"To Be Part of the Story": The Literacy Practices of Gangsta Adolescents

Elizabeth B. Moje
2000 Teachers College Record  
Despite a recent emphasis on conceptualizing literacy as a tool for changing thought and experience, when people-whether the popular media, school personnel, or educational scholars-speak of the literacy practices of marginalized adolescents, they rarely talk about such literacies as tools. Instead, the literacy practices of marginalized adolescents are often referred to in terms of deviance or resistance. Gangconnected youth, in particular, are routinely represented as engaging in acts of
more » ... iny or resistance, but are rarely represented as meaning makers, people who are expressing their beliefs, values, and interests. If literacy theorists want to claim that literacy is a tool for transforming thought and experience, however, then we need to extend that theoretical claim to all literacy practices by asking what unsanctioned literacy practices do for adolescents. Are these simply acts of resistance? Or do adolescent gang members, who are often placed outside the possibility of school success on the basis of physical characteristics and social affiliations, also use literacy as a way of exploring possible worlds, claiming space, and making their voices heard? This study uses data from three years of research with five gang-connected youth to illustrate how they used their literacy practices as meaning-making, expressive, and communicative tools. The data show how these youth used literacy practices "to be part of the story," or to claim a space, construct an identity, and take a social position in their worlds. The paper concludes by arguing that literacy theorists, researchers, and practitioners need to acknowledge the power of unsanctioned literacy tools in the lives of marginalized youth and develop pedagogies that draw from, but also challenge and extend, these practices. "Graffiti is a state of mind and a sign of respect." This quote, drawn from the writing of two seventh-grade boys, provides a glimpse into motivations for graffiti writing, one of many unsanctioned literacy practices of gangconnected adolescents. Whereas graffiti writing is often considered a deviant or resistant behavior, the words of these young men signal that for them graffiti writing is central to who they are as people. It is a way of conveying, constructing, and maintaining identity, thought, and power. Their words highlight the importance of graffiti in their lives.
doi:10.1111/0161-4681.00071 fatcat:vyfk2oy6b5ajfctrszc44ezo4a