Jorja Leap has spent time in crisis zones from Bosnia to New Orleans. As an international expert in crisis intervention, she never expected to end up doing most of her work in her own backyard.
Ten years ago, Leap returned to her hometown of Los Angeles to work with some of the toughest gangs around. A UCLA alumna with a Ph.D. in psychological anthropology, Leap works with outreach and intervention programs spanning Los Angeles' most gang-saturated territories.
She chronicles her time working with former and current gang members in a new book called Jumped In: What Gangs Taught Me About Violence, Drugs, Love, and Redemption.
"This is a time, in 2002, when the gang situation in Los Angeles was explosive," Leap tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz. "There were periods when there were four or five gang-related homicides over a long weekend."
"It was not at all the picture that exists in Los Angeles today," she says. "It was in crisis mode."
As a petite white woman venturing into Los Angeles' most dangerous neighborhoods, Leap needed to form relationships — for protection as much as outreach.
"I never showed up completely alone. I always had sort of a gang member with me, to introduce me and to vouch for my bona fides," Leap says. "You can't just show up and say, 'Hey, I'm here to study gangs.' "
"I would try, deliberately, to pair myself up with someone who was very big and very strong and very imposing and had neighborhood credibility," she says. She found Big Mike, who took her under his wing when she first hit the streets.
At 6 feet and 350 pounds, Big Mike had been a notorious gangster in the late '80s to early '90s, a time referred to as the "Decade of Death" for a homicide rate that hit 1,000 deaths per year in Los Angeles alone, according to Leap. Now reformed, Big Mike — whose real name is Mike Cummings — guided her through the neighborhoods.
"Mike Cummings is emblematic of a certain kind of gangster that came out of that era, who is now older and wiser and wants to go back and heal the places he once sought to harm and destroy," Leap says.
Big Mike's story is an exception, however. Leap says it is extremely hard to leave a gang, and many people never do.
"The key is you build a new identity," she says. "What I've learned in talking to gang members is having been part of a gang is in their hearts, it's part of their identity. It is kind of like having a bad previous relationship. You remember it, but you move on."