12537 Persing Drive
Whittier, CA 90606
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Marianne Diaz adeptly traces the topography of the map of ganghood. She surveys the clenched hands, hard faces, and seemingly impenetrable contours of the gang experience. And her eyes stop at the purple, black and green designs that swirl out from collars, sleeves, necklines and skull.
Remove the shirt, and the markings take on a life of their own. Faded smudges, edgy marks, bursts of intricate design, and jagged calligraphy – the tattoos trace a story of a young person’s development from a world of potential to one of hopelessness and violence.
Being a gang member is a deeply personal experience, and tattoos do more than just signal to the world a person’s place in a subculture; they also record the struggle to express individuality to a wider community that often fails to see a person of color as someone unique and precious.
For young people, escaping a gang means not only fleeing to a safe physical place, it also means escaping to a safe emotional place where a person can begin the work of constructing an individual identity -- completing an education, meeting new people, and finding work, chiefly.
Still, it’s a lot easier to change your cell phone number than it is to remove your tattoos. For many former gang members, the high cost of tattoo removal has been a major barrier to completing the transformation to respected member of society.
As a former gang member and convicted felon herself, Diaz knows that skin is one of the most difficult slates to clean. That’s why she founded CleanSlate. The Whittier, Calif.-based nonprofit creates gang recovery programs that erase the visible signs of gang involvement while also helping service recipients get back in touch with their emotions.
Diaz says she was dismayed she was to find how few programs there were to help gang members during her own re-entry into society in the early 1990s. She also had countless tattoos that needed to be removed, but the high cost of laser treatments made removal financially (not just physically) painful.
"The quote in 1990 was $10,000!" she recalls. "I and countless other people couldn’t afford it. But I knew a reasonable fee would be empowering to those seeking recovery from violence."
Since then Diaz has committed herself to helping others get the help they need to get out of gangs. In addition to getting training in gang intervention, mediation and community organizing with Community Youth Gang Services, she also received therapeutic training on staff with Southern California Counseling Center.
Diaz founded CleanSlate in 1995 to focus directly on the issue of gang recovery. The organization believes first and foremost that the community can not find peace until we as individuals we find inner-peace – starting with L.A.'s over 150,000 gang members.
"There just weren't any programs working with gang members that were focusing on the internal pain that was such a huge part of the acting out and violence that is wielded on communities," she says.
Most important, Diaz wanted CleanSlate to be an organization that both gang members and the community itself could really trust. That meant no involved by any government agencies, and a fierce commitment to local support. If you want to get a tattoo removed through CleanSlate, you need to attend a counseling session, and you need to put up some of your own money.
"We believe that communities can provide their own support," says Diaz. "A hand-out doesn’t support the self empowerment of individuals and communities."
Not surprisingly, volunteers are the bedrock of CleanSlate. The organization has no paid staff positions (Diaz herself works a full-time job elsewhere), but as its programs have grown, Diaz has been able to provide incentives, stipends, gas money, and an occasional bonuses to the social workers, nurses, and medical staff who venture into the community to provide services.
Nurses and therapists often learn about CleanSlate through VolunteerMatch. "Volunteers are our saviors," she says. "It's amazing to have the connection made and the work start from VolunteerMatch."
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