Former gang member turned social work student at USC reflects on a tumultuous life — in his own words

Run-ins with the law landed José Barron in prison, but he never lost sight of his higher education goals

December 01, 2017 USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work staff

José Barron was once a gang member. He spent time in prison. But today, he’s less than a year away from completing his Master of Social Work at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work.

What drove him from the streets of Oxnard to get his advanced degree at USC? Barron shares his story, in his own words.

How did you first become involved in gangs?

I was born and raised in Oxnard, an agricultural community in Ventura County. My parents and my grandmother migrated to Oxnard to work in the fields, but my dad left when I was very small — I don’t remember him. I essentially grew up in a single-parent household, raised by my mother. She was a hard worker and always instilled in me and my three siblings the importance of education.

As a low-income family living in poverty, we spent my entire childhood in subsidized housing. Naturally, I made friends there, but we were labeled as a “gang.” I didn’t grow up with family or generational gang members — I was given that title because of who my friends were. When I was 15, I remember asking a friend why people were shooting at us. He said, “It’s because of where we live, José. People don’t like our neighborhood.”

My entry into gang life wasn’t official, in any sense. I’d go to malls and parties with my friends, and the next thing you know, we’d get into fights. I started getting in trouble with the law at the age of 15. By this time, I had left home and was a ward of court, and custody was given to my grandmother. I spent my whole adolescence in and out of juvenile hall. At the same time, though, I was a college prep student at a regular high school. I was enrolled in the Early Academic Outreach Program (EAOP), which offered services targeted to low-income students. If you maintained a 3.0 GPA and took college prep classes, UCSB [the University of California, Santa Barbara] guaranteed a full scholarship for undergrads.

How did your gang involvement affect your early academic life?

I eventually got kicked out of high school because of an incident where I was arrested off campus. I ended up at a continuation school, which I hated. Coming from college prep classes, I found myself doing homework at a third- or fourth-grade level. I knew I was better than that and worried that the lack of rigor would ruin my chances of being accepted to UCSB. So I made a deal with the principal of my old high school who agreed to let me complete my degree.

I graduated from high school but stayed involved with the gang. Close to graduation, I was shot in the head — my first time getting shot, surprisingly — and almost died. I became really angry after that. I lived in a violent community where I’d almost been killed, so I rationalized responding to violence with violence.

What was the turning point for you when you realized that fighting violence with violence wasn’t the answer?

That philosophy landed me in prison at 27 years old. I ended up with a nine-year prison sentence because it was my second offense. In a way, it was the best thing that could have happened. Some lifers mentored the younger inmates, telling us about their experiences. Their goal was to never see any of us in there again. After watching some of them die in hospice, I realized that things needed to change.

When I got out of prison in 2011, my family lived in the projects. I knew I couldn’t move back there — Housing Authority policy prohibits felons from living with family for more than 10 days — so to avoid being homeless, I willfully surrendered myself into a sober living home. I hadn’t done drugs the entire time I was in prison, but I have a history of substance abuse and knew I needed structure in my life. They took me in, and I started looking for a job.

As a two-time felon, it was a challenge, but I never gave up. The EAOP mentor for the seventh grade told us that no matter how bad it gets, we could always go back to school. They can take away your freedom, but they can never take away your education. I held onto that grain of knowledge the whole time I was incarcerated.

When did you make the decision to pursue an advanced degree?

When I got out and got into the sober living home, I had to start all over. I had earned my associate’s degree prior to incarceration, so I started by following up with the local Cal State in Ventura County, and Cal State University Channel Islands accepted me. I graduated after two years with a bachelor’s degree in sociology and a minor in psychology. Immediately after graduating from CSUCI, I started working at the Center for Employment Training as an industrial relations specialist and eventually as the interim center director.

During my junior year at CSUCI, I remember hanging out with three other Latino/as in the library. One guy told us he was planning on going to grad school, and I remember him saying, “Studies show that one out of four Latinos will go on to a master’s program and successfully graduate. So there are four Latinos here, and I’m going to do it. According to the studies, you three are not.”

I told them that my friends never talked about higher education — they only knew prison and jail. I didn’t even know what a master’s program was. The group broke it down for me, and I thought, I need to turn those stats upside down.

That guy who said he would complete a master’s degree? He just graduated last May. Every time I finish a semester, I thank him for motivating me to aim higher.

What are your plans for after graduation?

I’m almost there — I graduate in 2018. I will continue working with my community on a program that works with system-involved youth and will be collaborating with agencies across the state that are disrupting the justice system, providing equity to communities of color. The only way that is going to happen, though, is by reaching out to the right people and giving them the services they need. When I finish school, I plan to be much more involved in public service, giving back to the community I came from.