Special Reports

Teen gang members see Nashville as 'dark' place; Program gives insight into their struggle

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) - The words of gang members are showcased in a work of art in a courtroom in the juvenile justice center in downtown Nashville.  

It’s the creation made by teenagers about how they view their life in their neighborhoods.  

"Their surrounding home life, school life, street life is what we fight against every single day," said Kelly Gray, a probation and gang unit supervisor in Davidson County.  

The paintings are the outcome of lessons learned. Lessons about race, black and white; about violence and money. It's the real world from the perspective of a Nashville teen fighting to drop their flag or walk away from gang life.   

"These kids do not wake up with a desire to hurt someone, or inflict the pain," Gray said.   

For some 14 to 18-year-olds, juvenile court is where they get their first real chance.  

“Nothing is free in this world,” said Gray. “You've got to work for it, so we show them how to create opportunities for themselves."     

It's ironic because they come here once they are deemed a real danger, a gang member or a violent offender.  

It is where they enter the GRIP program, short for Gang Resistance Intervention Program. It's a crossroads for teens who don’t see Nashville as many others do. They see it as a dark place. For those starting GRIP, they have one choice. That choice is life or death.  

For nine months, 10 to 15 teen gang members choose between their past or future. Their drug and alcohol use is monitored, and they're given curfews and room searches.  

"One of three things is going to happen - end up in DCS custody, end up on a transfer list [to be tried as an adult] or you're going to end up deceased," explained Gray.   

It is the reality, but there are two sides. Some teens recognize their mistakes don't define them.  

There’s a door in the courtroom showcasing each side. The door reminds them they can leave gang life behind.  

Gray said the court educates, promotes tours of college campuses and even organizes visits to music studios.     

“These kids are intelligent, and they know what they're doing, so we create opportunities for them to use leadership skills in a positive way," she explained.    

Young people join a gang for money, loyalty or protection. 

In Gray's experience, they don’t recognize the consequence of their choice before it's too late. But the evidence in the courtroom, of another choice, shines a light on how the right decisions can rewrite a life story.  

Since October 2016, GRIP has served mostly males, though the program has seen a recent uptick in female participants.   

Click here to read more stories from our all-day "Gangs of Nashville" special. 

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