Street Wise

Robert Duran got jacked up. Then he grew up.

He'd done well as an undergraduate at Weber, but the CU program was more rigorous than anything he'd experienced. "When I was younger and hanging out with my friends, I wasn't thinking about school," he says. "School was for nerds. You wouldn't catch me with a book. Somehow I managed to graduate from high school, but I didn't really ever try. I'd never decided to apply myself or take an interest in it. When I got to CU, I felt like I was really on my own, and the program was really competitive. It challenged me to step up and be able to back up everything that I was saying, because they didn't just take me at face value anymore."

In 2001, Duran returned to Ogden City to hang out with his former homeboys. This time, though, he wasn't a fighter or a pusher, but a straight man -- a researcher wielding a tape recorder, not a gun. He'd realized that his past experiences could provide the raw material for a doctoral dissertation, and he wanted to learn as much as he could about his old city and his old gang.

For the next three years, he traveled back and forth between Utah and Colorado, working in Ogden during the summer and on breaks from CU. He interviewed anyone who would talk to him: gang-bureau cops, district attorneys, probation officers, more than a hundred active and former gang members. Some he knew, some he didn't. Many members of his gang had left the life behind; others had been swallowed up by prison. Some were dead. Many of his old friends, as well as his old foes, were suspicious of his questions -- and reluctant to talk for fear of reprisal from cops or other gang members.

John Johnston
Culture club: Robert Duran and his girlfriend, 
Charlene, at a lowrider show in 1996.
Culture club: Robert Duran and his girlfriend, Charlene, at a lowrider show in 1996.

"In the gang world, everyone's always worried about snitches," says Duran, who eventually destroyed many of the interview tapes to protect the identities of his sources. "They were a little bit afraid about what I was going to do with the information. People didn't want to talk on the record. But some of them were real cool with me. It was just weird for all of us, seeing this transition. It was like, 'I used to be out on the street with you; now I'm here to study you.'"

Duran's approach was something new for CU. He learned more exacting methods like ethnographic statistical analysis, but he also folded his own personal experience into his doctoral research. He dove into theories and case studies conducted by others working in gang research, but it was his hands-on fieldwork that set his project apart. The sociology department hadn't seen a doctoral candidate like Duran, had never worked with a student who could provide such a personal perspective on a subject that usually was addressed only in books.

"We don't get many people of color successfully pursuing a Ph.D. in this field," says Patti Adler, Duran's graduate adviser at CU. "Too much of the research on gangs is superficial in nature. Now here's some gang research coming from the perspective of a former gang member who has a better understanding of the things he's looking at -- the role of the community and the neighborhood in influencing gangs, the relationship between the police and a community. There's a very active debate in scholarly literature on these topics, and a lot of conflicting assertions being made. Duran brings a kind of access that isn't found in all of that."

Duran hoped to use his research to document the underlying social and economic issues that contribute to gang life. He also wanted to unravel some of the myths surrounding gangs -- like the perception that most young people of color are gangbangers in the making, or that all inner-city neighborhoods are breeding grounds for gang activity. Even in South Central Los Angeles, the most notorious gang enclave in the United States, it's estimated that only about 10 percent of African-American and Hispanic teens are actually involved in gang activity, he points out.

At the heart of Duran's work is his desire to correct inaccurate stereotypes. That can be a challenge at CU, a school with an overwhelmingly white student population. "Every semester, we start at one point, and we've got to get them to the other," he says of his classes. "A lot of my students come in with the idea that everyone is so quick to complain 'racism.' They think brown and black people should just pull themselves up by the bootstraps. White society gets tired of hearing about it; they think the Œrace problem' has been solved. But that's why I have to point out that if things really were equal, if they really had worked out, then things wouldn't be so vastly different for brown people versus white people.

"Sometimes we can only see our own perspective," he adds. "That's when you really need to step in someone else's shoes."

Duran revels in research, and he likes to crunch numbers: "I'm trained to use data as a weapon." But he also gets a lot out of just talking to people. In one interview typical of those included in Duran's dissertation, a 27-year-old former gang member complains of being stopped for trivial offenses like a cracked windshield, then pumped for information by the cops. "They stopped me for everything," the man told Duran. "They even stopped me a couple times to tell me they liked my car. I'm not sure what that had to do with anything.... Now that I think back, I realize they would take down all of our names. We were just glad that we weren't in trouble for anything."

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