Mothers are ganging up to fight youth violence on East Side


By Shanthi Venkataraman

A spate of violent incidents in the East Village over the past three months has prompted two women to tackle the problem of gangs and violence the only way they know how — as mothers.

Aida Salgado, 40, and Maizie Torres, 42, are now partners against crime in a new organization they have founded called Mothers in Arms. The initiative aims to get parents more involved in ensuring that their children are safe and are engaged in constructive activity, such as after-school programs and recreational activities, to deter them from joining local gangs.

The Police Department did not make available statistics on gang-related activity. But the fatal stabbing of Glenn Wright, 21, by an alleged gang member at the Baruch Houses on Sept. 12 was one recent incident that served as a harsh reminder that gang violence still exists in the neighborhood.

“We want to get parents more involved and educate them about these matters,” said Salgado, who suspects that many parents are in the dark about their own children’s activities. “They need to know where their children are and who they hang out with.”

Salgado’s and Torres’s own sons grew up in an environment dominated by gangs. The mothers say many of their sons’ friends are gang members. Resisting the peer pressure to join gangs is a major challenge for both of their children. But through Mothers in Arms, the women hope that parents will play a more active role in preventing their children from getting involved in violence.

Ideally, the duo envisions parents showing up at the scene at the first sign that their children are mixed up in something dangerous. 

“If we show up at these places,” Torres explained,” our kids are going to say to each other, ‘Yo, I don’t want to do this anymore. Every time something happens, your mother shows up.’ ”

The picture she paints of the ever-vigilant parent has convinced about 20 other mothers to sign up for the organization. 

Dereese Huff, president of the Campos Plaza Tenants Association, is an active member of the new group.

“The last 10 years, we have had five murders in here,” she said of Campos Plaza. 

Villager photo by Lincoln Anderson

Dereese Huff, Campos Plaza T.A. president.

Gangs active in the area include the Money Boys, who recently changed their name to Stacks — as in “stacks of money” — because “the police were onto them.” There are also NFO, from Phipps Plaza on E. 26th St., as well as gangs from the Baruch and Smith Houses.

Huff said of P.S.A. 4, the housing police servicing the projects, “They’re on it.” But she said the Ninth Precinct needs to do a better job.

“They want to come here, harass our kids all day long, throw ’em against the wall,” she said of officers from the East Village precinct. 

Among Mother in Arms’ early goals are to create more after-school programs, recreational activities and economic opportunities for local youth. Establishing safe, open spaces where teenagers can interact with other community members without being judged is another objective. 

Jorge Soto, an activities specialist at The Door, a youth-development organization on Broome St. in Soho, is a former gang member. He welcomes the women’s efforts, saying that keeping teens busy is a key to helping them avoid the lure of gang life.

“Kids join a gang because they feel they are not important,” he said. “When you get them involved in something important for the community, they feel important.”

Other community-based organizations in the neighborhood, such as Grand Street Settlement, already run a number of youth services programs to keep teens busy and productive, but these programs don’t specifically target youths affected by gang life.

Thanh Bui, director of the Beacon Center at Grand Street Settlement on the Lower East Side, works with many high school students. She believes that gang-related activity in the neighborhood has actually decreased over the last five years, and that instead health problems, such as obesity, are among the top problems plaguing the community’s teenagers.

“I think gentrification has contained the problem of gangs to a few pockets on the Lower East Side,” Bui said. “The issues we deal with now are different.”

Mothers in Arms will be holding membership meetings every month. They can be contacted at mothersinarms@gmail.com . 

With reporting by Lincoln Anderson