius had been in the juvenile justice system since the age of fifteen; he’d missed his chance to take driver’s education. So ANJC also found a driver safety school he could attend and paid for his class. Michael helped him apply to carpentry school, which Dimitrius began attending virtually when COVID-19 restrictions made it necessary to do remote learning.

Once, concern for his family led Dimitrius to join a gang; now, it was the motivation for enthusiastic pursuit of a better life.

“I was getting up every morning at seven o’clock, running to the bus stop, going all over Anchorage, getting applications, asking people if they’re hiring,” Dimitrius recalled about his job search efforts. “It wasn’t just for me; I’ve got people I care about, my grandmother, my fiancé, my brother and sisters. I had a big bucket list, and I’ve been able to knock things off of it because my main focus was my family.”

ANJC’s youth services, he added, were the factor that took his personal motivation to the next level.

“If you really have goals to do the things you want to do in life, you have to accept help,” he said. “That’s what I would tell the kids at MYC: Never refuse help, because when you do that, you’re refusing to reach your goals. Asking somebody for help is the most amazing thing, especially when you have people that care. ANJC cares. They want to build a community around you.”

Learn more about ANJC’s Duhdeldih program here.